It seems to me we are living at a time when many Christians have lost confidence in the gospel. We know our faith to be important to us, but we’re not so sure it’s important for others or how to share it with them. I suspect this results from four related trends. The first is the rise of pluralism. When my grandparents were young Christianity was the dominant belief system in our society, but my children grow up in a world where they are aware of multiple belief systems. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, agnostics and atheists all rub shoulders together. In a context such as this it is difficult to assert that my religion represents truth over against others. Consequently, religious belief is considered by many to belong to the realm of personal choice rather than objective truth.
Christians have had to make the difficult journey from the absolute certainty of the Judaeo-Christian and modernist era (I remember attempts by earnest preachers of my youth to prove that Christianity was the only rational and reasonable belief system to hold) to a faith built upon conviction (while my faith is logically coherent, it is just one of many logically coherent belief systems. I embrace it because it rings true to my experience and is a positive fit with my life). While I may live my life on the basis of my own conviction, it is another thing altogether to feel that others should share my conviction. And most would agree. With religious faith shunted to the realm of personal choice, it is often considered rude to try and convince somebody their personal beliefs should change.
The second trend is related to the first. For a long time Christians focused on the distinctiveness of their belief system rather than the distinctiveness of their lifestyle. We lived much the same as everyone else in the world. When Jesus said we should be known by our love, we became more concerned with being known by our beliefs. But now that the objectivity of belief has been stripped away, we are left with a legacy of Christian living that seeks its distinctiveness in issues such as refusal to use swear words, a strict sexual ethic, and church attendance, rather than a subversive, countercultural way of living love. At the same time, many of our friends seem happy with life, which leaves us without something distinctive and important enough to be compelling.
The third trend impacting our confidence in the gospel is the loss of confidence in the doctrine of hell. As a teenager I remember being absolutely convinced that my friends were going to spend eternity in Hell if I didn’t tell them about Jesus. Gospel presentations commonly began with the question “if you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?” But the question no longer resonates with most people in our culture. They either don’t believe in any afterlife at all, or they don’t believe in a God who would preside over a house of horrors. Nor do I. Along with many Christians, I find the doctrine of eternal torment embarrassing. I cannot escape the feeling that it turns God into the worst moral monster of history, a God who says he loves us yet is determined to torture without end those who choose not to love him back. It is a horrific doctrine that no longer motivates me.
The fourth trend is the terrible decline in the reputation of the church brought about by the shameful covering up of child abuse, along with views of women and gay people that are way out of step with the wider community. In most circles the church has forfeited any claim it may once have had to moral authority.
Is it any wonder we are far less confident in sharing the good news of Jesus with those around us? Confidence in the objective factuality of Christianity has eroded; the right to speak has been muted by the consignment of religious belief to the realm of personal choice and the declining moral authority of the church; and the great driver of the evangelistic effort of the past, the belief in hell, is simply no longer resonant to those outside the Christian faith nor to increasing numbers of those within it.
From what I can observe we have yet to contextualise the gospel to our culture in such a way that we can answer the question “why would someone become a follower of Jesus?”. Really answer it, with a depth of conviction that compels us to share. Until we can come up with an answer to that question that is compelling to we who believe and resonates with the longings of our age, Christianity will continue to decline. Thankfully, more and more Christians are starting to ask the question and exploring the culturally subversive lifestyle of Jesus, leaving me hopeful that we are on the cusp of a rediscovery of the power of the gospel to transform our lives and our world.