I went to a day of reflection yesterday on the topic “Contemporary Christianity.” What’s happening to the church? The session leader gave us some interesting perspectives. I’d like to share some of them with you, as well as my own reflections.
- Weekly attendance at church services in Australia was 74% in 1954 and is 14% today.
- The Christian church is shrinking in western countries with “European-based traditions” but growing in developing countries.
He also quoted a historian’s view that every 500 years or so, The Christian church goes major upheaval.
- 500AD: The fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian kings, with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in the western world
- 1000AD: Increased conflict between east and west, with the schism in the church and the crusades
- 1500AD: The reformation and rise of individualism
- 2000AD: Our current experiences that “church” and “religion” are in decline, at least in Australia and other western countries
One author has called our current situation the “end of Christendom.” It certainly feels like an ending of some kind to me. But, with any change, there must be an ending before a new beginning. That current chaotic situation is a clear sign that Christians and others are experiencing what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift — when more and more questions emerge for which the “old” answers don’t work. 
The search for a “new” paradigm
Are the “old” answers of “religion” and “church” and “Christendom” not working anymore? If so, what questions were these realities created to answer? Are those questions no longer relevant?
To explore what’s going on, what if we seek the questions which Jesus asked. Were His questions “Which church do you go to?” or “Which Christian religion do you practice?” Seen in those terms, we can see that these “old” questions” seem wrong somehow. They weren’t central in Jesus’ preaching. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would even ask these questions today.
So what questions is Jesus asking? I suggest that you read his questions to his apostles, and decide for yourself. Make a complete list. See how many of them have to do with “church” or “religion” per se. I’ll give you a clue. Here’s one sequence from Mark 8:17-18: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”
The unshifting paradigm
You get the feeling that Jesus was pointing beyond our human search for answers and paradigms when he asked His questions. He almost seemed frustrated at times with his closest friends when they didn’t understand what was going on. In the end, when Philip asked, “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us” Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” [John 14: 8-9] If we understand who Jesus is, He is the unchanging ‘paradigm’, and history is understood in the light of who He is. “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” [1 Corinthians 15:24]
If we view “church” and “religion” in terms of dominion, authority and power (as we do), that way of human thinking (paradigm) is passing away, even in our lifetime. But we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ God’s kingdom is in the ascendency in the ‘final days’, and not merely in individual hearts. There is ‘one body’ of which Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, even if it appears that the ‘branches’ are being pruned right now.
We ought to take to heart what Jesus said to his disciples, and trust that he will answer our questions in due course. “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”
 Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.
© 2012, James Harlow Brown. All rights reserved.