Very few people are unaware of our global financial crisis. Yet many would be unaware that this financial meltdown may well be a symptom of a much greater and more significant crisis – a global spiritual crisis. Certainly in the Western world – where the financial crisis is primarily playing itself out – there is a mammoth moral and spiritual crisis brewing.
I speak particularly of the meltdown of the Christian church in the West, and its rebirth in other parts of the globe. It seems that it is no longer appropriate to speak about the “Christian West”. Many Western nations today are at best only nominally Christian.
Indeed, one can go further and say that generally speaking, the West is no longer Christian, but post-Christian. And the sad news is, there is often little that separates nations which are post-Christian from becoming anti-Christian. We see that happening on a regular basis now in much of the Western world.
Europe of course is in many ways a basket case, spiritually speaking. It is the most secular continent on the planet. America is probably still the most Christian nation in the West, but it is often an anemic and spiritually impoverished Christianity which is found there.
All this is not to say that there are few believers in the West. Quite to the contrary, there are multiple millions of them. And it is not to say that there is nothing of the Spirit of God left in the West. God is alive and well and actively doing many great things throughout the Western world. Nor is it to say that God has abandoned the West. But in many ways the West has largely abandoned God.
For so much of the past millennia, to speak of Western civilisation was to speak of Christian civilisation. The development of the West was largely the work of the Judeo-Christian worldview. The West became great in large measure because it was primarily Christian.
Of course other streams fed into what became the West and its many achievements. But Christianity played a huge role in all this. Many have spoken to this theme. As just one example, readers might consult the work of sociologist Rodney Stark. His 2005 volume, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success is a fact-filled and superbly documented study which I recommend most highly.
But the Christian basis of Western success is eroding rapidly. The West in many ways is living on the moral and spiritual capital of its Judeo-Christian heritage. That cannot last long. As the flame of Christianity flickers and fades in the West, one can rightly ask how long the triumph of Western civilisation can last.
However, to speak of the decline of Christianity in the West is not to argue that it is fading world-wide, and is on the way out. Quite the opposite is the case: while the Christian faith may be deteriorating big time in many parts of the West, it is in the non-Western world where we see a vibrant and growing Christianity.
Many religious observers have noted this trend. But it certainly received widespread attention in Philip Jenkins’ important 2002 study, The Next Christendom. In it he pointed out that the centre of gravity for the Christian world was moving away from the West and to the developing world. It was moving out of the northern hemisphere, and moving south.
Says Jenkins, “We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. Over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations. . . . The stereotype holds that Christians are un-black, un-poor and un-young. If that is true, then the growing secularization of the West can only mean that Christianity is in its dying days.”
However, the good news is, God is not finished yet with planet earth. As Jesus assured us in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. Thus God is still at work, but it’s just that things have shifted a bit – away from the West and toward the developing world. Says Jenkins,
“Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia and Latin America. . . .Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South – not just surviving but expanding. This trend will continue apace in coming years. Many of the fastest growing countries in the world are either predominantly Christian or else have very sizable Christian minorities.”
Thus the Christian growth hotspots today are, and tomorrow will be, in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America. As Jenkins notes on his last page, “Christianity is flourishing wonderfully among the poor and persecuted, while it atrophies among the rich and secure”. Which takes us back to my opening paragraph. The West is experiencing an economic meltdown, which may well have some tie-in with its de-Christianisation.
I have written elsewhere about how God can certainly use a financial crisis to get our attention, to wake us up, and snap us out of our lethargy, laziness and lukewarmness. It seems that only a powerful revival of God can shake and restore much of the comatose church in the West.
But in the meantime God is quite active in the non-West. To be sure, there are problems with Southern Christianity. As Jenkins notes, while it lays much more stress on the supernatural, on healings, and on the prophetic, it also has shortcomings, such as widespread syncretism.
But while the Western church awaits resurrection, God is achieving his purposes in other parts of the globe. The fact that God has not yet given up on this recalcitrant and rebellious world is good news indeed. But let us pray that the Western church – once so strong and so vitally alive – will come forth from the dead, and regain its place as a spiritual dynamo.
Ezekiel could foresee a day when Israel would be transformed from a valley of dry bones to a living and vibrant community (Ezekiel 37). Yahweh told Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD’” (37:4-6).
May that be our prayer for the church in the West which in so many ways appears to be a valley filled with dry bones. It desperately needs new life breathed into it by the Spirit of God. If not, it will simply continue on its downward path. Let us pray with the psalmist, “Revive us again” (Psalm 85:6).