I, like most evangelical Christians, am constantly reminded that the evangelical church is in trouble, that evangelicals have been hijacked by a political movement linked to the GOP and Donald J. Trump, that we’re just one generation from Hell. In short, the church is failing.
All of those statistics may very well be true, but the more I meditate, and—yes—pray, about this, the more I am convinced that their relevance is overrated. Can the Church fail?
I won’t lie to you. It’s easy to be captured into the crisis. That last link, about being one generation from Hell, was breathlessly published in early July by yours truly. The lede presented a scary proposition.
In just one generation, American religion has gone from 70% belonging to a specific church or synagogue, to under 50%—47% to be exact—according to a recent Gallup poll. The “nones” now outnumber the committed.
This Sunday morning, David French once again wrote about the link between a new crop of white evangelicals who identify with their faith almost solely on the basis of supporting Donald Trump. To long-committed Christians, it should be noted that the 16 percent of Trump supporters who flipped from identifying as not evangelical to evangelical between 2016 and 2020 do not necessarily represent real conversions.
This tweet by Ryan Burge, quoted in French’s essay, covers a lot of ground:
Less than 50 percent of self-identified evangelicals, in 2020, reported attending church weekly. What French doesn’t consider is that 2020 was a weird year for church attendance, given that most churches were very much disrupted by coronavirus lockdowns. But even if we use 2019 figures, only 1.9 percent more evangelicals in 2019 than 2020 reported going to church more than once a month, with a full 24.2 percent reporting they “never” or “seldom” darkened the door of a church. We need to ask what these self-identified evangelicals really believe, and is it more than just claiming a label?
The label “evangelical” comes with a set of beliefs, generally shared among adherents. This includes the primacy and inerrancy of Scripture, the centrality of the cross of Christ in teaching and preaching, the mission (the Great Commission) of sharing the Gospel and making disciples, and the unique and exclusive path to salvation in the belief in Jesus Christ as lord and savior, and repentance of sin.
An NPR story French linked showed that by 2015, only 6 percent of self-identified evangelicals in fact concurred with all those shared beliefs. The confluence of Biblical literacy and understanding clearly falls in a small slice of a very fuzzy Venn diagram of “evangelicals” as a whole.
What the new crop of white evangelicals do share is a belief in a political future. Again, for the benefit of long-time committed evangelical Christians, this is antithetical to the mission of the Church, and Jesus Christ’s mission in life on earth, and His atoning death. Picking up the cloth of the holy to place it on an unholy army, waving the banner of Christ without His power, is a good way to have “Ichabod” scrawled on your church doors.
So, you say, the white evangelical church has failed. It has allowed itself to be hijacked into a political movement, as the backbone of the Republican Party. It has supported Christian leaders in the White House, like George W. Bush, because of his outward faith. It has condemned others like Bill Clinton for his outward perfidy. But then, it has embraced fully a man whose own licentiousness and sin has been worn like a jewel, and even attracted people “into” the church because that man liked to occasionally hold up a Bible.
Clearly, the American evangelical church has so far failed to cure this, and failed to disciple those who are woefully disconnected and illiterate in spiritual terms. But the Church has not failed; it cannot fail.
Paul wrote to Timothy about the times we face today in 2 Timothy chapter 3.
3 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents,ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
6 They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, 7 always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these teachers oppose the truth. They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected. 9 But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone.
“As far as the faith is concerned,” is a key phrase here. Paul doesn’t say that those men of depraved minds won’t become powerful. He does say “their folly will be clear to everyone.” (Now before you go throwing shoe-fits tantrums at me, this isn’t solely about Donald Trump, okay?) Over the decades, many people described in verses 1-5 have infested churches all over the world, and provided the Lord does not return sooner, they will continue to multiply.
In Matthew 13:24-29, Jesus told the parable of the weeds.
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
We are experiencing a lot of weeds, and the Bible is clear who the enemy is. It’s not good to focus too much on the enemy. Satan is defeated, after all. The enemy is not omnipotent, omnipresent, or all-powerful. The devil isn’t even a being who was beyond creation—God created him.
We naturally ask the question, if God created Satan, then why is Satan still around to bother us? I am not a trained theologian, but I believe it has a lot do with the free will of Man, moral agency, the redemptive plan of God, and Mankind’s sin in the Garden of Eden. God’s timeline is beyond our understanding. Satan is indeed defeated, and his fate is sealed. He will be thrown into the lake of fire, along with all those whose names are not in the Book of Life after God’s “great white throne” judgement (Revelation 20).
