By Dr. Riley Case
Christianity is dying in the following countries–Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland-and is headed for extinction. That is the conclusion of a study conducted by a group of social scientists (the Research Corporation for Science Advancement), using census studies, and a linear dynamics mathematical systems model (whatever that is). These “findings” were reported at a recent American Physical Society meeting in Dallas.
Of course anyone who has been in Europe recently and has interacted with cynical college students or visited empty churches might draw the same conclusion. Census figures report that more and more persons in these “western civilization” countries are reporting “non-affiliated with religion,” with 60% of the persons in the Czech Republic making that claim. While not put into the “headed for extinction” category, countries like England, Germany, and France are also reporting increasing secularization and disregard for organized religion. A study conducted by the British Humanist Association reported that while 61% of those in England indicated they “belonged” to a religion, 65% reported they were “non-religious.”
Shall we panic?
Well, no, but it is sad to think that the lands which furnished the Christian beliefs and values that were so influential in making America what it is today, are now turning their backs on those beliefs and values.
1) There is no denying that the continent of Europe is growing increasingly pagan. We have not, in the past, associated the word “pagan” with the word “civilized.” The word “pagan” in popular usage often refers to persons, practices, or peoples that are not “civilized” (as in Westernized). Does not paganism have to do with primitive religions, heathenism, barbaric practices, and superstition? Can one be civilized and pagan at the same time?
Of course. Alien, secular, and humanistic philosophies are gaining dominance in Europe. These philosophies serve different gods. Man (and Woman), not God, is the center of the universe. Progress in these nations is measured not by how society reflects Christian values, but in the extent to which their society is ordered apart from those values. The word “pagan” fits these nations appropriately.
But God is not without a witness.
This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of the following countries: Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than did Anglicans in all of Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined. The number of Anglicans in church in Nigeria was several times the number in those other African countries.
This past Sunday it is possible that more Christian believers attended church in China than in all of so-called “Christian Europe.” Yet in 1970 there were no legally functioning churches in all of China.
This past Sunday there were more Roman Catholics at worship in the Philippines than in any single country of Europe, including such “Catholic countries” as Italy, Spain, or Poland.
It is important to see the big picture. Is it possible that in the plan of God Europe will be like the branch of the vine in John 15 that, since it no longer bears fruit, is cast away? Is God now using lands we once disdained as not-civilized to bring about his purposes? Is this an example of God using “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (I Cor. 1:27)? Christianity is among other things a philosophy of history. All of history is moving toward a goal. God once used the European nations to advance that goal and to bring healing to the world. But in the present time we are seeing a redistribution of the world’s Christian population. The energy and the vision for a redeemed world lies no longer with Europe but with those nations where the church is alive.
We ought to be interceding for the spiritual health of Europe. One can mention judgment only with sadness. This present week in Great Britain at least fifteen thousand Christian foreign missionaries are hard at work evangelizing the locals. Most of these missionaries are from Africa and Asia.
2) What about America? Does the United States belong in the category of an increasingly pagan (but “civilized”) world, or does the United States still have a role to play in God’s purposes for the world? A more appropriate question is, does the church in America belong to an increasingly pagan Western world, or is the church in America devoted to the purposes of a living God? The first Puritans could speak of America as the “city set on a hill.” After the Revolutionary War, when Methodism was only a struggling handful of lay preachers, and church membership in America was at an all-time low, Bishop Francis Asbury observed the response of the new nation to the Methodist message and proclaimed, “America, America, God will surely make it the glory of the world for religion.”
There is discussion today about the idea of American “exceptionalism,” the view that America holds a special place in God’s plan. Is there any truth in that?
Not for those who call themselves progressives. When the story about Christianity becoming extinct in the civilized West was carried by AlterNet (a liberal website), the overwhelming majority of responses (I read the first 200) expressed glee over the supposed death of Christianity. A number of readers then commented on the backwardness and the superstition of America because it was not as forward-looking as Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands.
Some of us do believe in American “exceptionalism.” America has been fertile ground where the gospel has flourished. 72% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Many of the denominations (including The United Methodist Church) and mission organizations see themselves in partnership with the global Christian community.
(If you would like to access past Happenings articles and other work by Riley Case go to rileycase.com).
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