Trevin Wax and John Seel Discuss How Should We Face the Churches Decline?
by Trevin Wax, Fellow, The Keller Center on Cultural Apologetics
John Seel, who's a good-faith critic of my work (as I am of his), took issue with my recent column on the paradoxical nature of the church today. I made the point that the church today is both stable and in crisis, and such has been the case throughout history, reaching all the way back to the New Testament. The church in every age faces challenges, and yet the promise of ultimate victory for the church remains ever secure.
Without a firm grip on that paradox, I warned, we’ll slide into either complacency or chaos. When we focus only on the trouble the church faces, we succumb to fruitless anxiety about a battle whose outcome is secure. When we focus only on Jesus's ultimate victory, we fail to engage the world in ways that require vigilance in this present moment.
In an email response, John acknowledged this paradoxical truth, but he believes my emphasis on the church’s stability to be “sociologically wrongheaded” and “psychologically imprudent.” Yes, the church has always faced crises, he wrote, but when I appeal too quickly to church history, I end up flattening and normalizing the situation currently facing the church. We're in a truly unprecedented moment, as evidenced in the landmark work of Philip Rieff. In My Life Among the Deathworks, he writes,
"Culture and sacred order are inseparable, the former the registration of the latter as a systemic expression of the practical relation between humans and the shadow aspect of reality as it is lived. No culture has ever preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order. There, cultures have not survived. The . . . notion of a culture . . . that persists independent of all sacred orders is unprecedented in human history."
If Rieff is right (and I believe he is), the church in the West is facing immediate and historically unique challenges that set us apart from the crises faced by the early church or our Reformation heroes. We'll need the Spirit’s guidance to develop new forms and approaches. Unprecedented times need an unprecedented response. John goes on:
"The loss of the next generation—as it is a current reality—is simply a symptom of a much deeper and systemic cultural challenge facing the church. This crisis is Ebola not Covid-19. The response needs to be more than putting on masks and social distancing. Normalizing or flattening the historical reality we are facing as if this is simply more of the same is not a sufficient diagnosis of our contemporary social imaginary."
That’s the sociological push back to my emphasis on the church’s stability. This crisis is bigger than those that have come before. He’s not wrong about this, and my assessment of our contemporary challenges isn't far from his. Here’s how I described these times in my guest lectures at Oxford last fall: “We live in a world infused with Christian sensibilities now turned against traditional Christian teaching.”
A recent spate of books seek to demonstrate how Western society is pervasively Christian in its most deep-rooted assumptions. Tom Holland’s Dominion claims Christianity’s influence is so pervasive and powerful that society unwittingly borrows and invokes Christian teaching when it condemns the church for its failures. Similarly, Glen Scrivener, a minister and evangelist in the U.K., points in The Air We Breathe to seven values central to the modern outlook that come to us from the influence of Christianity.
What happens when we seek to retain a civilization that enshrines these values but without reference to their sacred origin? Os Guinness describes the situation in the West as a “cut-flower civilization.” It's the attempt to retain and enjoy the life of a flower bloom when its source of soil, nutrients, and water has been severed. Christian values, when severed from the Christian story, begin to cause as many problems as they solve. The virtues of Christianity, isolated and separated from one another and from the story that gives them meaning and significance, shoot off in all sorts of directions that lead to civilizational conflict and chaos.
And so, yes, “unprecedented” is the right word. As Tim Keller wrote,
"Today, churches in Western society have to deal with something they have never faced before—a culture increasingly hostile to their faith that is not merely non-Christian (such as in China, India, and Middle Eastern countries), but post-Christian."
But this shouldn't make us overly alarmist or anxious. Keller also wrote, “Everything is unprecedented once.” It’s true “there has never been a fast-growing revival in a post-Christian, secular society. But every great new thing is unprecedented—until it happens.”
When I say the church is in crisis yet also stable, I'm thinking of the church worldwide, not merely the church in the West. If we're attuned only to the particular form of crisis the church in the West is facing, we may miss the bigger picture of all that's happening around the world.
