Shrinking Church, Vanishing Grace

I read this article by Philip Yancey here and thought it did a great job of explaining where we are at with the church today.  Here are his words:

Christianity has always been a faith of great mobility and shifting landscapes. To visit the churches of the Apostle Paul’s day, you would now need to hire a Muslim guide or an archaeologist: modern Christians are an endangered species in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. And Western Europe, site of the Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation, is now the least religious place on earth.

Read more in the author’s latest book.

Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Christian faith moved on to the Americas, brought there by contrasting groups: oppressive conquistadors and oppressed minorities like the Puritans and Quakers. Not until the foreign missions movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did Christianity make much headway in the vast expanses of Africa and Asia. Today, one out of every three people on the planet identifies as a Christian, with the majority of them residing outside the faith’s historic centers in the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

As a journalist who writes about faith issues, I have observed the church in various parts of the world. It reminds me of stages in a marriage. One year I visited Brazil and the Philippines, countries where the church is burgeoning. Such nations are enjoying a kind of “honeymoon” stage in which the Christian message still sounds like good news. I met Brazilians who adopt and care for prisoners — voluntarily, not under anyone’s organized program. In the Philippines I met a woman who took literally New Testament commands to look after orphans: she had invited 34 street children to live in her home and was sponsoring them in school. Like the early Roman Christians, these believers present an attractive counterculture to their watching neighbors.

I heard a speaker detail three approaches that frightened Christians may take toward the broader culture: fortification, accommodation, or domination.

North America resembles a 25-year marriage: we’ve heard it all and seen it all, and have settled into a solid but perhaps routine faith. Nearly half of us in the U.S. attend church, and Christians have an active presence on university campuses and in every major profession. Even so, churches and parachurch agencies may operate more like industries than living organisms. We hire others to take care of the orphans and visit the prisoners; we pay professionals to lead the worship.

Much of Europe has entered a state that can only be described as “divorced.” If you visit the great monasteries and cathedrals you’ll find few worshipers but many foreign tourists recording the sights on their iPhones and video cameras. The Danish national museum displays crosses with the explanation, “This used to be a religious symbol, but is now considered a cultural relic.”

Sometimes I’m asked about the future of Christianity in the U.S. Will we go the way of Europe, as one more way station on the march toward secularity? Already, one-third of the millennial generation answer “none” on polls about religious affiliation, comprising a number larger than all Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans combined.

As the U.S. becomes more post-Christian, fear abounds on both sides. The secular world sees Christians as a threat, a breed of morals police intent on reforming society by their own rules and punishing those who object. On the other side are Christians who see themselves as a harassed minority holding out against forces hostile to religion. The quality of grace seems in vanishing supply, usurped by fear.

Recently, I heard a speaker detail three approaches that frightened Christians may take toward the broader culture: fortification, accommodation, or domination. Regrettably, I see evidence of all three approaches. Some Christians hunker down, building walls that keep them from being contaminated by outside culture. Others water down the message so that it becomes difficult to distinguish them from everybody else. A third group of believers want to “take back the country” and restore it to some mythical ideal.

From my reading of the New Testament, all three responses strike me as out of bounds. We Christians dare not hunker down in a defensive posture when the world needs our message of justice and transformation. According to Jesus, a hostile reception should neither surprise nor deter us. “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves,” he warned one group — sending you out, not “hiding you away in the safety of the barn.” To complicate matters, he commanded his followers to love their enemies, the very wolves.

Over time, Christians learned that the faith grows best from the bottom up, rather than being imposed from the top down.

Yet, as the book of Acts makes clear, neither did the early Christians water down their message. They did not shrink in the face of violent opposition, but boldly proclaimed a countercultural way of living that made a sharp and appealing contrast to a legalistic Judaism and a brutal Roman culture.

Finally, Christians ought not fulfill the fears of the uncommitted by resorting to power. When outsiders hear Christians use such phrases as “getting our country back,” “restoring morality,” and “making America Christian again,” it stirs up memories and stereotypes of the Inquisition and the Crusades — or, more aptly, the sort of religious theocracy being pursued by Islamic extremists today.

