The Future of Western Christianity
and the State of the Church
A well-known social commentator in
Australia recently interviewed a Muslim scholar in Switzerland on
national radio. During the program he complained about the state of
Christianity in the West and admitted he had become an atheist
because there was nothing in what he saw that attracted him to church
as he grew up in Melbourne. He believed Christianity was out of
fashion, irrelevant to people he knew and was too introspective.
“There is too much focus on churches”, he lamented. He
may have been right.
Where to, church?
The future of Christianity is not in
doubt. The future of structures of “church”, on the
other hand, is more mercurial. That is because Christianity can cope
with changing cultural contexts much better than most Christians can.
One is administered by the Holy Spirit; the other by men and women
with human weaknesses.
Like the story of the blind men and
the elephant. None had ever seen an elephant and as each explored a
different part of the great beast they disagreed about what it was
really like. One felt a leg and stated the elephant was like a great
tree. The other rubbed his hand against the side of the elephant and
disagreed. “No”, he said, “this animal is like a
wall”. The third held the tail and declared it was like a
snake. Christians everywhere are familiar with certain elements of
the multidimensional universal church but run the risk of concluding
the expression they know (heritage, architecture, liturgy, worship
style, doctrinal emphasis, functional framework, personalities) is
the entire and genuine article. What we all need is a bit more
intra-communal dialogue, bridge building and return to first
principles. If not, we will end up following a well-worn but
erroneous path. We will regard other Christians as the “enemy”
and those who attempt to walk a middle path will suffer the fate of
the man in the US Civil War who tried to bring about a truce by
putting on both uniforms. They shot at him from both sides.
Christians who attempt to bridge denominational chasms are all too
frequently labeled controversial, dangerous or backslidden. (Most
cultures regard minorities as dangerous.)
or people - a personal account
I could tell that Louis was
uncomfortable with my interpretation of the word “church”.
He came from a liturgical background, in which Sunday church
services were rigidly structured, usually based on a written format.
The order of events was predictable, some might say “safe”.
Strict protocols were observed and only professional clergy were
entitled to exercise leadership. Their mode of dress made them
distinct. The area around the altar was considered sacred. After
all, the bronze plaque on the side wall declared that this particular
sanctuary had been “dedicated to the glory of God” by a
particular official in the denomination. Like church buildings
around the world, a huge cross confronted worshippers; beneath it
stood a table covered with a white cloth decorated with a cross and
weighed down at each end by a candlestick.
I am not against liturgy or nice
appointments per se, where we assemble to worship. (God pays more
attention to the heart than external features about which we are apt
to have hang-ups.) Even the least overtly liturgical churches are
structured. Go, for example, to any charismatic meeting. Typically,
the Holy Spirit is “welcomed” to the “house of God”
and services, meetings, or celebrations follow preordained patterns.
Order is important. After all, “autonomy” all too often
masks anarchy. Paul says so in the fourteenth chapter of 1
Corinthians. God is not the author of confusion (1 Corinthians
14:33). But however we structure it, whatever terms we use, liturgy
is never a substitute focal point for life.
My present interlocutor had grown up
accustomed to patterns and hierarchies in his church in the Middle
East. As a much-loved brother I felt I was free to challenge his
assumptions about the nature of “church”. He was
concerned about building maintenance, seating, parking and deference
to those in authority. After all, the world does
judge by external
appearances and I would rather worship God in comfortable,
aesthetically pleasing surroundings than uncomfortable and unpleasant
ones. On the other hand, I was keen to stress that church is not the
building, but people. God does not restrict himself to structures
made with human hands – although the Scriptures affirm that, at
times, he has chosen locations to reveal His presence and glory to
men and women.
In the New Testament the word “church”
denotes those who are “called out”, the “ekklesia”
who follow Christ rather than the ways of the world. They physically
live in the world (how could it be otherwise?), but they do not
belong to it. Their loyalties are elsewhere. Their King is Jesus.
This realignment of primary allegiance from Emperor to God was a
major factor contributing to persecution of Christians under Rome and
continues to be so in many parts of the world today. Every religion
at the time of Jesus esteemed externalities, such as temples, idols,
sacrifices, priests and ceremonies. Jesus turned every one of these
practices on its head, emphasizing the spiritual nature of the
Kingdom of God.
Enjoy the building if you will –
we all need a “home”, but millions of Christians do not
have such a privilege. Equally, lose the building, for whatever
reason, and the church does not automatically cease to exist. As
much as I recoil at buildings constructed for the worship of God
being converted into museums, shops or even mosques (as occurred to
friends whose sanctuary proved too small for an expanding
congregation), it is important to remember that people are eternal,
edifices are not.
“Where did you get these ideas?”
was my friend’s response. It was clear he believed my Western
background did not enable me to see the beauty of the building. I
replied that the concept of people as church came not from my
culture, but a man, like him, of Semitic background. This was too
much. After some debate, I revealed that the Christian I was quoting
was the Apostle Paul. Born a Jew, educated in orthodoxy at the feet
of one of the leading teachers of his day, exposed to Greek and Latin
ideas, Paul emphasized people over forms and traditions. But he was
certainly not a Westerner.
When we talk about the nature of the
church, its mission, its God-given authority and its relevance to,
and future in, a secular world, we must be careful not to limit our
understanding to particular cultures or conventions. When all that
we see around us is swept away, the Body of Christ will endure and
triumph with Him.
