Challenges Churches Face Today
Over these last few months of going through the COVID-19 crisis and watching how the church, in general, has responded to this moment, it has led me to reflect on the challenges today’s church faces. While all these challenges were in existence before COVID struck, it seems that the pandemic, along with the political moment we’re in, brought these issues to the surface. Obviously the below nine challenges are not exhaustive, nor will you necessarily agree with all of them. In addition, many of these will probably not be a revelation to you. Some will have already had recognition of these challenges. However, I do believe they are descriptive of what many observers of our time are detecting and can help us reflect on how our churches are impacted by these challenges. As you will see, some of these challenges will bleed over on others. The first, not listed in any order of priority, is:
1. Maintaining the Mission in the Midst of Much Confusion – The perfect storm of significant societal events (Covid-19, economic recession, racial tension, riots and destruction, a political campaign in an extremely polarized nation) has created cultural confusion that makes it easy for Christians and churches to be distracted from our mission of making disciples. This cultural moment we live in, although unusual, does not revoke or delay the Great Commission. Distraction can be our enemy. We are called to be on mission in whatever cultural upheaval may be happening.
2. Maintaining Connection in our Congregations – The great threat of Covid-19 as it is related to our churches is the loss of connection among our members. Even in our re-openings, the sense of connection is not the same, and depending on the church context, a good number have not returned. The danger is the pro-longed loss of in-person fellowship will cause some to step away from the church. Churches that are creative in fostering face-to-face fellowship while maintaining social distance requirements are going to form stronger bonds that will outlast this pandemic. In addition, doing all to keep those who have not felt it safe to return engaged in the life of the church is essential to them emerging back into the gathering of God’s people post-Covid-19.
3. Staying Kingdom Focused instead of Narrowly Tribal Fixated – To me the beauty of the SBC was that we agree on the essentials (The Baptist Faith and Message) but give liberty to have disagreement on the non-essentials and pool our resources to do much more together than we could do separately. However, within SBC life and American evangelicalism in general, we are separating ourselves into constricted tribes based upon narrow secondary beliefs (the non-essentials), and invest more time angrily debating these disputes than focusing on seeking and expanding His kingdom. We are returning to an earlier fundamentalism that splinters us into isolated, and narrowly and inwardly focused clans. The tribalism that marks our nation at this cultural moment has unfortunately infiltrated the church and has made us worldly while all the time, we purport that we are “fighting for the faith”.
4. Confusing Cultural Conservatism with Convictional Christianity – Evangelical Christianity and cultural conservatism have been so intertwined that it’s almost assumed that to confess the latter makes you the former. It is clear that there are aspects of cultural conservatism that are correct and align with Scripture, such as protection for the unborn, a biblical sexual ethic, traditional view of marriage, etc. However, cultural conservatism, at least in the American setting, often overlooks other aspects of biblical justice, such as racism, treatment of the poor and destitute, the sex trade and human trafficking etc. These are not first and foremost political issues, they are biblical issues that convictional Christians are commanded to care for as they “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). But another aspect of cultural conservatism today as compared to twenty years ago is that some of what is associated with cultural conservatism today has little to do with a biblical view of morality. You can have very patriotic, God and Country, pick-up driving, gun packing, proud Americans who on the other hand, regularly drink unto drunkenness, view pornography unashamedly and have corrupt sexual ethics that would surpass the most secular atheist…but they would call themselves cultural conservatives and on surveys check the box that say “Christian/Evangelical.” Jesus angered both the cultural conservative and the cultural liberal. He infuriated both the religious legalist (Pharisees) and the religious progressives (Sadducees). Convictional Christians, who are ruled by Scripture, and are unafraid to apply Scripture across all matters personal, relational, cultural, political, congregational etc., without being selective in their application based upon the opinions of their congregations, will find themselves, like their Master,
angering both sides.
