Regent University’s motto is “Christian Leadership to Change the World,” and Seattle Pacific University markets itself as "Where world change begins." Other Christian institutions and many Christian leaders make similar claims. But can Christians really change the world? And what does it really mean to change the world?
That question has been the subject of much debate since last year’s publication of James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. While Hunter is pessimistic about the ability of the church to affect real social change, Dr. Os Guinness says that the Christian faith has changed the world in the past and can change it again. He proposes that, following the failure of the Christian Right, we dedicate ourselves to the vision of “a new Christian renaissance.”
CP: Why are you calling for a new Christian renaissance?
Guinness: The term renaissance is suspect to some Christians because the famous 15th century Renaissance was humanist and even anti-Christian. But the word simply means “rebirth,” which is thoroughly Christian. And while the well-known Renaissance was exceptionally influential, there were many earlier renaissances before the Renaissance, most of which were clearly Christian. Besides, the reformers themselves owed much to the Renaissance, and the term carries less negative baggage today than ‘reformation.’
I believe what we need today is a new renaissance: a restoration of radical faithfulness to Jesus and His way of life, and a fresh flowering of entrepreneurial ventures in culture.
After a century in which evangelicals have swung between the false extremes of an overly privatized faith and an overly politicized faith, this would be a better way forward, a way that is both faithful and influential at once.
CP: You believe that the Christian faith is still capable of changing the world. How has it done so before?
Guinness: Look back over the last two millennia and you can see that the Christian faith has been the decisive force in what is arguably the world’s most powerful civilization – if only in the sense that the forces of Western civilization are now globalizing the entire world, and not just one region. Of course, the West owes much to the Greeks and the Romans and above all the Hebrews. But all these three civilizations were Mediterranean. It was the church that brought the Gospel to Europe, “gentled” the European barbarians, and laid the foundations for what became the “Christian West.”
Just think of the “gifts” of the Gospel to the West, such as the reform movements, philanthropy, the universities, modern science, human rights – or grand moral achievements, such as the abolition of slavery.
CP: You say that for the church to truly follow Christ, it must recover and practice a ‘social dualism.’ What do you mean?
Guinness: There is a social tension required by the Way of Jesus. His followers are called to be “in” the world but “not of” the world (social dualism) or “not conformed” but “transformed.” When Christians truly live like that, rather than going to one extreme or another, it gives the church an unmatched leverage in culture – not just “faithful presence” but “transforming engagement.” Culture, after all, is simply “a way of life lived in common,” so when Jesus called his followers to “live His way,” it was natural that Christians together created a decisively Christian culture as the by-product of their faithfulness to the Way of Jesus.
Our central problem does not come from secularists, post-modernists, Islamists, Gay activists, or any other purported threat raised and broadcast by the fear-mongering machines. It comes from our own evangelical worldliness and our signal failure to live the Way of Jesus.
CP: How are we as Christians failing to live the Way of Jesus?
Guinness: Sadly, when we look at many movements within evangelicalism today, the world and the spirit of the age are dominant, rather than the Word and Spirit.
I feel this very deeply as one trained in the social sciences. When I wrote “The Gravedigger File” nearly thirty years ago, very few evangelicals knew much about sociology. It was considered a “dangerous” field, along with psychology. Now it is cited almost universally, especially in the constant quoting of the latest statistics. I have heard mega-church sermons in which “Gallup or Barna says” far out-stripped “God or the Bible says.
But whereas sociology was once unused, it is now used uncritically. One of the key places where sociology should be used is in analyzing “the world” of our times, so that we can be more discerning. To resist the dangers of the world you have to recognize the distortions and seductions of the world. I have revised and updated my book under a new title, “The Last Christian on Earth”, but understanding the world through cultural criticism, as this parable encourages, is still unfashionable. Rather than use sociology that way, most pastors use it in a way that leads to adapting to the world, and they are encouraged to do so by half-baked versions of “seeker-sensitive” mission, and so on.
So we have to ask a question of the church at any moment: Is the Word decisive in the church, or is the world? Is the Spirit of God decisive, or the spirit of the hour?
CP: Are we witnessing the end of a Christian culture in America?
Guinness: The Christian church in the US is still strong numerically, but it has lost its decisive influence both in American public life and in American culture as a whole, especially in the major elite institutions of society.
There are many reasons for this, but the deepest is that the church is weak because it is worldly. No longer “in” but “not of,” the American church is in the world, of the world, and in profound cultural captivity – much like the church in Europe just before the Reformation, and sadly, American evangelicals are second only to Protestant liberals in their sometimes brazen, sometimes unwitting worldliness.
