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Post-Christendom and Evangelism

February 18, 2009

Stuart Murray explains that once Christendom became the primary reality for not just the church but for society as a whole, its ideology brought forth evolving views of scripture, mission, and church. Once it achieved power and a place of prominence, it became rather oppressive, and its effects could be felt in a number of areas:

  • the use of oaths
  • views on war (“just war”, “holy war”, “crusade”)
  • view of the Bible (Old Testament as the interpretive lens; marginalizing the New Testament and especially Jesus)
  • the church as an organization (how it was set up; how it functioned)
  • worship
  • preaching
  • church discipline

This oppressive nature and how it affected the church in these various areas point to Christendom’s desire for control. Conformity was prized. In order to make the “system” work, what was valued

was neither belief nor behaviour…but belonging. What mattered was whether they threatened the Christendom system. Christendom could not tolerate dissent, whether expressed by unauthorised preaching, separate religious communities or criticism of the system (112)

In other words, “Don’t mess with our order.” Which sounds an awful lot like how the Roman Empire operated. It’s easy to come down pretty hard on the church for their choices, and we still must in a variety of areas. But what would our response have been, going from intense persecution to finally having a place? How difficult is it to avoid the seduction of power and the desire for order? We addressed this issue in some of our class conversation this past Monday, and it’s worth thinking about. I’ve observed churches today grow and gain a good deal of influence in their community, yet still struggle with dissenting ideas which challenged their established “order”. Whatever “system” we become enamored of, there’s probably always a risk of losing sight of the big picture.

There was one other area that was affected once Christendom became established, and that concerned evangelism. A Pre-Christendom faith, pursuing the commission of Matthew 28 and taking the good news to the far reaches of an empire, had been co-opted by an entity which re-visioned the mission. If you now control society, and you believe society is “Christian”-that everyone is born into it, then you probably don’t have a need for evangelism anymore. Especially not when you instead resorted to coercion.

Evangelism was once considered “a winsome invitation to a deviant and dangerous way of living and into a puzzling and yet strangely attractive community (129).” But Christendom ideology changed all that. Mysteriously inviting adjectives like winsome, deviant, dangerous, puzzling, strange, and attractive, are hardly words that could describe what replaced it. Those kind of words were meant to draw one into a Story; an invitation to become part of something bigger than oneself. But that wasn’t the Story that Christendom was subscribing to, so the evangelical impulse was lost.

Evangelism would eventually make a return and be valued again (Great Awakenings, revivals and evangelistic meetings, evangelism training). The church at different times has discerned ways to share the good news within its culture (unfortunately in the 20th century it became much to individual-focused). But I’d like to make a connection here with how Mennonites have particularly engaged the subject.

In the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encylopedia Online article titled “Evangelism“, Myron Augsburger wrote:

With an emphasis on discipleship of Christ, an understanding that ethics is related to Christ in the same way that salvation is related to Christ, Mennonites see evangelism in a wholistic manner. This is to say, evangelism is anything or everything that makes faith in Christ possible for the person. Deed is important as well as word; both the act of love and the work of love are reconciling.

In our first class, the comment was made that Mennonites have traditionally been good at theopraxy, but not as strong on evangelism. I believe the gist of the argument is that people could observe Mennonite practice and in so doing observe a lived-out gospel. This idea goes to the heart of our view of discipleship. Think of the idea attributed to St. Francis: “Preach at all times…if necessary use words”. Now I believe-as many others do-that these elements are tied together and that it’s a disservice to compartmentalize them. It’s clear that there existed among Mennonites a lifestyle that displayed attributes of the gospel. But because of a lack of verbal explanation or cultural engagement we were thought of by some (from the outside) as more of a fringe sect, fairly or unfairly.

The reason I bring this issue up is that I’m wondering what shape evangelism will take in Post-Christendom? Evangelism was lost for a time during the rise of Christendom, and it seems to be a little misdirected in our present time due to the powerful influence of individualism. Recently I was asked by a member of my congregation for direction in how to “witness” to others in our community. We discussed some of the familiar methods (tracts, personal evangelism training, etc), but I tend to question those methods and their ability to be effective in our culture. So this is an ongoing conversation for us right now.

I keep leaning toward the idea of recovering a holistic Bible “Story” and finding ways to share it in a language that communicates with this time period we find ourselves in. This is one person’s take on communicating the good news. Scot McKnight’s Embracing Grace is a good correction, helping to recover the whole message of the good news. What might be some dynamics of Post-Christendom evangelism? What might Anabaptist have to contribute to this discussion?

  1. kdking permalink
    February 20, 2009 12:45 am

    Maybe active nonviolent movements could be a part of the answer. I wonder how much need is ahead of us with the economic problems. There could be great need to stand for the poor and outcasts. I wonder.

  2. February 20, 2009 2:17 am

    Kirby, thanks for your comments. These “active nonviolent movements” reminded me of this article I read recently:

    Perhaps this type of movement could help people connect with the Story of the good news-a fuller version of it than what Christendom put forth?

  3. February 23, 2009 8:51 pm

    Chris–I was just at Princeton last week and he suggested that discipleship isn’t an end in itself–rather we need to be moving toward apostolicism (becoming teachers not only catachumens). Now that’s a sentence that will only make sense in seminary settings, right.

    I wonder if the monastic idea of teaching and evangelism has any place in the post-whatever milieu?


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