Defying history: the future of the church in a Third World Culture

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In their book Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West (2018), Alan Roxburgh and Martin Robinson first offer a rather pessimistic analysis of the consequences of modernity’s “wager” (the metaphor is Adam Seligman’s) in letting go of its Christian past, and then propose a model for re-establishing a viable Christian presence in “liminal spaces.”

The first part of the book ends with a brief summary of the American sociologist Philip Rieff’s account of three types—or perhaps better, three phases—of historical culture (90-92).

What Rieff calls First World Cultures are pagan cultures that “understood themselves as living in an enchanted world populated by mythical creatures.” Historically, it is a dead culture but it is having something of a belated afterlife in the imagination of the modern West in the guise of comic book superheroes and various shades of pantheism.

Second World Cultures are the great monotheistic cultures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, at whose centre is “a self-revealed Creator from whom every living creature derives its being and identity. Truth about the world and how to act in the world are grounded in revelation.”

Third World or Late Modern Cultures are “the active negation of the sacred. … There is no truth that is not socially constructed, no sacred order shaping meaning, no transcendent authority. The reality is that human beings make their own rules and habits of social life.”

All three worlds co-exist today in the Western context, but the disenchanted Third World Culture, which I have been labelling “secular humanism,” is fully in control of the narrative. “Its habits and beliefs are now institutionalized in the structures and habitus of everyday life: the political liberalism of the social contract, the economic myth of the invisible hand, and the inviolable autonomy of the individual.” The notion of God survives only as a “useful assistant for the Self.” God has no transcendent agency. “Little is left of second world cultures except their aesthetics and persistent but enfeebled and often compromised institutions” (92).

This is a straightforward and familiar analysis, but I think it may be helpful to overlay it on the story of the people of God as I have sometimes presented it here. Click the chart to enlarge it.

Israel had a formative period from Abraham to the consolidation of its presence in the land as a kingdom. This was followed by a time of relative stasis, but it was against the backdrop of Assyrian and Babylonian regional domination—pagan cultures which threatened the security and stability of Israel as a small independent kingdom. Eventually, the kingdom succumbed to Babylonian aggression: Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed, and its population was taken into exile.

We then have, in effect, a 900 year period of crisis, marked by a succession of conflicts with the great First World Cultures—principally, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and the Romans. In the end, an offshoot of ancient Israel won out over the last and greatest pagan empire, Babylon the great, and a Second World Culture was inaugurated, evolving over time into what we know as European Christendom. The churches which confessed Jesus as Lord, and in the end as the Second Person of the Trinity, functioned as a new priesthood for the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, in place of the old morally and spiritually bankrupt pagan priesthoods.

It is interesting, then, to think of biblical Israel as a practical and prophetic precursor, in the First World period, to the monotheistic Second World Culture that would supersede it. The conquest of the pagan territory of the Canaanites prefigured the conquest of the Greek-Roman world. Fiercely monotheistic Israel was ahead of its time, perhaps too far ahead for its own good.

From the exile onwards, however, it became increasingly evident—to some, at least—that the victory over paganism and the epochal cultural transition would not be achieved through the normal political-military means. Israel was too small and too dysfunctional for that to happen. Rather, it would come about through oppression, weakness, suffering, and martyrdom. The righteousness of Jesus consisted precisely in the fact that he sharply understood this and embraced this vocation. Historically speaking, it was the faithfulness of his followers, who were prepared to be conformed to this painful image (cf. Rom. 8:29), which drove through the change. The death of Jesus on a Roman cross pre-empted the punishment of rebellious Israel that would bring the era of second temple Judaism to an end and vindicate the faith of the early churches in a radically expanded future for the people of God.

The Western Christendom stasis has been disintegrating over the last two or three hundred years—and along with it the larger part of Rieff’s Second World Culture. What remains of the church is picking its way from the ruins—like the survivors of Kharkiv or Mariupol—dazed and disoriented, wondering what to do next. We are again in a period of crisis, desperate to hear a prophetic voice telling us confidently, “This is what you should do, this is the way you should go.” We may look to the global church for hope, but the global church is probably only a delayed image or reflection or echo of Western Christendom, lagging by fifty years or so.

The Third World Culture is now well into its stride and shows little sign of faltering. The culture wars that we are witnessing are not signs of failure or of the intrinsic instability of modernity’s wager. They are wars of conquest, they are the birth pains of the new age. Old attitudes are being uprooted, new attitudes are being devised and tested in a chaotic process of worldview construction, much as happened in the early centuries of the Second World Culture. If climate change brings about the collapse of late modernity, the crisis will be addressed and resolved—or survived—on Third World Culture terms. Of course, these are anxious times, as Roxburgh and Robinson insist, but that is hardly surprising when we are moving not just from one historical era to the next but from one geological era to the next.

