A few weeks ago I wrote an article saying that if we continue in the direction we are currently heading, the Ghanaian church in the future could collapse. When I discussed it with my friends they were quite incredulous to say the least. One thought I was being quite ridiculous. As I defended my position it came down to two sets of related arguments that is, historical reasons and theological reasons for why we should at least entertain the possibility. You can see my historical arguments in summary threshed out in a previous post using major examples from Europe and the Middle East, which have ancient Christian heritages which today are in danger. History and learning from it are central to the biblical narrative so I am certain the ominous words of George Santayana ring especially true for the believer, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’
Examples from Church history were the main thrust of my plaintive caution. However, as the weeks and months passed by and I debated and reflected on the issue further, I realised some of the arguments that I thought were minor, which were mainly theological, were far more important than I had previously imagined yet they were quite obvious, being found right in the pages of scripture. Perhaps that was why I took them for granted. In the past several months I have gained a healthy appreciation of Church history and that reflected in my arguments but no period of Church history is more important than the New Testament era, the very origin of it all.
When we read the writings of the apostolic Church there is never a guarantee that the church in any particular locale will continue to exist indefinitely. In fact, we find the exact opposite. Being a small, strange movement in the 1st century Roman world, even within the Jewish context it first emerged, they were under no illusion that the world was a welcoming place and anticipated extremely hostile opposition in some cases. Jesus their leader was himself harassed and finally killed and he explained to his followers that they would be too and that is what happened in the New Testament record. If the earliest communities of Jesus followers faced real obstacles, why then do we assume none? History has subsequently shown the Christian church has always had challenges. Why then do we think the contemporary Ghanaian church will always have an assured place in the society?
They knew they were called to be in the world but paradoxically not of it. As much as that is traditional Christian thinking, it is not only a theological reason but a sub-theological cause for concern about a particular church’s continued existence. Sub-theological in the sense that it is also a social reason. Christians were to be a “peculiar people” and therefore it is expected that an alternative community will always face antagonism from the dominant culture. The most they can hope for is toleration but never true acceptance. It is a simple social observation which can be made as early as kindergarten kids at play and the one child left out. Funnily enough, Jesus in a parable described the relationship between him and the prophetic tradition he belonged to with the rest of the Jewish people in those terms: they were the kids no one wanted to play with. No extraordinary prophetic powers are needed to know people don’t like change.
So paying attention to the reasons scripture provides against the church taking things for granted added a new wrinkle to my arguments: a sociological set of reasons. Sociologist Rodney Stark in his seminal work on why early Christianity survived the Roman period and flourished offers a “Goldilocks” hypothesis why some new religions are successful and most fail. If they are too different from the dominant culture they cannot live in the society. However, if they are too similar there is no point in joining since there is no real difference anyway and they are nothing more than a passing fad. Too hot or too cold, either way they are socially indigestible. They have to hit the social sweet spot where they maintain a distinct identity yet they can properly participate in society. Jesus’ followers have always lived in this tension between being in the wold and yet not of it, incarnate yet holy.
Now social reality is dynamic and the dominant culture does not sit idly by while all this is happening. The church as a counter cultural movement upsets the status quo and therefore the world offers it only two options: assimilation or exclusion. I am fully aware things are more complicated than that simple statement. From the beginning, faithful followers of Jesus in the world have had to count the social cost and find ways to negotiate their existence. Yet ultimately it boils down to being either with them or not. The prevailing culture by definition wants to be the prevailing culture and for that agenda to continue either you get with programme or you’re kicked out. Even though the Church of the Messiah Jesus fundamentally disagrees with the world it will gladly agree with it that if you are a friend of the world you are an enemy of God.
There has to be a distinction but it is my estimation that the Ghanaian church has rather become adiophora to the world. We have become a difference that does not matter. In the future the extent of our present compromise will be fully realised as non-existence. The church will not survive in the future, at least not in any biblically meaningful form. Yes, this is a grim prognosis but it is foolhardy to think everything is alright and the Ghanaian church should continue the way it is. The path the Ghanaian church is on has no other destination (even though I firmly believe we do not have to walk this road.) These simple social observations have repeatedly been borne out through history. Why should the church be any different?