People cite cases such as Rob Bell’s recent book, which for all its creative communication, is a weak form of recycled liberalism. But there are far bigger examples, such as our vulgar Christian consumerism, the triumph of the managerial and the therapeutic, and the sorry confusion of faith and political power. For anyone with a zeal for the Gospel, so-called straws in the wind have now become a haystack blowing around us, and we must confront the root problem of worldliness.
CP: Is there hope for changing the situation in the U.S.?
Guinness: The Bible and history are overflowing with examples of the Lord turning things around when all looks lost, and there is absolutely no reason why that cannot happen again today. Take the example of “the dark ages.” Critics often accuse the church of being responsible for the dark ages, when in fact the dark ages were indeed very dark, but the church was “the ark” in which learning, the arts, and civilization itself sailed through to safety, as historians as different as HG Wells and Christopher Dawson have argued.
The story of Christian reformation, revival, and renaissance underscores that the darkest hour is often just before the dawn, so we should always be people of hope and prayer, not gloom and defeatism. God the Holy Spirit can turn the situation around in five minutes. As GK Chesterton once remarked, five times the church has “gone to the dogs,” but each time “it was the dog that died.” There are signs of real encouragement even in Europe.
CP: How do you read the times we are living in globally?
Guinness: Only the Lord knows where we are. I don’t, and I know no one else who does, though false prophets are two a penny. But I do believe it would be right to describe our age as a time of profound transition, rather like the age of St. Augustine. The Western world is divided and unsure of its identity, the American republic stands on the verge of possible (though not necessary) decline, and the churches in the West are weak and worldly, as I said.
In sum, the old world as we have known it is dying, but the new world is as yet unborn. Or to put it differently, the old orders are no longer able to rule as before, and the new orders are unwilling to be ruled as before. This is what Lenin would have called our “revolutionary condition.” In ten or twenty years’ time, things may be clearer, but at the moment we are in a mist, if not a fog.
Is that necessarily bad? Of course not. Seen from one angle, it is a wonderful time, if only because even in the fog we can now clearly see all the mistaken, recent approaches that have proved neither faithful nor effective (the way of the Emergents, the Christian Right, and so on). Also, we are waking up to the urgent need for a revival and reformation in the church and a renaissance in the wider culture.
CP: Are you seeing any signs of a blossoming Christian Renaissance?
Guinness: While all the generalizations about the church tend to be negative, the exceptions are mostly positive. Just think of all the fresh shoots that have come through the concrete in the last ten years – the International Justice Movement, the Wedgwood Circle, Socrates in the City, the Veritas Forum, the Trinity Forum Academy, and so on.
Of course, one of the prime requirements of the church in the dark ages, or even darkening ages such as ours, is that we clarify our allegiances and priorities and abandon our false points of reliance.
All that we do must be first and last for Christ and His kingdom, not for America, or the West, or democracy, or whatever. The “first things” must be first again, and everything else must be viewed only a bonus or a by-product, and not our prime concern.
CP: How must the Lord lead these efforts?
Guinness: The great curse of our age is the rationalism and humanism of management and technique. It’s odd that we simultaneously oppose “secular humanism” and buy into a key part of its core mentality – for example, our obsession with organizational methods and “measurable outcomes.” Just look at how a mania for the latter is paralyzing evangelical foundations and their partners.
Jesus made clear that the Kingdom of God is organic and not organizational. It grows like a seed and it works like leaven: secretly, invisibly, surprisingly, and irresistibly. As TS Eliot said, writing of restoring Christian culture, we must remember that trees are grown, not built. Take the Book of Acts. How did the Gospel reach Africa, and Europe, and the Gentiles? In each case it was the initiative of the Holy Spirit, and often in the West today we consult Him only with an opening prayer that is perfunctory and empty.
It is time to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit openly and constantly, first, last, and in between, and to use the best modern insights and technologies under His leadership. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.” Even the magnificent “gifts” of Christian culture and Christian civilization are only a bonus or a by-product of following the Way of Jesus. That is our supreme challenge today: We are living in a cut-flower civilization. The roots of Christian culture have been cut and the flowers are beginning to die on all sides. Only a fresh flowering of the Way of Jesus in the world of today will make the difference that we long for.
Dr. Os Guinness is an author and social critic living in the Washington, D.C. area. His most recent book is The Last Christian On Earth (Regal).