By now you’ve probably heard more about the realities of the postmodern and post-Christendom society that pervades much of North America. So I won’t bore you with those details but I mention them because they have a big impact on the cultural landscape that we do ministry in. Whether you’re a church planter, a pastor serving in an existing church, like myself, or a Christian leader in some other aspect, the cultural landscape is no longer the same landscape your grandparents grew up in.We can’t ignore the changing cultural landscape of North America and what it means for churches participating in the mission of God. Another reality that we cannot ignore is the decline of Christianity in North America. I don’t have stats for Canada but the number of Christians in America will be a minority in fifty years. According to recently released research from the Pew Research Center, “…the projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, ‘nones’ would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population.”
All this is to say that the way Christians are going to organize as a church, that is be a church, is going to change. I can only speculate on what those changes will look like but it’s not a stretch to imagine a day when many local churches no longer own a building of their own. Perhaps they rent a place in some shopping strip or just meet in homes but they likely won’t have the finances to own their own building. That also means those who are called to serve as ministers of the gospel with these churches will likely do so as bi-vocational ministers, working another job because the churches won’t have enough money to support the minister with a full-time income. That also means the way we educate and equip ministers to serve will change because the cost of seminary education may not seem prudent for bi-vocational ministry (something I lament).
None of the changes I foresee will make doing church incomprehensible but it will take some new thinking that opens space for reimagining how churches live on mission with God. This is especially the case, I believe, for people whose Christian background is the Churches of Christ and the wider Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. I say this because we have a heritage that has sought to replicate a church pattern that has been constructed from the New Testament through ad hoc proof-texting. This pattern became the pattern for every church in every region with little consideration for the local context and this reading of the Bible has actually become a hindrance to participating in the mission of God.
Now, this might seem a little self-serving but I actually wrote a book that was published earlier this year that addresses the way churches read the Bible for participation in the mission of God. The book is called Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God, published by Wipf and Stock, and is available pretty much wherever books are sold. The description on the back of the book reads:
Many people realize that the cultural landscape of North America has shifted significantly. With such changes, new challenges for how churches live as a proclamation of the gospel have and continue to emerge. These challenges are related to the church’s participation in the mission of God and particularly how local churches live faithfully to God while remaining relevant to such challenges. Because Scripture is revered as God’s word, this matter also pertains to the way churches read Scripture, since the Bible does shape how churches embody the gospel.
Gospel Portraits addresses the intersection of mission and hermeneutics for churches within their local contexts. Believing the gospel calls the church to follow Jesus and bear witness to the kingdom of God, this book proposes that churches should read the Bible as a Christ-centered and kingdom-oriented narrative. This reading of Scripture allows churches to reimagine how they might embody the gospel within their local contexts.
Discerning what a contextual embodiment of the gospel involves, churches portray God’s new creation in ways that are coherent with the biblical story and relevant to their local context. In doing so, churches live as Christ-formed and Spirit-led communities portraying the gospel.
If that’s not enough to convince you to get a copy for yourself, you can listen to the Discipleship Conversations podcast hosted by Mission Alive’s Jeremy Hoover and Steven Carrizal. These guys were kind enough to invite me on as a guest for an episode called 12 Bar Blues and Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God—A Conversation with Rex Butts by Discipleship Conversations.
Yes, I want my book to sell but I wrote it because I believe the book will help churches begin learning to read the Bible, not in order to try reproducing first-century Christianity but instead to live as faithful followers of Jesus within their own context. And I wouldn’t pitch my book to you if I didn’t think it would help.
Let me say one final word about the decline of Christianity. As the number of churches shrinks and Christianity is relegated more and more to the margins, there will be frustrations. In such moments of frustration, the temptation is to find quick-fix solutions but such attempts often fail and only lead to more frustration. The only way forward will likely encounter some significant difficulties but we travel with God the Father, Son, and Spirit on our side. Renewal always seems to start in the margins, so we need not fear the marginalization of Christianity — even when relegated to last place. We just need to keep serving with our faith in God, for at the end of the day Jesus is still Lord!
K. Rex Butts, D.Min, serves as the lead minister/pastor with the Newark Church of Christ in Newark, DE, and is the author of Gospel Portraits: Reading Scripture as Participants in the Mission of God. Rex holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL, and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology in Memphis, TN. He is married to Laura and together they have three children.