The Christian church is dying in the West. This is the painful
reality which is currently being avoided by some massive act of
collective suppression. To use terminology drawn from pastoral care,
the ecclesiastical institution is stuck in denial of its potential
demise. Unless the Western church embarks upon some substantial
process of reformation, the third millennium will dawn as the
None of the indicators are good. Over the twentieth century,
there has been an exodus from the church of epic proportions.
Fifteen years ago, David Barrett estimated that 53,000 people per
week were leaving the Christian church in Europe and North America,
and never coming back. This hemorrhage has not been stemmed. Not
only is the church losing its adherents at an alarming rate; it is
also failing to win new converts in any significant numbers.
The institution of the church has suffered the fate of other
central institutions such as the monarchy. An historical position of
respect, status and authority has become one of ridicule, derision
and irrelevance. The church in the West no longer speaks for or to
humanity. It appears to have become a marginalised and defensive
group pining for a moralistic past. Even the leaders of the
institution are beginning to lose confidence in it.
Recognition of the current crisis of the Western church may be
the beginning of hope. The precursor of reformation must be a deep
sense of grief for the state of the church, and lament over the
possibility of death. Denial is a blocking mechanism which robs us
of the energy for change. Any meaningful way forward involves not
escape from painful realities, but journey into and through them.
The present crisis quite possibly represents the call of God to the
Western church at the beginning of the third millennium: to change
The task of mission to Western culture looms as the great
challenge for the church. The situation now faced is one in which
Christianity lies in the past of the culture. No longer can the
gospel be presented as something new, with all the excitement
associated with novelty. For better of for worse, most Westerners
assume that they know what Christianity is about. It is about
intolerance, hypocrisy, repression, authority and abuse.
As modernity collapses, and the emerging postmodern culture
continues to gather strength, the church finds itself deeply
entwined with the order which is passing, and fearful of the new
world. There is a temptation to retreat from the challenge in order
to preserve Christian identity, rather than undertaking the
difficult journey across the border into uncharted territory.
Christian mission, however, as an expression of the incarnational
movement of Christ, has always demanded decentering and risk.
It so happens that there is an explosion of interest in
spirituality and the deeper issues of life and meaning among
participants in the emerging culture. Unfortunately, they do not
think of Christianity as having anything to do with their spiritual
quest, and would never consider turning to the church for help. But
let us not doubt that their hunger is an intuitive seeking after the
God whom Christians claim to have discovered in Christ.
Areas to be addressed in any reforming of the Western church for
mission are legion. The reformation called for will be comprehensive
and uncomfortable. There will be a need to renegotiate our
understanding of God. Currently our picture of God is rather
static and Hellenistic, relatively unaffected by our central
assertion that in Jesus we discover who God is. Our missionary
calling will proceed from an understanding of God as dynamic,
compassionate and eternally fresh.
The shape and structure of church needs to change. A
preoccupation with buildings and the concerns of a paid professional
clergy hamper the progress of mission. I firmly believe that the
church must relocate and become humanized if it is to survive. It
will not be possible for Christians to exist in isolation from the
wider human community, as if our main business were the maintenance
of a religious club.
It is vital that concepts of holiness undergo radical
transformation. Particularly in the evangelical wing of the church,
holiness has been equated with separation and moralism. Jesus could
be accused of neither. He mixed widely with those who were regarded
as 'sinners', to the detriment of his own reputation. And his
emphasis was not on clean living, but on the redemptive acceptance
and forgiveness of God.
For many years conversion has been regarded as an isolated
event which precedes entry to the church. This was a luxury which
was allowed because of a predominantly Christian culture. In the
present climate, we must look again to conversion as a process which
may well take place as a corollary of belonging to a group of
people seeking to respond to Jesus. We will need a much greater
emphasis on openness and acceptance within the church.
Clearly, spirituality is of great interest to the emerging
culture. Much Christian spirituality is currently inauthentic and so
unappealing. Reform for the sake of mission might look to a
spirituality which is earthed, holistic, relational, human,
passionate and embodied.
There are many other issues needing to be addressed, including
those of scripture and denominationalism. But the
primary call is to the process of change itself; the will to be
transformed for the sake of God's call to life. It remains to be
seen whether the church in the West is willing to pay the price of
following Christ into a new era.