The United States and its allies have fought a long and costly war in Afghanistan, in part to free Afghans from the tyranny of the Taliban regime, which forbade the education of girls, banned all music, and held weekly public exhibitions in a soccer stadium in which they chopped off the hands of thieves and stoned adulterers. ISIS (or ISIL) insurgents are trying to establish a similar theocracy in Iraq and Syria today. In some Islamic countries the morals police publicly beat women who drive a car alone or who ride in a taxi unaccompanied by their husbands. Such examples make secularists wary of any religion gaining power.

Several years ago, a Muslim man said to me, “I have read the entire Koran and can find in it no guidance on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find in it no guidance on how Christians should live as a majority.” As we talked, he pointed out that Islam seeks to unify religion and law, culture and politics. The courts enforce religious (Sharia) law, and in a nation like Iran, the mullahs, not the politicians, hold the real power.

In contrast, as the Muslim man reminded me, Christians best thrive as a minority, a counterculture. When they reach majority status, they, too, yield to the temptations of power in ways that clearly go against the style of their founder. Charlemagne ordered a death penalty for all Saxons who would not convert, and in 1492, Spain decreed that all Jews convert to Christianity or be expelled. Priests in the American West sometimes chained Indians to church pews to enforce church attendance.

After many such episodes in Christendom, it became clear that religion allied too closely to the state leads to the abuse of power. Much of the current hostility against Christians stems from the memory of such examples. The blending of church and state may work for a time, but it inevitably provokes a backlash, such as that seen in secular Europe today.

Over time, Christians learned that the faith grows best from the bottom up, rather than being imposed from the top down. Viewing the United States from the perspective of Europe and its long history of church-state blending, the British historian Paul Johnson identifies this as one of our finest contributions: “The assumption of the voluntary principle, the central tenet of American Christianity, was that the personal religious convictions of individuals, freely gathered in churches and acting in voluntary associations, would gradually and necessarily permeate society by persuasion and example.”

Those who wish to remain faithful to Jesus must communicate faith as he did, not by compelling assent but by presenting it as a true answer to basic thirst.

I believe the future of the American church depends on whether we continue to honor that voluntary principle amidst a polarized and divided society. Will Christians turn once again toward a coercive style that forces its will on the rest of society? Doing so would betray our founder, who resisted a temptation to authority over “all the kingdoms of the world,” and who died a martyr at the hands of a powerful state. In the words of the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, “Imposition stands starkly at odds with the basic character of the Christian faith, which is at its heart about self-giving — God’s self-giving and human self-giving — and not about self-imposing.”

Self-giving always involves risk. But, God apparently took that risk in granting humans freedom. A respect for freedom has led to the very term post-Christian as people increasingly choose to opt out of the faith. (Notably, there are no “post-Muslim” societies except in regions where Islam was evicted by force.) Those who wish to remain faithful to Jesus must communicate faith as he did, not by compelling assent but by presenting it as a true answer to basic thirst.

Growing up in the religion-soaked South, I would hear revival preachers talking about God “moving” across the land. Looking over the two-millennia history of the church, I hear that word differently now. Apparently God “moves” much like we do, packing up bags and relocating to a new neighborhood — from the Middle East to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.

A God who respects the freedom of those who reject him is a risk-taking God, and true faith will always be at risk in a country like the United States, which supplies the world with such diversions as movies, video games, amusement parks, and several hundred television networks. Meanwhile, thirsty people still respond to the gospel’s promise of meaning and transformation. The greatest numerical revival in history is taking place before our eyes in China, one of the last atheistic states and one of the most oppressive. Go figure.


One thought on “Shrinking Church, Vanishing Grace

  1. Thanks for the insightful blog post! I particularly appreciate the fact that Christianity really has power when viewed from the position of the minority. We are called to be the leaven (yeast) in the midst of the dough, light to a dark world, and salt in the middle of a society that craves flavor, and meaning, and purpose. If ever there was an environment where the Word needs to become flesh, and where Grace stands apart; it is now.

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