Ed Stetzer on the two challenges churches face

Ed Stetzer on the two challenges churches face

By on Apr 2, 2014

Ed Stetzer on the two challenges churches face

Last week in a written interview with Ed Stetzer I asked about the challenges that face the church of the 21st century. As the president of Lifeway Research, Ed sees a lot of statistics, and the stats that excite him the most are directly related to the challenges that face the contemporary church. Below are my questions, and Ed’s responses in his own words:

Ed Stetzer church challenges

Dave: As president of Lifeway Research you see a lot of stats, tell us about one of the statistics that excites you most.

Ed: Well, you might be surprised.  I think that the decline of nominal Christianity, and by that I define two broad categories: Cultural Christians (people who identify themselves as Christians perhaps because they live in North America) and Congregational Christians (people who maybe had an infant baptism or some sort of Easter or Christmas involvement with the church) that they then call themselves Christians because of those things.

Those two categories are declining, partly because Christianity is becoming more distinct in our culture. As such I see in years to come that “Convictional Christians” will become more clearly identifiable in culture. Nominal and Congregational Christians will be more honest about their commitment and that gives Convictional Christians the opportunity to witness without having to deconstruct a false understanding of Christianity.

Ed has written more about this both on his blog where he talks about Christianity not collapsing (and here) and in a USA Today article in response to the Pew Forum releasing research on the “Nones”.

Dave: What is one of the biggest challenges that confronts the church of the 21st century?

Ed: There are two, and it relates to the issue before. I think the two biggest challenges are nominalism and secularism. Nominalism is the idea that people are Christians in name only (Nominal Christians). As that category begins to decline, and in a sense, I am glad to see it go, it means that people will either move towards secularism, or be reached for the gospel, or for some other religious value. One of the challenges is that the church is not readily equipped to engage secular people and will have to do more to train people to evangelize the “far-unchurched”. We are accustomed to evangelizing the “near-unchurched”:  people who have perhaps been to church, dropped out because of a bad experience, but are familiar with terms, language, and emphases.

We’re going to have to train people better in apologetics and worldview to reach secular people and at the same time to engage nominal people before they become secular people. So I think that the two biggest issues are secularism and nominalism.

Indeed, the church in North America continues to be shaped by cultural values and practices. This makes Christians in the U.S. indistinguishable from those who claim to have no faith at all. This is an era of challenge and opportunity for the church. May God grant us grace and may we rise to the challenge.

Come hear Dr. Stetzer speak later this year (July 2014) at the U.S. Mennonite Brethren National Conference in Santa Clara, California.

Read more about Ed Stetzer

Ed StetzerEd Stetzer is the President of LifeWay Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Executive Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 400,000 individuals each week. Stetzer is also Executive Editor of Facts & Trends Magazine, a Christian leadership magazine with a circulation of more than 70,000 readers. Stetzer serves as Visiting Professor of Research and Missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Visiting Research Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and has taught at many other colleges and seminaries.

He also serves as Lead Pastor of Grace Church in Hendersonville, Tenn., a congregation he planted in 2011.


Additional resources on the challenges churches face

Last year, Ed posted a video on “The Exchange”, his weekly video podcast describing the state of the church in North America. That video is below.

The state of the church in North America – The Exchange from Ed Stetzer on Vimeo.


The featured image is a derivative work of the Creative Commons photo by Dean McCoy Photography: https://www.flickr.com/photos/deanmccoyphotos/5493432536/sizes/o/


Dave is the pastor at Cornerstone Community Church in Topeka, Kansas and has a background in Information Technology. His life's purpose is to share God's love and help people become fully devoted followers of Jesus. He is married to Emily and has four kids. Dave blogs at www.christianfirst.us.

  • AmyS

    “Convictional Christians will become more clearly identifiable in culture.Nominal and Congregational Christians will be more honest about their commitment and that gives Convictional Christians the opportunity to witness without having to deconstruct a false understanding of Christianity.

    First, Ed seems to be suggesting that the Christianity is being distilled down to a higher concentration of “true believers.” That’s troubling.

    Second, not all “Convictional Christians” share the same worldview, theological persuasions or religious practices. Some of us are so far apart that we define one another as promoting a “false understanding” even as we are equally convictional. Certainly, being highly convinced and committed is not the definition of discipleship.

    One of the challenges is that the church is not readily equipped to engage secular people and will have to do more to train people to evangelize the “far-unchurched”.

    I’ve yet to hear a satisfying theology of being in-but-not-of the world. Until we get that sorted out, I don’t think we have a clue.

