The Death of ‘Nominal Christianity’

Yet another study has been published showing a sharp drop in Christian affiliation amidst a ‘changing U.S. religious landscape.’  This time such statistical findings have been published by the Pew Research Center.  I have been very pleased with the response of prominent evangelical leaders to these trends.  Several months ago Ed Stetzer published an article highlighting four trends in Christianity and what they ultimately mean.  I appreciate his sobering, yet optimistic outlook of some transitions that might seem scary on the surface.  Then, just this past week, Russell Moore answered the question, “Is Christianity Dying?”  Both of these articles are well worth your investment of time to read.

As I have considered these realities I cannot help but wonder what these trends mean specifically for the landscape of student ministry in our American context.  I hate to say this, but in order to be completely honest I feel I must.  Sadly, I’m afraid student ministry has thrived on nominal Christianity for years, by and large.

We as student pastors will be confronted with these coming trends as much as anyone.  Just like everyone else, we will be forced to respond to these trends.  We will either compromise the message so as to remain attractive to the masses, or we will remain tied to God and his Word, seeking to find success in our faithfulness to Jesus and his mission.  So, what can we expect?  How should we respond?  I want to offer five points of urgency for the student pastor in light of this reality.

1. We must teach a more robust Gospel.

One of the primary reasons our churches are full of nominal Christians now is due to the presentation of an anemic gospel.  Calling students to “just ask Jesus into your heart” will not suffice, nor should it.  Students must understand the cost of following Jesus.  They must understand the various elements of conversion, namely repentance and (true) belief.  We must be willing to walk with students through responding to the gospel, carefully helping them understand Jesus’ call to deny self, take up one’s cross, and follow him.  Students must be taught that salvation is a supernatural work of God that takes place from the inside out.  They must understand what it means to be in Christ before they can walk with Christ.  Are they coming to understand how the gospel applies to every aspect of their life?  Do they understand the grand redemptive narrative of Scripture and redemptive history, or are they only hearing what individual verses say about certain topics?  Our goal cannot be for them to declare faith and proceed toward greater morality.  Our goal must be for them to come to treasure Jesus with all of their hearts, souls, minds, and strength.  Only that type of true faith will endure through and beyond the youth group.

2. We must focus more on deeper, less on wider.

Attraction-centered programming has ruled the landscape of student ministry for some years now.  This must change.  We have the propensity to focus too much on growing our ministries wide rather than deep.  I see this tendency not only in the local church, but also in many youth conferences.  The goal seems to be how many can we tweet that were ‘saved’ rather than how can we challenge students in the Word.  Now, there is nothing wrong with occasionally using a ‘hook’ to bring students in and respond to the gospel, and of course evangelism must be central.  But, we desperately need a greater emphasis on shepherding in student ministry, which really is our primary responsibility.  If we were to focus more on our ‘core’ students in shepherding, perhaps we would find that as the saints are equipped, the work of the ministry would abound (see Ephesians 4:12).  If students are to endure and even flourish as believers in our culture, we must take them deep and help them build a sure foundation.  We must help them take ownership of the mission and the ministry.

3. We must help students understand

We must put easy believe-ism to death because following Jesus is not easy.  This means we must do away with every stray root of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that pops up.  This is the Christianity defined by and approve by the culture.  We must help students understand that true Christianity will never be fully accepted in that way.  Therefore, we must help students understand what true discipleship looks like.  We really need to place an emphasis on themes such as suffering and hardship.  We must help students understand the vital place of hope within the life of the believer and why it is so important to fix our eyes on Jesus and his Kingdom that is already, not yet.  We must clearly convey the truth to our students that one cannot possibly follow Christ and at the same time hold personal happiness as a chief virtue.  Student leaders must help set a spiritually healthy trajectory for growth by bringing Jesus into focus, not our ideal of what a Christian should look like.

4. We must train students to respond to a hostile culture.

We must help students take ownership their faith.  We must do all we can to get students in the Word for themselves and challenge them to be people of prayer.  We must help them shape a worldview that defaults to the question, “What does the Bible say?” in every situation.  More than that, we must begin to help our students know how to balance grace and truth in their response to a world that is at enmity with God and his Word.  Students must come to fear God more than they fear man or the culture’s approval.  We should desire to present our students as mature in Christ as they step out into the next season of life.  In many respects the church has done a poor job of loving all people while remaining steadfast in the truth of God’s Word.  This will only change as a result of the next generation being intentionally trained to do so.  Student pastors must take this challenge seriously.

5. We must not shy away from tough questions and conversations.

Students will come to understand the relevancy of God’s Word only as student pastors are willing to face the tough questions of our day and offer a defense of the validity of the Scriptures.  If we are unwilling to deal with key issues, we will inadvertently present the Scriptures as irrelevant.  Now, please understand, of course we must use discretion.  Part of this work will result from student pastors pouring into parents, equipping them to offer answers to sensitive subjects.  As we necessarily use discretion, though, we must not simply refuse to deal with the hot topics that are meaningful to curious young minds.  We must be careful to speak to questions using gospel-saturated language, not just listing thou-shalt’s and thou-shalt-not’s.

What are your thoughts on this?  At the very least, all student ministry leaders need to spend some time thinking and praying through these trends.  I would love to hear your own points of urgency as you do so!

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