The working definition of a missional church that we approved at our 2008 General Assembly states that a missional church is one “That believes that the United States has become post-Christian and is now a mission field” (emphasis added). Many of us who came of age as evangelicals in the 1970’s and 1980’s have responded, “I’ve always considered the U.S. a mission field,” and have resisted this statement that the U.S. is now a mission field.”
If it is given that the U.S. has always been a mission field, in the twenty-first century that mission field is 1) growing and 2) different from the mission field of twenty years ago.
In the March 6 edition of EPNews, I reported on the findings of the Pew Report’s “U.S. Religious Landscape,” which included the following:
- American Protestantism is waning. With only 51.9% of those surveyed identifying themselves as Protestants, the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country.
- The fastest growing segment of the population is those who identify themselves as religiously “unaffiliated” (16.1%).
- More than a quarter of American adults (28%), have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no religion at all.” If switching from one Protestant tradition to another is included, 44% of the population is no longer tied to the religious affiliation of their youth.
- One in four of those aged 18-29 claim no religious affiliation at all. .
- Future directions: Young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely than those 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% to 8%).
The Long Range Planning Committee’s White Paper says, “Once upon a time, Americans generally thought of themselves as a part of God’s story unfolding on the face of the earth. ‘God’ of course, meant the Judeo-Christian God. The Bible was a part of everyday life, even in the schools, and church was taken for granted.”* Though they were not followers of Jesus Christ, most of the American population generally understood and affirmed basic Christian truth.
As the saying goes, “That was then, this is now.”
In the post-modern, post-Christendom 21st century, a growing number of Americans are unfamiliar with the basics of the Christian faith. We can no longer assume that those we share Christ with have the same understanding we do of words such as God, salvation and Jesus Christ. In addition, many who are not familiar with orthodox Christianity assume they know all they need to know. David Dunbar writes that many non-Christians assume that “evangelical (and fundamentalist) Christians are an angry bunch of people who are at war with mainstream American culture.” In their eyes, “we are defined primarily by our stance against abortion and homosexuality.”** This antagonism makes it almost impossible to “gain a hearing” for Christ with them.
Has the U.S. always been a mission field? Yes. In the 21st century, is it a different mission field than twenty years ago? The missional understanding of our church and culture says, yes.
* “Toward a Stronger Future,” A White Paper by the Long Range Planning Committee of the EPC, (2006), page 3.
** David Dunbar, “What’s the Big Deal?” Missional Journal (March, 2007), page 3.