Christendom names the social alliance of Christianity with cultural power/institutions. The government opens its Congress with a Christian chaplain praying, stores are closed on Sunday respecting that many employees want to go to church, various Christian forms of sexual morality are either encouraged by society/school systems or actually written into the law. These are some examples of a Christendom society. Because of these various reinforcing structures, the average citizen of said culture understands the Christian Story, gives Christianity an inherent respect (even though he/she may not believe or practice) and looks to go to church when feeling the need for God. For years America has been a nation under such cultural conditions.
Churches in the United States have conducted themselves for years as if we are still living in a Christendom. For many parts of U. S. and Canada however, this culture is vanishing. Much of the U.S. is in transition. NOW THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH CHURCHES MINISTERING IN CHRISTENDOM!! (at least I am not arguing this right now – I’m waiting for this book here). Christendom ain’t done yet! And there are a lot of cultures where these social conditions can be played off of successfully (whatever that means!) and to the furtherance of the Kingdom. Yet I think we should at least acknowledge that this is what we are doing as churches and that these Christendom conditions are rapidly in decline. Where Christendom has disappeared, the church that still operates out of Christendom assumptions ends up largely talking to herself. We end up providing answers to questions nobody’s asking (as Rick Cruse reminds me on my facebook thread).
With this in mind, here’s 3 recent signs in my neighborhood that Christendom ain’t dead yet. The question we need to ask in each case, by engaging in these practices, are we the church largely talking to ourselves? Or is there engagement with those outside the church for the gospel – folks I will call for lack of a better term – secular.
THREE SIGNS CHRISTENDOM AIN’T DEAD YET
1.) Greg Laurie Crusade
The Greg Laurie Crusade happened over the weekend in Chicago suburbs. In what seems like a resurrection of the Billy Graham crusade strategy of the 50’s – 70’s, a reportedly 2 ½ million dollars was poured into advertising, renting of a large stadium, bringing in first class musicians to “attract” a crowd. Several hundred churches backed the crusade with funds, volunteers and vehicles that bussed their people into the stadium. Christians were encouraged to invite a friend. The messages by pastor Laurie where driven towards inviting people to make a decision based on the question “where are you going when you die?” I listened intently to the internet stream.
The obvious question is, would the average secular person be remotely interested in attending another mega church service at a stadium to hear a gospel evangelistic sermon? Would a questioning Muslim come to something labeled a “Crusade”? As good as this was! Just asking? Was this stadium filled with mostly churchgoers? Just asking eh?
Growing up in Canada as a boy, we invited our neighbors to the Billy Graham Crusade in Toronto. They came. They had a mainline church background and had largely drifted away. That Crusade had a positive impact on their lives. It was a day when Billy Graham was a culturally interesting (in some sense a “must see”) “event.” I have no doubt that there were many of these folk who came to the Greg Laurie Crusade. They were maybe ex-Christians, or people who grew up in some form of Christian church who simply had never been challenged to follow Christ in a committed way. There were many people like this I suspect who were positively affected by this Crusade. In this way, the success of the Greg Laurie Crusade is a sign that Christendom ain’t dead yet.
My question is: Are these kind of situations diminishing? Is it worth spending 2 1/2 million dollars? How many “decisions” were actually new ones from people outside the faith? How many were lapsed Christians? Was this in essence a bunch of Christians getting together to feel good about our message? (I heard rounds of applause every time Greg Laurie mentioned eternal life). In other words, was this the church talking to itself and feeling much better about the success of its version of Christianity? Do any of you out there know of non-Christian conversions? Did any of you invite secular person? A Muslim? An atheist? Seriously, no negative take here, just asking.
2.) The Alpha Program
Ok, I’m driving by the local Baptist this week. They are putting up a flashy sign in the front of the church announcing “The Alpha Course Here!” I like the Alpha Program, a program set up basically to operate out of the neighborhood (I like that!), to invite neighbors to ask questions about God (I like that!). It is a program of a set number of weeks, getting people to commit to a journey. It emphasizes the work of the Sprit in our lives (Again I Like that!!). I have seen many curious people on the edges get initiated into the faith via Alpha. It comes from U.K. a post Christendom place in many ways.
And yet I know few people who are secular who come to such an invitation. They would view it with suspicion. The ones who would come have backgrounds in Christianity and have come to a point in their lives where they are seeking intensely a connection to God in Christ. This is cool. But again, my question is: Is this a strategy dependent upon Christendom? Yes or No? tell me, you folks out there. Are you successful on your block getting secular people to come over for an “Alpha Course”? Or would you be more successful inviting someone over to your backyard for a barbeque? BTW that wouldn’t even work for several of my secularist friends. To me, the Alpha program is a sign that Christendom ain’t dead yet. It has been good for the church operating on the edges of Christendom. But will it succeed in the new cultures of post Christendom? Or will it become another example of the church talking to herself?
3.) One on One Tract Evangelism in The Park
Recently I’m sitting in the local park with some friends who are either post Christian secular or post Muslim secular. I see a group of young twenty-somethings praying in the corner of the park. They then break (like a huddle in a football game)and spread out over the park. I knew what was next so I went and sat on a bench where two older unsuspecting people were sitting to take in what was happening. One of the “young evangelists” approached the people where I was sitting and asked, “Do you know where you are going when you die? We’re all going to die right? So it’s an important question. Would you agree?” (They were handing out a million dollar bill with Obama’s face on it with the million-dollar question on it). I then proceeded to listen as this zealous young evangelist tried to convince this man to join him in what amounted to “the sinners’ prayer.” The man being evangelized, it turned out, was a disillusioned ex-presbyterian who was gentle, kind and willing to listen and debate. He was asked at least 5 times, “would you let me pray with you right now …?”
I returned to my friends about twenty minutes later only to hear one of them run up to us and say, “I was here last weekend. We’ve got to get out of here now. These people are rude and pushy.” I inquired some more and we had a bit of a conversation about how their approach is unfortunate. As we left, I looked over the park and I saw a mass exodus of people leaving the park area.
This experience leads me to conclude that a.) Christendom ain’t dead yet. There was an older ex-presbyterian who was willing to engage in serious conversation. b.) Time may be running out on this form of evangelism because there are less of these people, already familiar with the terms of the claims of Christianity, sufficient to make sense of this version of the gospel. Furthermore, it is a version of salvation so reductionist that it is questionable whether it communicates the right things to people uninitiated into the assumptions necessary to make sense of this version of the gospel. To me the question is, is this form of evangelism vastly becoming another example of the church talking to itself?
I, and others, have argued for a revamping of the way we think about evangelism, the gospel and witness. You can start by looking at these posts here, here and here. There’s more elsewhere on the blog. For now, I am interested in your reflections on these three experiences over the weekend. Are these signs that Christendom ain’t dead yet? Are these examples of the church talking to herself?
Notes on what’s coming next:
I aim in the next two weeks to begin a promised series of posts engaging the Neo-Reformed Missional efforts which include Tim Keller, Jim Belcher, Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition etc. I’m doing it off of reading this book here. Thanks Gordie for the heads up.
For those interested in Missional, Don’t forget the Missional Learning Commons coming up. It’s free (except for 10 bucks to help for children’s care).