“We have to learn how to evangelize and plant churches again, and do it from the prophetic margins, not the center, of culture.” –Dr. Timothy Tennent
I was first introduced to the term ‘Christendom’ as a referent to any place in which Christianity has pervaded culture due to a dense Christian community when I read “The Next Christendom” by Larry Jenkins. These communities are those in which Christianity does not exist on the margins, but is a majority view highly acceptable by persons of that region. In a more strict sense, the sense I was more familiar with, this term refers to an official church state, but the broader term, in relation to the more narrowed sense, makes a great, correlating claim about the area being considered.
If we are labeling a state or nation with the term ‘Christendom,’ even while that country is not officially Christian by governmental proclamation, we are saying much about what we think this area of the world is like, and we are saying it is something like the official states in some sense. First, as stated above, we are suggesting that this is a place where Christianity is highly accepted and even assumed to be socially superior to other religions or worldviews. Moreover, since this is a state in which Christianity is not persecuted, it is a place where Christians can relax and interact openly in politics and cultural decisions as a Christian. It is a place where being a Christian, in an openly religious sense is not difficult.
As nice as this is, it does come with dangers, and this is where I think lumping these sorts of nations in with official church states is fitting. Tragically, being declared Christian by association with a certain culture leads to nominal Christianity and to an erosion of evangelical priorities. Whether one is declared Christian in the Constantinian sense, or one adopts Christianity because it is a social norm, a muddling of church and state can lead to true faith taking a back seat. Note that I am not saying that Christendom is or is not a totally negative phenomenon. That is a topic for another time. I am simply pointing out the fact that Christendom comes with its risks. Social engineering often replaces moral formation, and true faith is replaced with religious pretext.
Unfortunately, we are seeing the fallout of a failing Christendom project right here in America. It is not only illustrated by the daily decline of evangelical Christianity in the West, a place where Christianity used to be an assumed reality for almost every citizen. It is seen in the failings of the church in holding our ground due to the blindness of many church leaders to the fact of the condition of our society. There is a glaring neglect for missions and evangelism in so many churches still today, even while our part of the world is the fasting growing mission field in existence.
I have heard so many speak of feeling blessed to have lived in a time when morality in America was taken for granted. While ‘bad people’ were present, the vast majority of Americans had a respect for one another, at very least as a social pretext. I acknowledge that this was surely a blessing in a lot of ways, but, in some ways, I feel blessed to have been raised during the fallout, where TV is full of pornographic images, even on regular cable, where men openly treat women like objects, and women speak with tongues formally reserved for the most base individuals of society.
I certainly do not say this for shock value, nor do I delight in the openness in which people of today participate in immorality. Instead, I see a blessing in the fact that I have not been made delusional by a past that no longer exists except, perhaps, as a façade in certain areas of the country. Nor am I victim of to that which some of the older generations fell prey, which is lethargy and negligence due to ill-conceived assumptions. Christendom can lead to unwarranted assumptions concerning the need for effective evangelism, or lack thereof. In a culture in which everyone is assumed Christian, our missional call as the church takes a back seat. This is surely a huge problem here in America.
There was a time in which I almost fell into this line of thinking. I was only a child, perhaps just before the fallout in my area of the world, which might of held on a little longer, but I can remember coming home from Vacation Bible School in a panic. I figured if I were really called to evangelize to the lost like the Bible says I should, I would have to become a missionary, because everyone in my world, so I thought, was a Christian. It did not take much time out in the real world for me to become disillusioned. Unfortunately, there are those of generations past that are still living in the past because they do not interact on a social level with younger generations that are giving way to pluralism. Instead, these older generations grew up in an assumed Christian culture where missional thinking was fanatical or exotic, and church programs and social events replaced effective evangelism. For many, the church gathering on Sunday morning is as it always has been, a nice sermon, some songs, shaking of hands, and a filling lunch with acquaintances, and the true state of Christianity and the surrounding, declining culture is easily ignored. The assumption of a Christian norm still persists.
For my generation, at least those involved with the surrounding culture, we can no longer assume, as once was the norm, that those we engage with on the streets are Christian. Pluralism is on the rise, and evangelical Christianity in America, as has already taken place in Europe, is on the decline. Older generations who still are involved with the same friends they have always had, the ones they grew up with, do not see the lash back against Christianity amongst members of my generation, but people my age see it everyday.
Why is Christianity losing traction? In our comfortable Christendom, we lost discipline. Comfort led to nominal religion. Christian education is almost oxymoronic in many minds. The church lost much of its missional talent and we no longer have persons who are willing or educated enough to address a non-Christian, post-Christendom world. Frantically, my generation is trying to make up for lost time, the time in which we should have been discipled to have a missional heart and real intelligence.
The church by and large does not know how to be on mission right here at home. For too long we took for granted the state of the culture, and we are having a hard time fighting for the faith in this postmodern, pluralistic society. We do not know how to live on the margins, to be those ostracized for our opinions, and this only compounds the issue and makes us more and more marginalized. In our blessed comfort, we unwittingly became indolent and forgot catechesis, the raising up of disciples through disciplined, robust Christian teaching.
So, when my friend comes to me frustrated that his church is more concerned with fixing the television in the social hall than they are with working with a failing budget that gives little in the way of missions, and this friend only sees a sense of entitlement coming from an older Christian concerned with secondary concerns over the true mission of the church, my response is not merely to say that this is one bad egg amongst well-intentioned Christians. The question my friend is asking of this church leader is a common question that my generation has concerning many of our superiors: “How can you not see that you are not focusing on the mission of the church.” It is a matter of living in two different worlds. We grew up during the fallout. Many leaders older than us are still living under old assumptions. It is not a matter of one individual being stubborn or one being more intuitive or idealistic. It is a matter of generational assumptions, perspectives, and experiences.
Certainly, we have gained much from our elders, and many of our elders are just as missionally minded and exponentially wiser than many of my generation. We owe much to those who raised us up. But, now we have something to offer back, a new perspective, a call to regain our missional purpose. We need to call attention to the real state in which our American finds itself. Some truly do not realize how bad it is out there. All is not lost, but we must fight.