On November 27 I ended an article (in what is a series called “The Spiritual State of the Nation”) by saying that Christians should “get out of the stands and back on the playing field.’ The playing field I have in mind is the post-election 2012 field, what I am calling the new America. As believers we need to regain God’s heart-throb for the world. This new world is now on our doorstep. If it is not right next door to me it is, as a friend put it so well, in a zip code right next door to me.
What we actually need is a movement, a great people movement of the Holy Spirit touching individuals, churches and the entire nation. After the tragic events of Friday, December 14, in Newtown, Connecticut, we are again made aware of the release of genuine evil in our wider culture. But the great people movement of the Spirit that I pray for will not bring back the days of American hegemony in the world. In fact. I submit that it would turn America into a place where mission becomes the real priority of Christians and churches, not politics or debates about cultural issues that so divide us.
A Great Legacy
Americans have received a great legacy. Our predecessors built churches and denominations that enriched our land. No nation has ever been so strongly influenced by the near ubiquitous presence of the Bible and the Christian faith. Churches still have the freedom in this nation to practice their faith without fear of government reprisals. We are a deeply religious people, even still. No developed nation has the freedom of faith and practice that we do.
One recent estimate says that 28.9% of our population is evangelical. (This number is perhaps indicative of both polling error and the ways we determine what constitutes/defines an evangelical.) Add to this the large number of baptized Christians in scores of denominations, and include the Roman Catholics, and a very large number of Americans are Christians, at least in one form or another. Speculating on what percentage of these people are “real” Christians is both pointless and unhelpful. It has even led to a new kind of Pharisaism in a few instances.
We are not only a land of churches but a nation influenced massively by para-church movements. Countless ministries have grown up outside of local churches all across America. These missions and movements address a myriad of evils like drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, abortion, pornography and sexual abuse. But alongside of these ministries that address a myriad of moral evils there are a growing number of young movements that battle against structural evils such as poverty, the abuse of the earth’s environment, the sex slave trade and the need for economic community development in urban areas. Besides these there are new and bold programs working inside public schools to reach children with the message of Christ. Countless numbers of volunteers are rising up to get involved in what I call whole-life discipleship.
Because of immigration the number of Catholics in America is still growing, ever so slightly, while the overall number of Protestants has declined. Not many pay attention to these major shifts, but they will very likely change the context of ministry quite significantly in the days ahead. While some evangelicals still pursue the course of anti-Catholicism, increasing numbers share my vision for unity in Christ’s mission. Fully one-fourth of U. S. Catholics are charismatic, a figure that rises to 50% among Hispanic Catholics. Inside the U. S., Catholics are clearly an influential force for Christ’s mission in America. In many instances these Catholics are ready for new partnerships with serious non-Catholic believers. I know this from a decade of first-hand experience that has taken me all across this country and even to the Vatican. This development is a part of our developing legacy but it also reflects a major shift in how that legacy has turned the nation in a whole new direction since World War II.
A New Role for America
America remains a free nation, a place where innovative missional expression can foster fresh movements of evangelism and church planting, both here and abroad. I personally see the reality of these “fresh movements” among a growing number of millennials, the generation born from 1982 on. Millennials represent only 21.4% of the total population. (Boomers, the largest generation, were born between 1946–1964 and constitute 29% of the population.)
In the aftermath of the Cold War, and subsequent to 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the emergence of other nations challenged the USA as the world’s sole superpower. But far worse is the loss of our moral authority in the world, especially because of our response to 9/11. The economic primacy of the U. S. is increasingly questionable and our diplomatic authority, though still immense, is under siege in many parts of the world. We are less and less likely to intervene in the wars of other regions and nations and this is for good reason.
The fundamental differences in our society were revealed very powerfully in the 2012 elections. Our prayer ought to be one that is more humble and focused as we work to overcome a growing number of fundamental differences. This has prompted millennials, in particular, to work for justice and fairness. If America, and American Christians in particular, can learn to serve from a platform of selflessness and service then we might become an even greater blessing to our cities and then to nations far beyond the US.