SOME CHALLENGES TO THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH IN OUR TIME
A Speech Prepared for the 19th Closing Assembly of Arrupe College, 21 May 2016
PROFESSOR EMMANUEL NGARA
ZIMBABWE COUNCIL FOR HIGHER EDUCATION
The Principal, Rev. Dr Kizito Kiyimba, gave me some information about the programmes at Arrupe and the approach to teaching, and for this I am most grateful. I asked for information on the Finalists and was impressed by two things: The outreach projects the students are involved in and the diversity of destinations: from Cape Town in South Africa, to Lagos, Bujumbura, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, among others. As an official of ZIMCHE, I should not say much about the good work being done here in case I may find myself coming to evaluate the programmes , staff and facilities of the institution. The destinations told me: “Africa is here; the leaders of the African Church are here; the future of the African Church is here; so why miss the opportunity to share with these future leaders some of the issues of concern to you; issues about the universal church which affect the African Church?”. Consequently, the topic of my address is: Some Challenges to the Christian Church in Our Time.
I am a firm believer in ecumenism, and so my talk is about the Christian Church as the body of Christ made up of members of all the churches I consider to be authentic Christian churches, although I will draw a lot from the Catholic Church as Arrupe is a Catholic institution and I worship in the Catholic Church.
The Christian Church is facing many challenges in our time. In the 1990s, Hank Hanegraaff published a book entitled Christianity in Crisis. Hanegraaff was concerned about the Word of Faith Movement whose basic doctrine is wealth and health through what they call positive confession. God created the world through the word. By simply declaring, “Let there be light”, there was light. So if we declare something, it will be. One of the founders, Kenneth Hagin, believed that it is God’s will that believers would always be in good health, financially successful and happy (Wikipedia). Hanegraaff saw the Faith Movement as a deadly cancer, and he explains that his book is about “replacing the crisis in Christianity with a Christianity centred in Christ”. He adds, “It is not merely about cursing the darkness; it is about building a lighthouse in the midst of the gathering storm” (Hanegraaff, 1997).
My talk this morning is about what I consider to be some of the major challenges to the Christian faith in our time. There are many of these, and the Faith Movement or what I call the commercialisation of the Christian faith, is one of them, but this morning I have chosen to focus on the following issues:
- The rapid spreading of secularism;
- The Islamisation of the world; and
- The emergence of a new generation of young Christians who have a shaky foundation in the basic tenets and values of the Christian faith.
The impression I have is that many church leaders don’t seem to be overly concerned about these issues, but my reflections in an unpublished manuscript finished four years ago made me believe there is real cause for concern. Let me take the issue of secularism: As I researched the subject, I observed that nearly 2,000 years after the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, there were about two billion Christians out of a total of six billion people in the world, i.e. only one third of the world was Christian.
Among the indicators of what I called triumphant secularism I cited the following: Those countries that were once the bastions of the Christian faith were rapidly turning their backs on the faith of their ancestors. Just before the year 2,000, it was noted that 54%of the population of Britain “practically never go to church” (Howse 1999:8). By 2010 Karen Armstrong reported that a poll at the time had estimated that only 6% of Britons attended church regularly.
A similar research project by Michael Keene (2002:86) on countries such as Sweden and France had led to the conclusion that, “Less than 10% of Europe’s population now attend church regularly; and there are clear signs that people have not only rejected the religious teachings of the Church, but are also refusing to accept its guidance in matters of personal and social morality”.
Other studies showed that Africa was one of the continents where Christianity was still growing. While this is very encouraging, some studies had revealed that the rapid growth of the Church on the continent was in part attributable to the rise of African Independent Churches. By the year 2000, there were over 600 African Independent Churches with a total membership of over 30 000 million people. It was however noted that the Theology of many of these churches was “only loosely Christian” (Keene 2002:83).
Let me turn to the second of my concerns: what I have called the Islamisation of the world. Michael Keene observed that by the year 1990, “about 50% of all Africans were church members, while 42% were Muslim”. What has happened since, I don’t know, but we are all aware of the rise of militant Islamic groups in Africa.
And when I watch television and see large groups of innocent Moslem victims of the war in Syria and other countries of the Middle East, I experience an uneasy internal conflict: My heart goes out to these innocent victims of the war between powerful forces. I applaud those European countries that are opening their borders to allow these innocent people to experience something of a peaceful existence. I hope to hear good stories about Christian churches going out in full force to help their Moslem brothers and sisters to settle in an environment in which there is love and peace and not hatred and war.