Since we know all of this, and as evangelicals, we should believe it, there is no reason to say the Church is failing or has failed. The Church cannot fail.
- Christ is the head of the Church (Colossians 1:15-20).
- Christ is the chief cornerstone of our faith (Ephesians 2:19-22).
- Christ is the Messiah, and all who receive this revelation (as Peter did) shall not be overcome (Matthew 16:13-20).
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
- Peter, who only months before betrayed Jesus during his trial, preached the first public sermon after Jesus ascended to Heaven, and the power of the Holy Spirit brought thousands to faith (Acts 2:14-40).
- Paul, in Romans—the summary of the Christian life—wrote that we are “more than conquerors.” The Church cannot be overcome because the love of Christ is unstoppable (Romans 8:37-39).
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- The Gospel will be preached, regardless of the motive of those who preach it (Philippians 1:15-16).
- The Gospel is not of human origin; it is the supernatural revelation of God (Galatians 1:11-12).
- The Gospel will always be accompanied by signs and wonders (Mark 16:15-18). (Let’s not get hung up on “pick up snakes” because context matters; we don’t live in the first century. What’s important is that there will be signs.)
- God judges the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5-6).
The Church, with a capital “C”, cannot be defeated, because it is the living embodiment of Jesus Christ, who is sitting at the right hand of the Father, as the only image of the living God to have visited earth, born in human form, living the message of servant leadership, suffering, death, and rebirth (Philippians 2:1-13).
Therefore, the Church cannot fail, because its purpose has been assigned and its success has been guaranteed from the beginning. We as individual humans can—and do—fail. We have failed to hold ourselves accountable to the Word of God, and to each other. We have failed to teach and preach in a manner that reflects the glory of God and the honor of Christ. We have failed to correct our transgressions.
But the mercy and grace of God are unplumbed depths. We haven’t failed because we still live, and we have days ahead in which to live before we go to be with Christ.
Add to this, that God has His own sovereign agenda, a multitude of angels at His command, dreams and visions that He, through the Holy Spirit, sends to individuals whose hearts are ready to receive, and miracles every day that affect the lives and trajectory of history in ways we cannot know.
My late brother Roy—a lapsed Jew—was saved when he saw a vision of , or in his telling a visitation from, Jesus at the foot of his bed in the late 1970s. I had a vision in my pickup truck in early 1999 that changed my life and led directly to my salvation. Without such supernatural events, neither my brother Roy nor I would be in the faith. We did not grow up in any remote way associated with a church.
Many others have experienced these kinds of miracles of the heart. Entire nations like Rwanda have been healed of genocidal violence (that the Catholic Church contributed to as a cause). There is power in the name of Jesus, and in the forgiveness, love and mercy of the Gospel.
As long as there is a core of believers who refuse to compromise Biblical integrity, who remain committed to study, piety, and Christian action, and who practice a faith filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), then God will pour out His blessing over the Church in America.
And if not, then the spark of evangelism will pass to others in the world. Americans suffer from a casual pride that also infected the Romans and Byzantine Empire; that of course we are the best in the world, and our version of Christianity isChristianity. There’s certainly merit in the history of the American church’s commitment to missions, charity, and the soul of our national politics.
But America is not that shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan used so well. That city is the Church, the one that cannot be defeated, that is resplendent in its power and purpose with Christ at the head.
Whether America becomes another in a long line of failed Christian states that suborned the national church for political purposes, then left it a faithless shell, or we experience an earth-shaking revival as we did in the 1700s and 1800s, it cannot be said that the Church has failed. I am believing for the revival, but even if it does not come, I can rest assured that the Gospel will be shared by me, my local fellowship of believers, and by those who remain committed to Christ.
This is all we can do, as believers. The results are not up to us. But our success, as we measure such things, is irrelevant to the success of the Church. The Church has not failed, is not failing, and will not fail, because it cannot fail. The Church is the most secure, sure, and strong edifice existing or ever to exist in human history.
We should not even pose the question “is the Church failing?”—instead, we should ask “are we failing the Church?”
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
The First TV contributor network is a place for vibrant thought and ideas. Opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The First or The First TV. We want to foster dialogue, create conversation, and debate ideas. See something you like or don’t like? Reach out to the author or to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.