Ed Stetzer has written an essay for the Christianity Today blog that should be of interest to those who’ve been thinking about the secularization of American culture, the rise of the nones, etc. Stetzer insists that the church in American is not dying, and he worries that too many people are misusing stats to foment panic and ultimately demoralize the faithful. At the same time, he takes a very sober and realistic approach to the challenges that Christians are facing in the midst of a society that really is becoming increasingly secular. If you are a church leader, or if these trends are of interest to you, then you should read the article, which can be accessed here.

The quotes that follow offer a quick preview of the  article.

The church is not dying.

Yes, the church in the West– the United States included– is in transition right now. But transitioning is not the same as dying, particuarly if you hold the belief that Christianity is represented by people who live for Christ, not check “Christian” on a survey form.

While I believe we need to understand reality inside our ranks, I don’t believe the situation is quite as dire as many are making it out to be. Actually, no serious researcher believes Christianity is dying. Not one.

Yet, there have been a handful of reports in recent years suggesting that fewer Americans are attending church and identifying themselves as “christian” on survey forms.

An Oct 2012 Pew Research Study added fuel to the fire, stating that the “Nones” had increased more than 5 percent in the previous five years alone. Even recently, Mark Driscoll has said that the church in America is dying, citing the 2009 Newsweek article. A cursory look at the numbers may very well lead people to frightening conclusions, and the numbers are only going to get worse.

That being said, the sky is not falling. Christians are not leaving the faith in droves, even though some people are screaming that loudly. In many cases, people who once called themselves Christians are simply no longer doing that.

Stetzer believes that we need to be more clear about what we mean when we use the word “Christian.” Thus, he distinguishes between three types of people who may be identified as Christian.

  1. Cultural Christians are those with a Christian heritage who self-identify as Christian on forms but don’t necessarily attend church regularly and don’t have a vibrant faith.
  2. Congregational Christians are those who do attend church but who do so because doing so is perceived to be socially appropriate. Church-going is, simply, what good citizens do. Once again, this kind of self-identifying Christian is not likely to have a vibrant faith and approach the world with distinctively Christian convictions.
  3. Convictional Christians are those who actually live and engage the world from the standpoint of Christian faith. Whether we call this type born-again, evangelical, or convictional doesn’t really matter. In Stetzer’s mind,

Most believers likely realize that though 86 percent of Americans checked the “Christian” box on a survey in 1990, the population was not made up of that many born-again followers of Jesus. For many, their idea of being Christian and being American are one-in-the-same. But the church defines “Christian” differently than culture at large, and the distinction is an important one to make.

And here is the key:

As I see it, the numbers of people who those of us in the church would say are actually committed Christians—those who are practicing a vibrant faith—are not dying off. The Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined (emphasis mine).

The “Nones” category is growing quickly, but the change is coming by way of Cultural and Congregational Christians who no longer feel the societal pressure to be “Christian.” They feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place. Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the “squishy middle,” as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.

In Stetzer’s mind, while this trend will bring many challenges and significant instability to our rapidly secularizing culture, there is also considerable good news. Namely, North America is much more easily identified as the mission field that it has probably been for some time. Perhaps the church’s proclamation of Christ will find a more receptive audience among people who no longer merely “presume” to be Christian?