With many Asian and European countries about to experience massive demographic free fall (which has already begun in some places and may be irreversible in others), we're likely to see a surge of worldwide religiosity and a decline (globally) of secularism in the coming decades. It remains to be seen how effective values like Americanization, materialism, and prosperity will be in the secularizing of the Global South . . . and if their birth rates and their engagement with late modernity will follow the pattern of those in the West or if religious revival will change the direction here.
John's second critique is that by focusing on the eternal stability of the church, I’m failing to take seriously “the level of denial that is woven into the institutional fabric of the church.” Pastors and ministry leaders need to hit rock bottom, like an alcoholic, before recovery can become effective. Unfortunately, most pastors and ministry leaders haven’t made this shift. My friend likens their mindset to the hubris of the Titanic’s captain heading into iceberg-strewn waters.
Saying “the church is stable” and “the gates of hell will not prevail”—while theologically true—serves only to distract from the severity of today’s crisis. When we blame “secular culture” for the decline of the church, we miss the ways the church has failed to be salt and light or has contributed to its own decline. Repentance and honesty are required. What we see instead is overconfidence—a sign of American exceptionalism—which becomes a theologically excused form of sociological blindness. John writes,
"There is no stronger form of denial than that which is institutionally reinforced, socially sanctioned, and religiously motivated. These are dominant factors within the evangelical church. The mainstream evangelical church tends to operate within a self-serving religious bubble, . . . unlikely to face the facts of its decline and crisis with the seriousness that is sociologically warranted and spiritually required. Repentance begins with the acknowledgement of sin and one's culpability in the crisis."
His takeaway? We need to focus more on the crisis of the church than on the promise of stability. This isn't the time for theological “balance.” We need to emphasize the crisis if we're to break through “the religious inertia and self-serving theological triumphalism” that keep God’s people in psychological blindness. “We are at a pivot point for the gospel in America at this historical moment. We need to begin to act accordingly.”
Keep Your Head
I always appreciate insights and careful pushback when readers come across something of mine that seems wrongheaded. In this case, I agree with John's caution—we could easily hear the “crisis” and “stability” language in such a way as to mask indifference or self-deception to the seriousness of the situation we face. Far be it from me to reinforce a sense of apathy or complacency.
I agree the church in the West needs repentance and reform, not triumphalism or a sense that “all is well.” This was the main reason behind my podcast on Reconstructing Faith: we should remove the rot and fortify the foundations at the same time. The dechurching we're seeing in the West is occurring at a level we haven't seen before.
That said, many of the most championed proposals for church renewal and reform in progressive evangelical churches would require the abandonment of orthodoxy, whether theological or moral, which hasn't stemmed the tide of dechurching in the mainline but has seemed to only speed it up. It would be a disaster for the church—in the very moment when the world is waking up to the anthropological confusion and disillusionment left in the wake of the sexual revolution—to jump on a bandwagon already heading over a cliff.
If the church can hold to core convictions, while finding new ways of answering the longings of people in late-modern societies, while being clear and convictional about society's biggest lies, we'll have the best chance at renewing the future. Looking for “new ways” is key here, and, yes, carefully thinking through ways we must repent and reform is part of what's required of us in this moment.
Still, it's important to stress the “stability” of the church alongside the “crisis,” not in an attempt to baptize the status quo but to help Christians keep their heads—to think wisely and missiologically. Thus we'll be kept from falling for the common temptation of using the crisis to justify wholesale changes or departures from the faith that would horrify our forebears and cheat our descendants. New ways will be important but only alongside the ordinary means of grace—God’s people doing what we’ve always done, applying the truth of God’s Word in ever-changing situations, following Christ’s commands, and trusting in his promises.
We shouldn't appeal to the eternal promises of God as a way of excusing temporal apathy or complacency. But neither should we appeal to a temporal crisis as a way of justifying revisionism in the name of reform. Recognizing the long-term, worldwide stability of the church is one of the ways we can keep our heads in a time when the crisis requires our most careful, biblical thinking.