Pastors Pivotal in Our Augustinian Moment
Os Guinness is an internationally renowned speaker and the author of numerous books, including Time for Truth, The Gravedigger File, and Long Journey Home. An Englishman, he was born in China and holds degrees from the universities of London and Oxford.
In 1898, when Bismarck was asked what would be the decisive factor in the twentieth century, he answered famously: “That Americans speak English.” A century later, it is striking that the three decisive questions for our world have a spiritual as well as a strategic dimension. First, will Islam modernize peacefully? Second, which faith will replace Marxism as the faith to lead China into her super-power future? And third, will the West recover or sever its relationship to its roots?
No great civilization endures if it cuts the roots that have made it what it is, yet the West is on the verge of doing exactly that. The situation may be stated this way: The central feature of the modern world is globalization; the central carrier of globalization is Western civilization; and the single strongest source of Western civilization is the Christian faith. Yet the Christian faith has effectively lost its influence in the central institutions of the West today.
You can trace this loss by dividing the Western world into four parts—between the United States and Europe, and between leaders and ordinary citizens. Three conclusions emerge.
First, the Christian faith has essentially lost Europe for the time being, at the level of both leaders and ordinary citizens. Christians are a practicing minority in every European country except two Catholic countries, Poland and Ireland, and the current decline of the Church in Ireland is precipitous. The blunt fact is that no Protestant Reformation country in Europe has a practicing Christian majority. Europe has decisively shifted from “Christian continent” to “mission field” in a few swift generations.
Second, the Christian faith has effectively lost influence in almost all the key leadership institutions in the United States. The universities, the press and media, the professional associations, the cosmopolitan global elites, the worlds of entertainment and leisure—all these are effectively lost to faith. Only in the spheres of business and politics has faith retained a significant presence, and even there its presence is often controversial and its influence weaker than its numbers should warrant.
Third, the Christian faith is strong in only one quarter of the West: among ordinary citizens in America. To be sure, the numerical strength of faith in this sphere is striking. Whereas religious affiliation in most modern countries has declined, the United States is distinctive for being the most modern and the most religious of modern countries. At least among ordinary people it has high rates of religious affiliation. But this strength is not an immediate ground for optimism because numerical strength does not mean spiritual and cultural strength. This means there is little current likelihood of their winning back American leaders, and therefore winning back American culture and the West as a whole.
These three facts offset enthusiasm for the astonishing growth of the Christian faith in the “global South” (sub-Sahara Africa, Asia, and Latin America). This growth is genuine, startling, and heartening. But those who see it as the answer to malaise of the Church in the global North overlook one thing: the main damage to the Christian faith in the North (Europe and North America) has been effected by the modern world, and so far the Church in the global South is largely pre-modern. The massive strengths of the Church in the South are therefore no automatic help to the Church in “the global North” (or West) because they haven’t yet faced the challenge of modernity that has damaged the Western Church so severely.
What this means for the West is plain: We are on the verge of a radical new possibility in history—a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christian Church.
This is our Augustinian moment, as pivotal as when Augustine surveyed the decline and fall of Rome in 410 AD. This situation has different implications for Christians all around the world, especially for Christian leaders in Asia and in the West. For those in the West, the challenge may be expressed this way. Unless and until God intervenes in His sovereign freedom with a powerful new revival and reformation in the West, our present situation represents a stirring triple challenge to faithfulness as we wait for Him:
First, the Church in the West is on the verge of losing the West, the civilization it has helped to create, and which it has influenced profoundly over two thousand years.
Second, with Europe largely lost for the moment, the future of the Church in the West, in human terms, is staked upon the integrity and effectiveness of Christians in America.
Third, because of the chronic weaknesses of the faith of most American Christians at the popular level, in spite of their numerical strength, there is special responsibility for Christians in two particular callings: pastors, because they stand Sunday by Sunday between God and the people of God and are therefore in a unique position to awaken and empower God’s people; and leaders who are followers of Christ in positions of secular leadership, especially at the national level.
If the overall challenge facing Christians is expressed spiritually rather than strategically, it may be stated even more simply. A central reason for the weakness of the Christian faith in the West is the deficiency of discipleship among those who are Christians, including many leaders who are committed to Jesus Christ.
The result of this deficiency in discipleship is plain: despite our far greater numbers than any other group in America, Christians today have less cultural influence than far smaller groups and special interests. The problem is not that we aren’t where we should be—though there are important areas such as the universities and the media where we are severely underrepresented—but that we aren’t what we should be where we are.
In sum, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we face an urgent situation for both the Church and the West: the central spiritual imperatives of our faith converge with the central strategic imperatives of the challenges of today’s world to underscore that people of faith must live and act decisively to meet the challenge of the hour. No calling is more pivotal at this Augustinian moment than that of the pastor. Hence this series.
(To be continued)