In September of last year, the Pew Research Center gave focus to four potential futures for Christianity in America. In all four models, they predicted a decline. The differentiation is simply a matter of how soon and how much. In his recent article, “The Americanization of Religion,” Ross Douthat refers to this cultural shift as an “epochal transition” (i.e. a momentous and unparalleled change). How many of us are truly aware?
Douthat is the same writer who back in 2012 wrote Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. It’s an important read, but given the shift, it is becoming dated. Douthat is finding that “heresy” may no longer fit the description of our age. Deviation from the faith assumes a loose tie to Christianity, but we are becoming more neopagan as a culture. People are going after their own spiritual explorations that no longer include Jesus, church, or pastors. Our age is becoming disconnected from Christianity.
I believe Goheen’s and Sheridan’s book Becoming a Missionary Church serves as a helpful corrective, a critical roadmap to getting back on course. It’s a book I just finished, and I found myself underlining many of their thoughts. They look backward as well as forward, noting significant movements. Their concern is that the church must recover what it is fast losing—its identity as a missional community. A church that is not in mission is no church at all. Another aim of the book is to introduce readers to one of the most influential missional voices of our time, Lesslie Newbigin.
Newbigin was a missionary for 40 years in India. When he retired in the mid-1970s, Newbigin and his wife returned to London via a land route. They chose to use local transportation, as well as hitchhiking. They met with believers along the way—except for one region where none were found. Ironically, it was in Turkey. The paradox, of course, was that there was a moment in history when Turkey was the greatest center of the Christian faith.
When the Newbigins came through, they discovered that the lampstand of the church had been blown out. This was precisely what the apostle John warned would happen, writing to Turkey’s seven major churches in his book, The Revelation. Equally tragic, when the Newbigins arrived back in London, they found that the church they left had largely accommodated itself to an idolatrous Western culture. As with Turkey, the nation had lost its faith.
All of this should give us pause. Time to reflect—and pray that the lampstand does not go out! A strong Christian heritage is no guarantee of a Christian future, be it Turkey or England, or North America. Unless the church recovers its missional identity, the church will die, no matter where it is. It is critical, therefore, that every follower of Christ see themselves afresh as called to embody and announce God’s redemptive purpose to the world. This is our main vocation—to witness to the lordship of Christ. Everything else is secondary.
To be more precise, the following are urgent needs, ones underscored by Goheen and Sheridan, and other voices in their book, including Tim Keller—
-our lives must demonstrate that it is God who has ultimate power, and it transcends every other power and rulership on earth. This means there is no place for intimidation or accommodation
-the church must recover its conviction that it is God’s Word that has the ultimate authority to define and guide our lives. The Scriptures alone offer the true, ultimate, and comprehensive vision of the world
-we need to understand our identity—who we are in Christ. We are the true humanity of God, restored by the cross and resurrection to become what God intended from the beginning
-we need to be a sign and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. When people engage with the community of Christ, they should get a taste of true generosity, grace, mercy, and justice
-we need to realize that Western culture is a powerful and pervasive force that is becoming a dangerous foe of the church. It masks the fact that it is occupied by its own gods. It is neither neutral nor secular, and it is becoming increasingly resistant to the Gospel
In sum, we need a wholesale reorientation of the church to its missional vocation, training its members to engage in public life, sharing and living the gospel. A true church, a radical church, is far more than a nominal Christian community focused on stage-centric worship and motivational talks. It must repent of its quest to be a political action committee and pursue becoming the people of God serving the King of kings.
By God’s grace, we will make a move from the post-Christian label that more and more of our culture seem to be wearing. If we take seriously the warnings of a Lesslie Newbegin (as well as Goheen and Sheridan) and act upon their wisdom, the Pew Research Center might have to grapple with a fifth scenario—the flourishment of the church and a larger share of American culture turning to Christ.