Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own, and do not represent the views of my employer.
Is it time we reexamine the role global missions work plays in the American church? I believe the time has come, yes, and perhaps it is well past time. I believe we as a church should pause and think deeply and strategically about the next 10-15 years of missions work. Have we lost our way? Have we lost focus? What are our priorities? What is it that we want to see from our collective resources? What is the opportunity cost of our current practice of supporting world missions? Are we aware of current religious trends here in the United States, and if so, how much do we care? What of our children and grandchildren - what kind of nation do we want to leave for them, and how will our current focus on world missions impact these United States they will someday inherit?
I believe we are approaching a crossroads in American history, a point of no return if you will, and if we do not change our current course we will awake one day to find ourselves in a foreign land, one that we do not recognize, and one that is different in kind than what our parents and grandparents knew. The trends are alarming, indeed, and my goal today is to shed light on these cultural changes and inspire the aforementioned pause and deep thinking. Perhaps I will even inspire a shift in priority; if just one reader or church changes course, I will have succeeded in sharing my thoughts and writing this article. If nothing else, I believe we as a church collective need to acknowledge and accept the trends I will highlight - only once we identify the challenge can we go about solving it.
The American church as a collective is diminishing, both in terms of numbers and influence. To say the church is dying might be extreme, but the trends point towards a slow decline that certainly does not resemble "living" in the long run. Those "in the know" and those who study such issues are well aware of the above facts, and they've known for quite some time. Unfortunately, the greater American church as a whole is not doing enough, in my humble opinion, to combat such trends, instead pouring resources into overseas missions while our numbers and influence wane here at home. Just a few of the startling trends, citing various Gallup polls:
- In the 1950's, more than 95% of U.S.adults identified as Christian
- By 2008 that number shrunk to 80%
- By 2015 the number shrunk still further, to 75%
- 72% of Americans believe that religion is losing its influence on American life
- In 1965, 70% of Americans said that religion was "very important" in their lives, that number since dropped to 53% today
- While more than 80% of those over age 50 identify as Christian, only 62% of those 18-29 do the same
And the list goes on and on. These numbers should be alarming, and it is here and now that I yearn for those in positions of power and influence within the American church to pause, reflect, think, and meditate on such trends. That we are spreading the Gospel to the far ends of the earth is noble, indeed, and I am not suggesting we cease world missions altogether...but I do believe we should rethink the emphasis it receives. While we've gone overseas to spread the message of salvation, our own percentage of believers here in the U.S. has decreased, and these trends show no sign of slowing. From 95% in the 1950's to 75% today...what will the data show in 2050? In 2100? Again, I ask, have we as a church collective given this much thought, and if so, how much do we care?
An Alternative Viewpoint: America First
While the point of this article is not to delve into politics, let me highlight a few points of interest from the 2016 election. Donald Trump won some 80% of the Evangelical Christian vote, and did so on a platform that often featured the slogan "America First." While it sounds good as political stump speech, I would be ecstatic if those same 80% of Evangelicals in America took it to heart and applied the same approach to missions and outreach as well. Why not "America First" as it relates to religion? The Christian Right loved it during the campaign - why not apply it across the board?
We have many challenges here in the U.S., ranging from poverty and homelessness to health care and drug abuse. To drive the point home further, a specific example: In 2014 Veterans made up 8.5% of the U.S. population, and accounted for 18% of suicide deaths. Here in Lynchburg, the poverty rate of 22% is twice the Virginia state average, and 30% of those are children. How is this possible given the fact that Lynchburg is also home to the world's largest Christian university and a plethora of churches?
Prior to the 1930's and especially the 1960's, it was largely the church collective that pitched in to help solve such challenges, and the church served as the bedrock of American community life. Since then, the federal government has taken over this role formerly held by the church, and it is my opinion that church influence suffered as a result. In his commencement address at Liberty University on May 13, 2017, Trump espoused:
"In America, we don't worship government, we worship God."
