An Insightful Evening ©

On Thursday evening Nov. 4, I drove to Rockwall, Texas, and joined with a widely ecumenical small group to listen to a presentation by Ed Stetzer. For those of you who do not know of Ed, he is what I would term a moderate Southern Baptist. As his bio puts it….

Ed Stetzer “is the editor-in-chief of Outreach magazine, and a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books.

I am familiar with his ministry through my time as the lead Bishop for the Path1 Focus Area of The United Methodist Church in our collaboration with the General Board of Discipleship. While there, we (Path1 and GBOD) brought him in as a consultant in our missional engagement in church planting and renewal. This too lengthy introduction is my way of asserting that Ed is a critically insightful thinker and teacher with regard to Christianity in the United States (and around the world) who has much worth sharing. I am grateful for his relationship with Gloo - More Informed, Better Connected, Fully Engaged Churches), an organization which Carey Nieuwhof states is “inventing the future of ministry.”]
The following are my notes from that ecumenical evening in Rockwall – with inserts and some paraphrasing – as well as some personal reflections about the future facing the Christian movement in the United States.
Stetzer cited three huge trends shaping the post-pandemic church.

  1. The ‘Great Sort’ – There is a major reshuffling happening of people between churches and in our wider culture. It affects churches of all sizes. Ed thinks our worship attendance is going to come back but that it will not necessarily come back in the same places. During the pandemic, we have taught people that worshipping online is acceptable. This was necessary, but online is not at the same level of quality in disciple making as is in person worship. He repeatedly stressed that “it is time for people to come home to in person worship.”

  2. Layers of Engagement – A creative way to think about your congregation is to divide it in thirds, which he calls “the front rows, the middle rows and the back rows.”
    • The front rows - our core - increased their commitment and engagement during the pandemic (this partly helps explain the reason that giving stayed relatively strong).
    • The middle rows got mushier. For many, their “engagement transitioned into a process of finding another church.” 
    • The back rows, which represent a large number in average worship attendance, is largely gone. During the pandemic they have disconnected.
    • Stetzer sited some studies that predict a 20 to 30 percent drop in attendance. It is worth noting that this trend was already going on but, as Nieuwhof states, “a crisis is an accelerator.”
  3. The American Cultural Convulsion – In addition to the COVID-19 Pandemic, consider what else is going on in America – deep political division, racial unrest, massive erosion in public trust, ongoing “culture wars,” etc.  Stetzer writes, “One of the effects is the U.S. fracturing into many smaller factions and tribes.  We are deeply divided, so much so that people have referred to this time as a ‘cold civil war.’”  He adds, “And this cultural convulsion will lead to greater conflict in churches that will last of years.” 

In my notes, I wrote down some additional insights in paraphrased form.

  • We (the church – pastors) are not as influential as we thought.

  • People have been discipled by the media (i.e., Facebook, twitter, etc.) Note: This is why catechetical teaching of the core Christian gospel is more critical than ever! James Ernest, the vice president and editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, has commented, What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure.”  (More on this in an upcoming blog.) 

  • People are aligning ideologically more than theologically. 

  • 20% may have already left the church over social issues – both on the left and right!

  • People don’t want complexity and nuance.  They want simplicity!

  • The more conservative they are, the more they are likely to come back. The more liberal the less likely they are to come back. 

  • Virtually everyone (!) is returning at a lower level.

  • Ironically, as noted above, financial giving is trending up (largely because of the greater investment of the core).

  • Some denominations will not survive.

Elevate Ecclesiology & Return to In-Person Worship & Ministry

So, what are some prescriptions that might indicate where pastors and congregations should engage? Stetzer stressed over and over the need to redevelop ecclesiology (regardless of denomination or theological tribe). He was insistent that pastors and denominational leaders “elevate ecclesiology.” Linked with the importance of ecclesiology was his emphasis on the importance of a return to in-person gathering (see bullet No. 1 above). In doing so he noted that people are being reshaped into ideological communities.
Stetzer lifted up two other specific actions. The first, with particular regard to the “middle rows” – the one-third of a church’s congregation that has become less connected – was to engage the mission, by which he means both evangelism and justice/mercy ministry. He stressed the need to cast a vision for the future that was concrete and communicative. The second was to encourage your leaders. The way he phrased it was “you’re going to have to exhort your leaders!”  He went on to predict that we may be facing many resignations. 
Taken as a whole, his summary was: As thought leaders and supporters of the local church, how are you preparing for the following?

  • Embody Covenant Community
  • Engage the Mission
  • Exhort the Leaders

 For those who are interested, I commend a reading of his whole article 3 Trends Shaping the Post-Pandemic Church - It is well worth your time and deep thought.
I would also commend two other articles for serious consideration. The first, which is found in the Oct. 24 edition of  The Atlantic by Peter Wehner is titled "The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart."  The title is instructive, however, don’t be misled. It is foolish to think this is only about the right leaning, evangelical Christian movement. It is deeply insightful regardless of where you and/or your church is on the theological and political spectrum. The second and more deeply disturbing article is another published by The Atlantic and one I read more than a year ago (Oct. 2020) and which Stetzer referenced in his article. It is by the noted columnist David Brooks and is entitled “America is Having a Moral Convulsion.” The lead sentence is chilling and merits our deep thought and a carefully considered non-partisan response: “Levels of trust in this country—in our institutions, in our politics, and in one another—are in precipitous decline. And when social trust collapses, nations fail. Can we get it back before it’s too late?
Allow me to close by stepping into some of my own deep convictions.

  • Leadership is tied to Lordship. We must submit to Christ’s leadership above and beyond our own devices and desires, wants and wishes.

  • Together, it is about our focused center being in and on Christ Jesus. “Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15 - The Message)

  • Don’t give in to self, give in to Christ. John 4:24 speaks to our age and time “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” Live as a submitted human being to the risen Lord.
    • In my last meeting with the Central Texas Conference Cabinet, they pointed that much of the exhaustion and fear we are experiencing in the church is related to relying on ourselves and not on the Lord. When we get exhausted, it is because it has been about me/us! We are energized when the focus stays on Christ. Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “without the intense, burning presence of God in our heart, without lives of profound, intense intimacy with Jesus, we are too poor to take care of the poor.”
  • Faith is to trust and obey for there is no other way. Lately, I have taken to praying every morning Romans 12:18. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.The Apostle Paul advises us: 

“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

  • Live in the joy, strength and love of Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.  Selah