I noticed tonight on the Gospel Coalition website that a number of the council members answered that question. Here are some of the answers:
D. A. Carson:
Much depends on the context of the question. If the context is hunting for a universal need, such that the phrase “in America today” assumes that whatever the local phenomena we should focus on human needs that are found everywhere (including “in America today”), then we must return to fundamentals: the most urgent need is to know God as he has disclosed himself, by the means he has given to know him, and thus be reconciled to him, both for this life and for the life to come. That means a focus on Christ Jesus, on the full-orbed gospel of which he is the center. But if the context of the question focuses on “in America today,” such that there is an implicit comparison with other places (e.g. Rwanda, France) or times (e.g. America in the nineteenth century), then one thinks of the sweep of challenges particularly characteristic in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century: rising biblical illiteracy, relativism steeped in the more extreme forms of postmodernism, formulaic forms of “evangelical” belief characterized by neither delight in God nor obedience to him, the seductive power of the strange mix of secularization and assorted “spiritualities,” the perennial invitation to live in fear or be snookered by visions of imperial strength, the world awash in an astonishing diversity of entertainments to fill up all the moments when we are not being seduced by either power or sex, and much more of the same. And finally, if the question becomes distributive — “in America today” demanding that we think through the various sectors of American life — then there are peculiar challenges in different geographical parts of the country (e.g. north versus south, coasts versus Midwest, etc.), in different racial sectors of the country (not only traditional black/white divisions, but the newer alignments triggered by recent immigration patterns), in different social arrangements in the country (especially rural/urban), in different theological loci in the country (e.g. Arminians attracted to “open” theology, Reformed people attracted to theonomy or the new perspective, and cultural conservatives, in a pendulum swing, to the “emerging” movement). Faithful pastoral ministry demands that we think through all of these contexts simultaneously.
One could answer at different levels of ultimacy. I choose to assume the urgency of the two ultimate levels (heart-felt passion for Christ, and radical obedience to Christ), and move one level down: To the end of pure and passionate lives of Christ-exalting mercy and world evangelization, the greatest need of the church is to know and understand the full biblical witness of God’s love (including the grace that raises the spiritually dead, Ephesians 2:4–5; and justifies the ungodly by faith alone, Romans 4:4–5; 5:8–9), the full biblical witness of God’s wisdom (including the knowledge of all future events, Isaiah 41:23, 26; 42:8–9; 44:7–8, 26–28; 45:21; 46:10; 48:3), the full biblical witness of God’s power (including his rule over every bird that dies, Matthew 10:29, and every role of the dice, Proverb s 16:33, and every act of man, Jeremiah 10:23), and the full biblical witness of God’s justice (including his everlasting wrath upon the impenitent, 2 Thessalonians 1:9). “My people go into exile for lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13); “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3); “A people without understanding shall come to ruin” (Hosea 4:14); “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD” (Hosea 6:3). The assumption here is that American Christianity is plagued by truncated views of all God’s attributes. And a truncated view of God will give raise to truncated Christian living and truncated awakenings. Therefore the awakening and revival that I pray for will be not just for the fullness of the Spirit’s power, but for the fullness of the Spirit’s illumination of God in the word.
Ron Sider’s recent article in Books and Culture, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,” contains the too familiar stats on how evangelicals and born-againers live lives a millimeter above the pagans in America, or sometimes below, in the Bible belt. Nine percent of born again people (who say they have made a personal commitment to Jesus which is still important in their lives) have biblical world view (absolutes exist, God is the all-knowing, all-powerful, Creator who still rules the universe; Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; Satan is a real, living entity; salvation is a free gift, not something we can earn; every Christian has a personal responsibility to evangelize; and the Bible is totally accurate in all it teaches). However, this group of people stand out with significantly different behavior from the worldly “born-againers” and “evangelicals.” Here is Sider’s comment:
"Barna’s findings on the different behavior of Christians with a biblical worldview underline the importance of theology. Biblical orthodoxy does matter. One important way to end the scandal of contemporary Christian behavior is to work and pray fervently for the growth of orthodox theological belief in our churches” (Jan/Feb, p. 42).Indeed, orthodoxy was the only factor the article pointed out correlated with a significant difference in Christian behavior.
The greatest need in the American church today is the recovery of the church’s central message, the gospel. Far too often in evangelical churches the gospel is simply assumed and, being so assumed, its voice is muffled, its entailments are ignored, and its power is drained. More significantly, when the gospel is assumed it is in grave danger of being displaced. The church is, therefore, in great need of a thoroughgoing return to gospel-centrality. The measure of such centrality will be the extent to which the gospel is functional, determining the nature of the church’s life, the substance of its teaching, the content of its worship and the core of its proclamation.
