The Greatest Challenge Ever Faced

By Os Guinness

“Grotesque schizophrenia” – That famous comment on American churches of the 1940’s came from Sayid Qt’b, a leading Muslim radical and one of Osama bin Laden’s favorite writers. He was not describing today’s churches, but the “white picket fence” congregations that he saw in Colorado long before the seismic sixties had left their mark. Twenty years later, Theodore Roszak described the Californian churches similarly as “privately engaging but publicly irrelevant,” a historian’s rendering of the schizophrenia the devout Muslim scorned, and which social scientists had long called the “privatization” of religion in the modern Western world.

Devoted followers of Christ can only wince. At the heart of our faith is an insistence on Christ’s lordship over all of life. Yet each of these observations describes something that is lethal to faith as well as shameful: a failure to integrate faith and life that is a betrayal of Jesus and a body-blow to the integrity and effectiveness of faith. Yet no enemy and no hostile philosophy have done this damage. We have done it to ourselves by conforming to the shape of the modern world and failing to be transformed.

This subtle but profound form of worldliness underscores how the modern world has done more damage to the church than all the persecutors in history – seducing us and shaping us even as we enjoy its blessings. And it needs to be taken seriously by all Christian pastors and leaders concerned with winning back the West today. Despite a band of voices speaking out on this issue over the last generation, and a large body of literature confirming it, a full realization of the scale and source of Christian captivity has still not sunk in for many.

Privatization, of course, is only one of many examples of the distortions of faith under the impact of the modern world. Earlier, when the first observers began to realize how much faith was changing under modern conditions, they concentrated on three major trends – secularization, privatization, and pluralization – and discussion has raged ever since on what has really happened and why. Some advocates of secularization, for example, used it as a cover for secularism, and their predictions that religion would disappear have proved monumentally wrong.

But we cannot dismiss the observation too lightly. While religion has not disappeared, it has been seriously distorted even where it is numerically strong – as in the United States. Secularization theory is accurate in seeing how faith in the modern world has virtually lost touch with the supernatural and become preoccupied almost completely with the saeculum, the “here and now” of this present age — which is why so many evangelicals are virtually atheists unawares or practicing atheists.

Today, under the conditions of the advanced modern world, the damage to religion is expressed somewhat differently – in describing the fateful shifts from community to individualism, from authority to preference, and from exclusiveness to syncretism. Take the second, for example. Instead of faith being decisive and authoritative, it has lost what Karl Barth called its “binding address.” The once-automatic link between belief and behavior has been eroded, and faith now operates as a preference. How else are we to explain a troubling fact? Never have evangelical statements of biblical authority and inerrancy been higher and clearer, yet never has evangelical behavior on the ground been more lax and corrupt. Indeed, in some areas evangelicals are approaching a meltdown of true Christian behavior.

This modern equivalent of what Luther called “the Babylonian captivity” of the church can be analyzed in various ways. But the implications are as important as the individual cases. Let me state four plainly.

First, the deepest problem of the Western church is the Western church. It is not the fact of external rivals, enemies, or traitors, however many or serious they may be in any of our societies. The religious right, among others, has been seriously off the mark on this point.

Second, the greatest captivity of the Western church is the shaping power of “modernity” – the entire spirit and system of the modern industrialized, globalized world. In other words, our challenge is not just intellectual but institutional, and the current vogue for concentrating on a more consistent Christian worldview is a massive case of missing the point. It is not alien worldviews that have done us in, and we will not regain strength solely by recovering a clear Christian worldview. Poor though our “thinking Christianly” is, it is our living, not our thinking that is the deepest problem.

Third, because of the nature of our Western problem, we cannot take refuge in the spectacular growth of the church in the global South. Real, utterly remarkable, and heartening though this growth is, the global South is almost entirely pre-modern. In other words, their challenge is still to come, and they are little help in tackling the core of ours. Our challenge, which will be one day theirs too, is to recover the lordship of Christ over the whole of life with such integrity and effectiveness that we become the first faith in the modern world not only to survive but prevail.

Fourth, it is utterly futile to attempt to escape the captivity of modernity by using only the keys offered us by modernity. “All truth is God’s truth,” and the Lord himself commanded the Israelites to “plunder the Egyptian gold,” though not to set up a Golden Calf. But never has it been more urgent to follow Hudson Taylor’s counsel to do “the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way,” and not in the world’s latest way — or as the church growth movement trumpeted, “on new grounds.” We have a problem in our reality, not just our image and perception, and our real need is reformation, not “re-branding.”

Let no one be beguiled by numerical growth, or political influence, or national power and prosperity. The modern world represents both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge the church has faced since the apostles. If ever there was a time to “let God be God” in reality and power, in our lives and not just our words, it is today. But that of course is the central cry of reformation as well as all true disciples.

© 2006 Os Guinness. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction of this article without permission is prohibited.