5. Discipling Our People to Love their Neighbor – The problem with the increase tribalization of the American culture is that people are separating themselves into narrower enclaves politically, religiously, culturally, racially etc. The result is we stay in our tribal bubbles and we develop an “us vs. them” attitude toward those outside our tribal preference. Unfortunately, this tribal segregation is happening in the church. As Dean Inserra recently tweeted, “I know it’s happening already, but you are gonna see people leave their churches over political differences.” When we so pack ourselves narrowly into a tribe and see those on the outside as our enemies, then how are we going to love them as our neighbor. The big challenge facing church leaders today is to disciple their people to reject the unhealthy tribalism that is poisoning our culture and embrace loving our neighbors across political, racial, cultural, regional, and ideological lines.
6. Dealing with Covid-19 Fallout – It is yet to be seen what the fallout will be for our churches from COVID-19. But the reports we’re hearing is that some are not returning to weekly worship – even those who can safely return. It is very likely that the post-COVID congregation is not going to be the size it was pre-COVID. I know there will be exceptions to this, but in general for some people the social distancing will lead to religious (church) distancing. This is not to say that it was a mistake to shelter-in-home, to social distance, and wear masks etc. As we’re seeing this virus is deadly and not even the people in highest power are immune from it. However, our necessary response to COVID had a way of revealing the hearts of our people and possibly pruning away those who were loosely connected to Christ and His Church.
7. Forging Wrong Identities that Hurt Our Witness – Seeking identity is nothing new in society. In fact, human beings have been doing it since the Fall. It’s called idolatry which is the natural default setting of the human heart. While is is not necessarily new, what does seem to be more prevalent in the contemporary American church, is the high level of idolatry…or forging identities outside our core identity in Christ. The early church was so identified with Christ that it was said that it was known that “they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). People were both drawn and repulsed by them because of their identity in Christ. But the American church is more recognized for our political identity than our passion for Christ, more identified in saving our culture than we are seeing the salvation of all peoples, and more identified by our anger toward our enemies (cultural, political, societal) than we are loving our neighbors. There’s nothing wrong with being involved in politics or working to better our culture (being salt and light), but when these take the position of preeminence in our lives, then the result are identities that don’t present the “fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere.” The American church is dividing over politics and other secondary identities and our witness is being harmed.
8. Worldly Discipleship rather than Biblical Discipleship – There has been in the last several years a renewed emphasis on discipleship in the American church. That is a good development, but unfortunately what our current cultural moment has revealed is that too many of our people are being
discipled by sources outside of Scripture rather than a holistic biblical discipleship. Social media, talk radio, cable news, and our favorite political podcasts have had more influence on our thinking and convictions than have the Scriptures. The result is that our people are often susceptible to the wildest conspiracy theories and conflate what they’re hearing throughout the week from these sources with biblical Christianity. This kind of worldly discipleship has the direct opposite effect of biblical discipleship– it produces the fruit of the flesh, i.e., anger, hatred, rivalry, anxiety, harshness, pride and arrogance etc. The challenge is to have the courage to confront our people with this truth and begin to disciple them across the whole range of biblical issues, not just the ones they are naturally drawn to politically or culturally.
9. Gospel Shallowness rather than Gospel Centeredness – Gospel shallowness is characterized by sermons with a lot of principles and imperatives terminated with the gospel as the last two minutes of the presentation to set up the required invitation. Gospel lite is just a “tag on” to invite people to “accept Jesus”, but ignores the crucifying and liberating ongoing effects of the gospel in the life of believers. Gospel centrality will drive idolatry out of your church…it will reveal and crucify all the false identities…it will stretch our ideological and political views. A gospel shallow church becomes a pep rally for comfortable and, ideologically and culturally aligned attenders. A gospel centered church will always make us uncomfortable in the good ways…it will always bring everything back to the Cross to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
With all the chaos and dysfunction of American Christianity at the moment, I sincerely believe that God is at work punning and purifying His church. Out of our unique moment my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will raise up a Kingdom focused, love your enemies, only-Jesus tribal, biblically saturated, and culturally, politically, racially tolerant community of Christ followers as a witness to the beauty of Christ to the world. As one pastor recently posted about the possibilities of the post-COVID church: “Like a rose growing through the concrete…she will be beautiful.” May God grant that this will become an increasing reality for the churches of the NWIBA!
In His Service,
Dr. Wes Rankin
Association Mission Strategist
Northwest Indiana Baptist Association