The Last Christian on Earth by Os Guinness
“It’s urgent that Christians should realize what is happening” (17). The church in America is slowly dying. It is, in fact being brought down by the very Western culture that it has helped to create. At least this is the argument that Os Guinness makes in his book The Last Christian on Earth. In this book Guinness outlines what he believes to be the problem with the Western church. This book is an excellent call for those of us who call ourselves Christians to remember who we are and who we serve. It helps convict us of turning away from God even when we have no idea what we are doing. Guinness makes many convicting points in this book that point to some very real problems in the Western church.
In the Preface, Guinness explains his heart behind The Last Christian on Earth. Here he brings up some very interesting points about the church in West. He points out that Christianity has exploded in Africa and Asia, largely due to Western missionaries. But now we are at a point where people from Africa and Asia are actually being sent to America as missionaries in order to rescue the church in the West “that has fallen captive to the most heretical and apostate forms of faith in 2,000 years of Christian history” (9). I personally found this statement to be very convicting especially in light of the fact that, as Guinness points out as well, there are still many Americans that would call themselves Christians. In fact, when you look at the numbers, the church in America seems to be doing ok. But as Guinness says, the church in America has “become one of the shallowest, noisiest and most corrupt parts of the Christian church” (10). We may have large numbers of people going to church on Sunday but very few of those people live any differently outside of the church walls. We go on to live our lives Monday-Saturday as if Sunday means nothing to us. Guinness argues throughout the rest of the book that this is largely due to the influence of Western culture on the church. Guinness unpacks this thesis by modeling the correspondence between two of Satan’s agents. Throughout the correspondence one of these agents outline what he calls “Operation Gravedigger.” The goal of this operation is to use the modern culture that the church in America is so invested in to bring it down. This is what the enemy calls Operation Gravedigger.
What makes this operation so effective is what he calls the “Sandman Effect.” The agent describes the Sandman Effect in three words, “Christians are asleep” (38). The church in America has become lethargic. We forget that our faith is not just something we talk about on Sunday mornings. Our faith is one that is to be lived out in every aspect of life. And yet, most Christians are content with simply believing. We may not know exactly what it is we believe because all that matters is that we believe something. Most of us do not care to think too much about what we believe. So we have fallen asleep, unaware of what is going on right in front of us. Part of this problem is that we have become immune to our culture because we are so familiar with it. Western culture is so tightly linked with the church culture that so often we are unable to tell the difference between the two. We have become numb to the culture that surrounds us.
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The agent describes three things that are crucial to Operation Gravedigger, along with the Sandman Effect. The first is what he calls the Cheshire Cat Factor, or secularization. Put simply, secularization is the process by which religion is distorted and the way that people view the church becomes twisted. Religion and the church become less meaningful and irrelevant. Eventually, different parts of society will be “freed from the decisive influence of religious ideas and institutions” (57). As Christianity becomes less relevant to the culture, it will become harder and harder to live the set-apart life that we are called to. We can see evidence of this even today. The church has already begun to fade from the center of society, but the people who claim to be Christians remain. We slowly lose many of the morals and commands from God and become more and more like the rest of the culture around us. Here Guinness reminds us that there is a social aspect to faith. We should be living out our Christianity in every aspect of society but that is no longer happening. The church, like the Cheshire Cat, is slowly disappearing.
The second factor that is described is called the “Private-Zoo Factor” or privatization. Privatization is basically describing the way that the private and public parts of life have slowly become separated. We like to keep our personal lives out of our public lives. As some people like to put it we want to keep our home lives separate from our school or work lives. This divide between the private and public spheres of life includes the church and religious life. People now have begun to see religion and faith as something that is only personal. We are expected to keep our personal faith out of our places of work and out of our school lives. We may claim that we are Christians on Sunday or even every night when we come home from work but that Christianity rarely slips into the office in a way that people will notice. Guinness says that “the problem is with modern Christians is not that they are not where they should be, but they are not what they should be where they are” (80). What is most interesting is that this doesn’t just mean that people are not claiming to be Christians in the workplace. In fact there are many of us who are ok with saying we are Christians. “‘Jesus is Lord’ they declare (and sing and strum on their guitars to their hearts’ content). But what do they demonstrate? Little better than a spare-time faith and a pocket-discipleship. The once wild animal may roar, but safely behind bars” (80). Here Guinness points out the convicting truth that many of us say we are Christians but the way we act at work says otherwise. In reality, we keep our true beliefs far from the public sphere.
The third factor is called the “Smorgasbord Factor.” This is the process of pluralization where there is an increase of faith and worldview options available for Americans to investigate. The main problem here is that because the church is no longer seen as the center of society and is no longer viewed as the only legitimate source for truth, people easily become confused about what they actually believe. Even within the Christian church itself we find a great number of denominations and ways of “doing church.” With so many options people begin to find it more difficult to commit to one way of thinking. This result is obvious if you just look around our society. Not only do we have a hard time committing to a church, we also have a hard time committing to people. No longer is the Christian faith a life-long commitment. Now, instead, it is just something we try out to see if it works for whatever stage of life we are in. Guinness makes a connection here between how we treat church and religion with how we treat our marriages and relationships. We don’t want to commit for life because we are not sure if what we are committing to is the right one. We just want to try it out to see if it fits us. Here both Christianity and marriage become about self-fulfillment. We are in it for our own pleasure and are disappointed when it doesn’t fit the fairytale picture in our heads.
Guinness continues to prove his main thesis throughout the rest of the book. He points out places where American has replaced Christian, even though most people cannot tell the difference. Overall, this book is an excellent wake-up call to the church in the West. The way that Guinness has formatted the book really helps the reader take a look at how we look from the outside. Many times when we are in the heart of a problem it can be hard to tell that something is wrong. What I appreciate about this book the most is that Guinness does not sugar coat anything. He does not soften his language to spare our feelings. He is often blunt and honest. Through his honesty God convicts the reader. It’s easy to see through this book that while this may be a national problem, we cannot ignore that individuals are responsible for their own actions. If the church is to change it must start with one person coming face to face with their own personal problems.
Another thing that I appreciate about this book is that Guinness does not let the reader slip into the thinking that our situation is hopeless. Instead he ends the book with “An Evangelical Manifesto.” Here he reminds us what and who we are as the church. He explains why we can’t ignore our problems anymore and why people need to pay attention to the issues he raises throughout the book. Guinness provides the reader with encouragement and reminders of who we are as Christians.