This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer.
Growing up I loved watching the Back to the Future trilogy. I’ve found myself over the years quoting lines from the trilogy like, “Hello McFly?”
A few years back, when we actually were in the year 2015, there were several posts that addressed what Robert Zemeckis and his team got right as they projected approximately 25 years into the future. Aside from the shock of the Cubs winning the World Series, I certainly remember thinking how cool it would be to have a hover board.
Just like the time-traveling DeLorian, COVID-19 and all its effects has transported us years into the future. Ross Douthat, writing for the New York Times, opines,
…[A]t the same time there’s a feeling of acceleration, of changes that might have otherwise dragged out across a decade piling one atop the other. The George Floyd protests and their electoral consequences, the transformation of liberal institutions by internal agitation, the changes happening to cities and corporations and colleges and churches—in each case, trends that were working slowly have seemingly speeded up. This means that when the coronavirus era finally ends, there will be a Rip Van Winkle feelings—a sense of having been asleep and waking to normality, except that we will have time-traveled and the normality will resemble the year 2030.”
In some rare cases, depending on context, churches may be able to wait out the lingering effects of COVID and return to somewhat of a normal semblance of ministry and mission. However, for most churches (and church leaders) in the US, COVID-19 has ravished the more prevalent model of the North American church and all her structures and strategies.
To a degree, I would say—in the long run—COVID-19 did the church a favor. It exposed, in general, the problems and issues within the church in America regarding their ministry and mission structures and strategies. COVID-19 forced the church to finally take their car to the mechanic after having their “check engine” light on for years.
So, if the 10–15 years out into the future is now, what have we learned from the “check engine” light? In other words, what has changed and what are the shifts that churches need to start planning and preparing to make with regards to ministry and mission in a new era?
In answering this question, I want to note changes within the church that COVID has either exposed or expedited while also offering shifts churches need to be prepared to make in light of the changes.
I will note one change and one shift per post.
Change: The church has been kicked further towards the margins of culture.
This one is a tough for many Christians. For so long, particularly here in America, the church enjoyed the prime seat in American culture. I think many know those days are long gone and that the church has been removed from their honorable position in culture.
But over the course of the last few years, and COVID-19 has intensified it, there is clearly some activity happening that continues to push the church further into the margins of society.
Let me provide at least four reasons why I believe this to be the case.
First, we are a growing minority. Evangelicals make up only 25% of the religious landscape in America.
Second, there is activity among some cultural elites (especially secular progressives) that would love nothing more than to discard the church altogether. There are examples I could point to through the coronavirus pandemic. For the most part, the Church is not popular in America.
Third, Evangelicals got “Trump-ed.” This isn’t a slam on the President. But it does seem that the union between Trump and Evangelicals may have come at a cost.
Fourth, we shoot ourselves in the foot.
This one shouldn’t come as a shock, but Christians are extremely divided. We are divided over sexuality, marriage, race, politics, and how Christians should engage the public sphere. We call each other out (in some cases shame each other) on social media, which turns into back and forth Twitter-spouts. Op-eds are written to air the dirty laundry (and in some cases rightfully so) of certain tribes (and tribal leaders) in Evangelicalism.
All of this takes stage on very public platforms. It’s not like there’s a Christian Twitter where we can argue and assassinate one another so that the world doesn’t have to see the vitriol and disdain many “Christians” possess towards others.
We can also thank COVID for transporting us further in time as we argued over masks, conspiracy theories, gathering in-person, racial inequality, and politics.
These three things have pushed us further to the margins of society. It’s like over the past fifty years—and now over the past five months—we have been demoted from the adult table to the kiddie-table, and now from the kiddie-table to the doghouse.
Shift: Churches need to shift operation from the center of society to learning to operate ministry and mission from the margins of society.
So, how does the church operate in the far margins of American society? Let me offer three quick suggestions without delving into too much detail.
First, we need to make the shift from prioritizing quality programming to emphasizing quality presence.
