Whether you are an active Christian, or someone who recognises the central role that Christianity plays in forming and sustaining western values, the fragility of our current churches continues to evoke deep angst and concern. This trend should make us question how Christianity can be prevented from becoming a shell of its former self.
The most recent foray into this issue is Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. This new book advocates that Christians embrace minority status, recognise Christianity as an ‘outsider set of values’ and live within the secular Western environment.
Dreher envisages small Christian communities in which members live with greater spiritual discipline regarding prayer, worship, and commitment to reordering their lives around the faith.
But this has been tried many times before. And it has overwhelmingly failed. There are thousands of Christian groups now extinct or under threat of extinction, perhaps symbolised by the Amish Community who are under enormous pressure from secular forces and near collapse.
Dreher misreads early Christian history. These first Christians nurtured their faith without separating themselves from surrounding communities or neighbourhoods—this was the particular strength of the faith. They may have been critical of the world, but their mission was its transformation. There is no history of club or sect behaviour that ever leads anywhere except extinction. Why? Because it goes against the fundamental Christian mission of engaging with individuals and society, resurrecting their lives and values. The making of disciples from all nations was not designed to engage a select few, but the whole of humanity. This is Christ’s fundamental call to his followers.
The crux of Christianity’s current problem is not that the secular world has turned against it in overwhelming rejection. The problem is that the secular world no longer knows what Christianity is. At the core of this new irrelevance is a Christianity that is unsure of what it stands for, that it is beset by its own fears, and has lost the confidence to speak with authority.
Before we follow the calls of Dreher to retreat to our own narrow worlds, there are a few things we might try. First, don’t withdraw from the public space. Christianity needs to boldly proclaim what it stands for. Christianity remains a central defender of family life, of what gives life meaning, and of how best to celebrate and protect it.
There are many views in the public space around these issues, but the Church has been reluctant to engage strongly in this area. Of course, there will be social media campaigns against Christians who speak out, but is this any worse than what currently happens to Christians in the Middle East?
The Church should also re-orientate itself to engage with the world of work. The lack of Chaplains in the world of work is a scandal reflecting a concern with our own internal workings. If Christianity is not in the area of work, then it is too easy to conclude that it is a little more than a private organisation that does not deserve public considerations. Christianity must earn its right to speak through what it does, not from whingeing about what’s wrong.
Second, stop supporting socialism. The promotion of social justice issues has proved to be a dead end for the Church. Unfortunately, valuable organisations such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul are riddled with socialist mantra and dogma. These organisations no longer have any answers to problems, rather they make endless calls for greater welfare transfers and suggest that persecution of Indigenous Australians and refugees is a problem fuelled by the racism of the majority.
Such discredited views only highlight the lack of expertise that exists in church organisations and ultimately loses the support of both their congregations and the wider community. For instance, the Anglican Dean of Brisbane discredited all Christians when he sensationally announced that he would allow refugees to live in his cathedral, but neglected to mention that his church provides no refugee accommodation for caseworkers in this field. The inane search for headlines must stop—only real work brings Christians credit.
Third, stick up for persecuted Christians. The irrelevance of Western Christianity and its manifest fear of criticism is nowhere more clear than in its failure to support other Christians. In the Middle East, Christians are being killed, having their churches destroyed, and are forced from their homelands with barely a whimper of protest from most Western churches.
If we cannot advocate for persecuted people of our own faith, in what other area of life should we be taken seriously? Church silence tells others we do not care and that we are unable to raise ourselves from internal inertia over anything significant.
Third, reclaim Christmas and Easter, which are fast being removed from the public space. Acceptance of this stance is being complicit in our own eradication. These two feasts are central to what Christianity is. When local councils removed decorations from their streets, and state governments ban Christmas carols in state schools, churches must fill the void.
How many churches display crib scenes outside their churches, or offer children interactive events to attend with their parents? Whilst it’s important to continue to encourage the faithful to attend services, it’s also essential to offer events for secular Westerners.
Fourth, believe in Western Civilisation again. Western Civilisation is unique and its contribution to freedom should be proudly highlighted by Western churches. Unfortunately, too many Western churches often spend their resources on telling others how racist, cruel to refugees, homophobic and misogynist we are. They conveniently overlook democracy, the rule of law, individual rights, and personal responsibility.
Western Christianity should be at the centre of ensuring that our freedoms, values and cultural heritage are at the highest order of human achievement and teach them to our children to ensure they continue.
And finally, support the young and promote them to leadership roles. Western Christianity has a striking demographic problem: it lacks young people. In Australia the overwhelming majority of people who attend services belong to the ‘baby boomer’ category (50-70 years of age) or above. Across the nation this group makes up around 26 per cent of the population, yet in churches their population is around 50 per cent or higher. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from such a reality: churches risk heading towards extinction.
Western Christianity needs to dramatically re-orientate itself to the young, develop specific cultures that are attractive to people under 35, and promote them into leadership roles. There is a serious lack of trust in younger generations on display in Western Christianity—those younger people who have been locked out continue to vote with their feet and stay away. Only a serious influx of young people to important positions can offer a renewed sense of engaging with modern Australia.
There are undoubtedly substantial signs of Western Church decay, indifference, and laziness in many areas of our community life. Nevertheless, the Western Church is a church of the resurrection, new beginnings, and bold proclamations.
The Church of the first century showed significant growth within an empire ruled by Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. The hostility of the surrounding culture is utterly incidental to the self-understanding and purpose of the faith.
Both Dreher and the modern Western church misunderstand mission. For Christ and the early disciples, evangelizing was essential: ‘go into the world and make disciples of all nations’. Both The Benedict Option and modern Australian churches suggest that mission is no longer possible or valid.
We are not called to be a faith that rolls over in defeat or shame. We are not called to be hesitant, locked away in fear or anxiety. Secular Westerners are not called to save the Church—the Church must save itself.