Church is not a cathedral, a catacomb,
a barn, a pilgrimage, a creed, an order, a uniform, a label, a form
of ritual, a worship style, a revival meeting, a place to be seen at
(or to avoid being seen at, depending on our societies’
expectations). It is people. Without wanting to be too much of an
iconoclast, it is my conviction that we do not have to become clones
of particular forms to be Christians. Otherwise we run the risk
posed by “Judaisers” in the New Testament. Let me
You don’t have to become like
The very first Christians were Jews.
The coming of Jesus fulfilled Messianic expectations on the part of
the Jewish people. For long centuries, Jewish girls hoped to be the
mother of the Promised One. He would restore the “old”
way of doing things and bring in a new era of Jewish suzerainty.
While the ministry of Jesus, and his attitudes towards the positions
of the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, religious lawyers and other
officials was never about compliance with rigid external
requirements, the Christian faith was nevertheless initially seen as
a sect of Judaism. So, it made sense for those on the inside to
assume that non-Christians had to come through their “front
doors” to reach the Kingdom of God. The attitude went
something like this: to become a Christian you must first become a
Jew. The structure and apparatus, including circumcision, feasts,
laws and commitment to the Patriarchs, was portrayed as an essential
part of the faith. The shock came when the Holy Spirit began to
reach out to Gentiles, saving Cornelius and others without Moses or
the strict requirements of the Law. That was heresy to some people.
This new religion was dangerous and potentially fatal to the old
Hadn’t Jesus been accused of
threatening to pull down the temple? He had caused chaos by
overturning the tables of the money changers who had made the place
where God was worshipped a commercial centre. Hadn’t Stephen
alienated the Jews when he declared that the Most High “does
not live in temples made by men” (Acts 7:48)? This had
infuriated them and they had peremptorily killed him. Too many
vested interests were affected. The most visible result of their
anger was a wave of persecution that drove Christians out of the
building, out of Jerusalem.
Some of those who fled persecution
were, nevertheless, committed to retaining as much of the traditional
structure as they could. Wherever they went, they preached a Gospel
mixed with their own tradition. Jews outside of the Holy City were
confused, because they could not see how the new religion
complemented the patristic traditions. Non-Jews were equally
bemused, because they could not see the difference between Judaisers
and the Jewish faith they had known. There was no incentive for
Gentiles to accept Christ. The first church council (see Acts 15)
produced a breakthrough; the central theme was about how Gentiles
could be Christians outside of the traditional frameworks and still
be pleasing to God.
The challenge for us today is to
ensure we do not simply substitute “church” for “temple”,
by inferring, “You must be a good Baptist, Methodist, Catholic
or Anglican to be a Christian and get to heaven. You must not touch,
taste or handle issues that are taboo in our circles (this was a
failing in the Colossian church, cf Colossians 2:21).
Christianity is not about creating
religious ghettoes or comparing crowds. God’s strategy is not
geared to building newer and better facilities for their own sake,
but enlarging the His Kingdom through the power proclamation of the
Gospel. When we say, “I’m going to church” we
usually mean a venue. However, bigger buildings, programs or
meetings do not necessarily constitute a bigger church. They simply
denote a bigger organizational structure and a larger role.
Church is not an edifice, it is a
hospital for the wounded, a spiritual emergency ward that offers
unconditional acceptance, a practical training ground for the
unlearned, a launching pad for world evangelism, a situation room
where spiritual warfare can be organizsed and directed, a centre of
excellence in Biblical instruction and worship, a light on a hill
shining in a dark place, a refuge for the alienated, a show-place of
godly living, a powerhouse for intercession, a terminus for Christian
enterprises and ministries and a meeting place for people to prepare
to go head-to-head with the world on matters of social importance. A
large people base can facilitate a large vision, a magnet for others
to be exposed to aspects of the Gospel, meet with believers, worship
together and plan and caucus about how to take God’s love into
the community. But that is only part of the picture. People do not
have to become like us to be Christians.
The external nature of church will
change. The way we “do” worship will evolve over time.
As the world shrinks, cultural expressions of Christianity will
collide and fuse. We should not be worried or defensive about this,
as long as Christ is preached (Philippians 1:15-18).
holy places to the Holy One
In Lebanon I once visited the Qadisha
Valley, the Holy Valley, where some locals say the original Eden was
located. The Arabic name Ehden still bears the name. One of the
community leaders took me to the roof of his house and pointed to the
beautiful snow-covered mountains that culminated with majestic Jabal
Lubnan, Mount Lebanon, overlooking ancient cedars, monasteries and
modern ski resorts. “That is the Mountain of God”. In
the valley below, hermits still live in caves, visited only by those
who take them food. There, in seclusion they pray and meditate about
God and church tradition. In a church in the town centre a Christian
warrior who fought the Ottomans lies in state in a coffin under a
glass top, to be revered by all for his holy exploits. The
cataclysmic civil war that raged in Lebanon during the last quarter
of the twentieth century did not touch these villages. They had
withstood earlier waves of Ottomans and other Muslim unbelievers. My
reverie was interrupted by my host. “This is the true church”.
As we surveyed the apartment buildings of nearby Bchare, diminutive
beneath the towering mountains and clinging precariously to the tops
of the valley walls, there was a sense of holiness. But when I came
away I was reminded that the church, the true church, is not about
place or tradition. It is about Jesus.
The models with which we are all
familiar in the West may be transmogrified into new styles, but
Christianity will outlast them all. Our faith is not about styles or
bricks that crumble. It is about the Gospel of Christ, the power of
God that is able to save men and women (Romans 1:16). I do not have
to join that man’s church to be a functioning Christian. But I
do have to join Christ. If Jesus is the centre, I will naturally
want to fellowship with other Christians on a very regular basis, but
nothing will dislodge Him from the throne. He is the Lord, and he
will not give his glory to any other (Isaiah 42:8).