Religion & Liberty Online

The challenge of modernity: Os Guinness on the church and civilization

The modern world has introduced a wide array of fruits and freedoms, yet it also brings with it new tensions and temptations. Whether in family, business, education, or government, the expansion of opportunity and choice require heightened levels of individual wisdom, discernment and intentionality.

In a recent talk for the C.S. Lewis Institute, Os Guinness laments the influence of these effects on the Western church. “It isn’t ideas which have caused the main damage to the church,” Guinness says. “Modernity itself, not ideas… has done more damage to the church than all the persecutors put together, and yet many Christians don’t even know what I’m talking about.”

As Guinness argues, the Western church has far too passively shifted alongside or according to the trends and tendencies of modernity as seen across the culture, whether in family, business, education, or government. Across cultural spheres, we’ve shifted from a stance of authority to one of preference, from a mindset of integration to one of fragmentation, and from a supernatural orientation to a secular worldview.

In many cases, modernity is just the “icing on the cake,” Guinness notes, but the sheer force of its push and pull cannot be ignored. “If you recognize [the temptations], you can resist them,” he says. “If you don’t recognize them, they can shape you unawares.”

Although Christians wield little influence in Europe, they still constitute a vast majority of the population in America, and yet despite their numbers, they wield little cultural influence at large. For Guinness, this is “the heart of the scandal for the American church.”

The takeaway? “There is something wrong with the salt and the light.”

In response, Guinness offers 3 key tasks that the Western church has before it, both internally and externally as it relates to spiritual, social, and cultural witness, and the inevitable battles of an increasingly modernizing world:

1. Prepare the global south.

The Chinese church survived the most brutal, vicious, systematic persecution any church has probably ever faced under Mao Ze Dung. And yet now, when they’re not persecuted so visiously….as they’re moving to big cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, the challenge of the church negotiating these big modern cities is actually causing many to fall away. The challenge of negotiating modern life is even harder than surviving persecution.

We need to prepare them…Don’t do what we did. It was the Western church that helped create the modern world, and we have caved in to the very world we helped create…So we have to say with great humility: This is what we did wrong; this is how discipleship was seduced and distorted. Don’t do what we did.

2. Win back the Western world.

Some people immediately think of crusades and political campaigns. I’m not thinking of that…[Western missionaries] brought the gospel. They brought the scriptures. They brought literacy. They brought education. And they sowed the seeds for what became Christendom. And here we are, many, many centuries later, living in the twilight of Christendom, as the church both in Europe and here is not doing well in much of the advanced modern world.

Instead of the doom and gloom or the alarmism…we should be thinking of winning back our part of the world for our Lord, just as they did after the collapse of the Western empire…moving out with confidence in the gospel, in each of the callings God has given us, and really being the salt and light in our culture, winning people back to our Lord not as a political campaign or cultural crusade, but winning people one by one, community by community.

3. Contribute to the human future.

We’re facing unprecedented challenges. If you’re following things like singularity or the effects of artificial intelligence, or transhumanism, you know that there are visions of tomorrow that are unlike anything humanity’s ever seen, and many of the faiths, worldviews, and philosophies of the world have no answer at all. But we cannot sit back and say “Jesus is the answer” without articulating that answer into the thick of the grand philosophical, ethical, medical, scientific challenges that are coming in the future. And I hope particularly the millennial generation will take it as a calling to engage that world…and be there in the thick of those discussions.

os-guinnessThe church will surely endure without the West, but can the West flourish if it fails to recover its Christian roots — what Guinness calls “the moral ecosystem of the West”? The fragmentation and separation is already happening, and the church can begin the repairing now, winning people, as Guinness says, “one by one, community by community.”

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.