If you follow trends at all, then you already know that the cultural influence of Christianity is dramatically declining in the west. The current “culture wars” are evidence of this enough: Christianity is slowly losing its seat of privilege as the cultural norm. The typical symptoms – the removal of prayer from schools, the legalization of abortion, the growing religious pluralism and increasingly vocal opposition to the church – are often listed as emotional trigger points in the call to “rally the troops” in defense of “our Christian nation.” Then, in manic fashion, far too many Christians set out to storm the gates of secularism.
The result should disturb us. Sermons are boomed from the pulpit which marry the Gospel message to political agendas. Bumper stickers decorate dilapidated vehicles with clever catch phrases and trite (yet imaginative) imagery. Petty wars are waged against shopping chains who choose to utter “Season’s Greetings” rather than “Merry Christmas” as if Jesus was suddenly defined within the context of materialistic commerce.
It gets worse. Those who shape Christianity’s public image are almost always those who are the most visible and the most vocal, and they are usually those whose controversial antics draw out the media in frenzied droves. To those outside the faith, the whole of Christendom is often seen in terms of intolerance, homophobia, and scandal. It is no wonder that our cultural influence is diminishing; we have been woefully poor stewards of power.
So we see a steady decline of Christianity in the west. What had been the central hub of Christian influence for the past 500 years is slowly diminishing, but this stark image is scarcely the full picture. While we see this deterioration in Europe and North America, we see the precise opposite in the Global South. According to the statistics reported in the World Christian Encyclopedia, at the turn of the twentieth century, less than 10% of the population in Africa was Christian (approximately 9.9 million individuals); a century later, that number is closer to 50% and the population has grown exponentially (approximately 360 million Christians). We see a similar explosion in China and Latin America. Christianity is not dying by any stretch, but its geographical hub is shifting dramatically, returning to the regions out of which it was born nearly 2000 years ago in a manner rivaling the world-shaking movement of the first century church.
The Hope Of The West
These regions bear stark differences: China is a nation of exceptional affluence and scientific development; Latin America has the science but their people are often buried in poverty; Africa has neither science nor affluence. All of them share a fundamental similarity, however, when it comes to the explosion of Christianity. In every place, Christianity was a powerful counter-cultural movement whose presence took root at the margins and whose impact derived not from privilege or influence, but from an embodiment of the life-transforming presence of the Holy Spirit.
This is the hope of the west. As our privilege declines, we will be forced to reexamine our faith in light of a living embodiment rather than a political empowerment. We will need to return to being a people whose central loyalty is to a “kingdom not of this world” rather than a nationalist blend of civic religion. In other words, we will need to remember what it is to fully and completely become the living ecclesia – the church marked by the unity, transformation, and empowerment of the Spirit of God. I think Bryan Stone put it beautifully in his book Evangelism After Christendom:
“Jesus talked about the reign of God as a radically new order that comes to put an end to the age-old patterns of wealth and poverty, domination and subordination, insider and outsider that are deeply ingrained in the way we relate to one another on this planet. But in order for that new order to become a serious option for the world, it must be visibly and imaginatively embodied in the world. And if Scripture is a faithful witness, the purpose of God throughout history is the creation and formation of a new people whose mission is to do just that.”
The cultural influence of western Christianity is dying, but it is only in death that we find resurrection; it is precisely in this cultural shattering of the Christian west that we will come to reclaim the heart of the Christian message, becoming a people who cease to embody the political motif of power and subjugation and instead become the counter-cultural living witness of the New Creation.
What do you think? How do you see the relationship between faith and culture?
Image Credit: Salim Photography