–Daniel S. Ferguson
Barna, a hefty Christian polling center and data expert, estimated in 2015 that 44 percent of American adults were “post-Christian,” which was a seven point increase from just two years before.
Barna had 15 metrics for identifying these people, at least 9 of which (or 60 percent) must have been true for a person to qualify as “post-Christian.” For the record, Barna’s definition of what qualifies a person as a “Christian” are somewhat disputed, but they kind of have to be. If you ask a person if they’re a Christian, you’ll get a different response rate than if you ask them about their religious behaviors (like attending church, tithing, praying, reading the Bible, etc.). Barna has invested heavily in the latter sort of questions, and thousands of churches make adjustments based on his firm’s research.
You can either agree with that polling strategy or not, but let’s take the number at face value for now.
The response of many Christians is to have a little internal panic. “Oh no! All these people were led astray! 44 percent of Americans were in church–in church!–and they still slipped away! How can we get them back?!?”
The response of many other Christians is cynicism. “Well, they probably weren’t really Christian to begin with.”
The response to still other Christians is indignation. “If they want hell, they can have it.”
The response of Andy Stanley, though, is one I’ve come to adore:
Many, perhaps most, of the ‘nones’ in America have had some connection to Christianity in their pasts but have rejected it. They are not non-Christians in the way we are accustomed to thinking about non-Christians. They are post-Christian. That’s a whole nother thing. This group has been there, done that, and has a closetful of camp T-shirts to show for it. This presents a unique challenge for us in terms of apologetics and evangelism. It requires a new approach.” —Andy Stanley
I really admire this answer. It’s humble but passionate. It’s respectful but loving. It’s refreshingly honest and frank from a pastor, admitting the difficulties of a mission when many pastors would double down on their previous methods, no matter how much they were failing.
It also shows how much Andy Stanley loves people who leave the church, the “post-Christians.” If you watch him at all, he really has changed his approach specifically to talk to post-Christians and love them.
I love them, too. They’re my people. Not because I am one, per se (I only fit into two Barna’s 15 metrics, and those only barely), but because I so nearly am. The journeys of so many of the people I have met who have left the church are so like my own. I love how post-Christians struggle with the paradoxes of truth and grace, freedom and conviction, and faith and doubt. Those are not easy roads to walk down. That I walked down those roads and came out still Christian does not mean I have journeyed any better, just differently.
In many ways, I have so much more in common with people who have left the church than those who haven’t. I’m a church critic; I have a sensitive radar to authoritarianism; I can spot judgment from a mile off; I can smell hypocrisy. I doubt first and believe later. I question the Bible openly and often.
But it’s not just those sensitivities and biases that make post-Christians who they are. From what I can tell of the many I’ve met, they pursue justice. They value integrity and humility. They seek to protect people from harm. They honor the souls of human beings. They love with passion. They chase after honest community.
In many ways, that’s everything I (and probably they) ever wanted in a church. In many ways, that’s almost everything Jesus wants from a church, too.
That’s why I love post-Christians so much. Their values are so similar to mine and so similar to what Jesus has in mind for His church. I was fortunate enough to find a church that shared those values. Though I was only there two years (geography took me away), it restored my hope in church. I finally knew that those values could actually exist inside a real church in a real way. I now know that those values weren’t accidental; they were intentional. I hope to bring those with me into the new church I’m helping to shape from the ground up. I have great hope for it.
And I have great hope for you, too, if you’re a post-Christian. You may never come back to church. That hurts a little, but I fully respect your choice and your journey. I won’t pressure you, I won’t deny you, and I won’t reject you, not in any way.
If I do it accidentally, smack me. I give you permission.
I love your heart that much. And so, I believe, does Jesus.