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Death of the Church?

Death of the Church

By Mitiku Adisu

Theology as a rational inquiry into the nature of God and his relationship to the world is an evolving science. Theologians are a breed apart (mostly men) whose theologizing is often reflective of their own socio-cultural milieu. The 1960s in Europe and North America were heady days when protesting against the church became fashionable and the ferment of the "God is dead" movement was at full throttle. Paradoxically, the cry petered out into charismatic and evangelical movements, albeit in their varied configurations. Nietzsche, the son of an evangelical Lutheran minister who uttered "God is dead," has been dead for over a century (in 1900 of madness). God, on the other hand, has never been more alive! 

The discussion of the present and future may be turning toward ferreting out a "theology of extinction." "Extinction" is one attempt to find out why and how churches were emptied out in places like North Africa and the Middle East. This may sound like another exercise in futility, but wait until some forlorn theological student writes his PhD dissertation on the "death of the church" and publishes a book with a similarly drab title. Before one could say the Lord’s Prayer, externally-funded seminaries [in Africa, Asia, and Latin America] will have discussed the theme to death. 

About 50 years ago, McGavran/Wagner and others developed strategies and models for "church growth" they named the homogeneous unit principle (HUP). Growth is the goal. The plan is to keep ethnics in their cubicles for multiplication! Growth happens, the argument went, among similar racial and cultural groups. Of course, that argument does not represent the diversity of the Christian community, beginning at Pentecost in Jerusalem and stretching to the heavenly Jerusalem!

During the same period, Latin American theologians (Segundo/Gutierrez, among others) were countering models from El Norte with a "liberation" model that incorporated issues of social justice. Both camps were, in a sense, corrective to the other’s imbalances. Both models, we might add, made good use of the social sciences (management-by-objective, Marxist philosophy, sociology, and what could only be described as military science). 

"Church growth" emerged at a time of economic growth in North America; "liberation" at a time of a worldwide movement for social justice. It is not surprising that "extinction" is now coming on the heels of dire warnings of genocide, economic meltdown, epidemics, environmental catastrophes, etc. Interestingly, church mergers (as in corporate mergers, including 'hostile' takeovers) have become the in-thing over the past two decades! In other words, templates for missions by and large have been lifted off the pages of the business world. The scientific method is taken to be more "reliable" than praying and fasting. (Acts 13:1-3) 

The Christian presence in North Africa and the Middle East may have shrunk compared to, say, a century ago. However, it is difficult to accept the thesis that persecution is the sole culprit. Whoever heard of a church community wiped out because of persecution? The common knowledge is that persecution is a divine strategy that ends up spreading the faith to the "ends of the earth." (see Book of Acts) Think of a fire and a gust of wind fanning it. It may leave behind charred wood (signposts or embers, as in believing households). The point to consider, however, is the fact that the fire has moved on. The blaze could return to those areas; the embers may remain dormant instead of extinct, hence, hidden from sight. The wind blows where it will, and only those who obey its laws catch it; those who open themselves to it are transported to God's presence. What God has touched will live forever, even the bones of saints who have died (John 3:8; 2 Kings 13:20-21). 

Another consideration is the role of commerce. In places where Islam has sprung up, it is not just conflict that has reduced Christian communities to a minority status but also commerce. Islam is, in one sense, a commercial enterprise. Ironically, the fiercest struggle within the church of Christ continues to be between God and mammon (with all that that represents). This explains why Europe’s conscious rejection of Christ has resulted in the loss of its moral moorings (which were Christian) and its incapacity to defend its foundational principles against competing faiths. You pay a heavy price for choosing mammon over God. 

What about Africa? Is the church in Africa vibrant because the people are poor (compared to Europe and North America) and therefore need God to sustain them and ease their pain? Is Christianity really the poor man's opiate? Aren't the majority of genuine opium users from developed countries? Such arguments fail to explain the power of the Spirit of Christ in the lives of those who are receptive to his bidding and those who have grown callous—whether rich or poor. Should European and North American Christians now make a deliberate choice for a less wasteful lifestyle to come alive in Christ once again? Following Christ is a costly venture. Is the new "green" theology another fig leaf to cover naked greed? Perhaps the greatest danger to North American Christianity is its commercialized features. And the threat to African Christianity is the indiscriminate adoption of North American habits as well as not making clean breaks from local deities. 

Certain features of church life will always be hidden from the researcher’s lens because researchers are too biased. The irony is that biases have taken on the appearance of being "unbiased." 

Persecution does affect church communities. Commerce does inflict much more damage (Acts 5:1-11; 8:9-25). Five facts we need to consider simultaneously to address present issues of concern—especially in churches in the global south. First, the fact that the West was perceived as "Christian" and yet engaged in slavery and colonization ("civilizing mission"). Secondly, the fact that wrong-headed policies (in both regions) resulted in conflicts, displacements, and stigma. Thirdly, the fact that evangelicals in the West by and large are (or perceived as) collaborators with such policies. Fourthly, the same technology that has aided in world evangelization has played a role in promoting doctrine-light theologies. Finally, churches in the West are experiencing an unprecedented crisis of their own, as evidenced by segments of the population leaving the church altogether, emerging moral failures, identity and sexuality issues, and divisions over the politicization of the gospel. Let us say this in no uncertain terms: Jesus has said, "I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:18). And he has risen from the dead to prove it!
Restore us again, God our Savior,
and put away your displeasure toward us....
Will you not revive us again,
that your people may rejoice in you?
Show us your unfailing love, Lord,
and grant us your salvation. Psalm 85:4,6-7

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