A new question: Living in a post-Christendom world
My second column (April 14, 2006) in Christian Week:
A friend phoned on Sunday morning while we were at church. In her voice mail, she guessed we may be sleeping or out for breakfast. She didn’t guess we might be at church.
After I preached one Sunday, a woman told me she learned something new from my sermon: that Jesus and Christ refer to the same person.
These incidents, seemingly minor and unrelated, are symptoms of two major shifts taking place in Canada. First, the rhythms of church life, like weekly worship and common pause days, no longer shape our society. Second, the Christian story is no longer the dominant story within our culture. In many cases, it is not even known.
Some identify these shifts as signs of a larger trend: the end of Christendom. Southern Baptist author Reggie McNeal calls this trend the collapse of church culture. Whatever we call it, and whether or not we like it, there is no doubt it is changing the face of Christianity within Canada.
Winds of change
Until recently, Christendom dominated Canadian culture. Christendom (not to be confused with Christianity) began in 313 when Christianity was recognized as a dominant force within society. Within Christendom, most members of society were considered Christian, at least nominally, and the Church influenced government and society.
Contrast that with Canada today. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of non-Christian Canadians increased by 72 per cent. The percentage of Canadians who attend church every week has slipped from 67 per cent in 1946 to 20 per cent today. Even among those who oppose same-sex marriage, only one in 10 say politicians should let religious leaders direct them. The Church is being pushed to the margins in Canadian culture.
Understandably, many Christians are unhappy about this trend. Christendom had its benefits, and it is easy to slip into longing for its return. One e-mail I received recently said this: “It is said that 86 per cent of Canadians believe in God. Why don’t we just tell the 14 per cent to shut up and sit down?”
Whenever we long for the return of Christian prayers to public schools, or wish for the Church to regain its dominance within culture, we are longing for the return of Christendom.
Although Christendom had its benefits, it was not all positive. Voltaire, speaking of the Holy Roman Empire, quipped that it was neither holy, Roman nor an empire. Some Christians suggested the power, success and wealth the Church enjoyed within Christendom was dangerous—not helpful— for the Church’s mission.
The end of Christendom is also not all negative. Even if the Church has been pushed to the margins, the gospel has not lost its power or relevance. The gospel, not our position within Canadian culture, gives me hope.
I could be wrong, but I doubt the trend toward post-Christendom will be reversed in Canada. The question then becomes: How do we live as the Church of Jesus Christ in a post-Christendom culture? This question defies easy answers, but it is the question that needs to dominate our thinking.
The end of Christendom is an opportunity for the Church to go back to its roots and rediscover what it means to be the Church in a pagan culture.
The pre-Christendom world was different from our own. Yet it was in this period, which some call the golden age of church history, when the gospel flourished, even without the support of Christendom. In the first three centuries, the Church increased from a few hundred to several million by growing at a rate of approximately 40 per cent per decade.
Our call today is to learn how to live, as Peter wrote, as “foreigners and exiles” in a pagan world (1 Peter 2:11). Peter advised his readers to live as believers in the margins of society in a way that would win credibility for the gospel and glorify God—not bad advice for the Church in the margins today.
I’ve stopped wishing for the return of Christendom. Instead, I’m thinking hard about a brand new question for the Church in Canada: How then shall we live in a post-Christendom world?