Church and Final Review

When I was a freshman at Texas A&M University, I attended an orientation for members of the Corps of Cadets. I sat toward the back of an enormous lecture hall with thousands of other “fish”. The speaker — a flat-topped, bellowing Army officer — told us to turn and look at the people sitting to our right and left. Then he said the thing that is repeated at freshmen orientations every fall all across the country.

“If those two people are still here in four years, you won’t be.”

The statistic he was illustrating was the Cadet Corps’s attrition rate. Fewer than two-thirds of the freshmen who start as cadets last all four years. The rest quit when the going gets tough, which is right away. It’s called “punching out.” This is by design. It gives cadets a taste of the hardships that await them if they commit to military service. The Army, we were told, doesn’t want warm bodies; it wants white-hot passion. The hundreds of hours of push-ups, polishing, and lost sleep we were about to endure were compiled with one purpose — to weed out the half-hearted.

Last week, my pastor sent our staff a link to this article about the future of the American church. It’s good reading from Ed Stetzer, a thought leader in evangelical Christianity. And it reminded me of that freshman orientation.

Stetzer predicts a winnowing of American church rolls in coming years. As Christendom fades and Christians become cultural minorities, churches will enjoy fewer religious liberties and church-going will present fewer societal benefits. This really isn’t new; researchers and futurists have been heralding the decline of cultural Christianity for years. What I liked about Stetzer’s approach, though, was its specificity. Stetzer defines three categories of people who fill our pews.

Cultural Christians: Those who identify with the faith out of cultural inertia but aren’t affiliated with any local body.

Congregational Christians: Those who have some affiliation with a church through rites or sporadic attendance but lack any deep commitment.

Convictional Christians: Those who orient their lives around deep commitment to their faith.

Stetzer’s prediction is that many in the cultural and congregational categories will fall away, leading to smaller but more dynamic churches full of people who are willing to endure hardship for their faith. He is telling us to look at the people in the pews to our right and left, and understand that they won’t all be there next year.

For the congregant, this raises a simple but important question: what’s your commitment level? Does Jesus slot in somewhere between Cowboys games and “being well-rounded”? How much heckling and hassle are you willing to endure before you punch out?

But for the church leader, it opens even more vexing questions: what should we do if we know that it will be increasingly harder for people to identify as Christian in years to come? Do we reach wider, gathering larger crowds in an effort to keep the funnel full? Or do we reach deeper to strengthen the devotion of those already in our pews? Should we focus on the masses or develop the committed? Should we make discipleship easy or make it hard? Do we ask people to come and see or insist that people come and die?

I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions. I expect the balance of those ideas will be struck in unique ways by each unique and local church. But the one thing I do know is this: that flat-topped, bellowing Army officer was right. From a freshman class of more than 20, there were eight of us in my unit who finished the course. In the Texas Aggie Cadet Corps, the celebration of that achievement is something called Final Review. When the eight of us marched in a row onto the grass at Kyle Field, boots polished, sabers jangling, bodies fit, eyes bright, it was a feeling of achievement like few I’ve ever experienced. It inspired gratitude and confidence in equal measure. And it was worth it. We have to believe that on the day when the church stands for Final Review, those who have endured will be grateful, and will realize it was worth it.

I’d better go polish my boots.

Ryan SandersComment