10 Things That Defined the Last Decade

I find trends in Christianity interesting. Recently I read an article that grabbed my interest and thought many of you may be interested also. This is an article by Jonathan Merritt about the shifting evangelical culture. You can read the original article HERE or you can read it below. 

10 Things That Defined the Last Decade

For many of us, the last 10 years have coincided with our formative years—a time of maturation, when our faith perspective, worldview and convictions became our own.

It’s also been a formative decade in the Church. New movements rose and fell. Institutional structures that have existed for centuries lost their shine for an upcoming generation of Christians. We’ve taken old ideas and practices and reinterpreted them. Some we’ve thrown out altogether, creating new trajectories of our own.

Here, we present the 10 trends that have shaped us—for better or worse—and been shaped by us in the last decade.

1. The rise of a post-denominational generation

A generation ago, it mattered whether you were Presbyterian or Pentecostal, Lutheran or Baptist. Not so today. In recent years, postmodern Christians began to see the traditional structures of church denominations as limitations. They now consider the differences that once caused schisms to be minor quibbles, viewing denominations as evidence of a fractured faith.

According to LifeWay Research, non-denominational churches have increased dramatically since 1972. Unaffiliated congregations are now the third-largest type of evangelical congregation in America.

Perhaps this trend was driven by the budding individualism of the 21st century, in which people shopped for churches like they would a pair of shoes. Or maybe it’s because this generation shies away from institutions as a whole. Then again, the reputation for infighting many denominations carry might be what repels Christians from joining them. Regardless, this generation approaches church the same way it approaches the rest of life—by placing a premium on autonomy and freedom.

2. The wall between “sacred” and “secular” gets torn down

Christians in the 1970s and ’80s were so turned off by America’s “moral decline,” they created quarantined pockets of Christendom to insulate themselves from the world’s evils. Christian record labels popped up to produce Christian music artists to be broadcast on Christian radio stations. Christian publishing houses worked overtime to fill the shelves of Christian bookstores, and Christian schools and universities proliferated. Whether it was a film or softball league or “Satan’s holiday,” everything had a Christian alternative.

By the time the 21st century dawned, with the world growing more connected and pluralistic, self-segregating into Christian cubbies became increasingly impossible. Christians realized listening to secular music wasn’t equal to punching one’s ticket to hell, and neither was having friends who don’t follow Jesus. This shift bled into the workplace, as many recognized being a pastor was as divine a calling as being a businesswoman.

The belief that all of life is sacred has penetrated deeply the last 10 years. From here, we can expect fewer bonfires for burning non-Christian paraphernalia and more conversations about living holistically devoted to Jesus.

3. Me-centered Christianity gives way to missional living

Ten years ago, the word “missional” was nowhere to be found in the Christian vernacular. Today, it’s the movement that identifies why Christians are less focused on getting people into church and more focused on getting church people into the world to love their neighbors and proclaim the Good News.

The suburban megachurch model of the 1990s gave way to an urban church-planting movement. The prosperity gospel, which thrived during the heyday of televangelism, was roundly rejected by Christians who would rather give than receive.

This “heavening of earth” is a guiding focus for this generation, propelling a renewed commitment to intentional living.

4. Evangelicals reclaim social justice

Ever since the phrase “social gospel” was introduced by Walter Rauschenbusch in the early 20th century, “social justice” became a dirty phrase among conservative Christians. Never mind that the Bible speaks of justice and poverty more than 2,000 times—social justice efforts were believed to be a corruption of the Good News and a distraction from the Church’s “true” mission of evangelism.

But today, as a Barna study reports, young Christians are more “globally aware and cause-oriented” and “sensitive to issues related to justice and poverty” than the generation before them.

This rekindling of justice has been led by activists and thought leaders like Shane Claiborne and Jim Wallis, though evangelicals on the left and right have reclaimed justice efforts as an integral part of the Christian calling.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Christians have cared about social justice, but the views of groups who cared were considered more liberal fringe than mainstream. The tables have since turned, with churches and organizations leading hunger relief efforts, clean water projects, the fight against human trafficking and the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Today, those who shrink back from the Christian call to justice are the ones on the fringe.

5. We’re more pro-life than ever

The last decade has produced a generation of Christians who are statistically more pro-life than their parents. According to a Religion & Ethics Newsweeklypoll, 71 percent of older evangelicals believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 74 percent of younger evangelicals believe the same.

But rising Christians have broadened the definition of “life” beyond the abortion issue. Their pro-life-ness has led them, for example, to focus on the millions who will die this year from preventable diseases and the thousands of innocents who will perish as a result of unjust wars. For them, caring about life in a Christian way means protecting it “from the womb to the tomb.”

