The Christendom Nostalgia – Leading us out of it by using the words of Billy Graham

bg1I heard Billy Graham on the car radio last week and I got nostalgic. It was nostalgia for Christendom. The words by Billy Graham were verbatim as follows: (they were part of a radio spot by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association).

Too many think that you can go out and live the way you like. Go to church on Sunday, or perhaps go to some religious ritual that your church demands and everything will be all right, but it won’t. It’s wonderful to be a member of the church, it’s great to be baptized, it’s great to be confirmed, but that alone is not enough. Jesus said, “You must be born of the Spirit,” “you must be born again.”

The recording of these words can be found by clicking here and then scrolling down to the clip entitled “Church on Sunday.” I urge you to listen to these words. Feel the ethos. Wallow a little in the nostalgia for a time gone by. For these words reveal the by-gone age of protestant Christendom in North America, the golden years of evangelism (I realize some may not consider these years golden). These were the words as preached by Billy Graham in one of his many crusades (the very word ‘crusade’ bespeaks Christendom). I have no idea when the sermon was preached but, again, it played last week on the radio (it is ironic that the BGEA is playing this spot in Chicago in 2009). These words help us imagine the mindset of so many churches from the small Bible churches of the post WW1 generations all the way (I contend) to the current-day huge mega churches of evangelicalism. In virtually all evangelical people over the age of 60 there is this nostalgia for these feelings, this ethos, this world that was sure, so certain and grounded in the foundation of Christianity.

Of course, dramatic changes have taken place in our society. In just a short period of time we have gone from a Christendom North America during the Billy Graham crusade years of 1950’s to 1980’s to a post-Christendom where most of these words make little sense. Today, in many post-Christendom places in N America, THESE WORDS MAKE NO SENSE. Here, people in these post-Christendom contexts have not been baptized or confirmed. They receive no social benefits from going to church. They are not even looking for that. They do not believe going to church will save them.  They are oblivious to the notion of “being saved.” Unless the hearers of this message by Billy Graham live in Dallas Texas or Atlanta Georgia, these words fall on deaf ears.

There is a line of continuity between the Billy Graham crusades of that day and much of current day evangelicalism. Whether it is in the local Bible church congregation or the large mega church, they both rely on a cultural ethos that lies behind these words by Billy Graham. It is a world that respects the Bible, believes in one God, and sees church as viable cultural institution. Here converts are described as people (usually coming out of some former initiation to Christianity) who make a personal commitment to Christ and have a personal relationship. Church is organized so as to attract people into its doors. The mega churches merely seek to do the Billy Graham thing with more relevancy/production value (it is ironic to see how a Billy Graham crusade basically put on a typical evangelical worship service in an outdoor service – complete with congregational singing, choir, special music, a testimony and a sermon by Billy Graham- and thousands came time after time). Even though the Graham ministry had a much broader ministry than this brief sound clip would indicate, by and large the majority of Crusade converts were Christendom converts, born and initiated by the European heritage churches, and seeking a vital faith. This in itself was a worthy ministry.

The times however changed.  The last vestiges of Christendom lie in decay in large parts of the N American world. There are fewer and fewer people already initiated into Christianity needing to be “revived.” There are less and less Christendom pre-converts who need to be challenged to take their pre-disposed intellectual assent to a higher level of personal commitment. THE TIME OF CHRISTENDOM EVANGELISM HAS LARGELY PASSED. We must lead out of this nostalgia. It is the task of Missional leaders, authors, and seminary students to help lead what remains of the evangelical church (in the post Christendom contexts of N. America) out of the Christendom nostalgia.

Over the last two years, I have visited hundreds of pastors at gatherings of all kinds in the new territories of post Christendom. They are watching their churches dwindle, getting older and having less and less of a cultural relevance. They are watching the mega churches with bloated budget producing hyped-up programs steal any Christians that under the age of 40. Their single number one question is “how can I get young people to come to my church?” (obviously the wrong question for the context we are in). Many are just plain in shock. It is a post Christendom, post-attractional world.

I got to admit; I still get “goose bumps” listening to the dulcet tones of Billy Graham’s voice. The fruits of his many years of ministry are to be honored. I’m convinced however that this same nostalgia must somehow be addressed. Denominations that are closing churches faster than they can start them should read the writing on the wall. We should respect the Billy Graham generation. We should honor the dwindling churches for all their labors for Christ (and I am dead serious here). Then we should also transition our Christendom churches somehow (I have a few ideas for such a transition) into a missional disposition in the world. We need to lead past and out of the Christendom nostalgia. Perhaps playing this 60-second sound Billy Graham sound bite and talking about it in our congregations might be a beginning towards such ends.

P.S. I still hope to have my final post on Post Christendom evangelism up in the next few weeks.

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