Recently I attended a meeting at which religious leaders from a dozen European nations made presentations on the state of the church in their respective countries. Again and again, the same things were mentioned: “Our churches are emptying; we lack real contact with youth; we are not getting many vocations to the priesthood and religious life (or to marriage, for that matter); we are a post-ecclesial generation which no longer knows or understands the classical theological language; we need to announce Jesus again, as if for the first time, but we lack a language to do this in; our churches are facing marginalization in the wake of an ever-intensifying secularity.”
What’s true of Europe is also, I believe, true of the rest of the secularized world. It seems we are good at being Christians when we are poor, unsophisticated, and oppressed. We’ve had centuries of practice at this. What we haven’t had much practice at is how be Christians when we are affluent, sophisticated, and part of the cultural mainstream. We need a new kind of missionary, a new kind of saint, a man or woman who can live and preach the gospel effectively within a secularized context. This is not a new insight of course, it’s been called for since the early 1960s. However, up to now, most of the literature on this has been longer on diagnosis than on prescription, better at deconstruction than reconstruction, good at analyzing but not at building. So where do we go from here?
The literature on refounding religious communities (which surely has parallels to the church as a whole) points out that one of the lessons of history is that genuine religious renewal, the type that truly reshapes the religious imagination, often does not come out of think-tanks, conferences, and church synods, but rather issues forth from graced individuals – saints, wild men and women who, like Augustine, Francis, or Clare, capture the romantic imagination. This literature also says that “the new lies elsewhere”, namely, what needs fixing in the church will not be mended simply by patching the old. There comes a time when things are beyond patching. Now is such a time.
What will be effective today in terms of proclaiming Christ anew in a secularized culture? My answer? I honestly don’t know. Neither, it seems, does anyone else. Given that we are searching sincerely for an answer, my belief is that if someone had that answer we would already be using it. We have no new answers yet. Instead we are at a wall, blocked, lacking the imagination for an effective next step. I say this in all sympathy. The type of imagination that reshapes history is not easily found and today we are still in search of it. In the meantime, we’ve come as far as we can along a road that used to take us there, but no longer does. We know how to do maintenance, but not how to be missionary – we know what to do once we get people into church, but we no longer know how to get them there. So we stand waiting for a new Augustine, Francis, or Clare to come along and show us how to re-evangelize our imaginations. We are experiencing a certain paralysis right now, but when someone with a genuinely new imagination steps up and begins to lead, I have no doubt we will follow.
I have no doubt too that such a new person will soon appear. The church has been at this spot before, several times. Every time the world thinks it has buried Christ for good, it’s in for a surprise; every time the polls tell us that the churches are on an irrevocable down-slide, the Holy Spirit intervenes and soon all bets are off; every time we despair, thinking that our age can now longer produce saints and prophets, some Augustine or Therese comes along and shows us that, for good and bad, our age is no different than any other; and every time our imaginations run dry, as they are now, we find that the scriptures are a spring of fresh insight. We only lack imagination, not hope, and there’s a remedy.
God provides. Christ promised that we will not be orphaned and we can take that at face value. Our age will produce its own prophets and saints. What’s asked of us is biblical patience, to wait on God. Christianity may look tried and tired to a culture within which affluence and sophistication are like a steamroller that is levelling everything, but the jury is still out. Our age has too its hope-filled face. As secularization marches so unswervingly forward we are beginning to see something we’ve not seen before, a growing number of men and women who are post-affluent and post-sophisticated. From these, the post-affluent and post-sophisticated will come, I believe, some great religious leaders who will teach us, and our kids, how to live as Christians in this new situation.