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Five Trends in the Church Today - D A Carson

If you ever want to feel like you have the intelligence of a NASCAR fan that just finished off a six-pack (I think it's a Red Neck law), then listen to D.A. Carson talk about, well, anything. Don is fluent in something like 7 languages and has written over 45 books. He is the esteemed Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. For instance, Carson said in his talk to us, "To be a non-perspectivalist is to be omniscient." Nobody in the room was smart enough to argue with him over that.

Don spoke at a luncheon at Bethlehem Baptist Church (John Piper) on Friday September 26, 2008 just before the Desiring God Conference. I attended this lunch with about 40 other church leaders. Don spoke for an hour about five trends in the American church that are troubling to him.

Five Trends in the Church Today

By D A Carson, September 26, 2008


1. It is important to observe contradictory trends.

Interestingly, Don encouraged us to recognize the good things in our current culture. He said we have a lot more good commentaries available to us than we did fifty years ago. Yet, mainline churches have fewer conversions than ever before. This is a contradictory trend, according to Carson.


I understand this to mean that we know more and have access to more information, but it is not resulting in more conversions. We apparently know more about God, but less about His mission to seek and to save those who are lost. Our mainline churches are focusing on the minutia difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism, for example, but are ignoring the call to both know God and to follow his sending us to our neighbor's house. There should be a constant tension between group Bible studies and sharing of one's faith. Otherwise we end up in a holy huddle somewhere arguing about non-essentials.


2. Current evangelical fragments are moving into a new phase -- into polarized "clumps."

Don said evangelicals are identifying themselves in clump-like expressions of evangelicalism (Health/Wealth clump, Openness clump, Arminian clump, etc.). Carson said the National Pastor's Conference (NPC) is as inclusive as possible -- some speakers are stellar while others are simply heretical -- but they include as many unique tribal representatives as possible.  "Even Reformed circles are clumping," said Carson, "and the center is emptying out in favor of vague, dilute evangelicalism."


Carson astutely said that old-time gospel would be around until Jesus comes while he believes (as Don humorously put it, "not as a prophet or the son of a prophet, but one who works for a non-profit") that in 25 years nobody will be calling themselves "emergent" but many will still be centralized in the gospel.


I wonder what will replace the center as the varied subcultures of evangelicalism move to the fringes. For orthodox confessionalists, the center is the perfect place for the gospel. We need pastors who call their people "back" to the inner city of the gospel without relenting to the flight to the suburbs of dilute evangelicalism, as Carson put it.


3. The most dangerous trends in any age are the trends that most people do not see.

Orthodoxy is always focused on the past but the new expressions of evangelicalism are the most dangerous. Carson recalled the once Christian colleges like Princeton and Yale that were led by pastor/theologians but became so big that they hired administrators who were not as discerning of current trends; only of past. A formally orthodox leader will head into trouble if he is not astute toward current trends in evangelicalism.


Carson made the case that 1920's liberalism is no longer the issue-even though some churches are still fighting that shadow. Today's issues like justification, inerrancy, primacy of family, gender roles, sexuality, pornography, modesty, race relations (very few race-integrated churches), tolerance, consumerism and human flourishing are the current issues at hand.


I think most church planters are men who grew tired of fighting for bygone issues in their churches while people are losing the wars against the current issues of today. In my opinion, mainline churches will continue to lose their best men who want to be warriors in a real war, not in the reenactments of the religious wars of the last forty years. As long as we continue to address these modernist battles, Satan and his demonic force will rule the ground in our churches with diversion tactics that consume our energy.


4. There is a trend in our churches to be consumed by social concern.

In the most intriguing point of his talk, Don said that the Gospel plus caring for the poor was an inseparable couplet. He cautioned that if the gospel was merely assumed (and not clearly articulated), our passion for social justice would overshadow the gospel. While we are not intentionally exalting social concern over the gospel, people learn what we are excited about (gospel over caring for the poor). Carson warned, "Our passion must first be the gospel and not assume it to be understood." He continued, "We must be careful to keep the gospel central and not turn our responses to the gospel as the main target."

Furthermore, Carson exhorted these Christian leaders to spend our time on prayer and the ministry of the Word and allow our people to begin and maintain efforts in social concern. He said we must distinguish between what the church as church must do and what the community of believers in the church must do (I did not personally see the difference but it seemed to suggest that the pastor was exempt from exemplifying an outpouring of the gospel into the community through social efforts).

Our calling, Carson said is to do good in the city (Jer. 29), because the person has an eternal destiny and we care for them. We are all poor beggars telling other poor beggars where they can find bread. Don concluded this section by warning us not to make the issues of gospel and social concern antithetical.


5. There is a trend in our churches to emphasize discipleship over the gospel.

Carson emphasized teaching the whole council of God centering on Christ crucified as the power of the gospel and salvation. If we see the gospel as what "saves" us and if we see discipleship as the actual place where real transformation takes place, it is not a biblical approach. Carson said this trend has a tendency to lead us to see discipleship as legalism; as what pleases God.


