Chapter 1. Is Christianity Dying?

<< Back to contents page

nietzsche

Have you heard the one about God dying?  This revolutionary notion was immortalized by Friedrich Nietzsche, in “The Gay Science,” Section 125 when he wrote, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

And how about Christianity, is it dead as well?  If we confined this question to the USA, the evidence appears overwhelming, at least in reference to the organized church in America.  In a June 2015 Time Magazine article, editor Joanna Plucinska writes,

“Confidence in the Church has been steadily declining since the 1980s.  As Americans become less religious, confidence in the Church as an institution is plummeting.  According to a recent Gallup poll, faith in organized religion dropped this year to just 42% in the U.S., its lowest point ever.  More Americans are now identifying as non-religious or as members of a non-Christian faith, according to the poll, which came from a sample of 1,527 individuals, including Protestants and Catholics, from all 50 states.  Approval of the church and organized religion in general has been steadily declining since the 1980s, the Gallup study said.” [i]

Yet when viewed more broadly, beyond the US, nothing could be further from the truth.  In an article by the Washington Post in May 2015, the editors debunk this popular myth in an article entitled, “Think Christianity is dying? No, Christianity is shifting dramatically[1]  They go on to point out that,

“While Christianity may be on the decline in the United States, the world is becoming more religious, not less. Religious convictions are growing and shifting geographically in several dramatic ways.” [ii]

For a religion that began with its rather unpromising “launch” with the gruesome death of its founder and the hunting down and martyring of nearly all of its early followers, Christianity has defied the odds for over two millennia.  As of 2010, those identifying themselves as Christians account for 31.4% of the world’s population.  That’s 2.17 billion people, and is projected to increase to almost 3 billion by 2050 [iii].

So what might account for Christianity’s survival despite centuries of the most intense persecution imaginable?  If it was just another religion founded by just another Messianic pretender, why hasn’t Christianity landed on history’s rubbish dump, forgotten by all but stalwart historians bent on endless trivial pursuits?

The global impact of Christianity

It was once written,

“Two thousand years ago, a Man was born in a small village that most people of the world had never heard of, and the Child of a woman who owned nothing.  He grew up in another village where He made things from wood until He was thirty years old.  For three years He was a teacher who traveled from village to village.  He never wrote a book. He was never elected to be the leader of any group or organization.  He never had a family or owned his own home.  He did not go to College, or have any diplomas or degrees.  The world didn’t think of Him as a great man.  He never traveled far from the place where He was born.”

“He was only 33 years old when many of His friends turned against Him.  His close friends ran away, leaving Him alone. He was turned over to His enemies and went through a trial without any real reason.  He was nailed to a cross between two robbers.  While He was dying, those who nailed Him to the cross gambled for His clothes–the only thing He owned on earth.  When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.”

“Almost 2,000 years have come and gone, and today He is the most important Person in the human race.  Time is divided by His birth and death.  All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the governments that ever governed, all the kings that ever ruled, put together have not affected the life of man on this earth as much as Jesus Christ”–Anonymous.

In the roughly two thousand years since Christianity has existed, its effect on the cultures around it has been profoundly positive and transformative.  R. R. Palmer, distinguished American historian at Princeton and Yale universities stated:

“It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the coming of Christianity. It brought with it, for one thing, an altogether new sense of human life. For the Greeks had shown man his mind; but the Christians showed him his soul. They taught that in the sight of God, all souls were equal, that every human life was sacrosanct and inviolate. Where the Greeks had identified the beautiful and the good, had thought ugliness to be bad, had shrunk from disease and imperfection and from everything misshapen, horrible, and repulsive, the Christian sought out the diseased, the crippled, the mutilated, to give them help. Love, for the ancient Greek, was never quite distinguished from Venus. For the Christians held that God was love, it took on deep overtones of sacrifice and compassion.”

Palmer added, “The history of Christianity is inseparable from the history of Western culture and of Western society. For almost a score of centuries Christian beliefs, principles, and ideals have colored the thoughts and feelings of Western man. The traditions and practices have left an indelible impress not only on developments of purely religious interest, but on virtually the total endeavor of man. This has been manifest in art and literature, science and law, politics and economics, and, as well, in love and war. Indeed, the indirect and unconscious influence Christianity has often exercised in avowedly secular matters—social, intellectual, and institutional—affords striking proof of the dynamic forces that have been generated by the faith over the millenniums. Even those who have contested its claims and rejected its tenets have been affected by what they opposed. Whatever our beliefs, all of us today are inevitable heirs to this abundant legacy; and it is impossible to understand the cultural heritage that sustains and conditions our lives without considering the contributions of Christianity.” [iv]

