Church-Planting Shifts, Part Two: From Nominal to Secular

Christianity Today
Ed Stetzer

In Part One of our series on subtle, yet important church-planting shifts, we dealt with the changing face of the church launch. As I mentioned, this includes a downscaling of the traditional launch mode to build up more core elements that will allow the church to go the long haul. Below, I unpack the next trend: a shift from a focus on nominal Christians to more secular people, and how that impacts church-planting methodology.

Statistically, most people in America are nominal Christians. About half the people in America call themselves Christians, but they don’t have any statistically discernable life change. Actually, as I’ve written, only 25% of Americans call themselves Christians and have demonstrable engagement in that commitment.

This reality, and its changing numbers, are essential to understand the future of outreach and evangelism.

The challenge is that most of our church-planting efforts target the fastest shrinking segment. We are focusing on those who are nominal Christians because we think this will yield us the greatest result or provide us the easiest path to seeing people attend our church.

They probably will. And today, in most places, that focus makes sense.

However, the category of nominal Christians is the fastest shrinking category today. Perhaps 20 years ago, nearly 60% of the population was nominal Christian. Yet now, nominalism is declining about 1% per year. It’s still the largest group, the vast majority of our church-planting strategies aren’t making the changes necessary to reach a different group of people that is emerging.

Today, most unchurched people we reach are either dechurched, formerly churched, or are a kind of nominal Christian who is not antagonistic towards church people. As a result, our methodologies tend to be geared towards those who are a bit similar to us as there is a certain comfort in drawing from the pool of people who are at least ‘nominally’ Christian.

Bear in mind that nominal Christians are still the largest segment of our population within which Christianity will always find its greatest percentile growth in church-planting endeavors. Many are open and they’re receptive.

But … when we look at younger adults (specifically college students) only 30-35% would fit the same description as nominal Christians— and many more are secular. This is 15-20% less than the population as a whole. There is a shrinking pool that will grow even less in the flood of secularism in America and many other parts of the world.

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