Post-Christendom and Global Christianity (Part I)

Friday, June 10th, 2016

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?

Comments

  • David S. says:

    Yes. This is why Wilmore should take the cross off the water tower and put it on a church.

  • Chris Eyre says:

    A slight technicality – the King of England was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, and subsequent monarchs hung on to it despite the split from Rome. The monarchs of Spain similarly got the title “Most Catholic King” and those of France “Most Christian King”. “Defender of the Faith” was at least once awarded to another monarch (Isabella of Spain) but wasn’t common for European monarchs. This doesn’t detract from your point, of course, and I agree the general tenor of your thinking – and look forward to part 2.

  • Randy Myers says:

    Are you familiar with the Post-Christendom series started by Stuart Murray over in the U.K. under the auspices of the Anabaptist Network? I’ve found that particular series extremely helpful in the practical work of pastoral ministry.

  • Mary Page says:

    One more thing…. For Father’s Day they had one of the male members play guitar and look an all male choir https://www.facebook.com/diane.walters.1460/videos/vb.1563825217/10205953546268789/?type=2&theater Oh and 5 of the ladies from the ESL class are helping all summer long with their friends 🙂

  • Phil Morrill says:

    Timothy, will the decline in “Christian Privilege” have a negative impact on the government? The founding principles of a democracy assume/require moral leadership/people, this was communicated and well documented by the early congresses. The quasi-separation you refer to is a result of the deist beliefs reflected in our laws and the most prevalent religion of the people. Do you think the government will become more atheist?

  • I appreciate this contribution to western Christian discourse. I would be on board with you 100%, but as I believe in hell and condemnation, my heart is still saddened by our culture’s turn away from Christ. I find myself wondering if all nominal Christians were living in condemnation already, or if by shifting the norm away from Christ, we are now seeing the ushering in of many new souls to hell who would have otherwise been claimed for the Kingdom. Out of our love for others, I think we have to continue to fight with all our might to build up the body of Christ, regardless of whether or not the culture around us appreciates it. I don’t hear you saying anything different. It’s what I don’t hear that concerns me, and that is a concern for those living in sin.

  • Linda Branch says:

    Thank you for your insight. God is doing a new thing. We need not fear.

  • Mike Voigts says:

    Perhaps you’ll address this in Part II, but this excellent article made me wonder: Is there room for mainline denominations in a post-Christendom world?