Will the Church Survive the 21st Century?
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes and palms in their hands … these are the ones who came out of great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the LambRevelation 7:9, 14
In 1822 the great American states-man, Thomas Jefferson predicted that: “there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian”. Even as he wrote, however, a Second Great Awakening was sweeping America. Similarly Auguste Comte believed that mankind was on the final stage of a long journey from “a theological or fictitious age” to a truly “scientific” one. Religion would be overwhelmed by industrialisation; science, urbanisation and consumerism echoed many famous theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Sigmund Freud. Note these secular theorists were not opposing Christianity, per se, but the whole concept of religion.
What are the findings two hundred years on?
Europe has certainly become de-Christianised, yet the late 20th century saw a dramatic resurgence of religion in many other parts of the world. The casting off of Christianity has only led to the adoption of some other form of religion. The New Age movement is an anti-secular movement but it has sprung up apparently from nowhere.
In the East, the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism” with other forms of religious nationalism has been recognised as major factors in global politics. In the former USSR and in China, Marxism declined while Eastern Orthodoxy and traditional Chinese religion flourished.
In the USA, of course, the theory has been turned on its head. Modernity, industrialisation and entertainment are supposed to sound the death knell of religion. America fits that description perfectly, yet there is no noticeable decline in church attendance there.
The big story within Western Christianity is the explosion of the charismatic and Pentecostal movement with up to 250 million people. London has witnessed the emergence of mega churches and major church planting programmes.
A recent study has encouraging news for churches despite the seemingly irresistible onward march of the secular and political brigade. Its findings conclude that the secularisation theory is relatively weak and maintains there are at least four encouraging implications for the Christian church in the next century.
Christianity is NOT Doomed
Since the last 200 years, the so called “Enlightenment” has pronounced that the modern world would destroy the church. Yet, ironically, what is in fact struggling to survive is the theory that the church can’t survive. While things, undoubtedly, are discouraging in Europe, globally the church is even healthier than it used to be. While traditional versions of faith have to give way to newer versions of Christianity, Christianity itself is surviving well. In the year 1500, less than 100 million Christians were huddled in a small corner of the planet. In the year 2000, 1.9 billion Christians are scattered across every nation on the face of the earth.
Churches CAN Grow in Modern Society
In post-war Britain and America, evangelical churches have flourished while liberal churches have declined. The churches that are growing, while not traditional in form of worship, are traditional in fundamental beliefs. They are faithful to Christian orthodoxy, but culturally adaptable and inventive, and yet have been able to successfully avoid the two extremes of being isolationist on the one hand and naively radical on the other.
Christianity Must Tackle the New Religions
The study which was based on religion in general rather than Christianity alone, showed that the Church must challenge the other religions with confidence as it is not only secular materialism that is intellectually inadequate. The other faiths can be just as deficient and indeed in some cases can prove exploitive and oppressive.
Christianity Should Not Withdraw to a Corner
While Christianity is no longer the “sacred canopy” of European society, it should not retreat to a corner. The Bible demonstrates how a minority can influence pagan society, for example Joseph in Egypt; Daniel in Babylon; Esther in Persia; and of course the early Christians in Rome. Secularisation only “seems” unstoppable. History has proved the opposite.