It is disturbing to me that some churches see discipleship as a formulaic course of study instead of a lifelong journey as a sinner saved by grace. Following Jesus is not accomplished by completing 8 classes in the basement of a church. It is a complete abandonment of our self in favor of the person, work and mission of Jesus.


We need to be aware of the current trends in the church today and pastor our church with an emphasis on the gospel. Anything less leads to narcissistic religion and away from Jesus.


Matt Redmond

on Sep 30, 2008 :: 7:18 am

for the love...someone please tell me this was recorded.

Tyler Powell

on Sep 30, 2008 :: 10:26 am

Sorry, but it was not recorded. Someone asked if it was being recorded in the middle of the luncheon and they said no but thanks to Scott for taking notes and writing this blog.

Ryan Bouton

on Sep 30, 2008 :: 10:42 am

On point number 4, perhaps it is a fine distinction, but I think it's helpful. In other words, the church leadership is to focus on prayer and the ministry of the Word, not social action. The community of believers can and should engage in social action. The pastor does not promote social concerns *as the pastor*, but he does engage in them as part of the community of believers.

Jeremiah Fyffe

on Sep 30, 2008 :: 11:12 am

Each one of these points a great for chewing on. As I have a particular passion for Discipleship I think Carson is on to something in point #5 and wish that I could hear what he actually said.
I think the bottom line is that we have separated conversion from becoming a disciple. Someone comes to understand and accept the gospel and we wipe our foreheads, exhale and praise God. Then we begin to hope that maybe they will grow in discipleship. The problem is that there is no such thing as a convert that is not a disciple.

"Discipleship" is too easily seen as a program or a set of guidelines. But the great commission uses the word "disciple" to describe the one who is baptized. To become a convert is to be come a disciple or follower. It isn't a program or a set of rules, it is a new life under the Lordship of Christ. A saving knowledge of the gospel is the new life start of a disciple. Being taught to "observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you" continues what began in submission to the gospel.

I think I might reword point #5 from "There is a trend in our churches to emphasize discipleship over the gospel," to "There is a trend in our churches to believe that their programs take converts and makes them disciples when in reality the gospel makes disciples and nothing less."

Tony Cooper

on Sep 30, 2008 :: 12:09 pm

I'd love to hear more on #5...

Paul Ireland

on Sep 30, 2008 :: 11:00 pm

Great overview Scott!

My biggest take-away was: "People don't learn everything I teach them, they learn what I'm excited about". If you are not excited about the gospel and the way you teach takes the gospel as a given, you aren't teaching the gospel at all.
I expounded on that thought here:

Also, for #3, he expounded on our entertainment society with "never a cessation of stimulus" (tv, ipods, iphones, laptops). Because of all these distractions, we never have time for devotions, reading scripture, or memorizing scripture.

Morris Brooks

on Oct 1, 2008 :: 12:28 pm

Since so many of our churches mirror the pragmatic, results oriented, success now syndrome of our culture and its business world it is not hard to see their problem in the area of discipleship. Discipleship starts with the gospel, is centered around the gospel, and is the result and the process of the outworking of the gospel in our lives. Perhaps Paul understood the process in his own life when he penned Philippians 3:12-14; and what it would take from a pastoral perspective when he told Timothy to preach the word in season and out with MEGA patience and instruction.

Pragmatism and patience are not good bed-fellows.

Scott Thomas

on Oct 1, 2008 :: 1:13 pm

Don is not saying that discipleship is not important. He was saying that it is not to be a reductionist core of knowledge attained outside of the gospel. Don said it is wrong to assume the gospel as step one and discipleship as the place where real transformation takes place. Discipleship, according to Carson (and Keller and Mahaney and Driscoll and Piper) is centered in the gospel.

Morris Brooks

on Oct 2, 2008 :: 9:17 am


I understood what Don was saying and am in agreement with him. My comment was not directed at him, but at the churches who have missed the essence of what discipleship is, have programmed discipleship and have reduced it to a series of lessons or twelve step methods.

Matthew Hauck

on Oct 15, 2008 :: 11:23 am

"He said we must distinguish between what the church as church must do and what the community of believers in the church must do (I did not personally see the difference...)"

I think that there is a world of difference between the two! The church _as the church_ is to proclaim the gospel and nothing else. I think Eph 3:8-10 is relevant here. The church should not be preaching politics or economics or anything but the wisdom of God in the gospel, and it is as such we are a display even to angels.

But, the believers in the church should be involved in such conversations! I think it is good for believers to get into politics and social action and economics. That is not the job of the church _as the church_ but it _is_ the job of the people who make up the church, the "community of believers" as Carson called it. When a believer goes into politics, he as an individual is going into politics, not the church.

I think his point is that since (unfortunately perhaps?) the pastor represents the church, he should not primarily be involved in this in order to make this distinction clear.