Francis Schaeffer referred to our times, some thirty years ago. and asked, "How Then Shall We Live?" I head Schaeffer speak at Wheaton near the end of his life and there was an urgency in his manner and message that was quite striking. I think he saw something that disturbed him very deeply. He looked to the future with genuine concern. While I do not entirely agree with Schaeffer's specific analysis about every point he made at the time I do believe that what he saw is increasingly self-evident to discerning Christians. Our culture, as we have known it in my lifetime of almost sixty years, is rapidly changing. The result is a new era that has been called post-Christian, or more to the point, post-Christendom.
I would like to propose a simple observation here.The church has passed through four major eras of development in terms of the socio-political (cultural) environment in which we have lived and witnessed to the faith that is found in Jesus Christ.
The first era was that faced by the earliest Christians. In this period the congregation was sharply and clearly distinguishable from the culture around it. Indeed, the church was in a tiny minority status and was universally persecuted and hated. During the first three hundred years of Christian history congregations not only drew a sharp boundary between themselves and the world but the world was antagonistic and often persecuted the church. We still find this in some parts of the world; e.g. Muslim countries, China, etc.
The second era overlapped the first and developed almost immediately. It retained the strong boundary between the church and the world but it sought to push the frontier of mission into the hostile world through witness. This era continued, to varying degrees, until about the time of Constantine.
The third era lasted for centuries. It saw the church become one with the empire and the social and cultural environment around it. Mission still took place but it was a matter of pushing mission and empire (culture) in tandem. The world outside the church/empire/Christendom still remained hostile (e.g. Muslim lands) but the church sent missionaries to preach the gospel and establish the church in foreign lands. This mission often looked and felt like Americanism as much as Christianity.
The fourth era is the one we began to enter in the late 20th century. This era follows a time when the parish-congregation had sought to engage the mission frontier and then minister to a culture where there was some hostility, some indifference and some supportiveness. I think this is where we are in America now, though the "supportiveness" component is fading away rather fast. I also think, all things being equal, that we will have to move closer to the first two eras over the next forty years or so unless we see a major change in the wider culture of America. We are entering an age in which we will no longer minister from Christendom but in the shadow of it, a shadow that may hurt us as much as help us.
There is no question that Schaeffer rightly saw the church in America becoming more and more like the church in Europe. At the same time there are still far more people in the churches of America than any other Western nation. But the number is in decline and the evidence that we lack a solid, biblically-informed, world view is evident everywhere. Without Christians who think and live deeply we are one generation, or less, from becoming much like the church in the rest of the West.
What does God see when he looks at the church in America?
1. Large numbers of people who still claim to follow Christ.
2. Growing ministries and schools, though this is beginning to slow in recent years.
3. A failure to grasp the great truths of the faith and be deeply formed by them.
4. A decrease in real church growth.
5. A domesticated Christ and a privatized gospel crafted by marketers in ministry and tailored for individualism.
6. Large numbers of Christians whose lifestyle is not radically different from that of non-Christians.
7. Racism, sexism, hypocrisy, hero worship, materialism, busyness, destruction of the family, abortion, self-indulgence and spiritual and intellectual mediocrity.
Bottom line: Christ does not reign supreme in our churches!
God sees all this and must judge it. He withholds blessing and most of us never notice. He sends "locusts" who eat away at our economy, our homes and our schools. And he sends this judgment first to the church because he always begins with us first.
Unless the church opens its eyes to the real dangers then we will see more and more of what Francis Schaeffer feared would happen near the end of his life. But remember this: the Lord always sends judgment to his people in order to wake them up so he can bless them again. Hope, as I noted last week, is found in judgment.