Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Third Mission to the West

Os Guinness, in a pair of very insightful articles, warns:

No great civilization endures if it cuts the roots that have made it what it is, yet the West is on the verge of doing exactly that. The situation may be stated this way: The central feature of the modern world is globalization; the central carrier of globalization is Western civilization; and the single strongest source of Western civilization is the Christian faith. Yet the Christian faith has effectively lost its influence in the central institutions of the West today.

Guinness traces this lose of influence by dividing the Western world into four parts: between the United States and Europe; and between leaders and ordinary citizens. Guinness suggests three conclusions:

First, the Christian faith has essentially lost Europe for the time being, at the level of both leaders and ordinary citizens. Christians are a practicing minority in every European country except two Catholic countries, Poland and Ireland, and the current decline of the Church in Ireland is precipitous. The blunt fact is that no Protestant Reformation country in Europe has a practicing Christian majority. Europe has decisively shifted from “Christian continent” to “mission field” in a few swift generations.

Second, the Christian faith has effectively lost influence in almost all the key leadership institutions in the United States. The universities, the press and media, the professional associations, the cosmopolitan global elites, the worlds of entertainment and leisure—all these are effectively lost to faith. Only in the spheres of business and politics has faith retained a significant presence, and even there its presence is often controversial and its influence weaker than its numbers should warrant.

Third, the Christian faith is strong in only one quarter of the West: among ordinary citizens in America. To be sure, the numerical strength of faith in this sphere is striking. Whereas religious affiliation in most modern countries has declined, the United States is distinctive for being the most modern and the most religious of modern countries. At least among ordinary people it has high rates of religious affiliation. But this strength is not an immediate ground for optimism because numerical strength does not mean spiritual and cultural strength. This means there is little current likelihood of their winning back American leaders, and therefore winning back American culture and the West as a whole.

Many balance despair at this situation in the “global North” (=West) with hope for the surprising growth of Christianity in the “global South” (sub-Sahara Africa, Asia, and Latin America). But Guinness, while rejoicing in the work of God in the South, notes that the Church there is largely pre-modern, unaffected thus far by modernity. “The massive strengths of the Church in the South are therefore no automatic help to the Church in “the global North” (or West) because they haven’t yet faced the challenge of modernity that has damaged the Western Church so severely.” The implication, Guinness suggests, is plain:We are on the verge of a radical new possibility in history—a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christian Church.

For those in the West, the challenge may be expressed this way. Unless and until God intervenes in His sovereign freedom with a powerful new revival and reformation in the West, our present situation represents a stirring triple challenge to faithfulness as we wait for Him:

1. The Church in the West is on the verge of losing the West, the civilization it has helped to create, and which it has influenced profoundly over two thousand years.

2. With Europe largely lost for the moment, the future of the Church in the West, in human terms, is staked upon the integrity and effectiveness of Christians in America.

3. Because of the chronic weaknesses of the faith of most American Christians at the popular level, in spite of their numerical strength, there is special responsibility for Christians in two particular callings: pastors, because they stand Sunday by Sunday between God and the people of God and are therefore in a unique position to awaken and empower God’s people; and leaders who are followers of Christ in positions of secular leadership, especially at the national level.

If the overall challenge facing Christians is expressed spiritually rather than strategically, it may be stated even more simply. A central reason for the weakness of the Christian faith in the West is the deficiency of discipleship among those who are Christians, including many leaders who are committed to Jesus Christ.

What Guinness is calling for is a “third mission to the West.”

The first mission to the West was the conversion of the Roman Empire, a three centuries-long movement under God that was a staggering accomplishment through which the faith of a bunch of provincial malcontents grew to replace the faith of mighty Rome herself. The second mission to the West was the conversion of the barbarian empires, a less known but equally staggering achievement through which the violent tribal peoples of Europe were “gentled” and the foundations were laid for what became Christendom. Today, as the legacy of those great and successful missions runs out, we face the challenge of giving up or setting out on a third mission to the West.

To accomplish this, Guinness knows that we must be in it for the long haul:

Winning back the West will not be the work of five minutes, five months, or five years. It may take a hundred years, for the hardest spheres of our society such as the universities are not going to be won without immense toil and perseverance. And our motive must not be to win back the West for the West’s sake (or for the sake of America or Europe, or even for democracy or civilization), but to win back the West for Christ’s sake—out of faithfulness to the Great Commission. In other words, our concern is the West, not because it is in any way superior and worth saving—we could easily argue the opposite—but because the West is our Jerusalem and our Judea, from which we must join hands with others around the world and reach out to bring the gospel also to Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.

How can it be accomplished?

The task of winning back the West is so stupendous that we can only succeed if we determine unflinchingly—in Hudson Taylor’s great phrase—to “do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.” With all due respect to the brilliance of modern insights and technologies, reliance on them, as much recent church growth and mission has done openly, will be to court failure and be exposed as faithless.

Put differently, winning back the West involves many things, but it is an essentially spiritual, theological, and evangelical task. Hence the need to surmount the widespread disdain for theology and to shed the recent cultural and political baggage of the evangelical movement and be truly evangelical—people who define themselves and their lives by the first things of the good news (or evangelion) of Jesus Christ.

There have been times in the past when things have been far worse than they are today, and those who responded in faith were far fewer than those who stand ready to respond now. But the challenge is the same: to trust only in God, to have no fear, to let God be God, and watch and wait to see what He alone can do.