As already noted in previous posts (2008: Oct 19; 2009: Jan 9, 23, Mar 11, 22, Apr 12, May 19), the face of global Christianity has been radically altered. Jehu Hanciles, Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West (2008), highlights how the development of Christianity into a non-Western religion has impacted Western Christendom.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (2001), the church in Europe and North America is losing members at a rate of six thousand members a day (just over 2.2 members a year). The level of apostasy is much higher with regard to churh attendance: roughly 2.7 million church attendees in Europe and North America cease to be practicing Christians every year (an average loss of seventy-six hundred every day). These extraordinary developments are substantiated by numerous reports (114).
How are we to respond to such information? Several options: We can dismiss this information as only academic, statistical mumbo-jumbo, or we can give way to resignation, hand wringing, and despair, or we can pursue the questions which this information provokes.
I believe that integrity and faithfulness demand that we pursue the obvious questions. Such questions as …
- Is this a signal that the church has lost its place of prominence in Western culture, or that faith has been successful translated into new places and fresh expressions?
- Does the decline in church attendance indicate an abdication of faith or that people are doing their faith in different ways and places?
- Where are those who leave going? To new religions, other forms of ‘spirituality’, or to the mall?
- Has denominationalism run its course and thus is the blame or cause of the statistical decline?
- Where would the church in Europe and North America be if not for Pentecostalism and Charismatics? If not for Christian immigrants from Africa and Latin America?
- Has the Western church merely succumbed to the long process of secularization and thus just needs to rediscover or rejuvenate its conservative and/or evangelical moorings?
- Is the information a call to re-double our efforts to re-evangelize the homeland, or is it a cause to rethink the nature and purpose of the church within Western culture?
- For what reason and on what basis should we continue sending missionaries to Africa, Latin America, and Asia?
- In what ways should the shift evoke adjustments in our personal and corporate lives?
- In what ways should the shift cause us to rethink faith, church, theology, missions, etc?
Tough questions! Some would say these kinds of questions should not be voiced aloud, less we undermine our evangelical and missionary commitment and resolve. Well, my contention is that to avoid these questions and blissfully continue doing church and missions as if nothing has changed is irresponsible. Faithfulness to the gospel and the mission of God demands that we not dodge, dismiss, or mask difficult or uncomfortable questions. Nor is it acceptable to just keep repeating well-worn answers. The change in world Christianity is massive, complex, and dynamic and thus demands that we make reasoned and intentional adjustments in our thinking, living and loving. Tough questions require an authentic response.