Judaism imagines history as cyclical. So do older church traditions. There’s reason to believe we’re at the end of a 500-year cycle. That would be very good news.
The Hebrew word “teshuva”—repent, or return—is central to the Jewish faith. To be true to God, the people of God must keep circling back, returning, to what they ought to be. That’s because Judaism imagines history as cyclical.
So do older church traditions. The Church in Russia uses the descriptive phrase mystic rhyme. “History repeats her tale unconsciously, and goes off into a mystic rhyme; ages are prototypes of other ages, and the winding course of time brings us round to the same spot again.”
Imagine this happening in roughly 500-year cycles. Begin where the Babylonian exile ends.
Decline (500BC-AD33): In 539BC, the Judeans return from the Babylonian exile. There is a brief burst of enthusiasm. Then a lengthy period of decline, predicted by Malachi in 486BC.
Impact (AD33-500): This cycle begins with the founding of the church. She grows quickly, impacting urban elites, businesspeople, the aristocracy. The church rejuvenates cities. By AD300, 50 percent of the Roman empire has converted, including the Emperor, Constantine.
Decline (AD500-1000): This cycle occurs under the rule of Islam. As Islam spreads, the church in Asia and Africa largely disappear. The European church declines, hanging by a thread.
Renaissance (AD1000-1500): The European church returns. She impacts the aristocracy. She assists in the invention of capitalism, modern medicine, the modern university, representative democracy. She helps the arts flourish (visit Europe, especially Florence).
Decline (AD1500-2000): The Western church grows numerically but is increasingly absent from the arenas where cultures are made. The faith is privately engaging, publicly irrelevant. The church is marginalized, populist, politicized. The Western world becomes post-Christian.
This last cycle began when European and American churches embraced the Enlightenment: I think, therefore I am. This yields an individualistic, rationalist faith. But, as Lesslie Newbigin noted, “The one thing that can be certainly said about this chapter of human history is that it is over.” That’s largely because neural research is undermining the Enlightenment, which is why Iain McGilchrist writes, “The Western Church has, in my view, been active in undermining itself.”
So what’s the next cycle? If the pattern repeats, the next 500 years could be a renaissance, impact. But this would require the Western Church returning to pre-Enlightenment faith traditions. We can’t solve an Enlightenment problem using an Enlightenment mindset.
What would a renaissance look like? It would mean returning to the gospel as God “marrying” us, the triune God “wedding” their love with a bride for the Son. Marriage would once again be the central organizing metaphor for the gospel. Not the only one, but the main one.
As the bride of Christ, it will mean Western Christians will us the plural we more than the singular I or me. We’ll hear this in our worship music, in our everyday language, everywhere.
In this next cycle, we’ll return to imagining salvation in three tenses—past, present, future. We have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. We’ll recognize this depicts the gospel, God “marrying” us. We have been betrothed, are preparing to be presented as a “pure virgin” to Jesus (II Cor.11:2), and will consummate our marriage at the wedding banquet (Rev.19).
In this next cycle, we’ll return to a sacramental faith, recognizing God’s presence in the entirety of creation. It will be “tasted” most deeply in the Eucharist, but in everyday life as well. We’ll return to the communion table as the centerpiece of the corporate service.
We’ll also return to a wider understanding of discipleship. I began to discover this in 1995, studying under Dallas Willard. A group of us grabbed lunch with him. One of the men at the table asked Dr. Willard for his assessment of the US church. Willard’s response: “It’s a lost cause.”
Well. We were stunned. Willard later explained. He wrote that the church is living in a “bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship and the gospel.” She is “dominated by the essentially Enlightenment values that rule American culture.” Individualism. Rationalism. Consumerism.
Dallas Willard recognized how Jeremiah 29:7 defines discipleship. As the Babylonians flourish, the Judeans flourish. As our city flourishes, our church flourishes. They flourish, we flourish. They don’t, we don’t. In the next cycle, we’ll recognize why Willard wrote that if discipleship “is focused on the church, it will stagnate and leave most people at a dead end, for their life is not the church. Discipleship is for the sake of the world, not for the sake of the church.”
It might take a few decades for this cycle to gain traction in more than a handful of churches. But I sense it’s already underway. And that’s very good news.
 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Eerdmans, 1978), 5.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 214.
 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperCollins, 1998), 209.