As the religious landscape of America continues to change and the proportion of those identifying with faith continues to decline, the fear of standing out as a Christian is growing.
And that is impacting evangelism efforts.
There’s a greater apprehension among those who do count themselves as Christians to not only share their faith but to even appear differently from the rest of society, according to Bo Rice, assistant professor of evangelism and preaching at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. They’re too afraid to stand for beliefs that might be seen as offensive to others in a diversifying culture.
“I believe in the politically correct, politically charged climate of our culture today, believers are afraid to take a stand and to look different for fear of being accused of being intolerant toward others. Unfortunately, we have reached a point in American history where Christians are afraid to speak biblical truth in love out of fear of retribution,” Rice told The Christian Post.
“Many Christians have just assimilated into the culture of the world so they won’t ‘offend’ anyone."
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Charles "Chuck" Kelley Jr., who earlier in October announced he will be retiring from his position, makes a similar point in his recently released book, Fuel the Fire.
Kelley laments that Christians are simply blending in with the secular world.
Overchurched to underchurched
While it can be argued that the older generations might have been "overchurched," the reality today is that some people have "never stepped foot in a church,” said Noel Heikkinen, lead pastor at Riverview Church in Lansing, Michigan.
Many people in the current generation don't have the church experience that previous generations were exposed to. As a result, “their view of Christianity is what they have seen in pop culture, and what we are seeing even more so is that it's derived from social media," Heikkinen explained to CP.
He said that for a lot of younger people, "their whole perception of Christianity is not about the Gospel, or Jesus, or any of that.”
Unlike previous generations, young people today “have very much an 'a la carte' approach to spirituality," meaning that they want to "pick and choose what strands of their spirituality are important to them,” the Michigan pastor said.
"Even if they hear a preacher say Scripture has to be the ultimate authority in their lives, there is always going to be an asterisk" next to that, and they will turn to their “own truth” if they hear something they disagree with, he noted.
For many young people, “there is no real truth that lies outside of their own personal experiences, biases and assumptions."
“The self becomes the arbitrator of personal truth; personal truth becomes greater than absolute truth,” Heikkinen said.
Rice also believes that the number of people in the U.S. who have never heard of Jesus Christ is growing.
“We are seeing and hearing of more stories right here in the U.S. of people coming to faith in Christ after hearing about Jesus for the first time. However, I do agree, in America, we often encounter those who are ‘disillusioned’ with ‘religion’ altogether,” Rice said.
Christianity in decline
Many polls have painted a complex picture of the religious landscape in America. One overarching trend that has emerged in most surveys and analyses is that the proportion of those identifying with Christianity, especially young people, is shrinking.
A study by Gallup in April found that while 71 percent of Americans identified with a Protestant denomination back in 1955, the percentage decreased to less than half (47 percent) of the population in 2017.
Roman Catholics retained a more stable rate of identification, making up 22 percent of the population in 2017, compared to 24 percent in 1955.
Young people were found to be one of the chief drivers of the rising "nonreligious" demographic, with 33 percent of those aged 21 to 29 stating that they follow no religion.
J. Warner Wallace, a cold case detective, author and senior fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, chronicled more than 50 similar surveys in January and concluded: "Fewer people claim a Christian affiliation than ever before, and those who claim no religious affiliation are the fastest growing group in America."
Researcher George Barna of the American Culture & Faith Institute noted, following a survey of 9,273 American adults in November 2017, which found that only 31 percent of adults identify as born-again Christians, that faith is undergoing a "substantial challenge."
"The Church at-large is not likely to grow in the future unless some fundamental changes in practice are made," Barna warned.
The survey found that people are most likely to accept Christ as Savior before they finish high school, with two out of every three individuals who say they are born again revealing they made the choice before the age of 18.
Currently, evangelism — defined as the act of proclaiming the message that Jesus Christ is Lord — in America is in what Rice calls a “confused” state.
One of Merriam Webster’s definitions of confusion is “a state or situation in which many things are happening in a way that is not controlled or orderly.”
“I believe that this is a good picture of evangelism today. We are not seeing the large-scale, structured evangelism campaigns emphasized as strongly in present-day churches like we have in the past,” Rice, who is also the dean of Graduate Studies at the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated NOBTS, observed. “So we have lost the ‘controlled’ aspect of systematic approaches and more accurate reporting of numbers.”
Evangelism is still being done by individual churches and individuals but for Rice, the main question is whether their approach is effective in “reaching people for the Kingdom of God.”
Heikkinen is, meanwhile, involved in another approach to evangelism: church planting.
He serves as the U.S. Midwest network director for Acts 29 Network, which focuses on planting churches in areas that have "a lot less Gospel influence.”
There are certain pockets in America where there’s been a good response to church planting and evangelism.
“Some of the most successful efforts in the past 30 years” have been "primarily in suburban areas,” Heikkinen noted. "It's been a much easier place to plant churches.”
He acknowledged that churches in America are "declining faster" than they are growing. And church planters are struggling to plant in an urban context as well as in rural small towns.
In the major cities, people, especially in economically disadvantaged zones, are "suspicious of those coming in from outside" and would ask "why are you here?"
Suspicion against the church has intensified with the rise of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. People are seeing churches "as a place to cover up" sexual assault and to "protect those that are hurting vulnerable people,” Heikkinen added.
Church planters are encountering a lot of that sentiment, particularly from the younger generation.
