The two most important developments in the church of our time is the movement of western civilization into post-Christendom and the equally dramatic emergence of global Christianity.
This article will focus on the emergence of post-Christendom, and a follow-up piece will develop some of the implications of the rise of world Christianity. By Christendom, I am referring to the special relationship which the church in the western world has enjoyed with civil society (see this Seven Minute Seminary video). In Europe it manifested itself through a full Church-State partnership enshrined in law. The King or Queen had, among their many titles, “The Defender of the Faith.” In the USA, Christendom was manifested in the form of “civil religion.” We maintained a quasi-separation between church and state, but there were dozens of ways that Christianity received a privileged place in the USA. State funerals are still held in the national cathedral, the next President of the United States will almost surely take the oath of office with his or her hand on the Bible, etc. Even these tiny reminders of Christendom will soon be gone.
Let me say as clear as I can that I welcome post-Christendom. This is one of the best gifts the church could receive, as painful as it is. The reason Christendom was so deadly to the church is that Christendom, throughout history, from Constantine to the present, has always had one deadly side effect: Christendom produces vast numbers of nominal Christians. In fact, that’s what Christendom does best. Millions of people who have never really heard the gospel, and certainly have not experienced its saving power, call themselves Christians because that is the “culturally comfortable,” or the “culturally normative” thing to do. The other legacy of Christendom is that Christians do not intentionally catechize new Christians (and their own children) into the faith because they lived under the false assumption that the wider cultural values were Christian values, so the faith would be “caught” naturally, rather than given through formal instruction.
The mainline churches have experienced the greatest membership losses precisely because nominalism was already quite high in those movements. The evangelical churches have been more explicit about the gospel, but still operated in a Christendom mode and brought people into the church on the most minimalistic basis possible. In this minimalistic, what-is-the-least-one-has-to-do-to-become-a-Christian approach, what genuine faith is present is not sustainable because these new believers are not equipped to pass down the faith to their own children. There is considerable documentation to support this. Tragically, even the Catholic church, the traditional “gold standard” in terms of their commitment to catechesis, has struggled in recent years to maintain their catechesis.
The legacy of this is that it is way too simplistic to reduce the church’s current problems to a “progressive” vs. “conservative” struggle. That struggle is there and shouldn’t be ignored, but that is not the point of this article. My point is that all Christian movements in the West have struggled with the transition to post-Christendom. We have reacted in different ways: The mainline churches have said, “let’s accommodate the church’s doctrine to the latest cultural social demands and maybe they will like us again.” The evangelicals have said, “Let’s preach part of the gospel, downplay the negative, costly side, and keep our services lively and entertaining, without a lot of demands.” But neither “solution” is sustainable. We need robust Christian identity, transformed lives, a kingdom vision for society, all linked with a deep commitment to catechesis. The “bar” must be raised, not lowered.
There are, thankfully, wonderful and inspiring examples of mainline, evangelical, Catholic and Pentecostal churches who are charting what the church might look like in a post-Christendom time. Churches as diverse as the Truro Anglican church in Washington, D.C., Covenant United Methodist Church in Winterville, North Carolina, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, and the Severna Park Evangelical Presbyterian Church are examples of churches who are working to break free from a Christendom model.
Pablo Richard in his landmark book Death of Christendoms, Birth of the Church argues that the only path to the rebirth of the church is fully allowing Christendom to die. The church which emerges from the ashes will, in the end, be post-Christendom, post-denominational, post-institutional, post-hierarchical, post culture wars, etc.
Post-Christendom will produce grassroots networks of believers. We will meet quietly and be widely misunderstood and mistrusted. We will not be prominent in the halls of congress, nor sit on the boards of influential businesses and banks. We will be subject to various lawsuits. In short, we will be back where we started. You see, a post-Christendom world is a lot like a pre-Christendom world. It is in this environment that the church of Jesus Christ prospered. And Jesus said, “I will build my church.”
We must see that the current dismantling of what we thought of as church is necessary for Christ to do the work of rebuilding his church. But, praise the Lord, God’s rebuilding is always greater than God’s dismantling. Are we ready for this change?