So what do we do now as Christians in a post-Christian culture? Os Guinness has some thoughts about our “third mission to the West” in his book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times:
The first mission to the West centered on the conversion of the Roman Empire. This mission is well known, the extraordinary story of how those whom the Romans saw as a bunch of provincial misfits grew and grew until their faith replaced the faith of mighty Rome itself. (The Emperor Julian after his failure to turn back the clock: “You have conquered, Galilean!”)
But when the Western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, so also did much of the church in the West, so the second mission to the West centered on the conversion of the barbarian kingdoms. This took place against the backdrop of the Dark Ages and the tribal conditions and conflicts from the fifth to the tenth centuries. Less well known than the story of the conversion of Rome, this story was every bit as heroic. It included the celebrated “gentling” of the European people, as the cross of Jesus became what the poet Heinrich Heine called the “taming talisman” that subdued the “berserker rage” of barbarians such as the Celts, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Franks and the Vikings.
The second mission also includes the stories of Skellig Michael and communities like it. Skellig Michael was the rocky pyramid in the storm-tossed Atlantic, eight miles off the western coast of Ireland. For six centuries, part of the church clung to its faith by the skin of its teeth at a place that for them was the end of the world and at a moment they believed was the end of time. The second mission certainly includes the story of “how the Irish saved civilization,” the brief, bright hour captured by Thomas Cahill’s book of the same title when St. Columbanus and other missionaries from the Emerald Isle fanned out down and across Europe, a missionary journey that can still be traced today by the trail of Celtic crosses as far down as St. Gallen in Switzerland and Bobbio in northern Italy.
What those of us who are European Christians must acknowledge humbly is that when the Chinese and other peoples in the world had reached a high level of civilization, we were still barbarians and we might still be barbarians apart from the gospel. It took the gospel of Jesus Christ to tame our barbarian violence and unite our warring continent. For the intrepid missionaries who sailed forth from Ireland in flimsy coracles, or who journeyed up from Rome under the second St. Augustine, brought both the gospel and its fruits. Along with the gospel, they brought the Scriptures, then literacy, then education, and all the gifts of the gospel that later on were to lay the foundations from which Christendom was built.
Never forget the power of the Gospel. Jesus is in the business of changing human beings into people who love and follow Him. People who love and follow Him, when there are enough of them faithfully doing so, can’t help but affect the shape of the whole culture. In this way, God has transformed the cultures of greater and more wretched nations than ours. When He has chosen to. But whether or not He chooses to do so in our day, we’re called to follow Him. This, Guinness says, we must do faithfully and completely:
The deepest question concerns the Lord himself: Is it really conceivable that God will revive the Western church a third time, after it has gone cold twice? Another question concerns our response: What are we to do as we wait for God’s answer to that first titanic question? In other words, our deepest questions at this moment echo the very question God asked of the prophet Ezekiel as he surveyed a valley full of the sun-bleached bones of a defeated and slaughtered army, “Can these bones live?”
And like Ezekiel, our answer can only be, “O Lord, you know.”
The answer to the second question is the clearer. Acknowledging the essential part that only God can play should never lead to quietism or passivity. We may contribute little to our own renewal except the needs that make our renewal necessary, but to return to Christ in repentance is to shoulder our full responsibilities as disciples—including our commitment to engage to the fullest extent our callings in the world, and our dedication to re-evangelize the advanced modern world. For whether the times are bright or dark, whether we can see God in action in front of us or he seems absent and long delayed, and whether our cultural standing is once again admired or disdainfully cold-shouldered, we have our trust in him to be true to, our tasks to perform and our callings to which we must prove faithful.
As always, faithfulness is all, and the circumstances are beside the point. Our faithfulness must therefore show itself in a waiting that is vigilant, energetic and enterprising. Wherever there are men and women faithful to the Lord, let them trust God and live out their calling to Jesus and their callings in the world wherever those callings take them. That is the call to faithfulness and active transforming engagement that we pray will flower in a new Christian renaissance in our time.
Much of the recent debate about changing the world sounded like a clash between those who say, “Yes, we can,” and those who say, “No, you can’t.” That at least is an issue that can be resolved. The true answer is one we must both declare and live out: Yes, we can, because God can—and he has in the past, and he is doing so elsewhere in the world, and he is able to do so again even here in the advanced modern world, because God is God, and his is the last word in human affairs.
Let it be clearly understood that our hope in the possibility of renewal is squarely grounded, not in ourselves, not in history and the fact that it has happened before, but in the power of God demonstrated by the truth of the resurrection of Jesus...The risen Jesus stands as the Lord of life, and the lesser challenge of Christian renewal looks puny in the light of the greater triumph of the resurrection of Jesus.
Guinness’s book can be summed up by this quote, and it’s one we should take to heart:
The time has come to trust God, move out, sharing and demonstrating the good news, following his call and living out our callings in every area of our lives, and then leave the outcome to him.
Make it the first priority of your life to conform your mind, your view of the world, your understanding of your profession, your treatment of others, the workings of your family, your willingness to sacrifice for others, and your love, to Jesus. As Guinness says, “We are called to define our faith, our lives and all we are and think and do by the standard of Jesus Christ our Lord, the precepts of the good news of the kingdom, and the authority of the Holy Scriptures.” You cannot skip over this in a misguided attempt to put all your efforts into doing something “big.” In the end, this is what makes the difference: one human being at a time being changed by Jesus, living in community with His other followers.
I just finished reading a book about Christopher Hitchens’s friendship with Larry Taunton, and it wasn’t Taunton’s superior argumentation that drew Hitchens to personally discuss Christianity with him; it was the fact that Taunton’s Christian life was lived with conviction, love, and sacrifice—sometimes shockingly so, to Hitchens—that moved him. The beauty of a life conformed to Jesus—His humility, His sacrificial love—demonstrates the plausibility of Christianity in a way that opens people up to hearing intellectual arguments. We dare not skip over conforming our lives to Jesus within a community of fellow Christians in order to focus on learning arguments.
I hope you feel as convicted by this as I do, and that you’ll take some time to consider ways your life could better reflect Christ’s love, humility, and self-sacrifice to the world.