Christendom gives way to new cultural realities, including widespread secularism and religious pluralism. New attitudes are developing toward the whole phenomenon of religion: that it is strictly an option; that it is a purely individual decision; that there is no reason why the children of believing parents should be considered potential members of religious communions; that religion may be useful, but truth does not apply to this category, and so on.
Although some semblance of Christendom may find a new home in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, its period of Western dominance is over.
The status of the confessing church is no longer one of singular power and influence but that of a peripheral voice. Precisely as such, however, this voice may be a prophetic one.
Denominations behave as if nothing had happened – as if we were still living in a basically Christian civilization; as if the Christian religion were still quite obviously the official religion of the official culture; as if we could go carry on baptizing, marrying, and burying everybody as we have always done; as if governments would listen to us, and educational systems would respect us.
Too many confessions of faith do not succeed because they still assume a Christendom framework. They speak as though from positions within the power centers of society. Therefore they almost always fail to convince anyone outside the fold or even to raise significant questions.
The church’s responses to the end of the Christendom era
If not expanding the church’s sphere of influence and territory, what are churches for?
The most common answer that is presently given is a concentration upon the congregation itself: The church’s purpose is to be a fellowship, a “friendly church”. In cities and towns that are large and impersonal, the church is a meeting place where people “get to know one another” and to “care”. In the livelier congregations, programs are developed for every age and stage of life. This is accompanied with outreach and social programs. Strangers making their way into the fellowship should be welcomed, and they should be encouraged to attend, because of the fellowship. But only rarely, it is felt, would it be appropriate to approach others as disciples of a quite explicit faith tradition. Even Christian preaching must honor the rights of others to believe what they will.
Christians are called not only to serve their neighbors but to confess their faith. Congregations have to be communities, not only of fellowship but of discipleship – not only of behavior but also of Christian confession.
Concentration upon fellowship has definite limits. Its success is dependent upon its location among a constituency that places high premium upon such fellowship; hence its strong identification with suburban, racially and economically homogenous churches.
The problem with the friendly church model is that those who are looking for meaning (the most gripping search of humanity in the modern context) are not likely to find it. The main reason for this is that consistent friendliness goes hand in hand with the avoidance of deeper human concerns.
If Christians want to preserve their faith and not just some of its moral and aesthetic spin-off, they are going to have to become more articulate about their basic beliefs and about the manner in which these beliefs, when taken seriously, distance them from many of the values and pursuits of society at large.
Our theological task: Disestablishing the church
God is offering us another possibility, a new form, indeed a new life. But we may accept this gift of the new only if we relinquish the old to which we are stubbornly clinging.
We must relinquish the social status that belongs to our past: the comfortable relationships with ruling classes; the continuous confirmation of accepted social values and mores by means of which we sustain those relationships; the espousal of “charities” that ease our guilty consciences while allowing us to maintain neutrality with respect to the social structures that make such “charities” necessary; the silent acceptance of racial, sexual, gender and economic injustices, or their trivialization through tokenism; the failure to probe the depths of human and creaturely pathos by confining sin to petty immorality or doctrinal refinements drawn from the past, and so on.
We must give up the redundant role of official religious cult in society. We must disengage from the dominant culture. This is the necessary precondition for a meaningful engagement of that same dominant culture or society.
Intentional disengagement from the dominant culture means that every Christian should learn how to distinguish the Christian message from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of the host society. The Christian message is not just a stained-glass version of the worldview of that same social stratum.
This disengagement is aimed at the reengagement of the same society. There are no shortcuts. We must begin with the basics. Without a deeper understanding of what Christians profess, it is absurd to think that ordinary folk will be able to distinguish what is true to the Judeo-Christian tradition from the mishmash of modernism, postmodernism, secularism, pietism, and free-enterprise democracy with which Christianity in our context is so fantastically interwoven.
Instead of catering exclusively to what are usually described as “pastoral needs” (though the term often cloaks institutional busywork), ministers today are recalled to the teaching office.
The Christian Movement in a Post-Modern era. Being Salt, Yeast, and Light
The end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.
To grasp this opportunity, however, we must relinquish our centuries-old ambition to be the official religion, the dominant religion, of the dominant culture. We must disengage ourselves from our society if we are going to reengage our society at the level of truth, justice, and love. We must stand off from the liberal middle-class culture with which we have been consistently identified; rediscover our own distinctive foundations and the ethical directives that derives from them; and allow ourselves, if necessary, to become aliens in our own land.
In this way we find ourselves in an awkward situation vis-à-vis our society. We are a disciple community distinguished from the world (Rom 12:2) as well as sent decisively into the world (Matt 28:19). The church is in the world just because it is not simply of the world.
Christian disengagement from the dominant culture is not to be confused with the abandonment of that culture. The end that we are to seek is the redemption of our world – the world that is truly ours and of which we are ourselves part.
If we are faithful and imaginative enough to disentangle our authentic faith tradition from its cultural wrapping, we will have something to bring to our world that it does not have – a perspective on itself, a judgment of its pretensions and injustices, an offer of renewal and hope.
We will be able to bring this to our world
• while actively discerning how God wants us to live in the world,
• while engaging in the formation of a community which breaks the homogeneous mold that churches still project,
• while searching for God “in the midst of life”, therefore engaging in the quest for transcendence and mystery, and
• while searching for meaning, carrying our emptiness and yearning into the presence of the Holy One.
Our role as Christians is precisely what Jesus said it was: to be salt, yeast, and light. Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light.
Christendom wanted to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to worldly responsibility.
Today we are constrained by the divine Spirit to rediscover the possibilities of littleness. We are to decrease in order that the Christ may increase. We cannot enter this new phase without pain, for truly we have been glorious in this world’s own terms. It seems to many of us a humiliation that we are made to reconsider our destiny as “little flocks”.
Can such a calling be worthy of the servants of the Sovereign of the Universe? Yet, if that Sovereign be the One who reigns from the cross, could any other calling be thought legitimate?
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