While yes, that is still largely true, I would debate that as government influence grew, church influence diminished, and the Gallup numbers would go a long way in helping to prove such beliefs. One could debate that many in fact do rely on and "worship" the federal government. Dare I say, if more church resources were poured into the everyday challenges in American life, more Americans would have a reason to rely on, and be influenced by, the church collective as a whole. I believe wholeheartedly that a reprioritizing of our collective outreach would do much to reverse the trend of Americans fleeing Christianity. I cannot prove this, but believe it to be so.
And thus, by and large, I vote America first. Buy fresh, buy local. Made in the U.S.A. This is the classic trolley problem made famous in psychological circles, and I know which lever I would pull. I will save my family before those I do not know, and just the same I would want to save my country before saving foreign lands in which I have no affiliation. The church I currently attend supports seven missionary families in five different countries. Again, a noble pursuit, but at what opportunity cost when we have myriad challenges here in Lynchburg, and here in the U.S.? What is our yearly budget to support those seven families? What could those resources (time, energy, money) do for our local community here in Lynchburg? Could it decrease poverty? Crime? Out of wedlock and teen birth rates? Drug abuse? Homelessness? Have we thought about the opportunity cost of sending said resources overseas?
If I have a dollar to give and have the choice between a poor family here in Lynchburg and a poor family in "XYZ" country abroad, I am choosing Lynchburg, every time. It is the trolley problem extrapolated on a global scale, and I believe wholeheartedly we should help our neighbors and do everything possible to help our local communities before we go overseas. "But we have government programs to help such people," they say. Yes, we do...but see the Gallup numbers once again regarding the influence of the church in American society today. I desire the church to once again be the bedrock of American social welfare, not the federal government.
But what of unreached people groups, you ask? Yes, I understand fully the Great Commission and the importance of reaching those with the Gospel that have not heard...but again there is an opportunity cost involved, and we cannot deny the above Gallup numbers when we look at worldwide missions and church outreach. It is a grand trolley problem, indeed. Again, let me reiterate - as we go overseas to spread the Gospel, Christianity is slowly dying here in the United States. At some point, we will have to come to terms with such facts as a church collective, and hopefully sooner rather than later. It would pain me to someday see missionaries from other countries traveling to the U.S. to spread the Gospel to those who do not believe...you may laugh, but the trend line is present for all to see:
95% in the 1950's
...and with no signs of slowing. Look no further than Western Europe as a simple case in point: Just 17% of Britons identified with the Anglican Church in 2014, and to say that the role and influence of Christianity has diminished in Western Europe over the last 50 years in quite the understatement, indeed.
I am doing my part, albeit a small part that that. I give only to our benevolence, building, and general fund at my church; I do not give to the missions fund. I have thought this decision through quite thoroughly, and sleep well at night knowing I am doing said small part to make Lynchburg and in turn our country a better place. Through my daily interactions with friends and colleagues, I try to inspire others to do the same, and my hope in writing this article is to inspire you to do likewise. If not convinced, by all means, reexamine the Gallup numbers - for anyone concerned about the fate of Christianity in these United States (and all religions, in general) the numbers are certainly troublesome, indeed.
Imagine an extreme example of a United States where every church and non-profit (yes, all of them), poured 100% (yes, all) of their time, energy, and financial resources into their local communities. How might our country look? Could we make a larger dent in homelessness, poverty, hunger, and crime? Could we reverse the startling trend of an increasing number of single mothers? What could the church collective do for health care, substance abuse, and care for our Veterans, areas where the federal government has often failed or is otherwise inept?
I would like to think that we could have a huge impact, indeed. While this 100% is a utopian dream of sorts, and will certainly never happen in my lifetime, it is my (admittedly) selfish desire for this country that we try. It is nearly criminal that in the richest nation the world has ever known, a percentage of its children go to bed hungry at night, and veterans commit suicide at a rate twice that of the general population. I believe the church can and should do more. Our federal government is hoplessly inefficient in many cases, and I believe the American church collective can do it better, cheaper, and through goodwill and charity vs. the forced altruism that a federal government requires. As an added bonus to the church playing a larger role, more people would, in turn, rely on the church, and I see this as a win-win for anyone concerned with the future of Christianity in America.