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Post-Christendom

February 18, 2009

The text we are currently working with in class is Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. I have been looking forward to this text and our conversation, as I am trying to discern how to approach and process the opportunities of a Post-Christendom reality with a local congregation to which it can be a confusing or unfamiliar term. It is an interesting topic to consider because local churches in my context (American, suburban) are noticing the changing realities of our society, but may not have the vocabulary to describe it or feel unequipped to engage it.

To begin I would like to highlight Murray’s “working definition” of Post-Christendom:

Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence (19).

This particular shift is another change that Christianity must deal with as it attempts to faithfully be the Body of Christ within its culture. The shift has already occurred in the United Kingdom but it is also reason for some of the uncertainties the American church is experiencing as well. It is not the first time Christianity has had to navigate a changing reality, and Murray’s discussion of the history of Christendom is helpful before reflecting on where we go in the future or even how we might operate in the present.

I found it interesting to reflect on what was over time an evolving relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity. Christianity began as a movement at the margins, separated from the state and persecuted by the empire, yet still growing at a rapid rate (28). What was going on during the period that could be called Pre-Christendom? I believe it was more than just some sort of generic process of “sharing the gospel”. What could we learn from considering how those followers of Jesus engaged their surrounding culture? This relationship with the empire would eventually evolve and Christians would see their reality change as well as their method of cultural engagement. Murray writes, “Although persecution was a recent memory and still a threat, Christians were becoming respected members of society and their ideas were increasingly influential” (28). This sounds like a good development; gaining respect and influence could be considered within the bounds of the call from Jeremiah 29:7 to “seek the peace of the city.” They were gaining a place.

But by the time we reach the fourth century, church and empire are actually brought together with an ironic result. The merging of church and state led Rome to become “Christian” (a very debatable term) and Christianity to become rather “Roman”. One aspect of ancient Roman culture that I have always found fascinating is how religiously tolerant the empire seems to have been. Of course, being that Rome conquered and assimilated various cultures (Greeks, etc), polytheism was welcomed. But initially Christianity was violently rejected. It was an exception, not for spiritual reasons, but due to its political ramifications and the early Christians willingness to subvert the empire. I love the word Murray uses often to describe this kind of behavior: “deviant”. It seems that the real issue was not one’s particular religion, but whether that religion affected the status quo of the empire. They were concerned with keeping order within the empire, which meant holding on to power and influence. If you disrupted this order you paid dearly for it, at least when the empire was more powerful. In later centuries when their power and influence was declining sharply, another way to preserve the status quo was needed. And those deviants became interesting again. Murray writes:

as traditional multi-faceted paganism was losing its religious hold on the Empire, if not yet its cultural significance, many intellectuals welcomed Christianity’s ethical monotheism. Political leaders were keenly aware of the potential of religious ideas for shaping the Empire, undergirding its institutions and uniting its citizens, especially in the face of threats of disintegration. If the influence of paganism was waning, new religious options might be required (29).

How ironic is it that by the time of Constantine, with the empire struggling to remain intact, that the answer to the dissolution of the empire was Christianity?

Today the transition to Post-Christendom brings with it a changing reality of how western society is ordered or what it values. Some elements within the church are very fearful about this transition. Is the fear a result of our loss of control, because we have only been able to imagine a society ordered by Christianity? Was it ever really Christianity that ordered society anyway? Are the fearful afraid of losing Christianity or rather the civic religion we have become accustomed to (with blurred lines between church and state)?

One of my favorite aspects of Murray’s text are the great questions he asks as he describes the shift. After considering the context of the shift to Christendom, we are encouraged to ponder its consequences which affected the church’s identity, theology, worship, witness, mission, and discipleship. In my own conversations with others about post-modern ministry and the realities of Post-Christendom, we often get around to asking questions like, “Where do we go from here?” or “What will this look like practically?” When I ask these kinds of questions (particularly the second one) I wonder if it is because I still desire the control and order that just does not seem to exist any longer. There is a mysteriousness that comes with living in a cultural/spiritual shift. There is no manual for doing this and maybe that is a good thing. It will require the church to exercise its imagination and capacity for innovation, powered by the Spirit rather than a privileged place in society. I sense that Murray is leading us in this direction; not providing the answers, but rather helping us to develop a sort of intellectual “tool box” that might help us develop our spiritual imaginations.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 23, 2009 8:46 pm

    Chris–

    I like that this requires us to move beyond manuals. Murray-Williams suggests that the programmes of the US church enable us to miss the point and move into what we need to address and create. For many of us the creativity required is invigorating, for others who like to know outcomes–it’s scary as anything.

    Steve

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