If ancient Israel existed in the First World context as an anticipation of a Second World Culture to come, the church in the Third World Culture lingers on as a recollection of a world now past. So can the church buck the trend and imagine a viable second future for itself?

The great inexorable arcs of history tell us that the world has moved on, but it seems to me that the possibility of a creator God cannot be so easily erased from human consciousness. Wonder at the world and our presence in it will persist, and in that case it is not so remarkable or irrational that a people should commit itself over long periods of time to the effective priestly service of that good creator God. We then confess the death of Jesus for the sins of Israel and his resurrection for the transformation of the ancient world as a critical moment in the history of that people. And we wait patiently for the Spirit of prophecy to reveal to us how we should live and work in the age to come.

All still solidly Trinitarian, you see….

@Bob MacDonald:

What do you mean by the “eastern and southern church”? There are a small number of churches in Asia and Africa that emerged outside the Roman-European tradition and perhaps can claim some precedence, but for the most part the “global church” is and remains the product of European missionary expansion. The chart is only really meant to tell the story of the Western church as the natural and proper outworking of the New Testament witness, but I don’t see how the churches in—where?—Japan, Kerala, Ethiopia are much more than outliers to that storyline.

@Andrew Perriman:

The distribution of Christians noted here, slightly more than halfway down the page, shows large numbers in Latin America, Africa and Asia — significantly more than those in North America and Europe. These are rough figures of course. But they have to account for something if considering Christendom as a whole. I like the chart. I am just imagining how to speak to my unchurched grand-children. As a scientist, I find it a challenge to speak of wonder and presence to young people.

@Bob MacDonald:

Right. So the “global church” is in the schema (it’s on the chart) as the product by and large, first, of European colonial expansionism and, secondly, of modern Western cultural expansionism. It certainly needs to be taken into account, but my guess is that it will mirror the decline of Western Christianity over the next century.

My point about wonder was probably more at the epistemological level. No doubt the church will have to learn how to do a better job of teaching and evoking a sense of the reality of God for the next generations, but it seems to me that there is something fundamental to how we know things that makes the thought of good creator God an elusive but ineradicable aspect of the human experience. So there will always be a meaningful cultural space for a sustained (that is, historical) and organised (that is, religious) witness to that good creator God.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thank you — the thought in your last comment is breathtaking. …”it seems to me that there is something fundamental to how we know things that makes the thought of good creator God an elusive but ineradicable aspect of the human experience.” And thank you for helping me read the chart more fully. 

I always love your charts, Andrew! But I could only chuckle at your conception of the global church!

I have also asked myself whether we in the global Christian movement are living on borrowed time. And yet African faith is already outgrowing its Western missionary influences: see the new book Africa To The Rest by Perbi and Ngugi. I believe it was Prof Andrew Walls who said that what we call missiology might be better thought of as systematic theology, because it represents the continuation of the story in the majority world church. Christendom bottoms out only for the baton to be taken up by multiple other centres.

Here in Tanzania, there is a sense that while Western missionaries successfully proclaimed the gospel, there came along with them a mindset of poverty and passivity which must now be overcome by local believing communities. This wave of grassroots theologising is what my wife Tamie Davis is researching.

African faith is not following in the footsteps of Western faith insofar as it is Pentecostal. It too will have to face powers and principalities such as Mammon and Big Tech, but it will do so from a different footing and with different tools in hand. See my short post, “Pentecostalism can be a way of staying African” and the article it links to.

Telecommunications in Tanzania leapfrogged the need for wired infrastructure, going straight to mobile internet connectivity. In a similar way, I can see a society such as Tanzania bypassing secularism and emerging into a post-secular world where ‘religion’ is contested but very much public.

@Arthur Davis:

I thought I was being rather generous to the global church in suggesting that over the coming centuries it would stay much stronger than the church in the Western world!

Your comments about Pentecostalism in Africa are important. Thank you for bringing that perspective. But something similar might have been said about revivalist movements in the West in the 19th century. They looked like strong, sustainable “indigenous” movements, but they were eventually overwhelmed by social “progress” and the horrors of the 20th century. Interestingly, wasn’t there also a “prosperity” dimension to those movements—and as soon as social conditions improved, people stopped going to church?

There is nothing wrong with telling a story about Christianity that embraces the shift in the centre of gravity from the West to the global east and south, but it’s difficult not to ask the question, “And then what?” It’s interesting to think that Christianity has not only survived but flourished globally by fleeing the disintegrating core, but I’m still inclined to think that secular humanism will prove the much more powerful social force in the long run.

In any case, the chart was only really intended to plot a narrative trajectory from the early confrontation with the great Mesopotamian empires to the confrontation with Greece and Rome, to the annexation of the Greek-Roman world, and then through to the collapse of European Christendom.

@Andrew Perriman:

My comment was a bit on the ranty side—I really am grateful that you keep returning to all these things!