But I am on the horns of a dilemma because of what I see as the possible consequences of what is happening in the Islamic world today – I see the wars as eventually bringing about a reconfiguration of religions in countries that are currently nominally Christian as well as others where there are active Islamic groups struggling for dominance. My mind harks back to North Africa where Christianity was thriving for centuries, but was eventually completely replaced by Islam from about the seventh century AD.
It is probably almost impossible to get any traces of Christianity in the land of one of the greatest leaders of the Christian faith, Augustine of Hippo. The majority of Christians of our time will not even believe that Christianity was flourishing in North Africa before it was spread to places like the England, Ireland and many other European countries. Many will not even know that in those early centuries of Christianity, as many as three Popes came from Africa. The question that arises is: To what extent can what appears to be the thriving Christian Church in Africa today remain unaffected by a combination of triumphant secularism and the advances of militant Islamic movements?
Let me come to the third of my concerns: As an individual Christian I am concerned about some of the trends I notice among our young Christians today. These trends are partly the result of several factors: First, young Christians are exposed to the influence of secularism. Second, they live in an age in which truth is being seen as relative in the sense that any religion can be deemed to be as good as any other. In other words, whether you are a Moslem, a Christian or a Hindu, it does not really matter. Because of these and other factors, young Christians can easily develop a distorted view of Christianity. Furthermore, the information young people access through television and the social media is such that they can easily develop a concept of Christianity which is very different from what people of my age were given as young people.
Generally, I believe there is a sense in which many of our young people take articles of the faith and the teachings of the church much less seriously than the people of my age did when they were young. Let us take young Catholics, for example: One trend I seem to notice has to do with attitudes to the sacraments and to sin. It is no longer surprising to see a young Catholic who has been wilfully missing Sunday Mass for months (or even years) finding himself/herself in church one Sunday and readily joining the Communion queue when the time for Communion comes. That he or she has not been going to church without sufficient cause is of no consequence, and so there is no need to go to confession before presenting himself or herself at the Table of the Lord. The idea of sin appears to assume a very different meaning. Receiving Holy Communion becomes just a ritual.
But it is not only the Catholic Church whose young people are adopting unorthodox ideas and habits. Some of the disturbing information about young Christians has come from Josh McDowell, who has written a book about young American Christians who, he says, are walking away from the church in alarming numbers. McDowell is so alarmed by what his research reveals about the faith of young people that he himself also sounds alarmist. The title of his book is The Last Christian Generation. In justifying the title of his book in the introduction he says, among other things, “I sincerely believe unless something is done now to change the spiritual state of our young people – you will become the last Christian generation!” (McDowell 2006:11). The following are some of the findings of his research project (which is about American young Christians). I give only three examples:
- 63%(of young Americans) don’t believe Jesus is the Son of the one true God;
- 58% believe all faiths teach equally valid truths;
- 51% don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead (McDowell 2006:15).
These three findings are all extremely disturbing to a Christian who believes in orthodox Christian theology; but let me just comment on the 51% who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead: The resurrection of the dead, meaning the resurrection of the body, is one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith; but this is all based on the resurrection of Christ. If, as these young people believe, Jesus did not rise from the dead, then what is the purpose of being a Christian? In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul poses this question very incisively:
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … For, if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15: 14, 16-19).
Conclusion: Whereto from here?
There is no point talking about challenges unless you intend to tackle those challenges – to do something about them. So, what is to be done? In my introduction I pointed out that I see the future leaders of the African Church in the Finalists about whom we are gathered here today. It is to them that I am posing this question: If you think there is any merit in what I have presented to you this morning, what then should Christian leaders and committed Christians in Africa do to ensure that the worst does not happen? You have the answers. What I am going to present to you now are mere suggestions from a concerned lay Christian who has no parish, school or college to run, and no pulpit from which to preach and teach.
The great scientist of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, is reported to have once said, “We cannot solve the problems of our time by thinking the way we thought when we created them”. What Einstein is challenging us to do is to see the need for a radical paradigm shift. To come to the realization that if we Christians continue to bask in our lukewarm Christianity, a Christianity that does not reflect the zeal of Jesus in spreading the Gospel message of salvation, we should not be surprised if we see authentic Christianity being muffled up by the powerful forces of an increasingly secularized and violent world. Instead we should hear the voice of Jesus saying “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34), and ask ourselves whether we reflect the same kind of zeal in spreading the Gospel message Christ. We should hear Jesus telling us, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37), and ask ourselves whether we are responding to the call.