Over the past 25-years or so, we have emphasized the Sunday morning seeker environment. Many churches have invested heavily in making their weekend gatherings attractive, sleek, and excellent in an effort not to be “your grandmother’s church” and thus to draw in the dechurched and unchurched.
In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with this model of church—unless it became an idol and not a tool. I believe for many years and with many people this model of church was effective at reaching people disconnected or distant from the church. However, I think—at least for right now—this model needs to be benched. That doesn’t mean we stop doing things with excellence. It just means we don’t see it as our “bread and butter.”
What we have seen and experienced over the last couple of decades, which has become abundantly clear during COVID, is the shallowness of the American church with regards to discipleship. It’s like the church has been spiritually entertained, but not spiritual equipped.
If COVID has done anything positive for the church it has brought us to this place of needing to get back to the basics of Christianity. In Jeremiah 29, after having faced a major crisis of war, being uprooted from their homeland, and now living in a foreign land, the exiles needed some guidance on what to do. What does God tell them, through the hand of Jeremiah, to do? He tells them to,
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage. . . . Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find welfare” (Jer 29:5–7).
In short, he tells them to get back to the basics of being the people of God. That is what is needed now.
Second, we must shift from focusing on macro cultural changes, but rather focus on witnessing micro transformations.
The culture wars are over. Sure, there are skirmishes here and there. But, for the most part, they are done. There’s no reclaiming America. There’s no returning to the glory days. We are living in what I would consider the “Cold Civil War” of American life. It’s not a civil war like in the 1860s where there are physical battles and growing death tolls. No, this civil war is much like the “Cold War” between the US and Russia. There were never any battles per se, but heightened tension.
While my hopes would be that Americans from diverse political and ideological backgrounds and positions will find some common ground to unite around for the common good, I believe that America is and will continue to be a very different country than what many Traditionalists, Boomers, and GenXers—in addition to what many Evangelicals—would want or envision.
As J.E. Lawrence popularized, “It is what it is.” Therefore, don’t expect major cultural changes in favor of a more traditionally moral culture. Rather, we must turn our attention to our faith community as well as the community or city where God planted us.
As we focus on those two communities here are the questions you will ask:
- Are we a covenant community that is constantly being conformed more in the image of Jesus? In other words, are we being a community transformed by the gospel—in our relationships, vocations, marriages, finances, etc.
- What ways can we embody a gospel presence in the community or city where God has planted us? Are there businesses, non-profit organizations, centers that we need to either create or that we need to partner with in an effort to bring flourishing to the entire community or city as well as provide platforms to share the gospel?
We’ve got to focus on the micro transformations that we can “control”. As believers, in the power of the Spirit, we can monitor our own sanctification, and thus focus on Jesus transforming us little by little. We can also focus on the micro transformations in our communities and cities in which we can involve ourselves. And slowly and incrementally we can begin seeing transformation in segments and sectors of our communities and cities.
This may not be a MAGA (Make America Godly Again) strategy, but it still can be a MAGA strategy if we think—Micro Agents Gospelizing America. We might not can change the tides of culture overnight, but we become gospel rivers that over time erode the hardness of culture.
Third, we must shift from a posture of defeat to a posture of victory.
I sense that many Christians in America feel discouraged, depressed, and defeated. There’s just not a lot of so-called “good” news anymore. I understand. But we shouldn’t let the conditions of our world rob us from the status of our life. What’s our status? Victorious.
Yes, the conditions may be cloudy, but our status is clear. Jesus defeated death, hell, and the grave. He has gone to prepare a place for his people. One day he has promised to return, and with his return bring an unshakeable kingdom. In this unshakeable kingdom, recreated to be devoid of anything unclean, there will be no more tears, pain, suffering, or death. This is the victory we live in, live out, and live in light of.
May we see these DARK times as opportunities for Jesus’ LIGHT to shine. In doing so, the core of darkness will see the little light shining in the distance on the margins of society and gradually, over time, many will find themselves moving towards the light.
 Ross Douthat, “Waking Up in 2030,” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/27/opinion/sunday/us-coronavirus-2030.html.