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The Church in Post-Christendom

March 16, 2008
S. Michael Craven
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In order to examine how the Body of Christ is to function in post-Christendom, it is first necessary to define what we mean by Christendom.

In granting the Christian church special favors and privileges in the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine ushered in the era of the church-state partnership that would profoundly shape European society and culture for centuries to come. As the protected and privileged religion of society, Christianity achieved unrivaled cultural dominance. The resulting cultures in Europe and later in North America became known as Christendom. Even though the legal structures of Christendom were removed in North America (i.e. the separation of the state), the legacy of this Constantinian system remained by means of powerful traditions, attitudes and social structures that could be described as “functional Christendom.”

In the age of Christendom, the church occupied a central and influential place in society and the Western world considered itself both formally and officially Christian. So when we speak of post-Christendom, we are making the point that the church no longer occupies this central place of social and cultural hegemony and Western civilization no longer considers itself to be formally or officially Christian.  

This clearly represents an historic change in the cultural context into which the Western, and specifically American, church is now attempting to carry out its mission. This raises two fundamental questions: What does this new cultural context mean for the church and its mission? And, what exactly is the church’s mission?

To the first point, the vast majority of American churches still rest on the assumptions of Christendom, meaning they believe that Christianity still occupies a central and influential place in society, when this is no longer true. A brief survey of American culture should quickly and thoroughly convince anyone that Christianity is no longer the central informing influence. Every cultural institution from education and science, media and the Arts, to politics and philosophy are today, convincingly secular. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are excluded from the public square. Christianity has become a marginalized way of thinking that is largely relegated to the elderly and uneducated. In other words, Christianity is regarded as being irrelevant when it comes to having anything meaningful or intelligent to offer.        

The prior reality of Christendom produced what could be called a church-centered or ecclesiocentric perspective of its mission. Since Christianity was the dominant religion, the emphasis or mission of the church centered on recruiting “members” through evangelism as its social and cultural authority was firmly established. But, I would argue that this neither fully represents the true mission of the Church as God’s sent people and at present; it disregards the post-Christendom reality. Christendom inevitably led to a view of “missions” as a program of the church and its de facto mission remains centered on the institutional maintenance of the church.  

The book, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America offers compelling insight into the problem. Written in response to research inaugurated by the Gospel and Our Culture Network, a diverse team of Evangelical theologians writes:

We have come to see that mission is not merely an activity of the church. Rather, mission is the result of God’s initiative, rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation. “Mission” means “sending,” and it is the central biblical theme describing the purpose of God in human history…. We have begun to learn that the biblical message is more radical, more inclusive, more transforming than we have allowed it to be…. We have begun to see that the church of Jesus Christ is not the purpose or goal of the gospel, but rather its instrument and witness. God’s mission embraces all of creation.

Using this definition, the authors point out that “neither the structures nor the theology of our established Western traditional churches is missional. They are shaped by the legacy of Christendom” and given the fact that the cultural context is no longer conducive to even “member recruitment,” the American church is scrambling to define its mission. Many churches have recently begun to use the term “missional” but this is often nothing but a new word for evangelism operating under the same old assumptions of Christendom. It neither fully considers the post-Christian cultural context or the all-encompassing redemptive mission of God.

Because so many churches still labor under the illusion of Christendom their response to this loss of cultural relevance and missional ineffectiveness ends up being misguided. “The typical North American response to our situation is to analyze the problem and find a solution. These solutions tend to be methodological. Arrange all the components of the church landscape differently, and many assume that the problem can be solved. Or use the best demographic or psychological or sociological insights, and one can redesign the church for success in our changing context.” (Missional Church, p. 2) This inevitably results in the church trying to look like the world in order to be relevant when what is needed is an intelligent and loving representation of the Truth that is relevant to what the world really needs.

The latter requires that the church better understand the cultural context and dominant ideas or worldviews that have shaped the culture. These worldviews, which purport to offer an all-embracing life system, must be met with a Christianity that offers an “equally comprehensive and far reaching power” in the words of Abraham Kuyper. It is, in large part, the church’s present inability to accurately recognize the changing cultural context and assert this all-encompassing view of the Christian faith and message that has rendered the church irrelevant and left it confused with regard to its purpose and mission. The American church must begin to see itself as existing within a “foreign” land and like foreign missionaries, properly contextualize its mission.   

Next week we will examine what it truly means to be “missional” and how the church carries out that mission in today’s post-Christendom cultural context.

© 2008 by S. Michael Craven 

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Response from : Steve Peck  

March 15, 2008 2:42 PM

Michael, Thanks for the comments. I discovered you blog through Dr. Bock's blog. I'm an Army Chaplain, and had a few questions, if you have a moment to consider them.
1. Is what you are saying similar to Frost & Hirsh's Shaping of things to come?
2. Where do you see churches effectively engaging within a post Christendom mindset? Are there any patterns or principles?
3. Is this true of emergent(ing) churches?
4. Have you seen any quantifiable data or published work showing effectiveness or even preference of postmodern generations toward emergent or some other model?
Thanks for your thoughts and time.

