The startling headline grabbed my attention: "Religion May Become Extinct in Nine Nations". Reported yesterday by the BBC, a group of researchers, using something called nonlinear dynamics, has found indication that religion is not only declining but heading toward extinction in at least nine nations (Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland). Of course, while Biblical Christianity isn't the only religion involved in the study, it is the "big one" from which these nations are turning. Thus, though such statistics aren't surprising, they are a sharpening of the discouraging picture of true spirituality in the northern hemisphere. What does such information have to do with us?
First, this information challenges us to learn anthropology (What is Man?) from God's Word, measuring research and philosophy against its standard. The Scriptures tells us that man is incurably religious, that the primary function of our design is worship and we can no more give up our heart's pull to eternal things than we can stop breathing (Eccl. 3:11). So where official, formal religion declines, the void left will be filled with worship of some sort--whether worship of self, science, humanity, the environment, or any number of idols we are capable of forging. Religion will never decline, not really.
Remembering what God says about us, we still need what he says about hope. Such studies challenge us in simply believing the gospel--not only for ourselves but for the whole world. Is Jesus still saving people? While many nations are losing their Christian heritage, many more are turning to Him at an amazing rate. A friend recently reported that the church in Asia has grown from 22 million in 1900 to 400 million today; in Africa the growth was from 8 to 351 million; in Latin America, less than a million to 55 million. If we are going to pray for true revival in Europe and the other nations in the study, let's pray like people who believe Jesus is really the King and has the power and will to bring all things into subjection under him.
Finally, there is much we can learn about our own mission fields from such studies. Perhaps most fascinating about the study was the researchers core idea that the "social status or utility" of being involved in a religion is declining; in other words, the perceived benefits of religion are waning for many. This betrays a deep-seated consumer mentality toward religion--and why not? Consumerism (creating and fulling a desire for services or goods) has been the cultural water we've swum in since birth. This means most people hear the gospel like they hear a car salesman--wanting to know "What's in it for me? Why should I pay the cost?" And while there's incalculable benefits to trusting and following Jesus, the church fails in proclaiming the gospel when we pander to such consumerism with hints of the prosperity gospel in our preaching. Ultimately, we call people to trust Jesus because it's what they owe Him, not what He owes them. Remember, following God may end badly--but it will still be worth (because you get Jesus and He gets glorified). In other words, let's stop selling the gospel and let's start proclaiming it instead.