Of course, we don’t yet know exactly where this emerging polycentric, non-Western faith is going to land. I just wouldn’t put a downward trend on it yet!

The thing is, I’m not sure that secular humanism is as resilient as all that. If there’s any civilisational collapse to go along with the ecological collapse, is secular humanism any more likely to survive than any other kingdom? And I don’t think that, having arrived in a Third World, we are bound to stay there (although the question of how to re-enchant a disenchanted world no doubt puts us in uncharted waters).

It’s interesting that Pew projections (?) show the world becoming less religiously diverse as Islam and Christianity both grow.

At the beginning of the year I spent a lot of time mulling over The Dawn of Everything by Graeber and Wengrow which overlaps with some of these questions. It’s a good read! 

@Arthur Davis:

The thing is, I’m not sure that secular humanism is as resilient as all that. If there’s any civilisational collapse to go along with the ecological collapse, is secular humanism any more likely to survive than any other kingdom?

Fair point. I guess the question is not so much which way the world is going as what the church in West needs to become, how it needs to think, what it needs to do in order to sustain a meaningful witness in what will presumably continue to be an inhospitable and changeable cultural environment.

I have to say, though, I find it hard to imagine that a rigorous biblical theism will be reinstated at the centre of the various spheres of public thought in the foreseeable future. So Christian faith must survive either in a highly personalised form or in communities of faith that are marginalised to varying degrees.

Andrew, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to visit here. Glad to be back!

Have you taken any stabs at what the Spirit of prophecy is revealing of how we should live and work in the age to come that is over the horizon, whether nearer or further than we think? I’m sure you have.

Is ecological faithfulness one of the prophetic calls? And social justice on behalf of the impoverished (it seems this one has been around longer than the former)? I wonder if the ending of military, war, and violence would be part of it (beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks)?


Hi, Scott. Very nice to hear from you.

Here’s a couple of older posts that may be relevant:

For general reference, there’s a series of seven posts on the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

To get to the substance of your question, I suggest, tentatively, that we should differentiate between a general social-ethical-religious critique, whether of the church or of wider society, analogous in effect to Paul’s critique of the Greco-Roman world in Romans 1:18-31, say, and a more specific pronouncement about decisive, transformative, or catastrophic future events that might be seen as expressions of divine intention. Wouldn’t that be the biblical pattern? Israel is denounced as unrighteous and YHWH will send a violent nation from the north, etc. Greek-Roman civilisation is idolatrous and corrupt and there will be wrath against the Greek. The Spirit of prophecy inspires both aspects.

So while a call to ecological faithfulness may be an adequate constructive response to the critique of humanity’s exploitation of the natural order, the more important prophetic response may be to frame the foreseen climate catastrophe as part of the story of the living creator God—to frame it not just theologically but eschatologically (in a relative or historical sense) or even (dare I say) apocalyptically.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for the reply, Andrew. Yes, the differentiation between a general critique and a specific pronouncement is interesting to think through. I think that is the biblical pattern. It includes both, but that means it includes BOTH, which involves the pronouncement of the coming catastrophic event.

Some time ago, I saw the video floating around entitled A Letter from the Coronavirus (see link below, as I couldn’t get the embed feature to work). I thought the video was an interesting take on the virus.

The thing about a specific pronouncement of coming disaster is that it can easily be seen as a “kooky Christian conservative” spouting off judgment. Of course, I think most are pronouncing judgment ex-eventu, after the situation (i.e., tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, mass shooting, etc). Yet, at least in light of biblical criticism over the centuries, it is likely some of the prophetic writings of the OT were written ex-eventu. Perhaps to do so would also be in the line of the prophets. I think the two challenges we face are: 1) Ensuring we are hearing correctly from God. 2) The oddness of pronouncing some kind of catastrophic judgment, in light of that already being rampant in some circles (perhaps we’ll just need to swallow our pride and get on with it).



Yes, the distinction between prophecy before and after the event is not always clear. But the two central prophecies that we have in the New Testament seem to me to be authentic—Jesus’ warning that Jerusalem would be destroyed within a generation, and the subsequent prophecy that the nations of the Greek-Roman world would sooner or later—later as it turned out—renounce their polytheism and confess Jesus as Lord to the glory of the God of Israel. Of the two, the second is the more remarkable.

I wonder, though, if prophecy regarding a climate catastrophe is less a matter of prediction (you’re right, we’re too late) than of interpretation. The church might need to hear the predictive part, but perhaps the more important task is to interpret such a catastrophe on the premise of a transcendent creator, in line with the biblical story, as the ground for speaking both of judgment and of hope.

@Andrew Perriman:

I also forgot to mention that I have begun reading End of Story?. Somehow I got a brand new copy on Amazon US for $6.91 USD. I was shocked it was so cheap. The price is back up to the usual $24 USD.