Not just a biblical/theological literacy but a functioning biblical/theological literacy, especially a functioning gospel. I believe a local church is healthy to the degree that: 1) its pastor-teachers are able—accurately, effectively and broadly—to bring the gospel to bear specifically into the real lives of the people; and 2) its people have a deep personal understanding of and a deep personal appreciation for the gospel so as to be able to live in the good of the gospel daily and thus call attention to the glory of God. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” One of the greatest challenges, yet one of the most important tasks, of pastoral ministry is to help people actually see the connections between the gospel and the thinking and behavior that make up their everyday lives. We know well the centrality of the gospel message but in order for it to have a functional centrality it must be clearly, carefully and consistently connected to the real issues—issues of thought and conduct—of people’s lives. This kind of ministry is most greatly needed.
For pastors to know and understand what a local church should and can be and for pastors to teach this to their congregations. Much of the blessings and benefits of good teaching in evangelical churches in America goes into the hearts of individuals and then perhaps into the lives of their family and friend but is then largely lost in the sands of American individualism. If the preaching of the gospel and expositional preaching are the glorious founts of life, the local church is to be the bowl, the container, in which that life is caught and held up for display to a thirsty world. That pastors should know and understand and teach this is the most crying need in evangelical churches in America today.
There are many ways this question could be legitimately approached and answered. Furthermore, the condition of the Christian church in various parts of our nation and world would dictate different responses corresponding to the local situation. However, for this local church pastor, the biggest need is for a biblical doctrine of the church to be lived out in the local churches, and for a theological center to be restored in evangelicalism, under the steadying influence of Reformed pastor-theologians with a high doctrine of Scripture.
To elaborate on the first point, the church needs to what God says the church is to be in Scripture. That is, we need to be what God intends us to be, rather than what the world wants us to be (or what the latest evangelical fad or “model” tells us we need to be). For instance, the church is called (among other things) to be salt and light in the world. Yet in order to do this, in order to have a beneficial impact upon the world and an effective witness to the world, we have to be different from the world, we have to love something more than the world, we have to march to the beat of a different drum. However the American church is worldly (in our methods and membership), and that is the single greatest defect in our witness to Christ in this ailing culture.
So what’s our need? To think Christianly. To live Christianly. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds according to the Word of God and no longer be conformed to this passing world and its way of thinking and living. How can we be this way? By God’s grace, of course. By desiring Christ more than anything. And by following God’s plan for the church, where there is (1) Expositional Preaching – preaching which expounds what Scripture says in a particular passage, carefully explaining its meaning and applying it to the congregation; (2) Biblical Theology – the people of God must be committed to know the God of the Bible, as he has revealed himself in the Bible, rather than to worship a god of our imaginations. There is a god we want and the God who is, and the two are not the same, says Pat Morley; (3) Biblical Understanding of the Good News – the Gospel is the heart of Christianity, not just an additive to give us something we naturally want (i.e. joy or peace); (4) Real Conversion – the spiritual change each person needs is so radical, so near the root of us, that only God can do it. We need God to convert us. Conversion need not be an emotionally heated experience, but it must evidence itself by its fruit if it is to be what the Bible regards as a true conversion. (5) Christian Discipleship – the only certain observable sign of growth is a life of increasing holiness, rooted in Christian self-denial. These qualities are increasing rare in American churches. Recovered for today, true discipleship would build the church and promote a clearer witness to the world.
I’m throwing in with Jim Boice on this one (cf. his Two Cities: Two Loves.)
The evangelical church must stay true to its biblical foundations, and it must maintain and enhance the effectiveness of its expository preaching, the holiness of its members, the ‘thickness’ of its counter-cultural community, the fervor of its evangelism. But if it doesn’t learn how to do this in our biggest cities then we don’t have much hope for our culture.
If our cities are largely pagan while our countryside is largely Christian, then our society and culture will continue to slide into paganism. And that is exactly what is happening. Christians strengthen somewhat away from the cities and they have made some political gains, but that is not effecting cultural products much. It is because in the center cities (NYC, Boston, LA, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC) the percentages of people living and working there who are Christians are minuscule.
Jim Boice proposed that evangelical Christians need to live in the major cities at a higher percentage than the population at large (See Two Cities, p.163ff.) Currently 50% of the U.S. population live in urban areas (and 25% lives in just the 10 largest urban areas.) Boice proposes that evangelicals should be living in cities in at least the same percentages or more. As confirmation of Boice’s belief consider how much impact both the Jewish and the gay communities have had on our culture. Why? Though neither is more than 3-4% of the total population, they each comprise over 20% of the population of Manhattan (and in other center cities. )
So we have two problems. First, evangelicals (especially Anglos) in general are quite negative about U.S. cities and city living. Second, you can’t ‘do church’ in exactly the same way in a city as you do it elsewhere, not if you want to actually convert hard-core secular people to Christianity. There are churches that set up in cities without adapting to their environment. Ironically, they can grow rather well anyway in cities by just gathering in the young already-evangelicals who are temporarily living in the city after college. But that is not the way to make the cities heavily Christian—which is the crying need today.