Both the Protestant and Catholic world have been mired in sexual abuse cases. The sexual assault accusations against and downfall of high-profile megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, as well as Andy Savage in Tennessee, have prompted much discussion on accountability in evangelical circles. While the Catholic Church has faced scandals worldwide, decades of clergy sex abuse and institutional cover-ups were revealed in Pennsylvania and other states earlier this year.
Underlying those scandals have been the thousands of #ChurchToo stories shared in online circles by people, mostly women, who say they have suffered rape and other forms of sexual abuse by Christians in leadership and others within churches.
All of this has a direct consequence on how Christianity is perceived in America and creates difficult challenges for evangelism, both Rice and Heikkinen affirmed.
“Unfortunately, I do think when a believer falls, especially clergy and lay leaders, it's a deterrent to the advancement of the Gospel,” Rice commented.
“Satan uses the ‘fall’ of leaders whether it be through the abuse of innocent children and the abuse of women, adultery, and addiction, to name a few, to attempt to destroy the credibility of believers and of the Gospel. Through this, the sin is magnified and these ‘Christians’ are made out to be ‘worse than the world’ so that all who see their fall and who do not know the story of Redemption through Christ have no desire to be associated with them.
“However, it is our job to make sure we preach the Redemptive portion of the story. … We need Jesus because of those very sin issues.”
Heikkinen reflected that there is mistrust in the U.S. toward authority in general, and that mistrust "bleeds into the church," especially when it comes to cases of sex abuse.
Looking at just how many people have been accusing Christian leaders and churches of varying degrees of abuse and cover-ups, the Michigan pastor said that he can't claim to be surprised.
“But I would say I am heartbroken,” Heikkinen said.
"I truly believe that sin is real," he added, stressing that when looking at history, people know such abuse has "always been there.”
"I want our churches to be a light to this world," Heikkinen emphasized, admitting that "it's hard right now to be a voice in our culture" due to the scandals.
Christians need to regain trust and the universal Church has to take big steps in that regard.
He pointed to 2 Timothy in the Bible, where the Apostle Paul says in part:
"Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my Gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”
Rice turned to Acts 1:8, which reads:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.”
Rice insisted that the future of evangelism in America is not bleak.
“If the believers of Christ will look to Him for His promised Spirit, direction, and power, then we will see Him accomplish great things through us,” he underscored. “In short, evangelism will be successful because Jesus is on His throne, and He still desires to use His people to bring about His purpose and will.”
How to evangelize
Traditional methods of evangelism include preaching on the streets, which was popular in the '70s, but it might not be as effective as before.
For Heikkinen, the most effective way to spread the Gospel message and bring people to Jesus is through relationships.
”I think what we are discovering is that evangelism is about being friends with people,” speaking with them honestly, and not hiding one’s own sins, he explained.
Rather than starting with theological teachings right away when engaging with nonbelievers, he emphasized the importance of building friendships with them first.
When something happens in their lives and they need someone to talk to, the Christian friend can step up and share how their beliefs have helped them, he said.
“Some of the people I have personally been able to lead to faith in the last several years have all been my friends first,” he revealed.
Heikkinen noted that the opportunity presents itself when something happens in people’s lives, and then they think of him: “He is a pastor and a Christian, I should talk to him."
That strategy is also discussed in Friend of Sinners: An Approach to Evangelism by author and pastor Harvey Turner, also of the Acts 29 Network. The book details how the approach mirrors the ministry of Jesus Himself, who had conversations with everyday people and chose to be a “friend of the sinners.”
Rice noted that while his personal approach to evangelizing hasn't changed much, he also tries to practice what he called "Gospel conversations," namely "taking the time to develop relationships with people (even if it’s in a short amount of time) and then transitioning to a Gospel presentation in regular conversation.”
And that presentation must be the “full truth,” Rice stressed.
“To many, the Gospel and biblical principles are controversial and offensive. But we are called to be witnesses of the full truth, not just the parts of the Bible that make us ‘feel good’ or ‘comfortable,’” he said.
“So yes, the culture is changing and the context of ministry might be more difficult in our postmodern world, but that doesn't mean we should water down biblical truth just to make it ‘easier’ for us … because if we do that, what Gospel are we preaching? Our own? May we never make a mockery of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in such a way.”
Christians must also not forget to extend a clear invitation to respond to the message of Jesus Christ.
Rice observed that in recent decades, fewer evangelicals ask for an “explicit response to the Gospel.”
“Some no longer extend an invitation because they are fearful it might come across as manipulative,” he cautioned.
“I believe we must never use any form of manipulation in calling people to respond to the Gospel, but we must call for a clear and decisive response of people to repent of their sins and trust in Christ as Savior and Lord. We must plead and urge people to respond to the truth.”
Heikkinen often wonders what the state of Christianity in the U.S. will look like in the future.
"The trend that I see happening, and I hope I am wrong, is that American churches will [continue] declining in influence,” he said.
But that doesn't leave him pessimistic in seeing more people in America gain salvation through Jesus Christ because the work of evangelism will still go on, but not always from within.
There's another trend that can't be ignored — the Christian faith is growing overseas, such as in China and in parts of Africa and South America. And they will send a new “generation of missionaries to come to the United States and preach," Heikkinen said.
Those overseas churches are earnestly praying for faith in America, he highlighted.
"God is going to use that.”