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The Memory of Christendom

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I went to a conference recently in Sydney which was exploring the topic of how we as Christians can engage with the public today. The keynote speaker was theologian from Yale Divinity School and Director of the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture Miroslav Volf.  As I thought, the conference speakers talked openly and also implicitly about the death of Christendom and the marginalisation of the church as a result. In other words it was assumed that Christendom was dead (in the West anyway) so the discussions were centred around how the church can now move on and engage with the public from this new space  which we share together.  This is a discussion that I am familiar, comfortable and in agreement with, however a few questions were beginning to surface for me which I think as practitioners and theologians we need to better try to think through as the church processes what it means to live in a post Christendom culture.

Is the discussion around the death of Christendom too esoteric? I think we are too often presuming that your average Christian knows the definition of Christendom. However as a leader in a church, I am beginning to realise that this is not the case at all. When I have posted on social media about the ‘death of Christendom’, some Christians who equate the term Christendom with Christianity, react with shock that I would think that Christianity itself is dead. This can lead to confusion and even anger from Christians that a Christian leader is not defending Christianity in a public forum. Many Christians also point to the growth of Christianity in the majority world as a sign that Christendom is alive and therefore a counter to the argument that Christendom has ended. So in my opinion, I think we need to work harder as leaders to convey more clearly what we mean by the term Christendom and explain that it is a particular occurrence that is happening in the West. This can eliminate confusion, reduce reactive anger and bring focus to what the actual issue is that we are trying to grapple with as the church works through the very real consequences of the death of Christendom.

Do we need to better understand the grief that Christians are experiencing as a result of the death of Christendom? In most of the forums that I mix in where a post Christendom culture is assumed, leaders convey the sense that we should just move on and get on with strategies to employ that are relevant in a culture where Christendom has ended. I think that this is fine and that is what leaders who are good cultural exegetes should do. That is, they get on with leading the church appropriately after they have discerned what the cultural assumptions of the day are. I hope that I do this well myself. However have we bypassed the very real feelings of grief that are affecting many Christians in the West today who are still mourning the loss of Christendom? Where is our pastoral care?  If we imagine that Christians in the West are in a somewhat comparable circumstance to Ancient Israel in exile, how do we as leaders comfort those who weep, ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem let my right hand wither,…If I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy’ (Psalm 137:4-6) Our pastoral care need not be interpreted as indulgent, after all, good care involves challenge also, and we may need to be challenged if for example, our grief contains elements of refusal to let go of the power and attraction that was associated with the culture of Christendom. I think more discernment and pastoral care is needed as the Western church interprets its season of humiliation and purgation, which could lead to a genuine repentance and renewal so that Christians better engage with the world.

Why are some Christian leaders still struggling to let go of a culture of Christendom? One thing I was surprised about at this conference that I went to, is that despite the fact that it was full of Christian leaders who attended, many were still obviously struggling with accepting the death of Christendom in the West. I saw this struggle manifest in a few ways. Firstly there was a real hesitation to endorse contextualisation, secondly people seemed to resist a missional view of the church, thirdly there was a lingering sense of cultural entitlement revealed in some attitudes and lastly many still perceived that the church should be the authoritative, moral voice in society and therefore a posture of ‘admonishment’ was assumed rather than a missional posture.  It seems to me that if you are struggling with the reality of a post Christendom culture then you probably display the above resulting symptoms! Many Christian leaders still need convincing that Christendom has ended in the West. Why is that? I wonder if it is because we are living in the still active memory of Christendom. What I mean is that even though Christendom is dead, many Christians and non Christians, still have a memory of the way the church was, at the centre of society with all the associated power that came with it. And if this is true and being acted upon, then in some strange way Christendom is still active. Christians act as though they are entitled and non Christians still treat us that way. This is one of the reasons why when recently in Australia we were debating about whether we should still say The Lord’s Prayer in Parliament, perplexingly some non Christians said that we should because this is our cultural heritage. My question is then; how does this affect our strategies for engaging with the public? Do we then adopt strategies which assume the remnants of a culture of Christendom? Or do we employ more of a ‘rip the band aid off’ approach where we proclaim ‘Christendom is dead, let’s move on’? I have engaged in the latter more than the former but all of this makes practical ministry in your local church very messy!

How can we walk the balance of treasuring our Christian heritage without engaging in triumphalism? At this conference which assumed that we are in a post Christendom culture, paradoxically we were offered a tour of Christian Sydney. I went on it simply because I was wondering why this would be offered in a conference which was assuming a post Christendom culture. We were taken around Sydney and shown the relics of a bygone era, that is, when pastors were magistrates, the church had a good deal of influence and church buildings were the epitome of architectural design. As we flicked through (carefully) the first Bible ever preached from on Australian land, one participant exclaimed, ‘You know I think Christians have much more influence on society today than we think’. A part of me cringed. Was this Christian leader longing for the days of powerful Christendom? Was he being unrealistic about the state of the church today? But another part of me longed for that Christian heritage, recognising that it was not all bad. How can we learn to treasure our Christian heritage without desiring to go back to the triumphalism of Christendom? I think we need to be remembering our good past and telling those stories a lot more. After all, isn’t that just a part of good change management?

Volf says in his book A Public Faith that, ‘Western churches have a past that they like to boast about but a future they seem to dread’. That makes perfect sense to me. Today, the church in the West has very little to boast about, however I think that is our hope rather than our dread as we look to our future, boasting in Christ alone, the foolishness of the cross and the truth that our weakness is our strength. Michael Gorman in Cruciformity: Pauls’ Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, marvels at the strange kind of power that God displays through the cross. He says that our experiences of weakness can actually be experiences of God’s power. If this is truth then Christianity in the West could be entering a season of power never known before, however it is power that isn’t as we normally interpret it, it is the power of humility, sacrifice, empathy, and service oriented love.

I hope that we can well navigate this post Christendom space that we are in so that we have a chance of revealing that kind of power to our world.

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