I put out on a few of my social networking connections, yesterday, some random thoughts of mine. My thoughts: there is a lot of focus, at least here in the “west”, on the decline of the church in the west and the increase of other religions. But that supposes, by many of the ways the problem is posed, that somehow Christianity needs to be preserved in the west because the west is Christian. This goes beyond the USA as a Christian nation but into a set of regional blinders that, for some reason, we see Christianity as “owned” by the west and, if we don’t preserve it in the west, it’s gone forever.
There was a study done recently by a Mennonite sociologist (Conrad Kanagy) who examined growth patterns of that denomination and noted that, yes, that denomination (among many) is in the decline in the “west”. You can read some of Conrad’s analysis and conclusions in his book Winds of the Spirit. But when you look at southern hemisphere nations, eastern nations, etc., churches who identify themselves as influenced by Mennonite teaching are actually on a rather steep incline. I would be willing to bet that such is the case even among other denominations.
So, the question in my mind is this: Is it really that vital to preserve “Western” Christianity? Or should we actually rejoice and interact with the Christianity that is finding new life and new birth in other global regions?
During the course of conversations, a few points were drawn out that need to be considered.
First, a point was made about the “maturity” of the western church in its theological and institutional structures. There are approximately 500+ years of history behind the Protestant and Anabaptist expressions of the church and 1000+ years of history behind the Roman Catholic expression. Prior to that, the Orthodox churches (from which Roman Catholicism arose) can trace their history to at least the 4th century as a fully fleshed out tradition and, perhaps, even a little earlier. There is a lot of history behind the church of the west and a lot of theological thought that goes along with it. To simply discard this history and all that has come out of it (both good and bad) would be a tragedy. To completely lose this expression would be equivalent to smashing the rosette stained glass window of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The building just would not have the same beauty.
In response to this, I think we need to keep in mind that Notre Dame has more stained glass windows, all beautiful in their own rights, than just the rosette. And we cannot ignore that the cathedral also has beauty in the stone carvings, the statuary, the flying buttresses and spires, the bell towers, and all the other architectural elements. Additionally, the grounds around the outside of the cathedral with the parks and gardens and such are also beautiful. Some of these elements are newer than others. In fact, if I remember correctly, the parks and gardens are very recent. But the age (or youth) of the pieces does not negate the beauty. I use this analogy to point out that there are Christian traditions in other areas of the world, some newer than the primary Western traditions, some just as old, in which there can be found profound theological thought and expression, beautiful traditions, and some amazing work done for the Kingdom. So, while it may happen that Western Christianity sees a decline in the next few decades, the beauty of the cathedral of God built of many global traditions, while diminished, is not lost. In fact, it may be that by allowing the West to decline some, we may leave room for churches in China, India, Africa, and South America to blossom and mature in ways that would not be possible in a western dominated Christianity.
Someone brought up a point about church governance and suggested that one of the reasons why the non-”western” regions of the world have a problem accepting western Christianity is because they have a problem with “Christian” forms of governance within the church. The argument was made that the ecclesiastical structures we’ve built in the west are the proper structures theologically and biblically and, therefore, should be applied globally. I cannot deny that Paul writes in his letters to the churches about particular roles to be filled within congregations. Evangelist, pastors(shepherds), teachers, prophets, and apostles are all pretty clear roles within the church. And there is even talk about oversight, about roles of authority, within the early church.
However, considering that, in the first decades of the church, it was a persecuted and minority movement with no real home buildings and where any clear ecclesiastical structure claiming authority over a group of people would be considered treasonous to the Roman empire, I’m not convinced that the hierarchical structures of the church such as we see in most of the Western expressions are necessarily critical to a “proper” expression of church. When it comes to authority, a western expression is that authority means that someone is in charge and, therefore, is over others. There are leaders and followers. But as I read in the Bible and as I study more about that early church, while there is oversight to make sure teaching is kept within a certain set of bounds, when it comes to the regular activities of the individual congregations, everyone participated on some equal level in the work of the church. There wasn’t just one teacher, necessarily, but perhaps several with the gift. Not just one prophet, but many people would bring a word. Not just one shepherd but several people looking out for the needs of the group. And so on. So, while our structures work, I am not convinced that they are, somehow, the structures that must be used for “proper” Christianity. In the more communal, tribal cultures of indigenous Africa and South America, there is much more emphasis on the multiplicity of leaders and respected people within the community. If a church is planted there, they would not necessarily build a hierarchical structure, but one built, possibly, on a web of complex relationships.
Finally, there is the question of “mature” theology. Some would argue that, because we in the west have had a more continuous stream of Christianity, the theology we have built is more robust, more correct, and more complete than the theology of some of the younger church expressions in Africa, Central America, and eastern Asia. And, to some extent, this is correct. Theology in the west is built upon, refined, and honed based upon thoughts and writings of the previous generation and so we have spent a lot of time answering certain questions and honing those answers to sharper and sharper perfection. It seems, in recent years, that we have come full circle where we may have exhausted a lot of what we can talk about on certain topics and find ourselves simply re-expressing the same ideas, adding reinforcement to centuries of tradition. Some things are questioned, but much seems to be already locked in.
And to this I answer, “How do we know that the answers we have today are so correct?” As broad as the western tradition is, if all we are doing is asking the same questions all the time and debating the finer points of the same answers, perhaps we need to take a step back and ask whether or not the questions we are answering are the right questions to ask in the first place? Or, perhaps, if we need to take a step back and think about whether the answers we are building on, influenced by Greek and Roman thought as they are, are not ignoring other perspectives from other ways of thinking about the world? Greek philosophy and Roman law are not the only ways to think about things. Eastern Orthodoxy has a strong sense of mysticism that we’re only really beginning to explore in the west in the recent decades. From Greek thought, there is the idea of a spirit world and a physical world. But other cultures don’t see quite so sharp a distinction and recognize that there is, perhaps, an interweaving or blurring of the lines between the two, kind of like a beach. Where does the water start and the land begin when there is this churning and turmoil and blending happening (H/T to Stephen Lawhead’s “Song of Albion” trilogy)? These are ways of looking at things that have been ignored in the west. We have favored Greco-Roman ways of looking at things. In a viewpoint of those boundary or twilight ways of looking at reality, the question of how can Jesus be both God and Man becomes irrelevant because such people don’t see it as a conflict. It is possible to be both spiritual and physical at the same time. While we in the west have answered a lot of questions with our theology, they are not the same questions someone in a different culture is asking and, perhaps, may not even be the right questions to ask as our own culture shifts and changes.
I am not saying we should throw out Western Christian thought and tradition and simply abandon it. That would just as bad, in my opinion, as ignoring other Christian traditions. Each piece of the tapestry of Christianity is woven together in a way that pulling out one thread or one section would reduce the beauty of the whole. But as I discussed in my article on the Pew study the decline may not necessarily be a bad thing. Perhaps it is time for the Western church to spend some time listening to and learning from people from other cultures, other views, as they bring some insights into the conversation that we may not have considered. This should not be “blindly” accepting of everything that comes from those places, just like they shouldn’t ”blindly” accept everything that comes from us. But as we all gather together now, in a much broader global perspective, by adding more voices to the conversation, perhaps our picture of the Kingdom, of God, and of our mission will have an even greater sense of beauty. Maybe it will be like when someone takes a step back from that cathedral in Paris, and, instead of focusing on the individual elements, take in the beauty of the whole.
I think that would be a marvelous thing.