By Timothy C. Tennent
Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story which is gradually unfolding which is not “heard” when one is simply looking at raw statistics of Christian affiliation.
The United States is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but it will take about 20 more years before Christians fully “feel” it. The younger the Anglo demographic in the US, the more likely one will question the knowability of truth. This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation. The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable. The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of “whatever.”
The younger the Anglo demographic in the United States, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order. The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives.
History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel – now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism.
According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul. On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents. They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents. This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period.
If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the Pacific Northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.
These demographic facts are not easy to accept. It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation. What should we do?
First, your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade. If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four. This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings. It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic population.
Second, you must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established. We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society. Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially). After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church. Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.
Third, evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life. The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news. In the United Methodist context we must regain our confidence in the centrality of Jesus Christ, the power of the preached gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the privilege to serve the poor. Instead, enormous energy is being spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers. But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness. I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least another generation before we see the tide turned.
Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.
Let me say it as clear as I can: There are not multiple paths to salvation. Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead. This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.
We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age. The Lord will, once again, raise up better hearers of the gospel and more faithful readers of his Scripture. In the meantime, we have a great deal of work to do. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?
Timothy C. Tennent is the president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of several books, including Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology, and Invitation to World Missions: A Missiology for the 21st Century.