In granting the Christian church special favors and privileges in the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine ushered in the era of the church-state partnership that would profoundly shape European society and culture for centuries to come. As the protected and privileged religion of society, Christianity achieved unrivaled cultural dominance. The resulting cultures in Europe and later in North America became known as Christendom. Even though the legal structures of Christendom were removed in North America (i.e., the separation from the state), the legacy of this Constantinian system remained by means of powerful traditions, attitudes and social structures that could be described as “functional Christendom.”
In the age of Christendom, the church occupied a central and influential place in society and the Western world considered itself both formally and officially Christian. So when we speak of post-Christendom, we are making the point that the church no longer occupies this central place of social and cultural hegemony and Western civilization no longer considers itself to be formally or officially Christian.
This represents a monumental shift in the cultural context into which the Western, and specifically American, church is now attempting to carry out its mission. This raises two fundamental questions: What does this new cultural context mean for the church and its mission? And, what exactly is the church’s mission?
To the first point, the vast majority of American churches still rest on the assumptions of Christendom, meaning they believe that Christianity still occupies a central and influential place in society, when this is no longer true. A brief survey of American culture should quickly and thoroughly convince anyone that Christianity is no longer the central informing influence. Every culture forming institution from academia, media, the Arts, business and government are today, convincingly secularized. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are excluded from the public square. Christianity has become a marginalized way of thinking that is largely relegated to the elderly and uneducated. In other words, Christianity is regarded as being irrelevant when it comes to having anything meaningful to offer relative to “non-religious” matters.
The prior reality of Christendom naturally produced what could be thought of as a church-centered or ecclesiocentric perspective of its mission. Since Christianity was the dominant religion, the emphasis or mission of the church gradually became centered on recruiting “members” through evangelism as its social and cultural authority was firmly established. But, I would argue that this neither fully represents the true mission of the Church as God’s sent people. Furthermore it disregards the post-Christendom reality. Christendom inevitably led to a view of “missions” as a program of the church while its de facto mission remained centered on the institutional maintenance of the church.
In the Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, the authors offer critical insight into the problem. Written in response to research inaugurated by the Gospel and Our Culture Network, a diverse team of Evangelical theologians writes:
We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. “Mission” means “sending,” and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God in human history…. We have begun to learn that the biblical message is more radical, more inclusive, more transforming than we have allowed it to be…. We have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness. God’s mission embraces all of creation.
Using this definition, the authors point out that “neither the structures nor the theology of our established Western traditional churches is missional. They are shaped by the legacy of Christendom” and given the fact that the present cultural context is increasingly resistant to “member recruitment,” the American church is scrambling to define its mission. Many churches have recently begun to use the term “missional” but this is often nothing more than a new word for evangelism operating under the same old assumptions of Christendom. It neither fully considers the post-Christian cultural context or the all-encompassing redemptive mission of God.
Because so many churches still labor under the illusion of Christendom their response to this loss of cultural relevance and missional ineffectiveness often ends up being misguided. “The typical North American response to our situation is to analyze the problem and find a solution. These solutions tend to be methodological. Arrange all the components of the church landscape differently, and many assume that the problem can be solved. Or use the best demographic or psychological or sociological insights, and one can redesign the church for success in our changing context.” (Missional Church, p. 2) This inevitably results in the church trying to look like the world in order to be relevant when what is needed is an intelligent and loving representation of the Truth that is relevant to what the world really needs.
The latter requires that the church better understand the cultural context, dominant ideas and worldviews shaping our culture. These worldviews, which purport to offer an all-embracing life system, must be met with a Christianity that offers an “equally comprehensive and far reaching power” in the words of Abraham Kuyper. It is, in large part, the church’s present inability to both recognize the changing cultural context and to assert an all-encompassing view of the Christian faith and message that has rendered the church irrelevant and left it confused with regard to its purpose and mission. The American church must begin to see itself as existing within a “foreign” land and like foreign missionaries, properly contextualize its mission.
Next week we will examine what it truly means to be “missional” and how it carries out that mission in today’s post-Christendom cultural context.