Four key factors are reshaping the American church according to the Barna Group. Let us now turn to numbers three and four and add a few thoughts.
"The slow demise of the African-American church community was a third outcome highlighted by Barna, identifying the decline within the black community of factors such as church attendance, Bible knowledge, faith prioritization, and reliance upon the faith community for support and relationships." These trends seem to transcend racial barriers, at least in my context, though they may be reaching critical levels within certain segments of our evangelical society. No doubt Barna's research is accurate.
It is interesting that Acts 2:42f describes the commitment of those converted at Pentecost. They continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Those factors pointed out by Barna loosely correspond. Bible knowledge corresponds with the apostles' doctrine; faith prioritization corresponds with church attendance, breaking of bread (Lord's Supper), and prayer in that these issues represent corporate and personal priorities in one's life and walk with Christ; and reliance upon the faith community for support and relationships corresponds with fellowship.
While church attendance is not always an indicator of one's spiritual health, and while we must be careful to avoid legalistic judgments, the lack of church attendance is in fact a good indicator that there is a lack of spiritual health. We are told not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together because corporate worship, bible instruction, fellowship, and accountability are important factors, among others, in our spiritual vitality and growth. This issue is so important that a lack of church attendance is given as the first step down the road of spiritual apostasy in Hebrews 10. This issue is indeed serious whether we like to admit it or not.
Bible knowledge is certainly important in that right living flows from right thinking and one cannot develop his/her relationship with the Lord apart from knowing Him better. That knowledge comes in large measure from bible intake. God's people are languishing in spiritual lethargy and ministry ineffectiveness for a lack of bible knowledge. Sadly, many fall away from the faith for a lack of the same. I have a close friend who is acquainted with the black community. For this friend, the issue of biblical ignorance is paramount. I would say the same holds true for the rest of the evangelical community as well.
Obviously Christ and faith in Him, not only for salvation but for everyday living, must be our priority. If He is not our priority, then more may be at stake than spiritual sickness. Too many Christians make Christ a part of the many things in their lives when Christ should be at the center of their lives. Our priorities, decisions, actions, and attitudes must flow from and relate to Him. Christ will not be one dynamic in a multitude of dynamics that revolve around ourselves at the center. He will be at the center and all will revolve around Him. He will not be a tack on in our lives. He will be Lord.
Reliance upon the faith community for support and relationships is all but forgotten in many evangelical circles. How can we build one another up and bear one another's burdens if we don't spend time together? How can we keep unspotted from the world and gird up our loins for the fight if we spend more time with our worldly friends than we do with our brothers and sisters in Christ? The church itself has become one activity among many in our lives. But, like Christ, the church and our relationship to the church must become central if we are to effectively grow in grace and reflect the light of Christ in this dark world. Otherwise, as we make other relationships central, our light is strangely dimmed in those contexts. Like a flashlight, we can shine brightly for Christ if we are supplied by more power (the influence of the Spirit through biblical means of grace), or we can grow dim and weak if we cut ourselves off from that power supply.
"Barna's fourth trend, which he labeled as somewhat 'invisible yet significant' is the 'changing of the guard among the leaders of the leaders.' Where the media, general public, and pastors had previously perceived Billy Graham, Adrian Rogers, Jerry Falwell, John MacArthur, Pat Robertson, Robert Schuller, and Charles Stanley to be the leading spokespersons for Christianity in the U.S., Barna showed that the leading representatives of the Christian faith now include Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes." Critical issues are raised here and this trend is alarming.
While the old guard isn't perfect (Schuller cannot even be counted as evangelical), regardless of theological differences here and there, and allowing for some unorthodox statements made by a couple of those individuals (in their old age), these men with the noted exceptions have been committed to Scriptural authority. With the passing of Rogers and a changing of the guard, one would like to see the weaknesses eliminated and the strengths shored up. Looking at the new leadership, on balance, the pool of truth is diluted even more. One is now swimming in the dangerous waters of ecumenicalism and pop psychology while missing opportunities to set forth the gospel in plain terms in major pagan contexts, and the other cannot be considered evangelical (unless he's changed his position recently, Jakes is a modalist).
A need exists for those evangelical leaders who are respected in academic or smaller circles to make some inroads into those circles which are more popular. We do not advocate a watering down of the truth. But, if MacArthur has figured out how to make those inroads, maybe he could serve as a guide. Wouldn't it be great to hear the typical Christian speak about Mohler, Dever, Duncan, and Packer to name a few?
Church leaders must work hard to focus on children's ministry, family ministry, and prayer, critical issues which are being neglected today. New technologies may be used for the glory of God as long as the medium does not overtake, overpower, or overshadow the message of the gospel and the worship of Almighty God. The demise of the black church community must somehow be halted and reversed. A commitment to church attendance, bible knowledge, faith prioritization, and the church as primary in terms of relationships and support must be regained. Further, sound and respected evangelical leaders must gain inroads into the popular consciousness. If these necessities are not realized, then attendance may very well still be high, but it will still be spiritually insignificant. Of course, with a continuing decline in true religion, attendance is sure to follow at some point as well. This too is significant in that the insignificance of false spirituality will then be visible for all to see.
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