The following are some of my suggestions about what should be done:
First, there is a challenge for us Christians to lead authentic Christian lives. Our faith should not just be a creed consisting of articles of faith; it should become a way of life. It is by this that we become light and salt for the world. For us lay people, it is not enough to go to church on Sunday; it is necessary to translate the act of worship into action in terms of our relationship with Jesus, our relationship with others, and our actions of love and service to others.
Second, in our increasingly secularized world, we should not be afraid to show who we are. We must be bold enough to allow people to see that we are followers of Jesus. Some years ago, Mrs Ngara and I called a maintenance company to come and do some maintenance work in our house in Pretoria. The leader of the team was a white man. When at the end of the job he and I sat down to talk about payment and I was signing the cheque, the man suddenly began to pour his heart out to me, telling me about his problems at home with tears running down his cheeks. And why? Because he saw the cross I was wearing and thought I was a pastor. I had to explain to him I was not an ordained pastor, but the cross was enough to invite him to want to share his problems with me.
Third, we should show our Moslem brothers and sisters, fellow children of our Father in faith, Abraham, we should show them what it means to be Christians – people of peace, people who forgive, people who love and serve others; and yes, people who can turn the other cheek. The ENCA news channel has an advert I like. It runs: “Moslems are not bad people; bad people are bad people”. There are good Christians and bad Christians; similarly, there are good Moslems and bad Moslems. We must make the distinction. It is much more productive for us Christians to cooperate with good Moslems and promote the idea of peaceful co-existence than to try and fight Islam as a religion.
Fourth, we should strive to develop a new generation of young Christians whose faith is strong and well founded; who are well grounded in the Scriptures; in Biblical values and principles; and in the teachings of their respective churches. The young Christians of today are the church of tomorrow. If we do not build a strong foundation for the church today, we should not be surprised if tomorrow Christian values become more and more diluted and there is no discernible difference between what Christians believe and what the rest of the world believes. We should not be surprised if Josh McDowell’s prophecy, “you will become the last Christian generation!” begins to be fulfilled.
In his regard, I sincerely believe there is a particular challenge here for my own church, the Catholic Church, and all other churches that practice infant baptism. If someone is baptized as an infant, at what point will he or she take personal responsibility to say “I am now a Christian; I have been born again with water and the Spirit; and I commit myself to following Christ and to be guided by the values of the Kingdom?” What I could perhaps say is that for Catholics and other churches that follow similar practices, the time of preparation for Confirmation becomes a critical time for young Christians to be “weaned” from the faith of the parents and become disciples of Jesus who personally commit themselves to the values of the Kingdom.
I was fortunate enough to be baptized when I was old enough to understand what being a Christian meant. I can honestly say that moment is unforgettable to me. I can honestly say I had the sense of becoming a new creation. One of the things I did was to go straight to my mother and say, “Mama, there are certain rituals I have observed being performed in this family. I am a Christian now, please do not force me to be involved in them”. My mother became my spokesperson. Eventually she herself became a Catholic.
The point I am making is that we must give our young Christians a firm foundation and help them to commit themselves to Jesus. We should not be satisfied to see them being merely religious. They must go beyond being religious and become spiritual Christians.
Last but not least, those of us in leadership positions should be conscious of the need to open their eyes to see what is happening around us. We should not be content to see developments that affect our world and our faith, and simply brush them aside saying, “These problems are to be expected in today’s complex world; we should just continue doing what we have been doing in serving the church”. Nor would it do to for us to hide our heads in the sand like ostriches convinced that because we do not see the danger, the danger cannot see us. On the contrary, we should ask ourselves “What is the Christian response to this phenomenon, and what should we do?”
In Chapter 3 of his First Letter, Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). This, to me, is in part, a challenge to us to read the signs of the times and ask those two crucial questions that Christians faced with a dilemma should ask themselves: WWJD and WWSWD. What would Jesus do? (WW JD) and What should we do?(WWSWD).
Finally, I wish to express my sincere gratitude to Arrupe College for giving me this rare opportunity to address this gathering of important students, illustrious academics and distinguished guests.
Armstrong, K., The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, London, Vintage Books, 2010.
Hanegraaff, H., Christianity in Crisis, Eugene, Oregon, Harvest House Publishers, 1997.
Howse, C., (Ed.), AD: 2000 Years of Christianity, London, The Daily Telegraph, 1999.
Keene, M., Christianity, Oxford, England, Lion Publishing plc, 2002.
McDowell, J., The Las Christian Generation, Holiday, Florida, Green Key Books, 2006.