The church is in crisis, as is always the case. We could say this of the church in the early centuries, during the Middle Ages, in the tumultuous time of the Reformation, and in our modern era. From the days when Christians were getting drunk at the table in Corinth to the brutal extermination of Christians today at the hands of Islamic terrorists in some parts of the world, crises have been constant. Heresies strike from inside, persecutions from outside. The church is in crisis.
But we must also acknowledge the church is stable. “Upon this rock, I will build my church,” Jesus said. Like the parable he tells of the wise man, Jesus builds his house on the rock, and the gates of hell will not prevail against his people.
Yes, there will be and have been fallings away, false messiahs, heresies that ravage Jesus’s teaching, moral aberrations that harm our witness, and persecutions that sweep over the landscape. But the paradoxical truth still stands. The true church is always in crisis and is always stable. We’re in a spiritual battle whose outcome is secure.
If we focus only on the crises facing the church, we’ll retreat with a fortress mentality that makes preserving what we have the goal. We’ll make church maintenance the mission. Just hold on to what we have! If we focus only on the stability and assured outcome for the church’s future, we’ll be asleep at the wheel, unaware of specific threats that appear on the church’s horizon and unprepared to respond in appropriate ways.
Challenges and Opportunities When Christianity Is in Decline
C. S. Lewis’s sharp intellect and devotional dedication helped him put challenges to Christianity in perspective. He didn’t shy away from the challenges facing the church, but—with an evangelistic heart—he spoke to the issues of his day, confident in the enduring appeal of truth, no matter how dim things may have looked at the time.
We sometimes adopt a romanticized view of the world of our forefathers and mothers in the faith, failing to fully appreciate some of the challenges they faced head-on or the trials they experienced. Lewis wrote many of his best-loved works during the Second World War, and then he experienced along with the rest of England several years of austerity after the cataclysmic events of that war had passed. He was committed to caring for an increasingly cantankerous and ailing elderly woman. He carried heavy burdens during tumultuous times and yet remained able to see both challenges and opportunities for the church in his day.
Here’s an example: Lewis noted the decline of religion in England back in 1946. He didn’t see this religious decline as a good thing, noting that the absence of religious devotion might endanger the principles and purity expected in public life and the mutual respect and kindness that political opponents would otherwise show one another. (In other words, without Christian morals and values as norms in society, things would get more vicious.) But Lewis wasn’t a pessimist, seeing only the downside to a loss of religious affiliation. He looked deep into the darkness of that challenge until he saw a glimpse of light, an opportunity.
“I am not clear that [religious decline] makes conversion to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone.” (“The Decline of Religion,” 1946)
In other words, Lewis saw that the loss of cultural Christianity didn’t necessarily mean the loss of true Christians. Instead, the decline of religion in the West serves to bring into sharper focus the nature of conversion. One cannot simply skate along as a “Christian” in name only when the culture is fast shedding its culturally Christian trappings. The question of conversion remains. Its significance is heightened. One no longer simply “assumes” a Christian identity; one must wrestle with the implications of what it means to be a Christian. And this is a good thing.
This is just one example of Lewis recognizing with eyes wide open a problem for the church in his era while carefully looking for the opportunity that might accompany the challenge. We’d do well to follow this pattern.
Look for Opportunities in the Challenges
Wisdom requires us to recognize both that the gospel will always be opposed and that the gospel will overcome opposition. “In the world we will have trouble,” Jesus told us, but take heart, because he has overcome the world. Focus only on the trouble, and you’ll succumb to fruitless anxiety about a battle whose outcome is secure. Focus only on Jesus’s ultimate victory, and you’ll fail to engage the world in ways that require vigilance in this present moment.
Times of turbulence and shifting cultural trends give us an opportunity to recommit our lives to expanding God’s kingdom. We aim to see disciples multiplied and churches planted, as we pursue a missionary encounter with the world we’re called to reach.
That’s why we need to see the opportunities accompanying every challenge and the challenges accompanying every opportunity. What challenges make it difficult for us to follow Jesus in the 21st-century West? What opportunities accompany these challenges as we seek to spread the gospel and fortify the church of Jesus Christ? These are the questions we must always be asking, and the answers will require discernment and wisdom, grounded in hopeful realism.
Editors’ Note: Trevin Wax will lead a microevent on “The Hope of Gospel Expansion in a Hard-to-Reach Culture” at TGC’s 2023 Conference, September 25–27, in Indianapolis. You can browse the complete list of topics and speakers. Register soon; prices increase May 11!