Are we living in a “dark night” for Christianity in the West? The church, and culture shaping Christian influences, have both been losing ground since the late 1950s. The only people who seem unaware of this are Christians of my own generation, people who continue to do the same things they were doing twenty years ago. They seem to do this as if this is what we really need in a time of rapid declension and loss–opposition to serious change. I think a lot about these issues because of my missional-ecumenism vision.
I’m a historian and missiologist by training. I love to remind people about our Christian past, not as a wistful reminder of better days but as a reality check about where we are now and what we should be thinking about the present and the future.
In the period between 1400–1500 Christianity faced the most desperate and dark times it’s history. A major part of the church had spanned Asia but this part had been all but eliminated. In the Middle East, as well as in Northern Africa, Christianity was in steep decline as Islam subjected Christians to second-class status and serious persecution. The total percentage of Christians in terms of the global population was actually less than it had been 1,000 years before! Besides all this, a new Muslim power–the Ottomans–had arisen and were destroying the base of Greek Orthodoxy. They were rapidly conquering Christian countries in both Southeast and Central Europe. One after another nations that had been deeply influenced by the church were now seeing the virtual elimination of the church. (Much the same is happening in some of the same places in the twenty-first century!) The remaining bastion of Christianity was Catholic Europe. But even there the best modern Catholic scholars now admit that this time period was a low point for Catholicism. The papacy was morally and spiritually corrupt. Many popes were more hungry for power than for Christ-like service. Political manipulation was the flavor of the times. And the Inquisition was widely used to stifle spiritual renewal and the exercise of spiritual gifts.
But even in these dark times a new day was dawning and spiritual renewal movements, led by prophets of reform, were rising up to speak to these dark times. These spiritual reformers kept alive the flame of spiritual renewal amidst devastating wars and plagues. During this same time Europe was benefitting from the new found wealth of the Americas and new sea routes were opening to Asia. In the midst of what was likely the darkest moment in church history God stepped in and what we call the Protestant Reformation occurred in the early sixteen century. But all of this was following years of prayer and wide-scale movements of local revival. The Reformation would eventually lead to the greatest mission outreach in church history over the next two centuries. And the Catholic Counter Reformation would also result in the greatest renewal of mission the Catholic Church had ever known. One historian recently said that the greatest impact of the Protestant Reformation was the Catholic Counter Reformation and the result of this impact was the greatest global expansion of Christianity ever.
The trends in formerly Christian Europe are obvious to all to see. The church is now all but irrelevant to the wider culture. Evangelical churches remain small and attendance, even in the older mainstream churches, is almost inconsequential. But history tells us that these negative trends do not necessarily mean that what has happened recently is what will happen for centuries to come. The same could be said for America.
One of the more interesting trends in Europe is immigration. Not only are Muslims moving into formerly Christian lands but immigrant congregations have become the largest and most dynamic churches on the continent. When the night grows darkest, as an old saying goes, the light may not be far behind. A visit to London, for example, reveals that there are now some rather amazing mega-churches, all of them immigrant congregations that are seeing conversions weekly. Immigration works both ways and Christians ought to welcome these patterns and evangelize fervently.
What about America? While every vital statistic I know indicates a clear and obvious decline in the next generation, and likely far beyond, we have not yet seen what God might do with a generation of millennials (the generation born in 1982 and since). There is growing evidence that this generation will break all the molds but no one knows for sure what this means yet. I think millennials need powerful, incarnational, relational role models if they are to be faithfully orthodox and effective in mission but I also believe they are far more likely to sacrifice themselves, for compelling and convincing causes, than any group that I’ve seen since the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s. It was in this time period that my own life was touched profoundly by the movement of God’s Spirit in revival and mission.
These massive negative trends call for deep and serious change. I think this is so obvious that I am surprised anyone still debates it. (Many still do, especially if they are over 60. They seem to believe that by doubling down on what we have done we can still get better results!) But the ultimately negative trends that we now see do not have to become a centuries long decline. We clearly need a new work of the Holy Spirit and we ought to be earnestly seeking God for this outpouring. One crystal clear mark of the Spirit’s work is his drawing Christians and churches together in dynamic, Christ-centered, unity; cf. John 17:20-24. This part, which I call missional-aecumenism, has to have a major part in the new reformation that many of us know we so desperately need in the coming years. I am working, praying and watching. I hope some of you will join me and thereby give everything you have to this truly worthy purpose.
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“I am surprised anyone still debates it.” Nero fiddles while Rome burns. The places where I feel the Church most alive is among small groups of sojourners, pilgrims and questioners. The dinner table. The coffee shop or pub. The challenge is that we have so much real estate tied up in the edifices. Thank you, John, for casting hope about even in spite of great challenges. The gates of hell will ultimately not prevail.
The work you are doing, from my perspective, is part of a new wave of the Spirit. Times indeed might seem dark, but you’re not alone in working for unity. Let me post links to two events that took place on the vigil of Pentecost, one in 1998 and one in 2013:
1998–http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1998/may/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19980530_riflessioni_en.html. (There’s a brief documentary for this one too, at http://vimeo.com/66238590).
2013–http://www.focolare.org/en/news/2013/05/19/uscite-fuori-uscite-linvito-di-papa-francesco/. This one has a link to the CTV video.
These events, as large as they were, included for the most part only Catholic lay movements. As you rightly point out, is happening throughout the world in many other Christian churches and among missional-ecumenical phenomena like the Lausanne Conversations and Act 3. That’s not to say that we don’t have a lot of work to do; but the Spirit is moving in these times.