Ed Stetzer on the Death of Cultural Christianity

Between the Times contributor Ed Stetzer recently wrote a fine essay for his blog titled “Christianity Isn’t Dying, Cultural Christianity Is: Talking about the Future of Christianity in USA Today.” The essay was an expansion of a shorter article he published on the USA Today website. Ed’s longer piece was subsequently reprinted as a First Person column for Baptist Press and has been quoted widely on the internet.

Ed is responding to the recent Pew Forum data indicating a numeric decline among American Protestants coupled with a significant rise in the number of people who are indifferent to organized religion. He concludes,

Even in the shadow of the decline of cultural and nominal religion, the future of vibrant Christianity in America is all around us.

The future of Christianity in America is not extinction but clarification that a devout faith is what will last.

Christianity in America isn’t dying, cultural Christianity is. I am glad to see it go.

We couldn’t agree more. We’d highly encourage you to read Ed’s entire essay.


What is the Missional Gospel? Part 3: The Ecumenical Missional Church

What is the Missional Gospel? Part 3: The Ecumenical Missional Church

By Keith Whitfield

The ecumenical missional church arises from a growing dis-ease with an approach to church that they claim was inherited from Christendom. Their concern with this approach to the church is that it views the church as a place and a “vender of religion.” Breaking from this, they attempt to return to the gospel to set forth a new vision for the church and recapture the essence of what it means to be the church. They call for the church to adopt a “missional vocation,” called and sent to represent the reign of God.

The Gospel in the Ecumenical Missional Church

Their understanding of the gospel is centered on Jesus and his announcement that the reign of God is at hand. The coming of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection are interpreted as eschatological events in which the power and presence of the kingdom of God breaks into human history. The kingdom of God is defined as:

a world characterized by peace, justice and celebration. Shalom, the overarching vision of the future, means ‘peace,’ but not merely peace as the cessation of hostilities. Instead, shalom envisions the full prosperity of a people of God living under the covenant of God’s demanding care and compassionate rule. In the prophetic vision, peace such as this comes hand and hand with justice. Without justice, there can be no real peace, and without peace, no real justice (Missional Church, 91).

Thus, their view of the gospel is closely identified with their conception of the kingdom of God, which they argue rescues the gospel from an over emphasis on “personal salvation” as the main goal of redemption. The ecumenical missional church almost always (perhaps even without exception) deals with the idea of personal conversion and forgiveness of sin as the aim of the gospel with the qualifiers “not just” or “not merely.” They consistently deemphasize personal conversion by suggesting that the gospel is “more importantly something else.”

What you have in the cross and the resurrection is the future reign of God breaking in as a sign of the world’s future, while creation waits to be fully and finally reconciled to God. As Craig Van Gelder explains,

Jesus makes his death and resurrection central to inaugurating the redemptive reign of God. The cross event is the watershed of human history. In this decisive moment the forces of evil are defeated and the full power of the redemptive reign of God through the Spirit invades human space. In this invasion, Jesus anticipates the creation of a new type of community, community created by the Spirit (The Essence of the Church, 76).

This view of the gospel and the kingdom of God emphasizes that Jesus entered human history with power to reign, and he reestablished kingdom life on the basis of redemptive power by way of a cross and the resurrection. Jesus introduces a new reality into human history, which is both a gospel reality and kingdom reality. The kingdom is the reigning presence of God, and the gospel is the means by which the reigning presence of God was established and continues to reign. They depend upon Peter Stuhlmacher’s explanation of how the cross establishes the reign of God, who says:

Jesus decides to do the utmost he is capable of doing on earth: to offer himself to spare his friends and foes from the judgment of death. By means of his death Jesus does not appease a vengeful deity; rather, on his way of the cross he is the embodiment of the love of God, as sketched in Isaiah 43:3-4, 25. This love wants to spare the impenitent daughters and sons of Israel, as well as his feeble disciples, from having to perish because of their doubts about his mission and the consequences of their reserve toward Jesus’ message. (Quoted in Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, 43; See Stuhlmacher, Jesus of Nazareth – Christ of Faith, 52)

Evangelism in The Ecumenical Missional Church

The gospel is the news that the Jesus events are God’s acts to heal the broken creation. The church is part of this mission of God. The disciples of Jesus are sent out as witnesses and to adopt the missional way of life.

Witness involves proclamation, community, and service, as the essential dimensions of the mission to which the Christian church is called and sent. The spirit-empowered church demonstrates the life, service, and devotion of God’s people, putting on display the reality that God’s rule has in fact broken into the world. The life of the community serves as the primary means of witness. The church is called out and set apart for public witness in order to demonstrate to the world the presence and power of the reign of Jesus.

The church is a place where peace, compassion, and justice reign. The Holy Spirit forms this community. When the Holy Spirit is poured out, God’s promised reign of love and hope is actualized. The characteristics of God’s reign are incarnated in a new humanity, a people who are called, gathered and sent to represent the gospel of peace to the world.

The focus of evangelism is not personal conversion but the ongoing conversion of the Christian community. Guder writes,

The church is constantly being reevangelized, and by virtue of that it is always being constituted and formed as the church. The essence of what it means to be the church arises perpetually from the church’s origins in the gospel: it is in every moment being originated by the Holy Spirit as it hears the gospel and is oriented by ‘the present reign of Christ in which the coming completed reign of God . . . is revealed and becomes effective in the present’ (Missional Church, 87).

Evangelism is the “entire manner in which the gospel [or, the kingdom of God] becomes a reality in man’s life” (The Continuing Conversion of the Church, 24). It is the process of making known, witnessing to, and inviting response to Jesus’ reign. Reception of the invitation grants the benefits of the kingdom of God in this life, but might not be required for the life to come. Rather than trying to recruit or co-opt those outside the church to an invitation of companionship, the church witnesses that its members anticipate with hope God reigns with love and intends to do good for the whole earth (Missional Church, 149).

The ecumenical missional church’s approach to being “missional” could be captured as “sent to represent.” They represent the reign of God as a community, as servants, and as a messenger. In summary, for the ecumenical missional church, the church on mission is a sign of the Messiah’s coming and sign of the hope for the renewal of the human community through the final reconciliation of all things to God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Keith Whitfield is pastor of Waverly Baptist Church in Waverly, Virginia, and a doctoral student in theological studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This post is third in a series of six articles.