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The Church, East and West

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As an American who has lived a long time in Australia but is now back in Europe again, it is interesting to see how the church of Jesus Christ is faring in various places. The global Christian movement is of course experiencing major changes at the moment, with once great centers of Christianity now a mere shell, while once pagan nations are seeing a real flourishing of the faith.

Being in Europe makes it once again quite apparent how very secular and biblically barren the continent is. Once of course it was the global heart of Christianity, but today it is the most pagan continent on the planet. And America, which looks like one big church, when compared to Europe, is also heading downhill spiritually speaking in so many ways.

Of course what the ordinary person does with his faith is often a far cry from what the ruling elites do. Some years ago sociologist Peter Berger quipped, “If India is the most religious nation in the world and Sweden the least religious, then the United States of America is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.”

While both leaders and so much of the populace of Europe are now largely secularized, in America you still have many millions of active and devout Christians, including perhaps 80 million evangelicals. But the numbers are of course misleading.

With so many believers, America really should be one big church, but the influence of Christianity on the rest of American culture is quite negligible indeed. Not only is so much of American Christianity now just a privatized, feel-good religion, but far too much of it is simply a reflection of the surrounding pagan culture.

Instead of leading the way and transforming the culture, so much of the American church is simply reflecting and imitating the surrounding culture. There is very little left of the church which is clearly distinctive, unique and countercultural.

I of course have written about this with much heaviness of heart far too often already. And others have as well. Let me mention just one such article, which actually appeared last year, but is well worth highlighting. Dorothy Greco also bemoans how American evangelicals by and large have allowed the surrounding culture to mold the church.

Her title is something I have often written on: “How the Seeker-Sensitive, Consumer Church Is Failing a Generation“. She begins:

The millennial generation’s much-talked-about departure from church might lead those of us over 30 to conclude that they have little interest in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, their spiritual coming of age has coincided with many Protestant pastors relying on a consumer business model to grow and sustain their churches. This template for doing church and the millennials’ hunger for authenticity has caused an ideological collision.

Seeker-sensitive services originally promised to woo post-moderns back into the fold. Out the stained glass window went the somewhat formal 45-minute exegetical sermon, replaced by a shorter, story-based talk to address the “felt needs” of the congregants while reinforcing the premise that following Jesus would dramatically improve their quality of life.

Contemporary worship had already found its way into the mainstream, but their new model nudged the church further toward a rock-concert feel. Finally, programs proliferated, with programs for nearly every demographic, from Mothers of Preschoolers to Red Glove Motorcycle Riders.

She continues:

Being aware of those who come through the doors of any organization is a good thing. I have walked out of many services without a single person engaging with me. However, many churches gradually, and perhaps unwittingly, transitioned from being appropriately sensitive to the needs of their congregants to becoming–if you’ll permit some pop-psychologizing–co-dependent with them.
What does co-dependence look like within a church? Avoiding sections of Scripture out of fear that certain power pockets will be offended. Believing that repeat attendance depends primarily upon the staff’s seamless execution of Sunday morning–rather than the manifest presence of God. Eliminating doleful songs from the worship repertoire because they might contradict the through line that “following Jesus is all gain.”

Jesus was neither a co-dependent nor a businessman. He unashamedly loved those on the margins and revealed himself to all who were searching. He seemed quite indifferent about whether or not he disappointed the power brokers. Additionally, Jesus understood that the irreducible gospel message—that we are all sinners in need of being saved—was, and always will be, offensive. No brilliant marketing campaign could ever repackage it.

You can read the rest of her piece at your leisure, but now compare all this with what is happening elsewhere. While the church in the West is going down the tubes fast, and in some places trying to get back to where it should be, God is not done with us yet.

He is still at work, especially in other parts of the world. A piece in a secular newspaper caught my attention the other day, and it was really quite encouraging. Consider what God is doing in the nation of China. While the faith is in decline in the West, that is certainly not the case in this giant Asian nation.

The headline alone is certainly very encouraging: “China on course to become ‘world’s most Christian nation’ within 15 years“. Wow. This is the place which not so long ago was slaughtering and/or imprisoning millions of believers. Here is the heart of the article:

Officially, the People’s Republic of China is an atheist country but that is changing fast as many of its 1.3 billion citizens seek meaning and spiritual comfort that neither communism nor capitalism seem to have supplied. Christian congregations in particular have skyrocketed since churches began reopening when Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 signaled the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Less than four decades later, some believe China is now poised to become not just the world’s number one economy but also its most numerous Christian nation. “By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. “It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change.”

China’s Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted. “Mao thought he could eliminate religion. He thought he had accomplished this,” Prof Yang said. “It’s ironic – they didn’t. They actually failed completely.”

Wow again. That is incredible stuff. Those are some incredible figures. As I said, God is not done with us yet. While the faith may be in decline big time in the West, it is growing, vibrant and on fire in other parts of the world. Jesus did say, “I will build my church”.

And that he is doing. Next week I will be in England, then soon after back to Australia. These four places (Europe, England, America and Australia) are all in a rather precarious condition when it comes to Christianity. But in Latin America, Africa, and Asia God is doing plenty of great things, and the church seems to be growing by leaps and bounds.

It is all leading to that one great day, when the bride has finally prepared herself for her bridegroom. As we read in Revelation 19:6-8:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:

“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

And that bride will be composed of so many different people: people from China and New Zealand and Nigeria and Iceland, to name a few places. What a day that will be.

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