According to Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London, “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good – or at least for the next 100 years.” [The Guardian, March 2018].
Is Christianity in Europe as a default, as a norm, gone? Research seems to support Bullivant’s conclusion. Data from the European Social Survey 2014-16 indicates that “the new default setting is ‘no religion’, and the few who are religious see themselves as swimming against the tide.”
German theologian, Evi Rodemann, seems to concur. In response to a Pew Research survey, she says, “German Protestants have to a huge degree lost their Christian identity and Christian history is often just a cultural decoration.” Church planting expert Dietrich Schindler adds, “German Protestantism is anemic at best, irrelevant at least.” [Joel Forster, Evangelical Focus, February 28, 2019]
From the mountain-top to the valley. In the 19th Century, the church in the UK was the hub for the greatest missionary advance the world has ever seen. Now, according to statistician Peter Brierley, 95% of UK children and young people don’t go to church [UK Church Statistics 2, 2010-2020, Tonbridge: ADBC Publishers, 2014]. It’s a similar story in Germany. Five-hundred years after the reformation, Christian faith has been pushed to the margins (Evangelicals account for 2% of Christians in Germany).
Christian faith in North America is also in free-fall. According to the Pew Research Center, the growth of the religiously unaffiliated in Canada and the USA has gone from about 4% in the 1970s to more than 20% in 2010. In Canada, religious disaffiliation for those born in 1987-1995 is 30%. The trends reveal that every successive generation of North Americans is more secular than the previous generation.
What’s collapsed in the UK and Germany, and is collapsing in North America, is cultural-historic Protestantism. Cultural historic Protestantism is religion focused on hard work, thrift, and efficiency, i.e. it places an emphasis on religious duty and using God-given resources at each individual’s disposal. Rodemann describes it as “reason (not Christ) alone, my work (not grace) alone, my self-reliance (not faith) alone, and my philosophy of life (not Scripture) alone.”
That’s the bad news.
But the bad news may be good news.
The purpose of writing the jumpintotheword blog is tied to sola scriptura. The collapse of cultural historic Protestantism is therefore good news because religion (institutional traditional systems) is the enemy of Bible engagement (see my previous article The Scourge of Bible Engagement). And it’s good news because the disintegration of cultural historic Protestantism means the Christian slate is being wiped clean.
With the Christian slate being wiped clean, cultural-historic Protestantism can be replaced with something new. The million-dollar question is, “What will be the nature and purpose of the church that replaces cultural-historic Protestantism?”
Biblical scholar Richard Halverson says, “When the Greeks got the Gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business.”
Missional culture guru JR Woodward says, “We are called to incarnate the Good News, not to overcontextualize it.”
Incarnating the Gospel: With the decline of cultural historic Protestantism, there are unprecedented opportunities to get back to God’s Word – back to reimagining the church – back to the church as a spiritual organism – back to embodying and proclaiming Jesus Christ.
Yes, the bad news may be good news. With the spiritual vacuum that now exists in Europe and is growing in North America, opportunities to re-imagine and reform the church abound. But as we take advantage of the opportunities, we must make sure we don’t overcontextualize the Gospel.
To guard against overcontextualizing the Gospel, we must safeguard the way in which we connect with the Bible. We must make sure we don’t read God’s Word in ways that adapt it to our culture. We must be careful not to read God’s Word in ways that interpret our existing church practices back into the text. And we must get back to reading its essence – back to understanding the Gospel, not in the milieu of the shifting sands of postmodernity, but in the framework of the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ.
All this to say that a new season of Bible engagement is needed for the changing times. A season where we break free from the subtle entrapment of deeply entrenched unbiblical traditions. A season where we biblically re-evaluate what the meetings of the church should look like in order to express Jesus Christ in all His fullness. And a season where we practically, and not just intellectually, believe that the Word of God shows us how to truly worship and live for Jesus Christ alone.
© Scripture Union Canada 2019