Churches find strength in ministry from the margins
By Carol Pipes
“I’m kind of atheist when it comes to Jesus,” Alex admitted, “but I’m willing to talk about him.”
Mike McDaniel had known Alex for only a couple of years when he opened up about his spiritual life. They’d met at CrossFit. Over time and a few thousand pushups, their conversations had moved from exercise and the weather to talking about their personal lives.
Alex had grown up Catholic. But he hadn’t been in church since the age of 12. He’d cruised through life experimenting with all kinds of highs and had no intention of slowing down.
Mike and Alex began working out together regularly and then heading to a local hangout for after-workout chicken wings. Their conversations have spanned many topics, including Alex’s spiritual beliefs.
Mike pastors Grace Point Church of Northwest Arkansas. He and his wife, Lori, planted the church 16 years ago with the specific purpose of reaching the Alexes of the world.
Grace Point is a church “for those who have given up on church, but haven’t given up on God,” says Mike, “but we also want to be there for people like Alex who have given up on church and God.”
Alex isn’t alone in his nonbelief. In fact, his tribe seems to be growing by the minute. The “nones”—those who self-identify as atheists or agnostics or say their religion is nothing in particular—now make up roughly 26 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to Pew Research.
That’s up from 16 percent a decade ago. The share of Americans who identify as atheists or agnostics has risen from 4 to 7 percent in the past several years.
At the same time, the portion of Americans who describe themselves as Christian has declined from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. While the share of evangelicals has stayed relatively steady since the 1970s, nominal Christians have left their churches in a steady stream.
While the church is far from dying, most agree the Christian faith has lost its influence in the public square.
“Gone are the days when a church could swing open its doors and people would come,” says Mike. “Today churches open their doors and people not only won’t come, they often laugh or simply ignore the church completely. The faith described in Scripture no longer dictates the cultural or political directions in our nation.”
The church has in essence been shoved out of the public square, says Mike. “Seismic shifts have moved the church from the center to the fringes, and we’re now on the outside of culture looking in.”
Still, Mike is hopeful for the church in North America. Last year he released The Resurgent Church: 7 Critical Ways to Thrive in the New Post-Christendom World.
Based on a five-year study of churches that have reinvented themselves to reach the unchurched in their communities, the book offers several principles to help leaders of fading churches.
He says many use the term post-Christian to describe the current spiritual climate in North America when they mean post-Christendom. “A post-Christian world would be one where Christ and His church have no future. Christianity would be dead,” he writes in the book.
“Once we begin to speak of such a thing, we’ve given up hope.”
Mike acknowledges many Americans have adopted post-Christian values and perspectives, “but that doesn’t mean Christianity has died,” he says. “Rather, Christendom has died. The institutional church has lost its influence.”
Most church historians agree Christendom began in 313 A.D. when the Roman emperor Constantine endorsed Christianity. From that moment, Western culture was influenced and shaped by a biblical worldview.
Today, however, Christianity can no longer claim any dominance within the population. We live in a time of religious plurality and competing worldviews.
“The Constantines of today no longer find Christianity to be a necessary tool for them in reaching their goals,” says Mike. “Suddenly, we are the ones being marginalized, and it’s not a comfortable feeling.”
Mike believes post-Christendom has emerged, but he doesn’t see that as a threat to the church. “We have the opportunity to be the church much like the believers in pre-Christendom. I think the church in Acts is more relevant today than it was in the 1950s.”
Churches can’t keep doing things the way they’ve always done them. But that doesn’t mean hiring a hip, young pastor or compromising the gospel, says Mike. It’s a shift in the way we do church and how we live out our faith in our culture and context.
In his book, Mike describes how some churches today are noticing the currents of this new post-Christendom era and are re-equipping themselves to reach the communities they serve. He refers to them as “resurgent churches.”
“These churches are hard at work,” he writes. “They’re refitting, reworking, and reimagining what the body of Christ is supposed to be. They are innovative yet doctrinally scrupulous.”
The same needs of the human heart since the fall of man—meaning, purpose, hope, and reconciliation—still exist in the hearts of people today, he says. “And the church has the number one message of reconciliation,” says Mike. “We just have to reset ourselves and re-engineer our approaches like never before.”
And that’s going to look different from one region or community to another.
“The goal is to be the expression of Jesus in your context,” says Mike.
Resurgent churches understand their times, their communities, and their mission, he says. They’ve also learned how to unpack for a new generation what is eternal and unchanging in the biblical church—and what is unhelpful baggage to leave behind.
Resurgent church leaders are equipping and sending out their members to live everyday life on mission in their communities.
“We have to go into the lost community if we’re going to know them, understand their needs, and build relationships in order to present the gospel and let God’s light shine to a desperate world.”
Thriving in post-Christendom
Remember Alex? It took time and a listening ear from Mike, but eventually, he began to read the Bible and occasionally visited the church.
Today he’s active at Grace Point and attends a weekly Bible study. He continues to be a gospel influence at the gym and recently joined Grace Point for one of the church’s global adventures to West Africa.
Millions of Alexes have walked out the doors of the church; others have never stepped foot inside. To get them to come, churches will need to go to them and find ways to build bridges to share the gospel.
It may mean learning a new language or understanding a different worldview. For Mike it meant joining CrossFit. For others it might mean coaching a city-league sports team or joining the PTA.
Mike says he looks beyond the trends of declining church attendance and increasing secularism and is encouraged. “Churches are reinventing themselves and finding new ways to survive, flourish, and break through to Alex and those like him in these complex times.”
So what can churches do in response to this new era? Mike believes Christians need to become comfortable on the edge of society and find ways to minister from the margins the way the first-century church did.
Acts 2 is a great picture of how the church can work from the margins of society. “Like Jesus they focused on people and relationships,” says Mike. “They lived out their faith in public, and most of all they leaned on the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Living on mission then and now means building true relationships with people that lead to gospel conversations and long-term discipleship.
“I’m a firm believer in Matthew 16 that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church,” says Mike. “If we can separate out the institutional church from the idea of the church as a movement—pioneering, re-envisioning, and re-establishing itself in culture—we can still be alive and thrive.”
CAROL PIPES (@CarolPipes) is editor in chief of Facts & Trends.