Christendom? Post-Christendom?
August 19th, 2007 by Sonja

Brother Maynard did a very thorough series last week on the definition of missional. If you missed it, get a cup of coffee (or something), make sure you’ve set aside a goodly chunk of time and read through these articles (One, Two, Three, and Four). I think he totalled up the words at the end of the week to about 13,000. They’re all good, as is usual with Bro. M. And I agreed with most of what he has to say (not that what I think matters a hill of beans, mind you). But there were a couple of references to things like “our Christian heritage” and “Christendom v. post-Christendom,” that got me thinking. Not that I necessarily disagreed, but something about them made me think and ponder … hard. Here are the quotes that got me pondering:

From Sorting Missional Characteristics

Post-Christendom rather than Christian culture.

Culture is assumed to have moved on past any form of “Christian heritage” it might have had, with Christianity holding much less influenceโ€ or none at all.

Then …

From Missional Definitions: A Brief Survey

Post-Christendom: we have previously suggested that post-Christendom is more appropriately listed as nuance than as part of either of the two primary missional imperatives. Despite this, it appears fairly prominently in many or most definitions of missional church. Perhaps this is because the incarnational model of church over against an attractional one largely arises out of a response to post-Christendom, as do the very origins of the missional conversation. Having described the meaning and significance of “missional,” it can perhaps be moved to the category of missional nuance as we have discussed, but in assessing the history of the concept, we should properly note that without the realization and desire to develop a response to post-Christendom, it is likely that the reexamination of missiological method which led to the description of a missional approach may well have been deferred for a few more decades at least. I would suggest that this is the probable reason that it features so prominently, more than any other nuance.

I’ve been puzzling this through all weekend now and had some conversations with LightHusband (in my outloud voice, which always helps ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). Here’s what I think I’m trying to say.

Briefly put, I’m beginning to think that this idea that our culture was once a “Christian” culture is a myth. A very dearly held myth that has some large granules of truth, but a myth nonetheless.


Here’s why I think this and why it has bearing on this discussion. For hundreds of years (about 1500 of them) there were three main entities (groups): the church, the state and the general population. Now the church and the state were quite intertwined and inter-related for much of this time. Both had great influence on the general population. Sometimes the church had more, sometimes the state. Arguably one could say that the church held sway for a greater percentage of the time than the state and that is what the Reformation was countering. There were peaks of activity during those years in which great things were done under the banner of Christ (Red Cross comes to mind). However … taken overall, I think the “church” has done some things that have influenced various aspects of our culture and so has the state. But I don’t think that the general population can be considered “Christian” or ever was. I think they went to the local church because it was required of them in the same manner that taxes were required of them and fief payments, etc. But in terms of life/heart changing Jesus-following Christianity, I would argue that the large portion of the general population of the West has never changed it’s stripe from it’s pagan years. That our “Christianity” is but a thin veneer; a social identity or label that the general population has worn.

Historically, most of the general population have considered themselves Christian because of civic/familial obligation, identity, and heritage. Membership in a “Christian church” was a prerequisite for inclusion/advancement in most public and private sectors and was a prerequisite for marriage. It was essentially the basic requirement for inclusion in Western culture. For an excellent study on the effects of living outside the church, or even within the church but outside locally recognized bounds of normal behavior read Entertaining Satan by John Putnam Demos. The result of this was not lives changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but a sense of moral superiority and social inclusion.

The barometer for whether or not one is a “Christian” has not been measured by the Gospel, as we might in other cultures, but by the label that we wear precisely because of our history. I would argue that that very history speaks against us. Mind you, I understand that I’m painting with a very broad brush here. There were pockets of very genuine faith here and there. There were also some episodes of extremely bad behavior on the part of the church. I’m thinking here about the papacy during the 700-1000’s and Medici dynasty, and let’s throw in the Crusades, Gallileo, Copernicus, etc. for good measure.