Interestingly, the effects of the forced removal of Christianity after it has been assimilated has proven to be devastating to the very fabric of what is left of those societies.  A recent Wall Street Journal article concerning the ISIS-driven persecution and exile of Christians in Iraq illustrates this point:

“Iraq is home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, some of whose members still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But their numbers have plummeted to around 200,000 from 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. A Christian exodus, if it isn’t reversed, would be a devastating loss for Iraq. Iraqi Christians are well-organized, and for years they’ve tended to the educational, cultural and social needs of the wider society.  Christians have also historically helped stabilize the volatile region. ‘Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations,’ Jordan’s King Abdullah has said. ‘There is no Iraq without Christians,’ says Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.” [v]

Imagine that, these comments came from Muslim leaders!

From another, equally tortured part of our world, comes a memoir from Joseph Kim, “Under the Same Sky” describing his upbringing in, and eventual escape from, North Korea.  After suffering years of smothering repression, starvation, even cannibalism under the whims of the brutal Kim family regime, he manages a harrowing escape to China.  But there, the official policy is to track down and repatriate North Koreans.  However, he discovers a ray of light amidst all the darkness in his life:

“In China, Mr. Kim’s luck turns. A stranger advises him that Christians help North Koreans, so he “wandered the streets of Tumen City looking for crosses.” When he found one, he writes, “I walked into the church. I saw a verse on the wall, Matthew 11:28: ‘Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ I felt it had been written especially for me. The words penetrated to my heart, and my hopes revived.” His Chinese church friends fed and sheltered him for a year—all the while risking arrest and imprisonment for the crime of helping a North Korean. They eventually put him in touch with a California-based rescue organization called Liberty in North Korea, which helped him reach the U.S.”  [vi]

In his rather exhaustive study, How Christianity Changed the World, author Alvin J. Schmidt traces the impact of Christianity on values that many in the world take for granted…none more evident than in the value we put on human life. As one reviewer of Schmidt’s book commented,

“Our modern day value of human life was rooted in teachings of Christ and the actions of early Christians in rescuing newborn babies abandoned on the trash heaps of Rome.  Whether through infanticide, gladiatorial games, glorification of suicide or human sacrifice there was an almost global attitude that human life was cheap before Christianity.”

He added, “The most beneficial institutions of our society find their roots in the influence of Jesus Christ.  Early Christians founded the first hospitals, orphanages, and feeding programs combating the pervading view of the time than it would be better to just let the sick, the poor, and the orphans die.  Monastic libraries provided the inspiration for the first universities in the twelfth and thirteenth century.  Even government institutions and our concepts of liberty, justice, and equality are rooted in the law of God and biblical patterns. ” [vii]

The list goes on as Schmidt points out the impact of Christianity on labor and economic freedom, science, art, architecture, literature, music, holidays, words, symbols, and expressions.  And today, the church continues to give “voice to the voiceless” on critical global matters holding national and business leaders accountable for the effects of their policies on the poor and underprivileged.  For example, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, the head of the Catholic Church spoke out about long-simmering frustrations over global inequality:

“Pope Francis issued a broadside against the global economic system, denouncing a structure based on worship of money, blaming it for inequality, military conflict and environmental degradation.  Speaking Thursday in a bastion of the anti-globalization movement, the pontiff called for a ‘globalization of hope’ that would guarantee the needs of every person…Pope Francis illustrated the world’s problems in personal terms, invoking the ‘endangered peasant, the poor laborer, the downtrodden native, the homeless family, the persecuted migrant, the unemployed young person, the exploited child…’  Such cases are not isolated issues but casualties of a system that has ‘imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature.’  In his speech, Pope Francis blamed many of the global system’s ills on ‘corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.’”

And yes, there have been excesses, done in the name of religion.  The Pope addressed these candidly,

“Pope Francis acknowledged that the Catholic Church he leads has a mixed record as a force for social liberation, particularly in Latin America, whose conquest by European colonists was justified in the name of spreading Christianity.  ‘I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,’ the pope said, though he noted the good works of many missionaries that he said made the church ‘part of the identity of the peoples of Latin America.’”

Who else can match that singular voice for its scope clarity and moral force in the world today?  Regrettably, while the world unhesitatingly holds the church accountable for its faults, and rightly so, it tends to ignore or minimize the overwhelmingly positive effects it has had, working quietly and unassumingly around the world.