Response from : Bob Geiger  

March 17, 2008 9:17 AM

This was an excellent article and quite true, I believe, but what is your definition of "Church"? What are the core beliefs of the church that was Christendom?

Response from : Peggy Cairns  

March 17, 2008 9:55 AM

About this sentence in paragraph 5: "Christianity has become a marginalized way of thinking that is largely relegated to the elderly and uneducated." - OUCH! (from someone with a Master's degree at the "young" age of 57 - ha!) People like Lee Strobel would likely disagree, too. Or was that a statement made mostly to get a rise out of you readers?

Response from : Celie Dean  

March 17, 2008 11:06 AM

I was having a conversation over the weekend with another believer about this very issue. I eagerly await next week's comments.

Response from : Greg Williams  

March 17, 2008 1:23 PM

Some very good and interesting thoughts with regard to post-Christendom, the West and American culture and the Church and the mission of the Church.

Regarding several of the key authors and the fact that they are from very liberal denominations, do you think that there is a door opened in terms of "redeeming all of creation" for them to jump on the global warming/population control bandwagon as most of these denominations are already there? We obviously need to have respect for Creation but you probably are fully aware of the agenda mentioned above.

In spite of this there are some good thoughts about how to redefine the church in terms of post-Christendom and how to reach this cutlure!

Thanks and God bless in Christ!

Response from : richard  

March 18, 2008 12:12 AM

What is needed is a clear understanding of two cultures, the church and the world. Many christians that I interact with have an imcomplete grasp of both. Jesus demonstates to us in the Gospels an ability to interact with both the believer and unbeliever. With regard to the culture of the world the issue of "post modernism" in some respects is not new, as Judges 21:25 says "in those days Israel had no king, everyone did what was right in their own eyes". This is little different to today, where there is rejection of authority and truth is what the individual wants it to be. Therefore is "modernism" or "post-modernism" really "modern".
The key problem in the church as I see it is that in many ways we are trying to do God's job for him instead of doing it his way and we wonder why it does not work. Isaiah 29:13 shows the futility of substituting the "teachings of man"for the obedience to God. To have an impact we must "seek first his kingdom" not or own or the worlds.

Response from :  

March 18, 2008 4:23 AM

Hello Michael.

Just read your latest commentary. Can you discern that there's no end to the mountain that your commentary traverses because the likelihood of bringing forth a meaningful challenge to redemptive action for anyone to consider is remote? Michael, how would you like to do an upward fast-forward of your inquiry using one simple test presented by Messiah, Himself, to define the church's universal purpose/message/witness in the world (same being no respecter of cultures) and its only effective MO prescription? Need I qualify Him more than pointing-out that He's the One who only spoke what He heard His Father in Heaven speaking and only did what He saw His Father in Heaven doing?

I suggest to you that the present-day "Church" in all of its institutional, built-with-hands forms is nothing less then that rich young ruler/man who came to Messiah asking the very same questions that you suggest are being asked by the "Church" leadership (who are clearly seeing their "places" at risk [their powerlessness to overcome the world, thus their irrelevance is inescapably obvious to all] which is the result of their choice (disobedience, thus mismanagement) to focus their efforts upon cultivation of "places" for them to reside IN the "Church" vs. choosing to live/be the holy church witnesses simply by following Messiah daily while they are IN the world) in these days.

May I further suggest to you and any readers who might get the opportunity to consider these thoughts that the clarifying “answers” to these inquiries rests in one internally polarizing personal response to Messiah’s reply to that man. That man was confronted with the same choice that Adam had and that same choice will confront the last folks who live. The very same challenge remains before the leadership BENEFICIARIES and the commentary voice BENEFICIARIES of the institutional Church to liquidate their self-interests and vested places IN the Church that’s built with hands (which, because of its temporal nature, is nothing but another part of the world by definition) in favor of "following" Him by the power of the Faith that raised Messiah from the dead and demonstrate how the world IS overcome with Love, i.e. the witnesses are as the witnesses overcome the world. Don't we already know, however, that this liquidation by Church leadership place-holders won't happen, Michael?

Don't we already know that the commentary entertainment from the theologians with places will continue until those who've made "places" for themselves are starved-out of same because the millions of living souls who reckon a measure of Faith and love integrity are called to and see the redeeming value in following Messiah and walking by obedience to the Holy Spirit so they have left Church systems for they do not need those systems or the "benefits of membership" that are offered. They've moved-on to the integrity and Spirit-prospering of living by the power of the Faith that raised Messiah from the dead and they walk in this world with a vision of that Kingdom that is NOT built with hands.

They are choosing and allowing their carnal wills to be crucified daily by the Spirit-empowered desire (that they choose to host and cultivate in their holy temples) to be obedient to the Holy Spirit and the order/Peace of that perfect Kingdom which is unseen by the natural eye and not beheld by natural, soulish contemplations. They have no need for the hand-built, mammon-driven institutional kingdom/distraction entertainment economy. Their assembling happens most times without planning or intention, but assembling happens and sharing/harvesting the Love, Blessings, Power, Righteousness, Peace and Joy that the Scriptures describe/declare to be the Kingdom of Heaven HAPPENS.

