I mentioned in my last post that we are currently undergoing massive and consequential shifts across the population landscape. And these shifts are of two major varieties. First …
The racial/ethnic population mix is projected to shift away from pronounced white majorities, trending toward Hispanic population dominance. The degree and composition of these changes will, however, vary rather substantially across national (i.e., Canada vs. US), regional, and local contexts.
Now let’s talk about a second population landscape shift with which you need to be prepared to contend.
The dominant cultural/social/political population coalition is shifting in favor of religious skepticism, moral/cultural progressivism, and animosity toward traditional values and religious conviction.
If you were present at our February 2019 Annual Meeting, you heard an exceptionally insightful analysis of this trend by Billy Graham Center Director, Ed Stetzer. If you missed it, sorry—only registered delegates can access the video recording. But don’t despair, you can access Ed’s series of articles on the subject online at The Exchange, Ed’s Christianity Today platform. I highly recommend you do so. But for the moment, here is the gist of Ed’s observations.
- One of the most reliable longitudinal surveys of American religious belief and practice is the Pew Research Center’s US Religious Landscape Study (RLS). The RLS documents that “Christians” can be identified in one of three ways:
- convictional Christians (those whose beliefs and behaviors closely align with what we would recognize to represent truly evangelical faith)
- casual Christians (those whose basic affirmation of gospel truth is essentially orthodox but whose participation in church and personal practices diverge from biblical principles)
- cultural Christians (those who self-identify as “Christian” relative to other religious affiliations but whose beliefs and behaviors are not at all aligned with the Bible’s teachings)
- The percentage of convictional Christians has remained stable (at 20-25%) over many decades, even slightly increasing over the past decade. Barna Group uses a slightly different taxonomy (“legacy Christians” as a subset of born again Christians) that nevertheless documents a minority of professing Christians would to any degree qualify as convictional.
- The percentage of cultural Christians has experienced significant decline as those who traditionally would have identified themselves as “Christian” increasingly report their religious affiliation as “none” (thus, the colloquial moniker “nones”).
- The three categories of “Christians” have, until recently, exerted cultural, moral, and political solidarity. But that coalition has dramatically shifted over the past decade.
- Past: convictional + casual + cultural = majority Christian coalition (+ 75%)
- Present: casual + cultural + nones = majority secular coalition (+ 75%)
In a recent talk to the Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission, conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson asserted: “We live in a landslide country, where most of us live in areas where either Republicans or Democrats easily win in landslide elections.” In 2016, Gerson noted, 80 percent of counties voted for either Trump or Clinton in a landslide. In the 1970s, that number was 25 percent for presidential elections.
Looking at these developments through cultural and political lenses might cause heartburn and dread.
Those of us who have, in the words of the old youth group chorus, “decided to follow Jesus, no turning back,” are decidedly in the cultural minority and may very well be increasingly the object of cultural scorn and political marginalization.Click to tweet
We’ve had it too good for too long. North Americans are returning to the historic norm concerning which Jesus instructed His disciples:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first (John 15:18).”
But don’t miss this good news:
The percentage of convictional Christians remains strong and stable.
In fact, if the percentage in North America is strong and stable, the news is even better globally. There are more Christians living on planet earth today than in the entire history of the church combined. This is an age of Gospel progress and Gospel opportunity for those who have eyes to see!
So, what does all this mean for those of us who are seeking to identify and enroll students in biblical higher education?
- You would be foolish to dilute your mission and dissipate your educational program resources in order to attract more casual and cultural Christians. You will not be able to maintain mission fidelity if you welcome the moral and cultural “Trojan Horse” of ultimately hostile casual and cultural Christians in an attempt to swell the ranks of your student body.
- Our future success in biblical higher education depends on our resolution that we are not in the business of Christian gentrification, but of Gospel mobilization.
- Your prospect identification and enrollment communication strategies should clearly and uncompromisingly target convictional Christians. That population is not shrinking. If anything, it is growing.
- Remember, success requires differentiation and part of that differentiation is a homing signal that will be most clearly and compellingly heard by convictional Christians.
Yes friends, the best we can tell, the cultural and political winds are shifting—but they are actually shifting in our favor. This is no time for recrimination and retrenchment. Rather, it is a time for missional resolution and strategic refinement.
Let’s get to work.
Fresh gleanings to fuel your leadership awareness, reflection, and conversations …
Our friend Russell Moore and his Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) colleagues have performed a huge service to our evangelical community by their creation of Artificial Intelligence: An Evangelical Statement of Principles. ABHE’s Matthew Pinson (Welch College, TN) and our good friend and colleague David Dockery (Trinity International University, IL) are among the original signers of this landmark declaration. You’ll no doubt want to save it for reference, disseminate it among your faculty, and commend it as a student study/reference resource.