Unrelenting opposition

With all of the cumulative good the Judeo-Christian worldview has delivered over the millennia, one would expect that it would be universally welcomed with open arms.  Such, as any casual reader of world history will attest, is not the case; in fact, things seem to be worsening.  In his book “What’s so Great about Christianity,” Dinesh D’Souza sets forth a chilling summary of the current war on religion that is being waged on a global scale:

“The atheists no longer want to be tolerated.  They want to monopolize the public square and to expel Christians from it.  They want political questions like abortion to be divorced from religious and moral claims.  They want to control school curricula so they can promote a secular ideology and undermine Christianity.  They want to discredit the factual claims of religion, and they want to convince the rest of society that Christianity is not only mistaken but also evil.  They blame religion for the crimes of history and for the ongoing conflicts in the world today.  In short, they want to make religion—and especially the Christian religion—disappear from the face of the earth.” [viii]

But amidst all the darkness there is hope…

The personal impact of Christ on lives today

 “To see beauty is to see light”

____Victor Hugo

In a futuristic passage of Old Testament scripture, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “But there’ll be no darkness for those who were in trouble. Earlier he did bring the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali into disrepute, but the time is coming when he’ll make that whole area glorious— the road along the Sea, the country past the Jordan, international Galilee.”

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light.
For those who lived in a land of deep shadows—
light! sunbursts of light!

For a child has been born—for us!
the gift of a son—for us!
He’ll take over
the running of the world.
His names will be: Amazing Counselor,
Strong God,
Eternal Father,
Prince of Wholeness.
His ruling authority will grow,
and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.” [2]

In his characteristically unequivocal manner Jesus declared, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” [3]  This light, this precious light has been leading the blind into the bright uplands of God’s blessings for thousands of years.

The principal reason Christianity has flourished for thousands of years is that it delivers on its promises with astonishing regularity.  Here is one such example provided in his book, “The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict,” [ix] by Josh McDowell.  After a lifetime of hating his father for what his alcohol addiction had done to their family, Josh became a Christian in college, and like millions of others, was instantly changed from the inside.  He writes:

“…the love of God inundated my life.  He took my hatred for my father and turned it upside down.  Five months after becoming a Christian, I found myself looking my dad right in the eye and saying, ‘dad I love you.’  I did not want to love that man, but I did.  God’s love had changed my heart…”  Soon afterward, Josh’s father became a Christian as well.  Josh adds, “…my father’s life was changed right before my eyes.  It was like someone reached down and switched on a light inside him.  He touched alcohol only once after that.  He got the drink only as far as his lips, and that was it—after forty years of drinking…over a hundred people in the area around my tiny hometown committed their lives to Jesus Christ because of the change they saw in the town drunk, my dad.”  Josh concludes, “You can laugh at Christianity.  You can mock and ridicule it.  But it works.  If you trust Christ, start watching your attitudes and actions—Jesus Christ is in the business of changing lives.”

Why the decline of religion in modern societies?

So what accounts for the statement by a researcher that, “Confidence in the [U.S.] Church has been steadily declining since the 1980s.  As Americans become less religious, confidence in the Church as an institution is plummeting.”  Perhaps it has something to do with what Mahatma Gandhi observed, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  Touché.

An illustration:  “How do you cook a frog?”  S   l   o   w   l   y.  Otherwise, he’ll jump out of the boiling water.  The Christian church in America and that of other so-called “advanced” countries around the world have been slowly cooking in a mesmerizing stew of its own making.  Material comforts, terminal busyness, ceaseless entertainment, and the relentless accumulation of “stuff” has exacted a devastating toll on spiritual life.  While many people identify themselves as religious in surveys, they live their lives as practical atheists.  Increasingly, Christians withdraw to gated communities, exclusive retirement compounds and affluent congregations satisfied with preaching to the choir.  Gone is the evangelical fervor of early church history and with it the willingness of ordinary believers to confront the world and its secular culture in the streets, back yards and marketplace.  This stifling condition was anticipated long ago in a prophetic portion of scripture:

“I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking. You’re not cold, you’re not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! You’re stale. You’re stagnant. You make me want to vomit. You brag, ‘I’m rich, I’ve got it made, I need nothing from anyone,’ oblivious that in fact you’re a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless.  Here’s what I want you to do: Buy your gold from me, gold that’s been through the refiner’s fire. Then you’ll be rich. Buy your clothes from me, clothes designed in Heaven. You’ve gone around half-naked long enough. And buy medicine for your eyes from me so you can see, really see.  The people I love, I call to account—prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best. Up on your feet, then! About face! Run after God!” [x]

Hamstrung by a yawning disconnect between what we say we believe and how we actually live, all too many of us are barely distinguishable from our counterparts in the surrounding secular societies that threaten to snuff out what remains of our hollow religious profession.  The modern church has frozen Jesus in a 2,000 year old time capsule, preserving his memory in idealized statues, illusory paintings, make-believe nativity scenes, velveteen Sunday school images, and trumped up Hollywood movie productions.  But what, just what if, Jesus were to be incarnated today?  Would he not be a man of the times as he was back then?  He was a brilliant, cutting-edge “disruptive” figure who made everyone he encountered sit up and take notice.  He challenged intellectuals with dazzling insights, he commanded diseases to leave, storms to calm down, and demons to go back where they came from.  He feared no one and had command of everything that came against him.  Where is that Jesus today?

