Sunrise, sunset: The Church in America today

Across the United States, many churches are fading, some churches are closing, and a handful of churches are surging with explosive growth. What makes the difference?

By David Gushee

Follow David on Twitter: @dpgushee

Across the United States, many churches are fading, some churches are closing, and a handful of churches are surging with explosive growth. Sunrise, sunset; sunrise, sunset. One of the topics I want to address in my new role as Senior Columnist is the paradoxical state of our churches. And I will not hesitate to call it like I see it.

I begin with a field trip to a new congregation in Greensboro called Mercy Hill Church. Visiting our daughter and son-in-law, we found ourselves at the 6 pm service at Mercy Hill one cold Sunday night in January.

Mercy Hill currently rents space in a clubhouse building at Bur-Mil Park, not far from the UNC-Greensboro campus. They offer two Sunday afternoon services, one at 4 and one at 6. They do not meet on Sunday morning at all.

At 5:45 we entered a building buzzing with youthful energy. By the time the service started, the room was packed, with at least 250 people. My wife and I noticed quickly (gulp!) that we were almost the oldest people present.

The lights dimmed to near black. The musicians were all white, all male but one, all young but one. They sang a 20-minute set that combined praise choruses with arrangements of old hymns like "Nothing but the blood of Jesus." Many in the crowd, average age 22ish, lifted hands in praise. The worship leader read scriptures off of his IPhone. (I never saw an actual Bible on stage.) Eventually he introduced "Pastor," the lights went up, and the preaching began.

Lead Pastor Andrew Hopper, an attractive blue-jean-and-sweater-clad young man of about 30, was launching a new series on Psalms. Our text was Psalm 1. (Here is the sermon.) Pastor Hopper rather quickly worked through the text, citing commentaries and preachers like Alastair Begg, illustrating his points with numerous pop culture references: Netflix, Mumford and sons, Katy Perry, Cops. (Not to mention a hilarious reference to the difference between effete sweater-wearing house dogs and tough hog-hunting dogs.)

But then Hopper slowed down considerably as his sermon extended to 45 minutes. Speaking with passion, Hopper's climactic homiletical move was to say that Psalm 1 refers to the way of the wicked, which is really all of us, and the way of the righteous, which is really only Jesus Christ. The takeaway is not first or mainly that we should strive to be righteous, but that we should accept the Gospel—the good news that Jesus is the only righteous one, that he died on the Cross for our sins, and that our only way to true happiness and eternal security is to give our lives to him.

Then the pastor announced that the church offered the immediate baptism of any who would right now accept Jesus' offer of salvation. Go to the back, find a counselor, and if we believe you are ready, we will get you right into the waters of baptism. "If your friends won't wait for you," the pastor said, "then you need some new friends."

Seven young women, all high school or college students, did respond to this invitation. Within minutes they were lined up. Jeremy Dager, the minister who baptized them, updated the second half of the classic Baptist baptismal formula by saying: "Do you promise to do whatever Jesus tells you to do, and go wherever he tells you to go?" They all said a strong yes, and all were baptized, to the happy applause of the congregation.

In an email interview, Andrew Hopper told me that Mercy Hill launched in June 2012 with 35 people and the Sunday we were there had 475 in attendance. That's explosive growth. A plant of Summit Church, its young leaders (ironically called "elders," as this church deploys the multiple pastor elder-rule model that is increasingly popular in new evangelical churches—and very popular with millennials) are recent graduates of Southeastern Baptist Seminary. Their website promises a strong focus on Gospel preaching, church planting, and missions. Those who join sign a member covenant and commit to small group attendance. Soon they will acquire new space to host more services each weekend.

It is not uncommon to hear center-left Protestants sniff at what is happening on the conservative side of the religious fence, especially when it succeeds. There was almost nothing about the Mercy Hill service that would have pleased some folks I know. No liturgy. No pews. No suits. No robes. No classic hymn tunes. No Sunday School. Long sermon, vaguely Calvinist. Immediate baptism. Neither the language nor the elders were gender-inclusive. And it's SBC-affiliated.

But something about that church is appealing to young people who wouldn't darken the doorsteps of many of "our" congregations. My daughter cited the church's appealing music and preaching, small group ministry, evening worship times, and youthful membership as reasons they have joined.

What happens to a church like Mercy Hill over the long run? How will those seven newly-dunked believers be doing on February 4, 2024? Only God knows. And only God will judge the faithfulness of any church's ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 4:1-5). Neither numbers nor lack thereof prove anything.

But no sniffing, please. Something important is happening at this church and others like it. All of us had better pay attention.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.