FISHERS, Ind. — After observing several characteristics of evangelical Christianity in America, Mark Noll, a history professor on the faculty at Notre Dame University, used the acronym CHIRP to describe five challenges it now faces.
Noll was speaking about the “The State of the Church in America” at a recent meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in Fishers, Ind.
CHIRPing challenges for Christian evangelicals in the world today
C – contentions and controversies in politics
“Evangelical churches are confronted with the appropriate means of bringing faith to bear in the public order,” said Noll; but, he also observed that evangelicals have been hurt by the pendulum swings of political life.
“Beginning in the late 19th century the pendulum swung intentionally away from taking political actions when racial discrimination called for it. There was a great evil and churches tended to be silent,” he said. “In the past 30 years we have swung to an over-politicized response to the challenges in our day (sex, family, etc).”
Noll offered that “the ideal Christian balance” would be to maintain the priorities of the Gospel as expressed not only in sharing the good news for individual salvation and transformation, but also for the impact that the good news should create in culture at large.
H – haves vs have nots
Here, Noll addressed the challenge of the responsible use of wealth. “Economic divisions create separate cultures,” he said. “Where the distance between the haves and have-nots increase, the challenge of the Church grows in terms of communicating the fullness of the Gospel.”
I – immigration
Noll said that “the immigration reform law in 1964-65 is one of the most important structural elements in the conversation about the state of church in America today.” He observed that “the preponderance of immigrants in the past 40 years have been Christian. The majority of new Americans are either Christians or become Christians when they arrive.”
“The evangelical future depends upon working together with immigrant cultures,” he concluded.
R – race
Noll said that “the Sunday worship hour continues to be the most segregated hour in our nation’s life.”
P – popular culture
His final observation was related to the challenges and opportunities presented by the highly connected informational and digital reality of the world today.
“There is an incoming tsunami of information, entertainment and advertising at every moment,” he said, while acknowledging that establishing the evangelical voice through social and mass media today is essential but challenging.
In the conversation among NAE participants following the presentation it was suggested that CHIRP be amended to CHIRPS with an “S” for the challenge related to “sexuality.”
Participants asked Noll if there was a parallel in church history to the onslaught experienced today related to sexuality issues.
Noll responded by suggesting that if the current trends continue toward hedonism then “the first 300 years of Christian church where the church had to establish its values in the context of a pagan culture” would offer a parallel. However, short of that, he turned to American history and pointed out that “white Protestants controlled the culture until the 1950s.” The “losses” being experienced are thus not only related to morality but are complicated by a sense of a loss of power and influence in general.
How evangelicals respond to the CHIRPS challenges will significantly influence the future, which Noll sees as bright.
Noll concluded his assessment of the state of the church in America with a positive forecast based on the reality of God’s sovereignty. He said, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is wide.” Quoting Habakkuk he reminded those present that “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
From width to breadth, Noll said, “I also have hope because the Gospel is deep.” Quoting from Colossians 1:17, he reminded the NAE that “in Christ all things hold together.” There’s nothing and no one in any place under heaven that does not ultimately belong to Christ. It’s all His.
Finally, Noll said, the Gospel is not just wide and deep but immediate and personal. Quoting II Corinthians 6, Noll declared, “Behold, now is the acceptable time. Behold, now is the day of salvation.”
“Yes,” Noll acknowledged, “all sorts of problems remain – but the future is bright” because it belongs to God in Christ.
Among his many books, Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and his research concerns mostly the history of Christianity in the United States and Canada.