Michael Spencer is, I am sure, getting lots of traffic to his blog these days over a recent article entitled, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.” The article appear on the Christian Science Monitor and got mac-daddy exposure on The Drudgereport.
The basic premise of this article is that Evangelicalism, because of its ascendence into a culturally acceptable form of religiosity, is doomed to failure in the next few years. It’s the “Hip to be Square,” problem: if your movement is able to get the attention of the culture at large, it’s probably because you have had to re-mold yourself into cultural acceptability. In the process you lose the prophetic edge.
I am not one who feels called to say any one particular form of the church is better than others theologically but each form has its consequences. Is the mega-congregation well suited for deep thinking, spiritual reflection, sacrifice, and cultural engagement? We intuitively know the answer to this question and it’s “no.” We go to mega-churches because it’s easy and they have a kids program. Is that speaking to the needs of a secularizing culture? Our prophets profit through sermon series that are planned from the beginning to be best seller “sermon series” (complete with videos, podcasts, books, and websites). We are now multi-site because we can “scale” the ministry. The result is a religion devoid of answers to the society at large, self-focused, self-serving, and self-centered.
I work in the world of Evangelical mission agencies. There is a huge contrast between the US church and the global church. Over the course of the past 25 years, while our pastors have mostly been concerned with growing their congregations, missionary efforts have had unprecedented global success. I love telling groups about the global expansion of the church. That’s the silver lining on this otherwise dark cloud.
As I have thought about Spencer’s article I have asked myself, “If this is true, what can we expect to see in the North American missions world?” Here are a few thoughts (remember: the focus is on the North American movement):
1. A decline in our ability to send missionaries.
There are currently about 42,000 long-term American missionaries. What this chart shows is that our sending has leveled off in the past few years. There was a year where it was down and it is now just barely above replacement. Expect the downward trend to start soon.
2. A shift in the funding focus from proclamational ministry to good works.
According to a recent study done my Michael Jaffarian (I am not sure if it’s published data – I got in a webinar) the stats are telling:
From 2001 to 2005 Income Growth for:
…agencies devoted to discipleship and evangelism: 2.7%
…agencies devoted to relief and development: 74.3%
I think that Evangelicals, particularly mega-churchites, like giving to good works because it is pluralistic and appeals to those who reject proclaiming the gospel as the core of mission. I understand the push for holistic ministry (and I am a believer in holistic approaches) but not at the expense of proclaiming the gospel. Let me put this another way: mainline liberal denominations shifted their funding focus in missions from the gospel to spending on good works. Evangelicals are sprinting to catch up with them. I agree with Rodney Stark’s definition of missionary work: Missionary work is about getting people to change their religious affiliation. Look to see a continued slide in the missionary funding capacity of the church in favor of lots of other good programs.
3. An “America First” bunker mentality
As things get tougher for the church to attract people and resources, there will be an even stronger focus on American outreach and ministry at the expense of global outreach. I am reminded of the African-American church. For many years, mission agencies like the one I work for have tried to mobilize African-Americans. The constant refrain from most of the pastors of these churches is: “We have lots of problems here in our own neighborhoods – we just don’t have the ability to focus on global problems.”
More and more of the local pastor’s attention span will be spent on maintaining the structures they have in place and there will be little bandwidth left for global outreach. I could list a half-dozen churches off the top of my head that have recently cut missionary giving in light the economic turndown. The cost of running the Evangelical infrastructure is huge, and keeping it alive will take precedence over global causes.
4. An “industry shakeout” among mission agencies
Just as maturing industries go through a phase where the number of players in the industry is drastically reduced, look for a much smaller group of larger ministries leading the global charge. In the past 25-30 years we have seen a huge number of predominately boomer oriented mission agencies develop. Most of these are small. Many will fold and join into larger organizations. Just as secularization has taken a huge bite of global missionary efforts in Australia and the United Kingdom, the number of US mission agencies is going to shrink dramatically. Look for mergers and acquisitions on the front end, a small set of powerful and influential larger organizations on the back end.
5. Missionary preparation and training will change
For some decades, missionary agencies have been free to glean the best and brightest recruits out of the ranks of the local church. This cannot continue. Keystone predators in an ecosystem are dependent on the health of the entire system. The US “eccliosystem” is sick. It is not able to sustain the mission agency need for strong disciples who can live out the gospel cross-culturally. Mission agencies will have to invest deeper in the lives of those they seek to recruit in order to have the proper training and background necessary to work in a challenging ministry environment.
6. New sources and models of missions will emerge
Although nobody has been able to voice what it will look like, I hear many conversations about the new era of North American missions. Just as Spencer’s article pointed out the promise of the house church, I believe that this form of church may play the most significant role in the future of North American missions. It’s too early, though, to say. If the house church movement continues to be mostly critical of the traditional church it will not find its own voice. Missionary work takes structure and organization. The house church movement tends to eschew structure and organization. Bridging that gap is crucial. Another new model that has been proposed is the “business as missions” model. It’s still too early to say if this will, in fact, flourish.
7. Opposition against missionary work will increase
In a secular society, missionaries are the ultimate statement of the counter-culture. They throw bricks at the windows of pluralism and, as global representatives of a national identity, embarrass the majority culture on an international scale. Look for the repeal of tax exemption and court challenges. Within the missionary community there are already voices calling for an end to language that directly challenges the truth claims of Islam. One only has to look at the Korean hostage situation in Afghanistan for an example of a society that had enough of their missionaries’ bumblings.
8. Government solutions to social problems will erode faith oriented solutions
A secular society seems to prefer socialism to other governing options. The result of this is a general attitude among the population that social problems are the domain of government. Fewer people will be motivated to serve the needy because they believe in the benevolence of government at work in the world. Past generations of missionaries had aspirations of teaching the gospel while serving the poor. Future generations will have less of that intrinsic motivation. Government spending will offset fulfilling one’s life purpose in ministry.
9. A rise in sending money to support national efforts
We will also probably hear a lot more about financing national workers. This is good – there is a huge need and there are lots and lots of workers to finance. However, it cannot replace sacrificially sending our own sons and daughters as well. While the arguments will focus on the cost effectiveness of supporting nationals, the truth is that funding “mercenary missionaries” is easier. Christ did not command us to “take up our cross and write a check.”
In the megachurch movement there is a focus on “church-to-church partnerships.” I love partnership and I love the idea of churches partnering together. However, the partnerships are between already believing congregations. Of course, the idea behind these partnerships is that they help national churches reach out. In practice, it is the same model as the mercenary missionary model – somebody else is doing the heavy lifting in our place.
The Godhead could have done something other than send Jesus. The Trinity could have sent funds to get the movement going or partnered with like-minded synagogues. Instead, they sent Jesus, one of their very own to incarnate the truth.
10. A more robust theology of mission will rise in the West
Western Christianity is downright silly when it comes to the lack of focus on outward evangelism and discipleship. Don’t believe me? Try looking up the word “missions” in the systematic theology textbook you used at seminary. Only one or two of them have them. Most seminaries give almost no time whatsoever to missions oriented education. We have relegated missions to a subject study of little direct importance to daily ministry in the local church.
Secularism will change that. It’s no wonder that most of the innovative ecclesiology have been coming from Australians and Brits. They face missionary issues every day. The new era will help us to re-think mission.