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WORLDVIEW: As U.S. tops 300 million, what about the church?

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The population of the United States soared past 300 million in October, with no signs of declining anytime soon.

Only two other countries contain more than 300 million people: China and India, with more than 1 billion each. Like those two giants -– and unlike most of Europe and other “developed” countries -– the U.S. population continues to climb.

Our young nation took nearly a century and a half (until 1915) to reach a population of 100 million. It had doubled a little over a half-century later, in 1967. The 300-million mark was reached less than 40 years after that, and demographers project we will hit 400 million by 2043.

Natural increase (more births than deaths) explains much of the annual growth in population, according to the Population Reference Bureau. But immigrants account for about 40 percent of the growth.

Foreign-born people in the United States now number more than 35 million, ranging from unskilled laborers to highly skilled professionals and international entrepreneurs. Non-Hispanic whites account for just over half of the population today. Hispanics, African Americans and a rainbow of other colors and ethnicities make up the rest. Additionally, up to 30 percent of the population will be multiracial by 2050, according to some projections.

Americans face plenty of social and economic problems, but we’re generally healthier, more prosperous and better educated than ever. So, despite our current unpopularity in various quarters abroad, we will continue to wield great social, political and economic influence worldwide for the foreseeable future.

But what about the prospects of evangelical Christians in –- and beyond -– America?

We’ve come a long way, to be sure. We help decide national elections and determine social policies. Our numbers continue to grow -– albeit more slowly in recent years. Increasingly, our voices are being heard in the international arenas of war and peace; the fight against genocide, poverty and AIDS; and the struggle for human rights and religious freedom.

But some evangelical researchers say we’ve begun to decline. We’re losing our own young people, they warn, while failing to reach far enough beyond our pews to touch the unchurched.

Overall church attendance remains virtually unchanged from 15 years ago despite national population growth, according to Dave Olson, director of the American Church Research Project. Population is increasing faster than church participation even in the traditional Bible Belt, he reports. Evangelical ranks, he says, are becoming “suburban, affluent and educated” –- a plush ghetto, but a ghetto nevertheless.

“We live in a world today that is post-Christian, postmodern and multiethnic,” Olson told a gathering of evangelical church leaders Oct. 12 at the annual meeting of the Mission America Coalition. To reach that world, he said, “the church needs to have an attitude of brokenness, humility and repentance…. It needs to be less self-righteous, individualistic and materialistic. It needs to be more biblical, Christ-centric and holistic.”

Amen to that. But let’s not get discouraged about our potential for transforming American culture –- and other cultures.

The world is “not so secular as it looks,” observed John Stott, one of the great elder statesmen of modern evangelicalism, in a recent interview with “Christianity Today” about the state of the movement. Even in Stott’s native England, which is far more “post-Christian” than the United States, “it’s interesting in a so-called secular culture how many people are looking for something beyond,” he said.

What are they looking for? Three things, Stott believes: transcendence, significance and community –- “the very things we have to offer them.”

The amazing ethnic and cultural variety of America also is an unprecedented opportunity. For one thing, immigration brings the world to us, which opens endless opportunities for missions and ministry. For another, many of the people coming here from Latin America, Asia and Africa already are evangelical believers and potential partners in mission.

Abroad, the potential contributions of millions of American evangelicals are greater than ever –- as missionaries, volunteers, evangelistic tentmakers, teachers, mentors and trainers of the growing “two-thirds world” missionary force, relief workers, encouragers, prayer partners.

And don’t forget the positive power of money well spent. Christians give about $4 billion a year to the top 20 U.S. mission agencies, reports mission researcher Justin Long. Sounds like a lot, but it’s a tiny fraction of 1 percent of our combined income.

“Globally, the average Christian gives 15 cents to foreign missions each week. The average North American believer gives 50 cents; the average European believer, 25 cents,” Long says. “How much was that cup of coffee before church?”

Evangelical influence in addressing political, social and human-needs issues around the world is significant. But as evangelist and Samaritan’s Purse founder Frankin Graham says, one of our most important challenges in the next 50 years is to “make sure we don’t dilute our faith as we respond to hurting people around the world.”

An American living in China recently invited some Chinese friends to dinner — including a Buddhist, a Communist Party member and a man who was having an adulterous affair. Within a few weeks of the supper, all three had decided to follow Jesus as Lord.

One sent the American a note: “Jesus is our bridge to God. You were my bridge to Jesus. If you hadn’t come to share Jesus, I think we would still be in the dark.”

Transformed hearts transform societies, not the other way around. The only force that truly transforms hearts is the Gospel.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges