1. The opportunity for extensive culture-making in the U.S.
In an interview, sociologist Peter Berger observed that in the U.S. evangelicals are shifting from being largely a blue-collar constituency to becoming a college educated population.
His question is—will Christians going into the arts, business, government, the media, and film a) assimilate to the existing baseline cultural narratives so they become in their views and values the same as other secular professionals and elites, or b) will they seal off and privatize their faith from their work so that, effectively, they do not do their work in any distinctive way, or c) will they do enough new Christian ‘culture-making’ in their fields to change things? (See here.)
2. The rise of Islam.
How do Christians relate to Muslims when we live side by side in the same society? The record in places like Africa and the Middle East is not encouraging! This is more of an issue for the western church in Europe than in the U.S., but it is going to be a growing concern in America as well.
How can Christians be at the very same time a) good neighbors, seeking their good whether they convert or not, and still b) attractively and effectively invite Muslims to consider the gospel?
3. The new non-western Global Christianity.
The demographic center of Christian gravity has already shifted from the west to Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The rising urban churches of China may be particularly influential in the future. But the west still has the educational institutions, the money, and a great deal of power.
What should the relationship of the older western churches be to the new non-western church? How can we use our assets to serve them in ways that are not paternalistic? How can we learn from them in more than perfunctory ways?
4. The growing cultural remoteness of the gospel.
The basic concepts of the gospel—sin, guilt and accountability before God, the sacrifice of the cross, human nature, afterlife—are becoming culturally strange in the west for the first time in 1500 years. As Lesslie Newbigin has written, it is time now to ‘think like a missionary’—to formulate ways of communicating the gospel that both confront and engage our increasingly non-Christian western culture.
How do we make the gospel culturally accessible without compromising it? How can we communicate it and live it in a way that is comprehensible to people who lack the basic ‘mental furniture’ to even understand the essential truths of the Bible?
5. The end of prosperity?
With the economic meltdown, the question is—will housing values, endowments, profits, salaries, and investments go back to growing at the same rates as they have for the last twenty-five years, or will growth be relatively flat for many years to come? If so, how does the western church, which has become habituated to giving out of fast-increasing assets, adjust in the way it carries out ministry? For example, American ministry is now highly professionalized—church staffs are far larger than they were two generations ago, when a church of 1,000 was only expected to have, perhaps, two pastors and a couple of other part-time staff. Today such a church would have probably eight to ten full-time staff members.
Also, how should the stewardship message adjust? If discretionary assets are one-half of what they were, more risky, sacrificial giving will be necessary to do even less ministry than we have been doing.
On top of this, if we experience even one significant act of nuclear or bio-terrorism in the U.S. or Europe, we may have to throw out all the basic assumptions about social and economic progress we have been working off for the last 65 years. In the first half of the 20th century, we had two World Wars and a Depression. Is the church ready for that? How could it be? What does that mean?