One need not agree with everything Os Guinness says to be deeply impressed by his insights, his big-picture thinking, and his concern for the church. We get more of this in his latest volume, which has the subtitle, “The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times.”
The book sets out to answer this question: “Can the Christian church in the advanced modern world be renewed and restored even now and be sufficiently changed to have a hope of again changing the world through the power of the gospel? Or is all such talk merely whistling in the dark – pointless, naive and irresponsible?”
Much of his case is laid out in the first chapter, with following chapters looking at matters in more detail. So let me mainly focus on his opening chapter. In it he makes the case that the West is at a crossroads because the Western church is indeed at a crossroads, and how both will travel in the years ahead is not all that clear.
“Only God knows,” he says. “My own best assessment is that we are in a time of momentous transition, for we are living in the twilight of five hundred years of Western dominance of the world.” But “at this juncture, the West has cut itself off from its own Jewish and Christian roots – the faith, the ideas, the ethics and the way of life that made it the West.”
Thus the West can no longer stand against its opponents, and it is at sea in terms of what it even thinks of itself. It has lost its identity as it has lost its roots. What made the West great is no longer with us, and it now faces a very uncertain future:
The West has beaten back the totalitarian pretensions of both Hitler’s would-be master race in Germany and Stalin’s would-be master class in the Soviet Union. But it now stands weak and unsure of itself before its three current menaces: first, the equally totalitarian, would-be master faith of Islamism from the Middle East; second, the increasingly totalitarian philosophy and zero-sum strategies of illiberal liberalism; and third, the self-destructive cultural chaos of the West’s own chosen ideas and lifestyles that are destroying its identity and sapping its former strength.
And the consequences of all this are nothing less than monumental:
Western cultural elites have disregarded God for more than two centuries, but for a while the effects were mostly confined to their own circles. At first, they disregarded God. Then they deliberately desecrated Western tradition and lived in ways that would have spelled disaster if they had been followed more closely. But now in the early twenty-first century, their movement from disregard to desecration to decadence is going mainstream, and the United States is only the lead society among those close to the tipping point.
Soon, as the legalization and then normalization of polyamory, polygamy, pedophilia and incest follow the same logic as that of abortion and homosexuality, the socially destructive consequences of these trends will reverberate throughout society until social chaos is beyond recovery. We can only pray there will be a return to God and sanity before the terrible sentence is pronounced: ‘God has given them over’ to the consequences of their own settled choices.
As mentioned, as the church goes, so goes the West. It is because so much of the Western church no longer resembles what it is supposed to look like that the West has began to disintegrate so severely and so frighteningly. Guinness has written much over the years about this issue. Here he continues his critique of the church:
A striking symptom of the church’s problems in the West today is that fact that in a country such as the United States, Christians are still the overwhelming majority of citizens, but the American way of life has moved far away from the life of Jesus – which means simply that the Christians who are the majority are living a way of life closer to the world than to the way of Jesus. In a word, they are worldly and therefore incapable of shaping their culture.
This has been the big problem with the Western church. Instead of transforming the surrounding culture and being a force of cultural renewal, it has allowed the surrounding culture to transform it, rendering it salt-less, lightless and lifeless. The clash between the world and the church has largely been won by the former:
The truth is that the greatest enemy of the Western church is not the state or any ideology such as atheism, but the world and the spirit of the age. Anything less than a full-blooded expression of the Christian faith has no chance of standing firm against the assaults and seductions of the advanced modern world. So when the church becomes worldly, she betrays her Lord, and she also fails to live up to her calling to be dangerously different and thus to provide deliverance from the world by a power that is not of the world.
If the West is on the ropes, and perhaps out for the count, at least it can do all it can to warn the rest of the world not to follow its mistakes. Because I am in Malaysia as I write this, his advice in this regard is worth repeating. In the second chapter he talks about the Western church’s responsibility to the rest of the world’s churches:
We who are Christians in the advanced modern world have a duty to share the story of our own dealings with modernity with our sisters and brothers in the Global South who are yet to face its full impact. The overall challenge of modernity is summarized in the gravedigger thesis – the idea that the Western church was the single strongest source of the ideas that shaped the rise of the modern world, yet the Western church has become culturally captive to the world to which it gave rise. In so doing, it has become its own gravedigger.
Having just recently sat with a group of Asian church leaders around a board room table, I felt compelled to share with them this passage from the end of his book. He is talking about the ongoing need of church reformation, and says this:
The Reformation, in other words, did not come [fully] then, and our much needed reformation today will not come, when Christian leaders sit around a board table with yellow pads and outline their vision from “mission” to “measurable outcomes.” Rather, it will come when men and women of God wrestle with God as Jacob wrestled with the angel – wrestling with God, with their consciences, with their times and with the state of the church in their times, until out of that intense wrestling comes an experience of God that is shattering and all-decisive, and the source of what may later once again be termed a reformation. “I will not let you go unless you bless.”
Until we get serious about God, and seek him until we have seen him break through in new and tangible ways, the Western church looks to be about over. And if that is the case, the West is about over too. But it need not end this way. How the church in the West responds in this time of crisis is paramount.
Guinness says he is guardedly optimistic about our future: The church “has a proven record of being the greatest people-changing and world-changing force in history.” Yes, God has done it before and he can do it again. May he do so in the West today.
But it will take sacrifice and commitment on our part to make it happen. This volume helps us to see the bigger picture as we seek to make all this a reality. We can again see a renewed and restored church having a great impact on the rest of the world. Or the Western church may keep sliding into oblivion. The choice is in many ways our own.
(Available in Australia at Koorong Books)