Simply because while there are many people out there who may wear the label of “Christian” I don’t believe that makes them one, any more than wearing the label of lawyer makes me one. I may have studied some law. I may watch a lot of Law & Order. I may deeply believe that I am a lawyer based on a lot of circumstances in my life. But … I’m still not a lawyer and just telling people that I am doesn’t make me one. What makes me a lawyer? Behaving like one (and passing a Bar exam). What makes someone a Christ-follower? Arguably behaving like one … manifesting the fruits of the spirit, desiring to live out the mission of Jesus, etc.

So. I’ve actually come to believe that parsing out post-Christendom vs. Christendom may be more important to the discussion on missional than it’s been given. I guess what I’m getting at here as I write this all out, is that I think perhaps the assessment of the attractional model of church may be too shallow. In other words, we may not be giving it it’s historical/cultural due in our attempts to change to a missional outlook. Those roots may go deeper than we think and as we attempt to move forward and away from that model, we may trip over them if we’re unaware of them. So while I think the idea of “Christendom” may be a myth … that’s the name we have given it for time immemorial, so … I think it may need to be evaluated more closely for instance, for the reasons that the attractional model of church was the primary model for so long (1700 years +/-). That period of time creates some powerful cultural mores … how will those be overcome? Will we have the patience to do so? What will the markers be?

5 Responses  
  • Julie Clawson writes:
    August 19th, 20076:11 pmat

    A couple of thoughts –

    yes – for most of “christendom” the majority of people were influenced by Pagan traditions. But did that make them any less Christian? Granted Christianity may have been a veneer on their lives, but what is the criteria for determining if they were authentic enough to be Christians? Is it a doctrinal litmus test? About their works? About their hearts? And given that all religion is syncretistic (this is on my mind since I just blogged about it) – which version is the pure/right version? I know this wasn’nt the main point of your post, but just stuff that came to mind.

    But on overcoming cultural mores (which needs to be done)- we need to realize that traditional Christianity is in reaction mode. They are no longer in control politically and are out of favor (somewhat) culturally. It is at this stage for every religion in the history of time that belief becomes more rigid and codified (texts are written down, heresy trials begin). It is dangerous to confront groups that are drawing lines in the sand, solidifying traditions as doctrines, and feel like they are under attack. often it is not just models and mores that must change, it is the stance of fear that needs to be overcome before dialog can begin.

  • Erin writes:
    August 20th, 200712:38 amat

    I’ve tried to think of a wise comment like Julie’s, but I got nothin’.

    Great post, though. Makes a certain sense to me.

  • Sonja writes:
    August 20th, 20078:59 pmat

    Hey Julie … Sorry I haven’t answered you sooner. I was working on a quilt for a friend! ๐Ÿ˜‰ You’re right in a sense. I would not be so bold as to pass judgement on individuals and their sense of Christian-ness (if you will). But I think you may have missed my main point, which is not about individuals per se … but about our culture at large. That is, what happens when many individuals wear that veneer. Then the culture is decidedly NOT Christian, even though we may tell ourselves that it is or, rather, was.

    If you were to look at people in the West as individuals throughout history, then everyone (of course) would be on a scale. Some would be closer to Christ, others further away. But I’m talking about looking at our culture more as an anthropologist/historian. Looking at the taboos, the boundaries, the social obligations that were established to manipulate behavior and create an aura of religiosity.

    So, I’m looking at the historical span more globally than individually. I wouldn’t want to speculate on the validity or not of any one person’s faith at any given time … I think that changes over time even in any given person’s life time (just look at you and I for example ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). Does any of this make sense?

  • Julie Clawson writes:
    August 21st, 200711:12 amat

    ah. Thanks for the clarification. The dynamics of making a religion that is all about the community expression but is made up of individuals a codified cultural/political expectation leads to more variety than sameness.

  • Sonja writes:
    August 21st, 200712:47 pmat

    Wow … Julie … that last sentence is power packed!! You’re going to be writing text books sooner or later ๐Ÿ˜‰

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