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Rethinking Culture

The myth of a Christian culture continues to set the mind of the Western church at ease. This myth assumes that the West is, or once was, a Christian culture. If the culture is Christian, there is no need to analyze its assumptions or develop a counter-cultural instinct. ~ Michael Goheen
Remember the famous line from the 1939 film Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy first arrives in Oz and realizes she is now in a world that is strangely different. “Toto,” she says to her little dog, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Dorothy’s surroundings were now unfamiliar. The people and places she was used to seeing no longer existed. She had no idea where she was, but one thing was certain — everything around her had drastically changed.
The church today also finds itself in a place that is strangely different. The world has seemingly changed so quickly and radically that many churches feel like exiles in a foreign land. Like Dorothy, many churches no longer recognize their surroundings. They don’t completely understand the changes that have taken place; they only know that things are not like they used to be.

Christendom to post-Christendom

Numerous factors have influenced the change we see today in Western culture. Issues such as globalization, urbanization, post-modernism, and the rise of the Information Age have all had significant influence on the church. However, nothing has shaken the foundations of the church over the centuries as much as the rise and fall of Christendom.
In 313 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted the Christian faith as his own and decided to replace paganism with Christianity as the official imperial religion. He brought the church in from the margins of society, where it had been operating for the previous three centuries, and united it with the empire. Giving great resources and favors to the church, Constantine set in motion a process that would eventually bring all of Europe into a church-state relationship known as “Christendom.” It is difficult to overstate the impact Constantine’s decision had on the Christian faith.
The net effect of Christendom over the centuries was that Christianity moved from being a dynamic, revolutionary social and spiritual movement to being a static religious institution with its corresponding structures, priesthood, and rituals. The Christian faith moved from being an integrated way of life that was lived out seven days a week to being an obligation that was fulfilled by attending a service at a set time.
By the middle of the 20th century, however, it was becoming clear in Europe that Christendom was in serious decline. People began to use the term “post-Christendom” to describe the church’s loss of social privilege. Others used it to refer to Western civilizations that no longer considered themselves to be Christian.
In this era of post-Christendom, the church once again returned to the margins of society. It had lost its position of prominence and control. While once the majority, in post-Christendom the church was in the minority. The shift from once being on the margins of society, then elevated to a place of control, and then back again to the margins can be illustrated in the following diagram.[i]

The image shows that before Constantine, the dominant influence in society was the Roman Empire, and the church was a marginalized sect, located on the outskirts. However, while the church operated on the margins, we know from Paul’s epistles and from early church history that it was making serious inroads into the Roman empire. The second circle represents the time of Christendom when the church became the dominant seat of culture, albeit corrupted with political and military power. Today, the picture is of a church that has been relegated back to the margins. Author Reggie McNeal refers to this time of transition as “30 [A.D.] all over again.”

What difference does it make?

Here is the important point in this whole discussion: The difficulty the church is experiencing today in relating to the current culture is in large part due to our Christendom heritage. Many in the church today still believe Christianity is in a place of influence and significance. Many still operate under the false assumption that Christendom is alive and well. While there may be some parts of the country that still cling to Christian values, the vast majority of the population is rapidly moving away from the things associated with the church. In the eyes of many outside the church, the church has become completely irrelevant.
The decline of Christian influence can be seen in multiple ways. The most prominent is the continual drop in church attendance, but it doesn’t end with attendance. In fact, every indicator that can be used to measure church health is headed in the wrong direction. Look at it any way you like: conversions, baptisms, membership, retention, participation, giving, religious literacy, effects on the culture. They all are in decline.[ii]
This creates the setting for an enormous problem. At the same time, the church is less and less effective at reaching a changing world, many in the church continue to believe the church maintains a central role in the life of culture. So instead of leaning toward the missionary vision of the church, we default to church as a “place where certain things happen,” and we wrongly assume that those outside the church will be interested. But as we can see from all of the statistics, that simply isn’t the case. The sooner we can come to grips with that reality, the sooner we can return to the revolutionary, missional movement that is exemplified for us in the early church. We must see that it really is 30 A.D. all over again!

Action / Reflection

  1. List the changes you may need to make in your life in order to live as a missionary in a foreign land. What steps will you take to incorporate the first change?
  2. List the changes your church may need to make in order to connect with those who are no longer interested in things of the church.

**The ideas from this article are based on Brad’s upcoming book, ReThink.
[i] Adapted from Alan Roxburgh, Crossing the Bridge: Church Leadership in a Time of Change (Percept Group, 2000), 25.
[ii] Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), ix. See also David Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).