May 2018

Where to now for Christianity in the West?

When all the listening processes of various gatherings for church renewal are completed, the critical questions are what practical steps are being implemented to address the crisis of a dysfunctional church culture, and how to energise Christian communities, asks Kevin Treston.

BY Kevin Treston

Last year a colleague and I were discussing issues facing Christianity today, especially in Western countries. We were also wondering about possible prospects for church renewal emanating from the forthcoming Plenary Council for the Australian Catholic Church to be held in 2020. We decided that we might make some contribution to the listening process by using the suggestion of American Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister – that the church only advances by asking questions which lead to conversations. We sent out emails to a wide variety of people asking them to propose a question about church renewal. The responses were collated and sent to the Plenary Council’s advisory group.

Not long after this enterprise of gathering questions, when walking my dog Darcy, a verse from John’s gospel came to me like a bolt from the blue: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). I knew immediately that was the title of my intending book about the crisis in Western Christianity.

When I came home, I typed in the title and began writing. We ‘hear’ the sound of the wind by observing all the signs of a crisis in Western Christianity, but where does it come from or where is it going? These are tantalising questions indeed. Why is there such a massive decline in church membership and liturgical participation in Western Christianity while churches in Africa and Asia are flourishing? What are hopeful signs that the wind of the Spirit is blowing in different ways for different times in the Christian story?

In my recently published book for general readers, The Wind Blows Where It Chooses: The Quest for a Christian Story in Our Time, I invite readers to step back from practical approaches to church renewal and consider just four themes: becoming more alert to the cultural challenges and opportunities of living as a Christian today (chapter 1); encountering a Jesus for our time (chapter 2); being more aware of historical accumulations in the Christian story (chapter 3); nurturing a vibrant spirituality (chapter 4).

Historically we recognise that every four or five hundred years Christianity moves to another level of consciousness and character frame – from the dramatic outpouring of the Spirit in early Christianity to its establishment within a Roman legal structure and Greek philosophy by the fifth century, to the entity of Christendom in the Middle Ages, to the tumult of the Reformation, expansion in the ‘new world’ and Asia in the sixteenth century, and now 500 years later, what is happening in Western Christianity and why?

It is relatively easy to name all kinds of issues concerning aspects of Western culture that are impacting on the Christian story. Likewise, there is much discussion about topics relating to church life, such as dysfunctional governance structures and policies in how the church functions, exclusion of women from full participation including ministerial leadership, toxic church culture, especially emanating from clericalism, locus of authority and collegiality, enculturation and so on. There are also a plethora of encouraging signs of the Spirit wind blowing, such as the leadership of Pope Francis, ecumenism, eco-spirituality, base Christian communities, empowering of the laity and a passionate commitment to the marginalised.

However, when all the listening processes of various gatherings for church renewal are completed, the critical questions are what practical steps are being implemented to address the crisis of a dysfunctional church culture, and how to energise Christian communities? Listening is a necessary ingredient in church renewal. Listening with no follow-up by specific actions for enduring renewal is certain to end in tears. There is a long history of national and diocesan gatherings which would verify that observation.

A note of caution to temper unreal expectations about church renewal is to accept the ecclesial reality that implementation of significant reforms faces formidable obstacles in local churches such as the Australian Catholic Church given that the final arbitrator of church life is far away at the Vatican. If the conclusions of conversations about renewal of church life are terminated by Canon law which specifies what can or cannot be done, then perhaps it is preferable to limit the expectations of assemblies and approach church renewal from other creative perspectives, such as imaginative local approaches to liturgy and evangelisation. Another option is to insist that Canon law is a guide not the keeper of the Good News.

The amazing emerging vision of our contemporary world increasingly revealed to us in such fields as cosmology, evolutionary science, quantum physics, global cyber technology, international corporate commerce, population displacements and climate changes challenge Christians to reframe the dynamic Christ story within the wondrous story of the universe created in the Flaring Forth or Big Bang by the Divine Creator 13.7 billion years ago. That great enterprise of articulating the Christian faith within the story of the universe awaits us in the third millennium. A new ‘Summa’ will be composed, not by a solitary medieval Thomas Aquinas, but teams of theologians, cosmologists, philosophers, scientists and consultants in social change.

Where to now for Christianity in the West?

When we ground the overarching trends affecting church life today in the lived reality of ordinary people, what does it actually mean, for example, for a single mother with three children, juggling commitments of work and home? Who is Jesus for her and her children in everyday life? Is Christ present to her and how does the church reveal to her family God’s love in Jesus through its celebrations, teachings and services?

The wind of the Spirit is ultimately a hopeful one for resurrection people of faith.

Kevin Treston

Kevin Treston has been involved in pastoral ministry for over 60 years throughout Australia and many countries. His studies include doctoral and post-doctoral programs in the USA. He and Kathryn live in Brisbane. Kevin’s latest book, "The Wind Blows Where It Chooses: The Quest for a Christian Story in Our Time", 2018, is available from Coventry Press.

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