Public Square & Theology 101

Is the Church Having an Identity Crisis?

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Urban legend has it that after an erroneous story about his death appeared in a major American newspaper, Mark Twain remarked, “The report of my death was an exaggeration!”

This quote came to mind more than once as I read my friend Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo’s new book, The Death of Western Christianity: Drinking from the Poisoned Wells of the Cultural Revolution. While Christianity in the West is indeed in decline (more so in western Europe), I pray that reports of its death are, too, an “exaggeration” and that a course-correction is possible.

In many ways, this book is similar to a number of books written in the last several years by authors like Os Guinness and Rod Dreher. Yet, as a Brit who converted to Christianity from Islam while in college and who is best known for his work on Islam and the persecuted, Sookhdeo’s analysis of the decline of Western Christianity comes from a unique perspective.

While he is certainly familiar with the condition of the church in Britain, 20 years of speaking to hundreds of churches in the U.S. has also given him unusual insight into the condition of the church in this country.

A Church Fighting Plague Within and Attack from Outside

In the opening chapters, he builds a strong indictment against the church for being influenced by the morality of the dominant culture in the West, a culture that includes divorce and extramarital sexual behavior, moral relativism, postmodernism, materialism, individualism, cultural Marxism, and movements like the health and wealth gospel and moralistic therapeutic deism.

Sookhdeo also implicates the state for its meddling in the realms of family, parenting, and education in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. He argues that the West is now “actively anti-Christian and profoundly intolerant of the Christian faith.”

The idea of a strong link between the decline of Christianity and the decline of Western civilization has been suggested by other authors, including atheist Douglas Murray in The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam and Richard Koch and ‎Chris Smith in their book Suicide of the West.

Sookhdeo calls the root problem a “crisis of identity” and submits that the Western church can reclaim lost ground only if it rediscovers its identity. Drawing on his own personal experience, he points to the critical role of identity in Islam:

Islam offers an attractive option to many people seeking purpose and meaning in life. Islam is based on three main elements—all profoundly integral to the concept of identity—believing, belonging and behavior.

Islam does not waver on these three key pillars of belief (Islamic creed), belonging (community), and behavior (Sharia law). Sookhdeo explains how each element reinforces “the sense of individual and communal sense of identity, purpose, direction and belonging to Islam.”

Reversing Amnesia

In the ninth chapter of Sookhdeo’s book, “Christian Identity—A Way Forward” (I would argue the most important chapter), the author proposes that for the church and Christians to regain their identity, they must reestablish these same three elements, which, likewise, are integral to Christian faith and practice:

Creeds: The first stage of re-establishing Christian identity is knowing what to believe. Sookhdeo laments, “The Western Church has been swamped by a sea of postmodern, relativist and humanist thinking, which has led to her confusion and crisis of identity.”

Christianity has lost its identity because we do not know what we believe. Confessional churches, ones that hold to the historical Christian confessions like the Nicene Creed, the 39 Articles of Religion, or the Westminster Confession, are few and far between. Even in so-called confessional churches, members have no idea what their creeds and confessions teach.

Sookhdeo is quick to point out that doctrine without a genuine heart experience is only abstract and ineffective knowledge. Yet at the same time, “a living relationship with God needs a creedal scaffolding to protect and hold it together against melting into a mushy Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Community: Creeds inform a second aspect of identity: community—belonging to a group that shares the same beliefs. The Greek word koinonia occurs 20 times in the New Testament and speaks to this idea of community.

While koinonia is often translated as fellowship, there is no English word that fully encompasses the deep biblical meaning of the word. It describes what Christian community is supposed to be and includes communion, fellowship, and participation, and is how God intended Christians to live together in unity (Acts 2:42-47). Sookhdeo writes,

In other words, salvation allows us to enter the family of God, but unless we have a relationship with the others in this family, our Christian faith is null and void…By virtue of belonging to Christ, we belong to his family, the Body of Christ. We simply cannot be part of the head (Christ), if we are not part of His body, the Church.

Commandments: The last key component of identity is behavior. We can believe all the right things and be part of a community, but if our lives do not reflect the core principles of Christianity, we are still part of the church’s identity crisis (James 2:14-19). Sookhdeo sums it up this way:

There is no better way to be clear about our identity—both to ourselves and others—than to live a righteous and godly life. We must recognize within ourselves that we are influenced by the world and we must renew our hearts and minds continually. We must be clear about what is right and wrong and live without compromise in this postmodern age. We have an obligation to do this as individual Christians and as the Church. Only then can we influence society instead of allowing society to influence us.

Where Do We Go from Here?

At IFWE, we often talk about the importance of the impact of believers in the world around them through their everyday work. In that vein, the great takeaway from The Death of Western Christianity is summed up in the quote below:

Christians and a Church with a crystal-clear and razor-sharp identity can and must be an influence in the world again.

As Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, writes in the forward of Sookhdeo’s book:

This is a disturbing book. Many will not want to read it because they honestly know that it speaks truth to all Christians as we face the future. However, it is a book we MUST read if we want our churches to be visible, viable and vibrant places of hope and renewal.

All I can add to that is, Amen.

 

Editor’s Note: Learn more about Christian identity in God’s Purpose in Creation: A Study in Genesis 1.

Would you prayerfully consider joining IFWE in our effort to empower Christians to use their vocation to change the world? Support IFWE today. 

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