The traditions of the past cannot be the tactics of today.
My grandmother was about that life—the church life. She was a prayer warrior, Sunday School teacher, and “mother” of the church. She had respect on her name within the confines of our congregation. She has gone on to be with the Lord, but the church is still here.
Sadly, the church in America looks quite different than the one she was accustomed. Church attendance has now dipped below 50 percent for the first time since being measured in 1937. And the number of professing Christians was in decline long before COVID-19.
But we are now living in a postmodern, post-Christendom, post-truth, and post-COVID world where the church is being forced to confront a harsh reality: It is no longer en vogue in these United States. We are experiencing a rise in the number of those who are not affiliated with any religion. Although they are self-declared nones, many still consider themselves to be spiritual; they just choose to opt-out of organized religion.
According to Carey Nieuwhof, “Among the many characteristics of post-Christian, postmodern spirituality, three stand out when it comes to future attendance trends. Postmodern spirituality is self-directed, anti-institutional, selective.”
The church of the 2020s must minister to a populous that wants to shape its own spiritual path, sit outside of the ecclesiastical traditions, and sift through Scripture using an eisegetical lens—using their own thoughts, feelings, or biases.
In other words, the religious landscape is being reset to be re-evangelized.
First Century Spiritual Landscape in the 21st Century
Today’s social context is quite similar to that of Athens during the time of the Apostle Paul. It was a hotbed of pre-Christian, pre-modern spirituality. While discussing his faith with the council of philosophers which consisted of materialists (Epicureans) and pantheists (Stoics), Paul made note of their spirituality: “I observe that you are very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). Their religiosity was obvious because it was a “city full of idols” (v. 16), but they were worshiping “in ignorance” (v. 23).
Paul’s evangelistic strategy was to build a bridge from their altar “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (v. 23) to the Creator “[who] will judge the world” through Jesus Christ, whom He raised from the dead (v. 31). Gotthard Victor Lechler notes that Paul builds this bridge in three stages by providing a correct view of: (1) God: Paul’s God is the only true God and Creator of all, (2) humanity: humans have a common ancestor and are subject to the providence of God, and (3) life: the purpose of life is to seek the Creator and have an intimate union and fellowship with Him.
Despite the criticisms of many, Paul’s strategy proved effective, because “some men joined Him and believed” (v. 34).
Reaching People Where They Are
So, how do we reach the nones and others today?
1. We must go where they are. Before we can build a philosophical bridge with unbelievers, we must first build an old-fashioned bridge of being present that gives us an opportunity to share the truth of the gospel with them.
I know this is not a novel concept, but the church has forgotten that the mission of the church is to be missional. We are a called-out community sent to call in those who have yet to join our family. Paul was able to evangelize the Athenians because he went to them. Had he waited for them to come to Berea, he may have never had an opportunity to present his case for Christ.
2. We must embrace the Hybrid Church. I am as strong an advocate as any for in-building worship. I believe and understand that the saints of God physically gathered to worship the Lord in Spirit and truth is an experience like none other. At the same time, I recognize the world has changed. We now live in an age of comfort and convenience. So, we can cry like those in Ezra’s day who longed for Solomon’s temple as they beheld Zerubbabel’s temple (Ezra 3:12), or we can adapt to the realities of our society and maximize this moment.
As we continue to move forward, those churches that will survive will be the ones that provide an integrative worship experience and discipleship strategy that appeals to people online as well as in-house. Nieuwhof connects our willingness to embrace a hybrid approach to ministry to our missional effectiveness: “If you define in-person ministry as experiences that have to happen in a building owned by the church,” he says, “you set yourself up for diminished mission.”
3. Relax the Church’s Culture. There is a difference between cultural convictions and cultural norms. Cultural convictions include the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, the bodily incarnation and resurrection of the Son of God, and God as the Creator of all people and things. Cultural norms are our prescribed preferences, such as suits and ties, dresses and skirts.
We will not relax our convictions, but we need to seriously consider relaxing some of our norms. Because if our online presence inspires people to come to the building, will our norms turn them away. Now, I am not saying we cannot wear suits and ties or nice hats, but if we require them as admission into our churches, we are not building bridges but breaking bridges. Re-examine some of your norms and determine if they are traditions of the past that can be relaxed that you might win some to Christ (1 Cor. 9:19-22).
The world around us is changing. COVID has exposed and accelerated several challenges the church was unwilling to acknowledge. But we can no longer hide our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. Grandma’s church worked for grandma, but it will not work for Millennials and Generation Z. Her church is gone, but we have an opportunity to build a bridge from grandma’s church to today’s church that maintains our core convictions but adapts how we communicate and live out our faith.
Rev. Isaac Hayes is the president of Healing of the Soul Ministries. He is also an Assistant Pastor at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, IL, and a doctoral student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. Follow Rev. Hayes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @RevIsaacHayes.
 Joe Carter, “Why Is Church Membership in America on the Decline?,” The Gospel Coalition, March 31, 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-membership-america-decline/.  “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, October 17, 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.  Carey Nieuwhof, “The Hybrid Future of the Church,” Outreach Magazine, March 23, 2021, https://outreachmagazine.com/features/leadership/64796-the-hybrid-future-of-the-church.html.  John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 366–367.  John Peter Lange et al., A Commentary o (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 324–325.  Nieuwhof.