    • http://christianfirst.us/ davebuller

      Amy, your comment reminded me of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Doing something is a big part of discipleship. The reality is that followers of Jesus (1) try to follow Him and become more like Him, and (2) rely on the grace to cover our failures. Those are two very worthwhile things Christians should commit to. This may sound like an oversimplification, but neither one is easy. Thanks for the comment!

      • AmyS

        I strongly agree with Ed, that the identification of “Christian” should mean something other than “church attender.” I definitely am excited about growing “vibrant robust churches.”

        But when Ed says that nominals are leaving church because church membership no longer provides valuable cultural currency, he says that those who no longer affiliate with the church are “unwilling to pay the price” and that puts the burden on those who reject the church. But, I would be asking: Why is the church so distasteful to our neighbors? The burden is on the church, not on those who have rejected the church.

        Acts 2 tells us that the infant church was so attractive to their neighbors that they grew naturally. What was so attractive?

        All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47, CEB)

        The normative church, as described in Acts, is naturally attractive. Maybe those who are leaving the church are actually looking for genuine Christianity, and are finding more Christlikeness outside of the church (or at least not inside the church). Many of the “nones” that I know well, are not interested in church because “true believers” are perceived to be jerks. And, even though that assessment makes me very sad, I totally get that. Maybe the decline of the church reflects the failure of the church to “demonstrate goodness to everyone” and not as Ed states, that nominals are not interested in paying the price of discipleship to Jesus.

        When Ed points to the church in the Pacific Northwest (I assume he is referring to a certain flavor of Christianity that is growing there) as an example of where the church should be headed, I find myself on the outside. I am not willing to “pay the price” of that kind of discipleship. But I’m thoroughly committed to Jesus and to the church. Nothing will change that.

        What I find most problematic in Ed’s presentation is that he defends the decline of church membership as a sign of increasingly faithful discipleship of the Evangelical church, but concludes his lecture (on the video) by describing the decline of church membership in mainline denominations as a sign of their poor theology. Which is it? Does good theology cause Evangelical churches to decline in membership, but bad theology is to blame for the decline of mainline denominations?

        At the same time, Ed and I certainly agree on some things. Transformational discipleship to Jesus is what we are all about, and when the church is a community of disciples, the church is a radically different place and people than those outside. I’m just not convinced that we define those differences by the same criteria.

        • http://christianfirst.us/ davebuller

          Good points and questions Amy. I don’t know how Ed would answer the “bad theology” questions. In the past 30 years it does seem that denominations have been quick to change or water-down their stance on issues that the culture deems as intolerant.

          One thing is certain: following Jesus will not be a comfortable endeavor for anyone. Jesus’ teachings on money are striking in their absence of American churches–and equally troubling is how many North American Christians don’t follow them. Our pledge to follow Jesus must reach to our pocket-books, and as the wealthiest people in the world, we simply must do more to help others. This should affect not just church budgets, but household budgets.

          I hear where you are coming from regarding the “appeal” of the church to outsiders, but I am struck by the teachings of Jesus himself and his ministry. We see many people turning away from him (John 6:66) we see Jesus forecasting others turning from the faith (Matthew 24:9-13). The cross is an uncomfortable place to hang, and few people are enamored with its appeal.

          Part of the transformation that is obviously lacking among many believers is the discipline to speak respectfully and gently to those who disagree. Paul’s instructions to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:22-26) are especially apropos in the 21st century.

          • AmyS

            Good points. Money and power are definitely areas which are often
            ignored in favor of sexier (literally and figuratively) topics. I especially agree that,

            Part of the transformation that is obviously lacking among many
            believers is the discipline to speak respectfully and gently to those
            who disagree.

            And, yes, many people turn away from Jesus’ call to discipleship. But, I wonder if that turning away is more like the “rich young ruler” who went away sad because he couldn’t say yes to the difficult (though clearly respectable) call to discipleship, rather than those who go away disgusted by the demanding (and gospel-denounced) call to religiosity.

            The world typically respects Jesus and others who exemplify self-sacrifice, who love the unlovable, and who exceed the demands of the law, even when they find it impossible or unappealing to follow their examples. Turning away from what is too beautiful is quite different than turning away from what is too ugly.

            I’m not proposing that the church should become less forthright about who Jesus is and who we are to be as disciples. In fact, we should be single-minded in our focus on being (and calling others to be) shaped into the image of Christ. But, we better be sure that we are calling people to Jesus himself, and not to our own particular version of churchly culture. I’m convinced that we too often misrepresent the former by focusing on conforming to the latter. Does the church know how to distinguish between the two?

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