Evangelize or Fossilize: A Solution to a Declining Church in the West
The following headlines covered the front page of the Australian MailOnline on 28 June 2022: Christianity is on the decline as the number of ‘non religious’ Aussies surges ahead in the latest census
The news article then provides the final numbers of the 2021 Australian census which reveals that only 43.9% of Australian’s now identifies as Christian – a decline of 17.2% since the census of 2011. It also reports that more Aussies now claim to be non-religious than ever before – 39% compared to only 22% ten years ago.
If the data is contextualised it reveals a far grimmer picture. Nearly 1,900 Christians have left their faith every day of the year for the past 5 years – more than 3,46 million in total. If we take an average attendance of a church to be 250 then it means 13,840 churches have emptied over the past 5 years. This is more than just a disaster; it is a tragedy! A disaster is usually a widespread event with negative outcomes and affects those nearby, but a tragedy is personal. It affects us all. We are taught in scripture that if one part of the body suffers, all the other parts suffer with it (1 Corinthians 12:26) and the spiritual loss of loved ones in Australia should therefore be addressed as a matter of deep urgency by the body of Christ globally.
So, is Christianity dying?
Fortunately not. This is only a trend that affects the non-persecuted world.
A BLESSING CAMOUFLAGED AS A CURSE
I say ‘non-persecuted’ Church because church decline is not a global phenomenon. It is generally NOT a challenge faced by those who scatter the seeds of the gospel in the midst of persecution.
In the early 1970s, there were an estimated 3 million Christians in China. Today, the number may be as high as 130 million. This translates to more than 6,500 new converts every day of the year for the past 55 years.
The Church in the Middle East is thriving! Yes, suffering and persecution is a deep reality, but believers are thriving in their witness of the cross. The Middle East is proving to be a region of growth, not despite persecution but because of persecution. The church is growing faster now than ever before in the Middle East. Even with groups of Christians immigrating from places like Iraq, Iran, and Syria the church has entered a new era and is not the same church. It has branched out into new forms and instead of merely surviving in the Middle East – it is reviving!
Figures show that in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Christianity was practically non-existent just over a hundred years ago. There were only 80 Christians in the UAE in 1910 (0.1 per cent of the population) and 50 in Saudi Arabia, even less than 0.1 per cent, according to a recent study. However, one hundred years later in 2010, Christianity had exploded to 12.6 per cent of UAE’s population and 4.4 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s. Between the two countries alone there are now well over one million Christians. While by no means a majority, this represents significant growth in such a conservative Islamic region.
In Iran, guestimates are that there are between 1 and 2 million converts. Mark Bradley, a writer about Iranian Christianity, claims that more Iranians had become Christians in the past 25 years than in the past 13 centuries combined.
In June 2020, the Research Institute for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN, conducted an online survey amongst 40,000 Iranians living in Iran. Compared with Iran’s 99.5% census figure, only 40% identified themselves as Muslim with younger people reporting high levels of irreligiosity and converting to Christianity.
In Africa, in the last 15 years alone, the Church has seen a 51% increase, which works out on average at around 33,000 people either becoming Christians or being born into Christian families each day in Africa alone.
So, what went wrong in Australia?
BECAUSE IT’S NOT UNBIBLICAL WE MADE THE NON-BIBLICAL, BIBLICAL
Christian communities in the West are mostly comfort-filled and risk-free gathering zones. Go to any European, American or even South African suburban Church and chances are good there will be aircon in the building, coffee in the foyer and comfortable pews in the hall – not to mention the bands, the lights and the sound systems. There is nothing wrong with that. And even though this is non-Biblical, it is not unbiblical – meaning that nowhere in Scripture do we read that Christians lived a risk-free life but neither do we find Scriptures commanding us not to do so. Or do we?
Well, maybe not in so many words but Jesus did warn His disciples of the lures of prosperity leading to comfort and ending in slavery (Matthew 6:24) “No one can be a slave of two masters; you will hate one and love the other; you will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
- Randy Alcorn adds these thoughts to the words of Jesus: “Money makes a good servant to those who have the right master, but it makes a terrible master itself.
- W.Tozer puts it this way: “Any temporal possession can be turned into everlasting wealth. Whatever is given to Christ is immediately touched with immortality.”
- Theologian Jacques Ellus says that the only way to defeat the godlike power that money seeks to impose on our lives is to give it away, which he calls “profaning it”: “To profane money, like all other powers, is to take away its sacred character. This destroys its power over us. Every time I give, I declare that money does not control me. Perpetual generosity is a perpetual [devaluing] of money.”
So, how do we stop the decay?
THE PATTERN OF PROCLAIMING IS THE PATTERN OF PERSECUTION
The early Church had a very specific church-planting model. It was not developed in boardrooms or discipleship classes. It was a pattern that developed naturally, instinctively, and unintentionally, and at its core was persecution. The process is described in Acts 8 where Saul tried to destroy the church; going from house to house, dragging out the believers and throwing them into jail, and, then in verse 4, the believers who were scattered went everywhere, preaching the message.
My interpretation of their church planting model is something like this:
As they preached, the church grew. As the church grew, they were persecuted. As they were persecuted, they were scattered. As they were scattered, they preached. As they preached, the church grew. As the church grew, they were persecuted… As they were persecuted, they were scattered. … Etc
If one of these links in the chain of evangelism is broken, the process comes to a halt and the Church fossilizes.