By contrast, imho, "mission" is a military undertaking, moving or sending that is practiced by worldly kingdoms in highly non-Christian ways against flesh and blood and using mammon to conquer. I find little difference between the institutional Church's "missionary" behaviors and outcomes compared to the world’s military “missions” mainly because both are focused upon the natural/temporal, both are built-with-hands and both are mammon-driven. The outcomes move to the same result by definition. I challenge Church leadership to consider the focus upon the heart (the Spirit) that’s obvious in the Sermon on the Mount and by that same focused standard, face-up to the spiritual damage to souls that is done by way of false and/or mammonized gospel messages and a false and powerless Church society that inoculates hearts by way of blatant conflict of interest that leads to severe disappointment/shame that quickly forces the lambs into a condition of hardness of heart out of self-defense.

Almost all of these lambs choose self-marginalization vs. perpetual wounding of their hearts. These lambs (see Jer. 33 and Ez. 33 & 34) are the massive non-participation demographics that I'll suggest grow in proportion to Church "evangelism missions" efforts; no name changes or concept shifts excepted. The defect is in the very nature of what has been built as well as how it has been built upon the Father's provided Foundation; His risen Son, our risen Messiah, popularly known as Jesus Christ. On the historical stage, the "missions" (say, conquests) concept is replete with its ugly, bloody, unveiled manifestations and it's not to be unexpected, btw, that such carnal manifestations of "Church missions" will return to our current events as the Church more fully chooses (for the sake of its temporal continuance and for the gain of mammon) to cooperate with intensified efforts to impose world "peace".

By contrast, Paul's reference in Eph. 6 that implies/suggests such an alternate form of 'warfare' conceptually; it is so radically different (for it is by Spirit/spirit Love that is freely given; being without need for mammon's influence or enabling) that his concept merits another descriptive approach besides "warfare" to accurately convey it. Spiritual "overcoming" or "allowing one's self-will to be crucified" may be better descriptive term/phrase nominees.

So, Michael, I may as well personally challenge you by way of Holy Spirit inspiration to be a leader in deed amongst us and leave your "place" in the built-with-hands Church kingdom and seek nothing else than to follow Him by the power of that same Faith that raised our Messiah from the dead. You have no need of any man to teach you for the Holy Spirit has been given to you. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that you're developing or re-directing the skills and gifts that have been placed within you from the beginning to better prosper your family tangibly. You were built and called for moving and contributing meaningfully (you are a bearer/distributor of Spiritual Substance) in a specific Galilee ("circle") in this world where the Love of the Father (all forms of Spiritual Substance) will be shed abroad from your heart unto the prospering of many.

May I suggest to you that those who know you and/or have read you will be more powerfully influenced by such a personal choice than is presently happening. Many will seek you out to receive your witness/testimony of the richness and Joy of a walk that prospers you, your family and all whom you touch in spirit and/or in the natural. Blessings to you, Dear One. I know that this message isn't easy for the natural man to receive, but I've not stopped praying for you since we first met in Greenville many years ago.

You have permission to delete my personally-directed comments to you prior to publication if you wish, but I sense that the message is more meaningful and powerful to readers if it is left intact. Your responses may bless many. Thank you for receiving this reply, Michael. Your friend, Denny.

Response from : Shannan Ross  

March 18, 2008 8:37 AM

Well said. I wonder as the shift in our country continues, and the hostility to the gospel increases, how many of the "celebrity" preachers and teachers will survive? Perhaps this shift is just what the American Church needs to be realigned.

Response from : John  

March 18, 2008 9:36 AM


The Christian Church seems to have become like the Jew, believing that God was going to bless them and that they were born into His Kingdom by being in the Family as part of a "Church". We have indeed lost our way, because God..Jesus..said, lest you be born again, you will not enter my Kingdom. Somehow, the concept of a Holy and Righteous God as our enemy, and not our friend, has escaped the Church. Unless Jesus is in us, we are subject to God's wrath. Shame on us, because we feel no shame in the Church and are willing to pervert the truth.

Keep up the Good Works....

John Staton
Last Call Ministries

Response from : Greg Williams  

March 24, 2008 10:48 AM

Thanks for an excellent and insighful series on the true Gospel which is the news of the Kingdom which we are, as Christ's disciples, to be preparing for His return. Interesting that so much of today's westernized 'Christian message' is so individually focused and then we wonder why very few really know Christ as Lord (or King of the Kingdom)!?!

I have a sermon that I do entitled "Kingdom Interpretation" which takes several of the "favorite" verses of Scripture in our 'post-modern or post Christendom' culture and "reinterpret" them in line with Kingdom thinking rather than today's popular individualized context and it blows people away - not always in a good way or in agreement. However, most of the time people really stop and begin to think of all the ways they've adapted Scripture and Truth to fit their lifestyle and agendas rather than changed their lives to adhere to the Kingdom Truth!

Here are just a few of the verses that I know you'll understand the sharp contrast between individual vs Kingdom interpretation: Jer. 29:11; Ps. 37:4; Prov. 3:5,6; Rom. 8:28; Phil. 4:13 and a few others.

Keep up the great work and God bless in Christ!

In His service

Greg Williams


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