Sunday, June 2, 2013

Reflecting on our Post-Christendom Context

I graduated from Drew Theological School twenty-five years ago, in 1988. I am almost certain that I never heard the word "post-Christendom" (or its near synonym, "post-Constantinian") even once during my three years of theological studies.

Just one year later, however, William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas published a little book called Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know Something is WrongI can't remember whether or not I read that book when it was "hot off the presses" in the fall of 1989. But I'm pretty certain that I read it before The Alban Institute published another book in 1991 by Loren Mead called The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier

For me it was these two books in particular that gave me a vocabulary to begin to speak about what I was already starting to intuit as a young campus minister about the challenges being faced by the Church in a post-Christendom/post-Constantinian context. It seemed as if an old world order was breaking apart and a new one was emerging. While it is not fair to meld the premises of  these two books together, for me they were inseparable at the time. And if my memory is accurate, I'm pretty sure that Mead even quoted from Resident Aliens in unpacking this notion of a what this post-Christendom context was like.

The premise was and is fairly simple to state: Christianity's relationship with the dominant culture changed in the early part of the fourth century when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Before that time, pre-Constantinian Christianity was a decidedly counter-cultural movement. The early Church cut against the grain of Roman imperialism, offering an alternative worldview. But after Constantine, everything changed -at least for western Christianity in the northern hemisphere. Constantinian Christianity saw a marriage of convenience between Christ and culture. Whether one labels these changes as good or bad depends on one's perspective. And the truth is that it was probably neither unambiguously good or bad. It does seem fairly obvious, at least in hindsight, that something was lost when "everyone" was a Christian. As Soren Kierkegaard famously asked (a man definitely ahead of his time!) - how to be a Christian in Christendom?

Part of what seemed to be lost in those many centuries of Constantinian Christianity was that sense of the Church's particular vocation to be "salt" and "light" and "yeast" for the world. Perhaps most importantly, the mission field became someplace else - "over there" among the "heathens."  Willimon and Hauerwas and Mead (and eventually many others) were noticing that the paradigm was shifting and that our new post-Christendom context bore a closer resemblance to the challenges and opportunities faced by the early Church than to the Church of the middle ages or even the Church many of us grew up in in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.

At the other end of that same decade, Darrell Guder edited a rich ecumenical collection of essays in 1998 entitled The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America.  I know exactly when I read this book: it was in the summer of 2001 when I began my studies in the D.Min. program at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. The program I had entered was called "Gospel and Culture" and at the time, Dr. Guder was part of the team that taught the introductory core. If you Google "missional church" now, it's hard to even get to the book mentioned above: it seems like every theological book published in the last decade is, in one way or another, about the missional church! But because of my studies at CTS, we were talking about "the missional church" in Holden long before it was cool! (And even before "google" was a verb!)

All of this is pretty old news. But the point of this blog post is to remind myself (and anyone who may be reading this) that this language is now taken for granted as foundational - regardless of our theological differences. I am a fifty year old Episcopal priest who has been ordained for exactly half of my life.  I can still remember being dismissed on Thursday afternoons from my small-town public elementary school to go to the Methodist Church for religious education. In a real sense my seminary training still belonged to that world, a world that my professors had grown up in and were trained in and in some cases ordained for. And yet my ordained life has unfolded in an increasingly different word: a world more secular, post-modern and yes, post-Constantinian - a world that has challenged so many of those prior assumptions.

Even in a polarized church that mirrors our political divisions, this notion that we live in a post-Christendom context has very little to do with whether one identifies with a political vision on the right or on the left. It just is the reality we all face. Dr. King's work for social equality in the 1960s was in many ways an extension of his preaching ministry, and he could assume that whether or not his hearers agreed with his message, that when quoting Amos or Micah and Isaiah those in the media and those listening to him on the Mall knew their Bibles well enough to recognize what he was talking about. To say we are living in a post-Christendom context is to recognize that most Americans today (and even many Christians!) listening to Dr. King, would be completely oblivious to that Biblical worldview that shaped his ethical vision.

So this notion has huge implications for how we read the Bible. Perhaps no one has recognized this better than my old CTS professor, Walter Brueggemann. This notion also has implications for every aspect of our life together, including how we do Christian formation and how we think about the Church and how we think about the mission of the Church. No longer is the "mission field" on the other side of the world: from a "Christian society" to people who have never heard of Jesus. Rather, those congregations that have a sign at the door that says "the worship has ended, now the service begins" or "you are entering the mission field" reflect the context I've been trying to describe above. The challenge in our time is to pay attention to God's mission: to what God is doing in the neighborhood, and then to try to participate in that.

One of the hardest things, I think, for the Church in North America these days is that many of our leaders (from the House of Bishops to the pews) came of age during the last throes of "Christendom." We were trained for, and in many ways are still organized for mission under the old model. This, in part, explains our nostalgia for the past, and our temptation to confuse the church of our youth with the Christian tradition. The fact is that the way we did it from the 1950s to the 1970s is not how it was always done. Or to put that another way, the breadth and depth of the Christian tradition goes back two thousand years, not a few decades. As a more post-denominational and global Christianity begins to emerge, we are beginning to see just how right Willimon and Hauerwas and Mead and others were about this main thing: that the work we are called to seems to share more in common with the earliest Christians who were a minority movement within the Roman empire than with Protestant Christianity during the Eisenhower administration.

I am ruminating on such things as I begin a new job as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. It is not only congregations that have been changing and will continue to change to meet these changing circumstances. Judicatories (in my case, as an Episcopalian, dioceses) have also begun to change (and will need to change much more) to meet the needs and challenges of this time and place. In the old days, it was clear what bishops and canons and dioceses needed to do to support the life of congregations. In the (still emerging) missional Church, it is not yet clear what that should look like. What does seem clear is that we will need to rely more and more on collaboration and webs of relationships rather than top-down pronouncements.

This post therefore doesn't have a final point and there is no "lead" here that I have buried. This is old news, at least going all the way back to the 1990s. And yet, in another sense, it takes time for radically new ideas to take hold and in the greater scheme of Christian history, twenty years or so is a blink of an eye.

We all know the Church needs to become more nimble in the ways we do our work. And yet we can get stuck: congregations, dioceses, the larger Church. And we meet resistance - both externally and internally - as we try to respond to this new situation. The reason, I think, is that so many of us (even clergy as young as I!) were formed and trained in the old ways. Yet even now, God is doing a new thing among us. We are beginning to perceive it, but the adaptive change required for our communities to engage in this new mission frontier is still something that is only just beginning.

In such times we need metaphors to help us know that while the challenges and opportunities we face are new ones, God's people have faced similar challenges before. Brueggemann suggests that this time in our life-together is something like the Babylonian exile. Others speak of us being on the brink of a new Reformation. Exploring these metaphors, however, may require another post.


  1. Dear Rich,
    Good questions. Read Elizabeth Drescher's interview on the Confirm not Conform site. She tackles our weakness in forming Christians and reflects on the "nones". For me it is troubling. God's new creation always takes sweat!
    Miss all of you in W MA
    Loving Sag Harbor,Ny
    Blessings, Karen

  2. Thanks, Karen. Yes, it does take some sweat! Missing you too...all the best. (Rich)