Evangelical Christianity, as we know it, is collapsing, but perhaps this is not a bad thing. Michael Spencer’s heralding piece “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” (published in the Christian Science Monitor) has gained widespread recognition over the past couple of weeks in its announcement that “We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.” The piece is a shortened version of a series of three articles (pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3) that he posted on his own website, the highly-trafficked Internet Monk. I won’t expound on the contents of the post (though I ask you to please read it yourself), except to say that I largely would agree with Spencer’s conclusions.
Perhaps, however, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps it is true that a form of evangelicalism is dying – by far the most recognized form. The moderately wealthy, politically-minded suburban church may be in trouble. It’s constituents are getting older, and a certain “lost generation” of 18 to 35 does not shadow its sanctuary doors. But, if what I have seen is any indication, there is another form of conservative Protestant Christianity on the rise in a major and world-transforming way: the city church. The city church is not dying. Indeed, new mission-oriented city church plants seem to be reaching that lost generation, as well as those burned by the older evangelical churches and those who have lived their entire lives unchurched. These new city churches are reaching those similar to those Jesus originally called out. Perhaps, in reflection on that, they are onto something.
My friend and former roommate Marty Muntz wrote this a while back (on a blog he has since unfortunately deleted):
The city is a place where a lot of younger people go in order to get lost–to be a nameless face in the midst of other nameless faces. Others are born there and enjoy the anonymity. It leaves you far more free to live your life in a crowded void, allowing you to make it up as you go (or as you don’t go, if you prefer). The strings which attach you to family or other friends turn into connections of convenience. You can drop off the face of the earth if you like, or, if you’d prefer, you could get whatever sort of contact and support you wanted from those family and friends. But for you, you can be free from family, friends, and especially from those nameless others.
Sooner or later, though, the community rots. This doesn’t just occur in the city, but it certainly hits the city faster and harder. A crowed of nameless human beings turns into a sea of nameless dehumanized beings. Economic conditions will change. Or troubled youth will turn into troubled adults. Or nothing so obviously bleak will happen, and people will simply be enslaved (whether they realize it or not) in their selfish existence and in an un-community where you (and everyone else) simply do not matter.
But Christ says these people are not merely nameless faces. Jesus did not die only for the suburban family, and he didn’t die only for an unreached pagan tribe. And he certainly did not die so that the white, suburban middle-class could continue to live in comfortable indifference on their postage-stamp lawn with two SUVs, a white picket fence, and a riding lawn mower. Don’t get me wrong, not every one is called to make a difference in the city, but every Christian is called to live uncomfortably and to make a difference, whatever that might mean in any given context.
This has hardly been put so well and so concisely. I have to admit that I have a great partiality, seeing as the church I belong to, Sojourn Community Church, is one of these such mission-oriented urban churches. In fact, Sojourn has recently partnered with Southern Seminary to offer a brand new Master of Divinity in Contextualized Urban Missions. This program will open up doors for M.Div. degrees to be fleshed out not simply in the classroom, but in the context of the local church, where ministry can be participated in firsthand. It is how church leaders were meant to be raised up in the first place.
Of course, it’s not just simply the urban churches, but mission-oriented churches in general that are making a difference. Two weeks ago I visited my family in Georgia and, while I was down there, I had the great opportunity to visit one of Sojourn’s Acts29 sister churches, Four Points Church in Acworth, Georgia, in an interesting area of North Georgia that is not very far from Atlanta, but far enough to not be Atlanta. This congregation is only eight months old and, as such, is a little rough around the edges. However, I instantly felt at home there because there was a spirit very much akin to that at Sojourn. The Gospel was preached. There was a sense of real community among the people. Meanwhile, I’ve been talking a bit with a friend in Macon, Georgia who, likewise, has been attending another Acts29 church, New City Church Downtown, and has acquired much the same sentiment for that community as I have for mine here in Louisville, enough to keep him in the area longer than he was planning.
I can honestly be very cynical about most of the churches that I’ve been to or been part of in the past, so much so that I tend to neglect their positive points. However, sheer favoritism aside, I actually have no bones with saying that Sojourn is a much stronger, more biblical church than any I have been associated with before. What makes Sojourn and its sister churches different? It’s the engagement of culture, realizing that the arts are not evil, but can be redeemed as a gift from God for his glory. It’s the community of the believers… it is not simply a country club or a group of people who warm pews together for an hour each Sunday. It is investing in each others’ lives. It is also the believers investing in their community. Ask anyone in the Germantown community of Louisville and you will know the impact Sojourners have had on the well-being of the neighborhood. It is a straightforward preaching of the Gospel. There is no issue to taboo to be left without address in our churches. We dig deep. We preach the full counsel of the Bible.
I’m probably rambling at this point. Writing from beginning to end of this post has taken a sporadic effort of weeks. But do you get what I’m saying? Something exceptional is happening in American Christianity. Many churches are dying, yes, but many churches… strong churches… are being born, and they are easy to spot. Look at the light that is shining from them.