Nowhere in the early days of Christian evangelism do we find the luxuries of modern seeker-friendly comforts. As a matter of fact, the early message for those who followed Christ was quite simple: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). By the way, in the Greek, the word all means, all, so every believer will face persecution; at least if they are living “a godly life in Christ.”
But then, as persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire came formally to an end in 311 CE, faith embarked on a new unexplored road of relative freedom and status. The Church now had something to lose and something to prove. In 313, Constantine (c. 272-337) legalized Christianity and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380. This new expression of faith allowed for believers to integrate into a new social order where Christianity was not only accepted but now enjoyed privileges and protection unknown to the early Church.
Richard Rohr wrote an article stating that the single most unfortunate thing that happened to Christianity was the disappearance of persecution. He wrote the following:
I’m sure the Emperor Constantine thought he was doing Christians a favour when he ended official persecution and made Christianity the established religion of the empire. Yet it might be the single most unfortunate thing that happened to Christianity. Once we moved from the margins of society to the centre, we developed a new film over our eyes. After that, we couldn’t read anything that showed Jesus in confrontation with the establishment, because we were the establishment, and usually egregiously so. Clear teaching on issues of greed, powerlessness, nonviolence, non-control, and simplicity were moved to the side-lines, if not actually countermanded.
As long as the Church bore witness from the margins in some sense, and as long as we operated from a minority position, we had greater access to the truth, to the Gospel, to Jesus. In our time we have to find a way to disestablish ourselves, to identify with our powerlessness instead of our power, our dependence instead of our independence, our communion instead of our individualism. Unless we understand that, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) isn’t going to make any sense.
When the position of the Church morphed from persecuted to privileged, from disadvantaged to advantaged, from marginalised to favoured, from minority to majority, and from being scattered to being protected, everything changed – including, and especially, evangelism and missions.
And once Christians fail to evangelise, they fossilize
Enter Australia – and Europe and the USA for that matter
So, is there hope for the declining Church in the West?
A SOLUTION CAMOUFLAGED AS A CHALLENGE
Yes, there is hope. There is always hope. Not just for Australia but for all Western nations that have lost the opportunity to intimately share the cross of Christ through persecution.
But the solution is not always that obvious and for those who suffer from inattentional blindness it might even present itself as a curse – something to oppose and resist. The simple truth is this, the answer to restoring Church growth will come from those who are scattered: THE MARGINALISED, THE PERSECUTED, THE DISPLACED
And God has already provided a solution for the church in Australia. According to the 2021 census, since 2016 more than one million migrants arrived in Australia. More than 80 per cent of them arrived before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“Yes, we all know the scripture of caring for foreigners and opening our hearts to the destitute and marginalised, but practicalities are much different today” I hear you say. “Well, not really!” is my answer. And I say this because I researched this.
Firstly, before looking at the spiritual revival that follows those who “are scattered like seed”, let’s look at the practical and economic implications.
In an analysis conducted by UNHCR border protection teams in various locations in Greece, interviews were conducted with Syrian refugees who arrived in the country between April and September 2015. The UNHCR commented as follows: “Those Syrians interviewed reported a very high level of education. Overall, the profile (of the refugees) is of a highly-skilled population on the move.”
The influx of skilled people could therefore greatly benefit the economy of Australia, Europe and the USA over the next 10 to 16 years, since research shows that, on average, a refugee can expect to remain a refugee for 17 years. For example, the Refugee Council of Australia has demonstrated that 65% of current enterprises involve refugees from non-English speaking backgrounds. A good illustration of the entrepreneurial character that a refugee arrival brings was shown in the 2000 Business Review Weekly’s annual “Rich 200” list: it revealed that five of Australia’s eight billionaires were people whose parents migrated to this country as refugees.
If this applies to the economy, then it can also apply to spiritual matters
Germany welcomed beyond one million refugees in 2015, 430,000 of whom fled from Syria. Many Christians expressed the fears that this will be the Islamisation of Europe and God’s judgement on Europe becoming secular
Dr Detlef Blöcher (Previous Director of the Christian Relief and Missionary Work in Germany) however painted a different picture. He shared the relatively strong readiness there was on the part of the older generation in Germany to take in these refugees due to the memories of their own experience of forced displacement out of the former German areas in Eastern Europe. Thus their experience underscores the sustainability of a biblical ethics of empathy as the basic approach for dealing with refugees and migrants today.
Today, seven years later, Dr Blocher testifies that more than 50,000 Muslim refugees have become genuine followers of Christ with thousands more being exposed to the Gospel. One thing Dr Blöcher emphasised is that none of these converts would have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, and accept Christ without fear, if they had remained in their countries of origin. He also expressed the joy that there was a new awareness of mission amongst believers because “God has now sent the missionfield to Germany”
But, of significant importance, was the conclusion of Dr Bloecher: “After seven year we have found that the refugee converts have becomes the necessary “blood infusion” for the indigenousness German church. If it was not for the refugees we would have reached a point of non-existence in the near future as the German population becomes more and more secular.”
What an incredible picture of a Sovereign God who wants all to be saved – in Australia, Syria, America and Russia. Unless we return to the Biblical model of being Church the future looks bleak. Unless we are scattered and evangelise, we will fossilize
So, next time you encounter a stranger in your country, thank the Lord for caring enough about your “own” people that He would send some “scattered seed” from abroad to bear fruit in a nation that is not their own. Remember, God’s priority is redemption, not our comfort nor our security, but redemption – at all costs and at any cost – the cross is proof of this.