With a population of 389,327 in Knox County and additional residents in the seven counties of the metropolitan area, Faith Promise Church Pastor Chris Stephens and other pastors like him believe they have their work cut out for them.
“We want to make it hard to go to hell from Knoxville,” Stephens said.
However, according to a 2009 release from LifeWay Research, the area’s most popular Christian denomination – Southern Baptist – membership is falling at 0.06 percent per year, a rate that may cut this group of believers in half by 2050.
“Using U.S. Census projected population figures, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) membership could fall from a peak of six percent of the American population in the late 1980s to two percent in 2050,” said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.
LifeWay Research said many factors contribute to SBC’s membership decline.
“One factor is that the mean age of the denomination’s members is increasingly older than the general population, especially in the South, and Southern Baptists are reaching and baptizing fewer young adults,” a release says. “Second, Southern Baptists have failed to keep pace with the rising number of non-white and non-black citizens in the United States.”
With these figures in mind, Stephens and his team, along with several similar churches in the area, organize worship services with more technology and louder music than traditional services with the same message to attract younger people who may be able to sustain Christianity as a whole.
“The only growing segment in America is contemporary churches,” Stephens said. “Knox County has the same number of Southern Baptist churches that it had 10 years ago.”
The approach is often under heavy attack from the more structured, conventional religious groups, yet Stephens believes they are missing the point.
“The biggest attack against us is that we don’t preach the scripture, and that is a lie,” Stephens said. “The technology makes people feel like the message is relevant. When you go into most churches, you feel like you hit a time warp or you go into a museum, we’re not in the 1950s anymore. Our culture is changing so fast, and the church is so far behind, they have just given up.”
His words may sound harsh, but the pastor assures he is not anti-tradition. Stephens only wants to work hand-in-hand with all sorts of churches to spread his message.
“We need all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people,” Stephens said. “But the traditional church is in radical decline and the church blames the culture instead of looking at themselves and saying, ‘What can we do to reach people in the present culture?’ The problem isn’t with the darkness. The dark has always been dark, but the wattage is dropping off the light.”
Youth Minister Jamie Dewald recently transitioned from a traditional ministry setting to the more contemporary style at Providence Church on Lovell Road.
Dewald also sees the strengths in his previous experience, but also said it falls short in today’s world.
“Traditional churches have great history. Many people love the tradition because it is how they were raised and what they are used to,” Dewald said. “They are good at discipleship and reaching older adults, but they are out of touch with reality and often times do not meet the changing needs of the culture. They are dying and closing their doors at a rapid rate. They keep doing things that worked years ago, but they don’t work anymore.”
According to Dewald, the same pros and cons list may be constructed for the contemporary churches, but they have more potential for the future of Christianity as a whole.
“Many of them [contemporary churches] are not well organized and lack a true identity [because] they are not affiliated with any larger umbrellas [of denomination structure],” Dewald said. “But, they are culturally relevant and willing to make changes. They reach lost people very well because they understand non-believers.”
Stephens admits his approach will not work in all locations. Church plants should cater to the popular trends in that area, adding a Christian emphasis.
“Contextualizing the gospel is the answer,” Stephens said. “If I were in Grainger County, I might not do the music I do here [at Faith Promise]. It might be country/western. There is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics.”
Faith Promise, which has grown from 250 members to 4,000 in 15 years, is an inter-denominational church with people from multiple demonational backgrounds in attendance.
A different sort of background is something Stephens knows all too much about. Admittedly a drug dealer at the time, 22-year-old Stephens found himself over-dosed on a hospital bed, and the first ideas that came to his mind when he woke up were the teachings he had heard at a Southern Baptist Church as a child.
He turned his life around, never looked back and describes himself today as a “satisfied customer.”
“I’m just a satisfied customer of Jesus,” Stephens said.
Yet, the pastor also admits that the road to redemption was hard and the church environment was not always welcoming. This is the prejudice his church tries to destroy.
“As a drug dealer, I was never treated as badly on the back allies of the streets as I was sitting in church,” said Stephens. “Our job is not to judge, it’s to love people and help them be all that God wants them to be. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with sin, because we do but we’re not going to demean them for it. We don’t have to affirm the sins to accept someone. We can love people and not agree with their choices. Jesus bent down and washed the feet of Judas, knowing that in a few hours he was going to betray him. Come as you are, but don’t stay as you are.”
Faith Promise offers five weekend services. Attendants can worship at 5:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. on Saturday, or at 9 a.m., 10:20 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. on Sundays.
August 2, 2010