This generation’s holistic em-brace of a pro-life ethic illustrates that moving forward doesn’t mean selling off, wholesale, anything that smacks of yesteryear but, rather, attempting to think critically about how to follow Jesus in a new age.

6. Young Christians don’t have a political party

During the latter part of the 20th century, many Christians saw partisan politics as a useful tool to further social agendas. But a rising generation recognizes the pitfalls of both major parties and is becoming increasingly independent.

For example, a 2001 study of young evangelicals by the Pew Research Center uncovered 55 percent were self-described Republicans. When the study was repeated in 2007, only 40 percent remained in that category. But the leavers didn’t simply convert to the Democratic Party—only 5 percent did. The additional 10 percent now describe themselves as “independents” or “unaffiliated.”

The new resistance to categories may have some advantages. As pastor Tim Keller observes, today’s Christians may be “the vanguard of some major new religious, social and political arrangements that could make the older form of culture wars obsolete.” If Keller is right, perhaps American Christianity may find itself on the cusp of a cultural renewal.

7. The rise and demise of the emergent church

In the late 1990s, the conspicuous absence of young people in American churches became painfully clear. Pastors like Mark Driscoll, Chris Seay and Doug Pagitt asserted that the Church needed to change if it wanted to reach a postmodern generation. These voices were soon joined by Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and Tony Jones, in addition to masses of fresh followers.

And so, the emergent church was born, creating a welcome home for young people disillusioned with conventional Christianity. Christianity Todayproclaimed “emergent” one of the fastest-growing movements within Christianity, and author Phyllis Tickle predicted this new kind of Christianity would take over the world.

But the emergent church’s dominance would not last. Its critique of rigid pietism and narrow theology devolved into a less interesting, rehashed theological liberalism. Driscoll and Seay fled the movement, and those who remained were either marginalized among evangelicals or became a small avant-garde sect of mainline Protestantism. The emergent movement’s rise and fall remains a warning against reform movements that lack a theological center.

8. Christians grow comfortable with doubt

Christians have always struggled to know what to do with doubt, but the rationalism of the 20th century created a special hostility for doubters. Apologetics ruled the day, with Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel and Norm Geisler surveying the “evidence” for faith and attempting to slay skeptics and cynics with the weapon of logical debate. This created a church environment that, according to Barna Research, often condemns those who struggle with significant intellectual doubts about faith.

A new stable of voices, from Donald Miller to Lauren Winner, rose in the last decade—voices that openly wrestled with hardcore doubts and even used their struggles as a springboard to authentic faith. Their honesty gave a generation the freedom to ask difficult questions.

9. A return to Gospel centrality

While young Christians highly value doubt, they also—somewhat paradoxically—have developed something of a “Gospel defensiveness.” Fueled in part by the growing Reformed movement, a fresh vision for understanding, articulating and even “rediscovering” the Gospel has arisen among Christians in the last decade. This generation of believers wants to understand what the Gospel really is and isn’t, which “gospels” are false and how we misuse the Gospel according to our own purposes.

When forecasting the future of American Christianity, Gabe Lyons notes that for a new generation, the Gospel “is the foundational assertion of the Bible—the driving motivation for everything they do.” Not content to section it off to Sunday’s sermon or the mission field, the Gospel informs this generation’s understanding of vocation, the causes they support and even which products they consume.

10. A worship and prayer movement spreads

Hymnbooks, robed choirs and pipe organs faded throughout the ’90s, but in the last decade they went the way of the buggy whip to make way for a more “seeker-friendly” experience. Streamlined praise choruses emerged in their place to meet a desire for a fuller, more intimate experience with God. Worship artists like Jesus Culture, Hillsong United and Passion led the way into worship that is emotive, expressive and, most of all, a divine encounter.

Like worship, prayer became far more than a segment of the Sunday service. Mike Bickle’s International House of Prayer (IHOP) and Pete Greig’s 24/7 Prayer emerged on the scene in 1999, quickly sparking an international prayer movement. Young people rallied to join sessions of unbroken prayer— not just to encounter God but to invoke His transformative work among the nations.

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What do you think? Which one surprised you? Which do you agree with? Which do you disagree with? What should have been on the list?

One comment
  1. Good article. No. 7 is particularly interesting…I’ve been watching the evolution of the Emergent Church for a long time.

    I also like No. 8. I long ago came to terms with the fact that questions (without satisfactorily concrete answers) were going to be a part of my faith. I noodle them from time to time, but I don’t fight them anymore.

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