Equippers as Environmentalists: Re-Imagining Leadership in Today’s Western Church Part VIII
If you are just starting the series, you might find it helpful to read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV ,Part V, Part VI and Part VII first. Now let’s look at another major shift taking place today.
From the Christendom Era to the Post-Christendom Context
What started out with some people hiding in the upper room in Jerusalem eventually expanded throughout Judea, Samaria, and the rest of the world. This rag-tag group, many of whom were poor, tended to operate on the margins of society and for the first 250 years were often misunderstood, maligned, and occasionally persecuted. But since they lived as a contrast-society in the midst of Empire, more people were drawn to their way of life and their Lord. This group of people didn’t own church buildings. They didn’t train leaders through formal institutions. And yet their influence continued to expand to the point that early in the 4th Century, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to join their ranks and thus the birth of what is typically called the Christendom era, which lasted all the way until the 20th Century.
Alan Kreider in The Origins of Christendom in the West observes that, by the 7th Century, Christendom had matured and identifies three common characteristics of the Christendom era. First there was common belonging, where all people were a part of both civil society as well as the church. Infant baptism was chosen over adult baptism because, in this era, when you were born you became part of the Christian society. There was the professionalization of the clergy and a new distinction between clergy and “laity.” The state and the church were in bed together, where the church legitimized the state and the state authorities provided resources and enforcement of religion. Mission was de-emphasized, while pastoral care and maintenance of structures became central.
The second characteristic of Christendom was that there was a common belief. Both religious and civil leaders affirmed “orthodox” Christianity. Religious education informed the society of her beliefs and “heresy” (from Greek hairesis, the act of choice) was not tolerated. Alternatives to Christianity lived underground or became Christianized.
The third characteristic of Christendom was the presence of common behavior that was based on custom, scripture and the Ten Commandments. The church and civil courts persuaded people to keep these behaviors. There was room for those who were passionately “religious” and desiring to live by the Sermon on the Mount, as long as they didn’t impose this on the rest of society as the normal Christian life. Just war theology and crusades were some of the fruits the Christendom era.
When you travel to many of the old cities in Europe, you can see the cultural artifacts of the Christendom era. The church is often in the center of the city and is often the tallest structure. It was the place people congregated and to be a part of the church was a privileged position. This is not the world that we live in today.
The church no long holds most favored status in the West. Christendom has given way to a secular and pluralist society where people look at the church with suspicion or with downright animosity.
I love how Herbert Butterfield describes the end of Christendom in Christianity and History, back in 1949 where he says, “After a period of fifteen hundred years or so we can just about begin to say that at last no man [sic] is now a Christian because of government compulsion, or because it is the way to procure favour [sic] at court, or because it is necessary in order to qualify for public office, or because public opinion demands conformity, or because he would lose customers if he did not go to church, or even because habit and intellectual indolence keep the mind in the appointed groove. This fact makes the present day the most exhilarating period in the history of Christianity for fifteen hundred years; and the removal of so many kinds of inducement and compulsion makes nonsense of any argument based on the decline in the numbers of professing Christians in the twentieth century. We are back for the first time in something like the earliest centuries of Christianity, and those early centuries afford some relevant clues to the kind of attitude to adopt” (Butterfield 1949:135).
Churches are responding to this shift from Christendom to Post-Christendom in different ways. Some continue to seek most favored status from the state and engage in cultural wars to reclaim the manifest destiny of the country. Other churches create what amounts to be Christianized ghettos that fail to meaningfully interact with current culture. Some stick their heads in the sand and hope that things will return to what they once were. Others continue the practice of reproducing clones of the modern Christendom church.
But there are some who ask: “How does the American church make the transition from a clean, respectable, middle-class worshiping body of believers to a totally outward-looking, eyes-focused, knees-worn, heart-burned, mission church?” (Peatross 2007:46). What kind of leadership is needed in this time of rapid discontinuous change? That is what we will look at in the next few posts in this series, starting with the next post.