Until Christians see Jesus as relevant and engaged in the here-and-now, they will continue to sequester and withdraw from today’s culture.   Christians were never meant to sit on their hands and wait for Jesus to come back again.  He’s already here, in the form of you and me his followers, and He wants us to engage, and demonstrate the kingdom of God in our midst.  How else do we expect the works of the Devil to be defeated?  Stop longing for the past and cursing the darkness–it’s time to engage with the present and light a light.  But first we must connect our faith with our lives as actually lived and bring his Kingdom to earth as a living reality, miracles and all.  The battle is not lost, it has hardly begun!  So why, after two thousand years hasn’t Christianity swept the world like wildfire, pushed back all opposition, and emerged master of the field?  Evil still reigns, world wars still threaten, crime, discrimination, and hatred stubbornly refuse to release their grip on even the most technologically advanced cultures.

Dr. Jon Wilson shared this inspirational insight,

DDay“One of the most powerful thirty minutes of film I have ever seen is the opening sequence of the film, “Saving Private Ryan.”  An unbelievable price was paid just to gain a toehold, just a few feet of Omaha Beach in Normandy.  That price was paid in blood.  At the end of D-day, at the end of that one day, in one sense nothing had actually changed.  The vast majority of the continent of Europe was still as it had been the day before, under the power of the Swastika.  Evil reigned through the whole continent.  There was only this one little plot of ground, a few feet of sand on an obscure stretch of beach in one lonely country that was not under the domination of the enemy.  However that one tiny stretch of land, that one tiny little beach was enough.  The truth is, at the end of that one day, everything was changed because now there was an opening, just a crack, a tiny little crack at first.  But, it would get a little larger the next day, and a little larger the week after that.  The forces would get stronger every day.  There was still a lot of fighting to do, and a lot of suffering, and a lot of dying.  But, from that day on, it was just a matter of time.”

“Then the day came when Paris was liberated;  then the day came when all of France was liberated, followed by the days when the concentration camps were overrun and prisoners were set free.  Then the day came when Hitler destroyed himself in the bunker and judgment came to that particular beast as it always does, as it always will, and then came V-E Day, victory when the soldiers would come home.  The war was over and the enemy was defeated.  However, the truth was that the victory was all sealed on D-Day.  It just took a while for the battle because the battle raged for a season.  But after D-Day, V-E Day, victory, that was just a matter of time.  The apostle John says this earth has fallen under a dark power and then one day a woman gave birth to a son, a male child, who was to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.  He taught about, and he lives in a kingdom.”

“One day, at a cost that none of us will fully understand, Jesus took upon himself, on the cross, all the brokenness, all the suffering of D-Day, and all the suffering and all the sin and pain of every other day of the history of the human race since the Fall of man in the garden of Eden.  At the end of the Sabbath day, when his friends went to care for his body the stone was gone and in one sense, nothing had changed.  Pilate and the Chief Priests were still in charge of Palestine, Caesar still reigns in Rome.  He didn’t even know the name of this obscure Messiah in some remote country.  The Herod’s and the Nero’s and the Hitler’s would come and go, and pain and suffering and death go on today as they went on then, and nobody knew at first except a couple of women.  Nobody knew it, but that was D-Day.”

“There was an opening in this fallen world, tiny at first, no bigger than the entrance of an empty tomb.  But now there was an opening and the truth is friends, every time you resist sin, every time you proclaim the Gospel, every time you give a portion of your resources for the spread of the kingdom, every time you offer a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name to the poor, that opening gets a little larger and the darkness gets pushed back a little more, and the light gets a little stronger.  That’s why we exist as a church.  That’s why we are called to struggle and pray and work and suffer and labor because one day liberation will come, make no mistake.  There will be a lot of fighting and a lot of suffering and a lot of dying, but D-Day already happened when hardly anybody was looking.  At the end of that one day, everything was changed and now it is just a matter of time.  There is no victory without a battle, but God will not be defeated.”  [xi]

Hey buddy, got a light?

