The Church’s mission is summarised succinctly at Matthew 28:18, known as the “Great Commission”.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (ESV)
Much has been said about the decline of the Church in the West, including the interpretation that it is beginning or harbinger of the Great Apostasy mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2 (which draws upon Matthew 24 – see Alan Kurshner’s table of parallels). The following factors are usually mentioned in these discussions:
- The Second Vatican Council
- WWI and WWII
- The influence of Marxism, Socialism, Post-modernism, Scientism, Empiricism, Existentialism, and Nihilism
- The fall of the British Empire
- The corruption of American politics
- The spread of psychologising tendencies within the Church
- Hypocrisy and scandals within the Church
- The influence of textual criticism and post-Enlightenment philosophy within first Protestantism and then Catholicism
- Globalism, including mass immigration
- The refusal of parts of the Church to engage with the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements
- Changes and lapses within the education systems of Europe, the UK, and the USA
There is probably some truth to each of these points. Assessments of the situation fall on a spectrum, the two poles being a denial that any of this is the Church’s fault and a hand-wringing capitulation that believes it is all the Church’s fault.
Neither of these extreme positions is particularly helpful. If we believe it is all our own fault, we will be tempted to think we can fix the situation entirely by just changing and putting all our efforts into those changes. This is unwise for several reasons.
- It runs the risk of burn-out: people exhausting themselves thinking that the answer is entirely within their own control. This will lead to demoralisation and despair.
- It overlooks free will. Calvinism is false. If we think we can manipulate people into the Kingdom, we cease treating them as people, we deny their inherent dignity, granted to them by God. Ultimately, it is each person’s choice whether he accepts the Gospel or not.
- It opens the way to temptation, the temptation to abandon the truths of our faith in order to make it more palatable to outsiders. This is not only immoral, but also foolish. The failure of this policy in the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and other Protestant denominations should furnish enough evidence to discourage such attempts.
- It overlooks the role of God in the process of evangelism. The Great Commission is sandwiched between the declaration that all authority is vested in Christ and that Christ is with us. Evangelism and the survival of the Church do not stop with us: God is intimately involved in those aims.
Equally, the extreme of thinking that this is entirely and external problem is unwise.
- It overlooks our duty to know the truth as best we can and to present the truth in the best way we can to outsiders who will listen to it. When we misrepresent the Gospel, albeit unintentionally, we do a disservice to outsiders; we run the risk of people rejecting the Gospel and doing so in a way that potentially could have been avoided.
- We run the risk of our love growing cold. If all we have for unbelievers is contempt, anger that they are rebelling against God, then we are hypocrites. We were unbelievers once, and which of us is completely without sin now? If we are to persevere in evangelism, we must make an effort to understand why the Gospel has been largely rejected by our countrymen. If we love them, we will do everything we can to help them make an informed decision.
- We run the risk of stagnation. Sometimes we need challenges, whether internal or external, to make us revisit our beliefs and practices. The Reformation was one such challenge. It successfully liberated common people from abuses carried out against them by certain sections of the clergy.
“Indifference” seems to be an apt description of the challenge the Church faces in the West. Persecution does play a part, but the conditions in the West are not identical to those that obtain in the East. There’s nothing we can do about that and we should not invite persecution. Persecution will naturally follow those who truly imitate Christ, but that is not the same thing as inviting it.
We can ask sincere questions (and treat the answers at face value) of people both inside and outside the Church. There is no guarantee that they will listen in turn to what we have to say, but questions are a starting point. We can pray: asking God for wisdom, for compassion, and for the strength to persevere. We can examine our own consciences and ask questions of ourselves. We must also be attentive: outsiders will generally not give us opportunities to share the Gospel (at least not at length).