Protecting the Boundaries at the Expense of the Center

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Evangelicalism. Read other perspectives here.

What is the current state of American Evangelicalism, and how might this need to develop over the course of the next five years? These are the questions I have been asked to answer in my contribution to this conversation. In response I will present my assessment of Evangelicalism in light of the May 2015 Pew Survey, and I offer my suggestion on the major shift Evangelicalism must make if it is to overcome the challenges of the years ahead.

Committed "Dones" not the Nominals

In response to a Pew survey that documented a decline in American Christianity, several evangelicals have largely dismissed the findings as having any major significance. Ed Stetzer is a good example of this where he said, "The big trends are clear, the nominals are becoming the nones, yet the convictional are remaining committed." That's comforting for evangelicals, but there is data that suggests it's not just the nominals leaving our churches.

In Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Group Publishing, 2015), Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope discuss the "dechurched" or the "dones." These are "people who make explicit and intentional decisions to leave the church and organized religion." They are "dissatisfied with the structure, social message, and politics of the institutional church, and they've decided they and their spiritual lives are better off lived outside of organized religion." These are not nominal Christians who never really believed or committed, but those deeply invested in the life of the church for many years. The research of Packard and Hope reveals that "they flee the church not because they hate the church. They have, in fact, worked tirelessly on behalf of the church. They flee for their own spiritual safety, to reconnect with a God they feel has been made distant to them by the structure of religion as practiced in organizations."

Stetzer is right that the Pew data do not signal the death of Christianity in America, but our losses, and particularly the kind of losses we are experiencing, should be of concern to evangelical leaders. As Packard and Hope put it, "If the church can't manage to retain its most committed, devoted, and energetic followers, then it's destined to become a greatly diminished force in the social landscape, at least in the immediate future."

From Bounded to Centered Set

If American Evangelicalism is experiencing a loss of some of its most valuable resources, what can be done about it? The church has experienced a loss of trust and relevance, not only for the "dones," but also for much of the broader culture. How can we more effectively engage a post-Christendom and pluralistic culture where the church and our message have lost credibility and is but one of many competing voices, and in a post-9/11 environment where tensions and conflict between religions are high? I suggest that American Evangelicalism needs to shift from a bounded to centered set approach to internal dynamics and cultural engagement.

The concepts of bounded and centered sets comes from mathematics, and it has been discussed in connection with missiology by those like the late Paul Hiebert, as well as Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch. A bounded set is defined by the nature of the objects within and enclosed by a clear boundary. It tends to be a static concept. Hiebert, in his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, applied the bounded set concept to the categories of "Christian" and "church," and said that this approach puts a great deal of effort into maintaining the boundary of the set. From this perspective great emphasis is placed on determining who's in and who's out of the clearly bounded set.

Then there is the centered set. This is defined by the relationship of its objects to the center of the set. The boundaries here are not as sharp, and emphasis is placed on the relationship to the center. In a centered set approach to Christianity or the church Hiebert says the emphasis is "on exhorting people to follow Christ, rather than on excluding others to preserve the purity of the set."