In a post on Out of Ur Skye Jethani discusses reports of the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention and of the evangelical church in North America more generally: “50 churches are closing every week, church attendance is not keeping pace with population growth, and the average age of church members is going up”. He thinks that the evidence cannot be gainsaid, but he is reassured by the words of Dallas Willard: “I am not discouraged, because I believe that Christ is in charge of his church, with all of its warts, and moles, and hairs. He knows what he is doing and he is marching on.”
Jethani is also reassured by the evidence from his trip to the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization that “the global church is more than surviving… it’s thriving!” He concludes: ‘So, while many both inside and outside the family of God take some perverse pleasure in declaring “The church is dead,” we can with full faith and confidence shout in response, “Long live the Church!”’ I am delighted that the global church is thriving, but I have some questions.
1. Is there any reason to think that the global church will not, sooner or later, suffer the same deep erosion of its intellectual foundations as the Western church?
We could come up with all sorts of reasons why the Western church is in decline—in the USA Today article that Jethani cites Ed Stetzer laments the fact that “Baptists love to talk about evangelism as long as someone else is doing it.” Perhaps more earnest evangelism would do the trick. Perhaps more miracles would do the trick. But the decline of the church in the West over the last 200 years should probably be attributed primarily to a loss of intellectual credibility in the broadest sense. Conservative American Christianity, with its peculiar capacity to swim upstream against the torrent of evolutionary science, has bucked the trend to some extent. But will it hold out forever? So why should we imagine that in the long run the global church, which has inherited most of its theological DNA from European Christendom, will remain immune to secular rationalism in some form or other?
2. How does this help the Western church?
No matter how “prosperous” the global church may currently be, the question remains: How does the Western church move forward from here? I belong to a vigorous, confident charismatic church that sees itself as part of an emerging prophetic movement of God that will set the region on fire, and I certainly don’t intend to stand in the way. But I honestly doubt that this is the answer for the Western church. There is no way back for us to a pre-lapsarian naïvety. The church that has fallen from the heights of Christendom has to wrestle with the trenchant analyses of modernity, which is why I applaud the Biologos Forum and Kenton Sparks for his God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship; and it’s why I think that an evangelical theology for the age to come has to be firmly grounded in a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.
3. Why do we persist in measuring the viability or effectiveness of the church or of Christianity in terms of quantity rather than of the quality of the church’s life or the clarity of the church’s witness?
I think this points to one of the basic flaws in the modern evangelical paradigm. It is a consequence of the fact that in its belief and praxis it has been shaped so thoroughly by the clash with an aggressive and extremely successful secular rationalism. Consider in this regard the defensive, apologetic character of much modern theology, the strong emphasis on personal evangelism, the anti-intellectual experientialism of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, the consumerist culture of the church… and, of course, our obsession with numbers.
I think that numbers are misleading in the first place. Numerical growth can conceal a multitude of sins. Why, for example, have so many of the global churches been taken over by prosperity theology? I don’t consider prosperity theology to be altogether a bad thing, but it is worrying that evangelical churches across the global south slide so easily in this direction. One gets the impression that much of the success of the global church is built on the promise of short-term personal gain. A successful Sri Lankan church planter admitted to me recently that he has a hard time building longevity, durability, into his churches. I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that these communities are founded on quick solutions, by faith, to people’s problems. If that’s the case, what are the longer term implications?
But I also think that the concern with numbers is theologically misguided. If we take the biblical narrative as a whole, there is no basis for the assumption that the “success” of church is to be measured in expansionist terms. It seems to me that the calling of the people of God is, first of all, to be a compelling corporate witness to the fully potential of created existence. Numbers are not irrelevant here, but far more important is the clarity and integrity of that corporate witness. This is something that the emerging church movement has been absolutely right to highlight. It won’t be fixed by congresses on world evangelization.
I fully believe that we can trust God to ensure the future viability of his people, and I hope that this does not make me “perverse”, but I think that the church may have a lot more dying to do—not least in America—before a credible post-Christendom paradigm emerges.