In my last article I compared the church in the West today to a dying organization that had failed to adjust to changing times. In saying this, I don’t think the church in the West needs to become relevant for the sake of this value itself, that would be the church capitulating to culture. However, I do think that the people of God today need to discern the voice of the Spirit who is saying that God is doing a new thing in the Western church today.
In his book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, Alan Roxburgh says that the church in the West has been unraveling for some time. He quotes some fascinating statistics
If you were born between 1925 and 1945 there is a 60 percent chance that you are in church today. If you were born between 1946 and 1964 there is a 40 percent chance that you are in church today. If you were born between 1965 and 1983 there is a 20 percent chance that you are in church today. If you were born after 1984 there is a 10 percent chance that you are in church today.
Even though these statistics can seem discouraging, at the same time I think they indicate that God is up to something. Roxburgh says,
`This is not an improbable thought. The Spirit loves to send us into the wilderness to do his refining work. As Jesus was sent into the desert to be tested is this our time in the desert, this liminal space, which will bring about the new that God is birthing?
I think it is and so my posture today is essentially one of hope for the church in the West: hope in the midst of a darkening world and hope in the midst of church decline.
We often lament the decline of the Church in the West and even compare it to the thriving “global” church, however could it be that “revival” in the Western church is looking a little different to how it manifested in the past? I wonder if God is quietly at work today in the Western church for its renewal and revival? What are some signs of hope which signal the start of something new?
Where can we see the whispers of prophetic hope in the Western church today? Here is where I see hope based on interactions and observations I have had of the church in my context. The Spirit loves to send us into the wilderness to do his refining work. Click To Tweet
Five Reasons to Have Hope
Neighborhood Rather than Church
Once we make the shift from asking “What is God doing in my church?” to “What is God doing in my neighborhood?” radical change occurs in thinking about our purpose as God’s community on earth. This does not mean that we ignore the church, or that we stop investing in the church. Instead, we see the church as one very important part of the neighborhood ecosystem. We renounce the dualism that says sacred spaces exist in the church but not in our community, workplace and public places. Rather than focusing on creeds, information and conferences as helpful as those things are, we refuse to endorse a disembodied faith that fails to put into practice what we believe. More and more I see churches that are taking seriously a theology of the neighborhood.
Embodied Spirituality not Gnosticism
Evangelicals might believe in an orthodox expression of Christianity but often I find that they practice a form of Gnosticism. I have written about this before.
Catholic priest Oscar Romero once said
Unfortunately, brothers and sisters, we are the product of a spiritualized, individualistic education. We were taught: Try to save your soul and don’t worry about the rest. We told the suffering: Be patient, heaven will follow, hang on. No, that’s not right, that’s not salvation!
No, it is not salvation. It is also not Christianity to practice a belief which focuses on escaping from the world rather than working with God on his mission to restore and reconcile the world until the return of Christ at the consummation of all things. Too often we have embodied a “not realized enough” eschatology where we wait for the end to come thinking that God will destroy our world rather rather than restore it through our cooperation with his work.
This does not mean that we are able to usher in some kind of humanistic utopia, what it does mean is that we take seriously today the sacredness of our world, neighborhood and our humanity. Today I see that many churches in the West are taking seriously a grounded spirituality that is “this-worldly” rather than “other-worldly” leading to an identification with the poor, marginalized and those who have little hope. 'We told the suffering: Be patient, heaven will follow.' - Oscar Romero Click To Tweet
Integration of evangelism, social justice and mission
This grounded spirituality also reveals a new integration that is emerging between evangelism, social justice and mission. More and more I see that churches are repudiating the old distinctions which framed evangelism as more important than social justice and vice versa. Instead we are recognizing the relevance of integrating the three things in our witness to the world. Many are beginning to understand the interdependence between mission and evangelism realizing that one cannot happen without the other.
Scattered and gathered
When the missional church began to gain some traction, many saw this as a reaction against more attractional styles of church. That may be true however, some people felt that missional was contra the idea of the gathered church. What some people heard was that the church needed to reclaim its scattered identity and for that to happen the gathered church had to take a back seat. Whether or not this is what was intentionally communicated is debatable, however the effect was to force a wedge between gathered and scattered church.
While I think the two concepts are important, my observation is that more churches are beginning to understand that both notions of gathered and scattered are important for the church. The church needs to be taught that we are still the church after we meet and that mission outside the gathering is important, however this does not nullify the need to gather and to be equipped for mission. I see more churches understanding that the purpose of the gathering is to train Christians and encourage us for mission in the world. We are blessed, chosen and redeemed so that we might be a blessing to others. The purpose of the gathering is to train Christians & encourage us for mission in the world. Click To Tweet
Discipleship As a Way of Life
More churches are beginning to understand that programs are not able to replace “way of life” discipleship. Leaders are realizing that being a faithful presence in the world is what God asks of us and so we leave the change up to God. Instead of massive events and highly coordinated programs, Christians are seeing the value in simply embodying the gospel and living out the good news in their community. As we do this we find that it is instinctive to then invite others to join us on the story that we are living. Stanley Hauerwas in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew says;
To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible.
I see more Christians understanding the importance of practicing this faithful presence in their communities.
There are many signs of hope in the Western church today in my view. Sometimes I wonder if we have become so enamored with the narrative that tells the story of the demise of the church in the West, that we have forgotten to practice the Christian value of Hope. Here is my favorite prophet Walter Brueggemann inspiring us to keep hoping in God’s work in the Western church today. I think this quote from The Prophetic Imagination is especially pertinent in the dark times we live in where the church can shine even more brightly.
Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.
Where do you see whispers of hope and signs of revival in the church today?