I once went with my family to underground caverns somewhere in Colorado. We went deep into the ground, guided by a young college student with a lantern.  After we reached the deepest chamber He lined us all up and said, “I’m going to turn this lantern out for one minute to show you all what total darkness really feels like.” The light went out and I embarked upon the most terrifying 60 seconds of my life.  Nothing had prepared me for the visceral, bone chilling reaction I was to have.  Struggling to remain composed and not to show panic, I held on for dear life for what seemed an eternity.  The young man eventually terminated my agony by lighting a match, a tiny match, and the huge chamber was almost totally illuminated.  I was so relieved, I wanted to run out of there and never look back.

What struck me most was the preciousness of that light, and how much one little match could illuminate in total darkness.  The world has been feeling more and more like that cavern lately and I see people locking themselves behind steel bars and high walls to shut the darkness out if they can.  Trouble is, they end up alienating themselves and others even more in the process. You see, darkness is nothing in itself, it is simply the absence of light.

How about you?  Need a light?  Joel Sczebel, songwriter, perfectly captured this thought,


We are not what we should be
We haven’t sought what we should seek
We’ve seen Your glory, Lord, but looked away
Our hearts are bent, our eyes are dim
Our finest works are stained with sin
And emptiness has shadowed all our ways

Jesus Christ, shine into our night
Drive our dark away
Till Your glory fills our eyes
Jesus Christ, shine into our night
Bind us to Your cross, where we find life

Still we often go astray
We chase the world, forget Your grace
But You have never failed to bring us back
Reveal the depths of what You’ve done
The death You died, the victory won
You made a way for us to know Your love

© 2011 Sovereign Grace Worship (ASCAP)

<< Back to previous page        Forward to next page >>

__________________________

Copyright © 2015 by D.C. Collier

All rights reserved.

This book or parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by United States of America copyright law.



[1] The center of Christianity has shifted from Europe to the global South.  The religious landscape is particularly changing for the world’s Christians. A century ago, 80 percent lived in North America and Europe, compared with just 40 percent today.  In 1980, more Christians were found in the global South than the North for the first time in 1,000 years. Today, the Christian community in Latin America and Africa, alone, account for 1 billion people.

Over the past 100 years, Christians grew from less than 10 percent of Africa’s population to its nearly 500 million today. One out of four Christians in the world presently is an Africa, and the Pew Research Center estimates that will grow to 40 percent by 2030.  Asia is also experiencing growth as world Christianity’s center has moved not only South, but also East. In the last century, Christianity grew at twice the rate of population in that continent. Asia’s Christian population of 350 million is projected to grow to 460 million by 2025.  The global religious wildcard is China. Even today, demographers estimate that more Christian believers are found worshipping in China on any given Sunday than in the United States.

[2] Isaiah 9:1-2; 6,7 The Message (MSG)

[3] John 8:12 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

 



[i] “Faith in Religious Institutions at New Low.”  Time, n.d. Web. 18 June 2015.

[ii] “Think Christianity Is Dying? No, Christianity Is Shifting Dramatically.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, n.d. Web. 29 May 2015.

[iii] Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions,” Population Growth Projections: 2010-2050

[iv] Palmer, R. R., Joel Colton, and Lloyd S. Kramer. A History of the Modern World: To 1815. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2002. Print.

[v] “The Assault on Christians, and Hope, in Iraq.” WSJ. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 June 2015.

[vi] “A Boy and a Girl Who Escaped the Worst Place on Earth.” WSJ. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.

[vii] Schmidt, Alvin J. How Christianity Changed the World: Formerly Titled Under the Influence. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004. Print.

[viii] D’Souza, Dinesh. What’s so Great about Christianity. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2007. Print.

[ix] McDowell, Josh, Josh McDowell, and C. S. Lewis. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville, TN: T. Nelson, 1999. Print.

[x] Revelation 3: 15-19 The Message (MSG)

[xi] “Why is There Evil in This World?”  Dr. Jon H. Wilson, Senior Pastor, Canoga Park Presbyterian Church, 2008.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 1. Is Christianity Dying?

  1. Didn’t understand the “also-run” part in the sentence “These are hardly the claims of just another religious also-ran.”

    Like this paragraph “What struck me most was the preciousness of that light, and how much one little match could illuminate in total darkness. The world has been feeling more and more like that cavern lately and I see people locking themselves behind steel bars and high walls to shut the darkness out if they can. Trouble is, they end up alienating themselves and others even more in the process. You see, darkness is nothing in itself, it is simply the absence of light.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>