For a moment, imagine a world where everyone, or nearly everyone, is a Christian. Children are baptized as a matter of course, and are brought up learning the faith in the household of God. Young people choose to make a mature affirmation of their faith, and grow into leadership roles in their faith communities. Activities are not planned for Sunday mornings because families are all in church (or at least they claim to be). Pews are crowded, church nurseries are crowded, Sunday school is crowded. There are conversations and even debates about faith, religion, and morality in the public square, but the speakers all assume a Christian or Judeo-Christian foundation for their arguments. Some may doubt and question, but their doubts and questions come from within the tradition of faith. Church, society, and even government all seem to speaking the same language.
Now imagine a world where Christianity is one among many spiritual and religious paths. Some folks are enthusiastic public Christians, but they are a minority, albeit a highly visible one. Some folks are devoted to other faiths that have nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian tradition, and many choose to shape their own beliefs and practices from elements of several different traditions. Some follow new religions and philosophies that seem to spring up to meet particular social and psychological needs, and then wither as a generation passes. By far the largest group of people does not follow any organized religion other than the civil celebrations of the nation’s history, of personal rites of passage, and sports and entertainment events. The wider society makes few allowances for religious worship, practices, or belief.
Which of these sounds more like the world in which we live today? Which of these sounds more like the world in which many of us grew up? Which of these sounds more like the world for which our congregations and churches and buildings were designed and evolved?
It is no secret that we live in a society where religion fills a very different role than it did just a couple generations ago. In the United States, churches were disestablished (separated from the government) in the eighteenth century, yet our culture had remained outwardly Christian until very recently. In Europe and Great Britain, where the Church remains established by the state, the Church has been culturally irrelevant even longer.
Church officials are terrified to see attendance and membership plummet across denominations and traditions (evangelical and megachurches, which for a while looked like the exception, seem now to be merely a few years behind the mainline churches in their decline in North America). The majority of two generations of young people have grown up without any exposure to any faith community, and in fact those who have been involved in church youth groups are less likely to be church members as adults than those who grew up unchurched. While the Church is healthy and growing in the developing world, it seems to be withering in Europe and North America.
The first paragraph of this article describes (at least in caricature) the culture of Christendom that was assumed to be dominant in much of the European-American world from the early Middle Ages through some time in the middle of the twentieth century. The second paragraph, while it applies to some aspects of our current society, was written to describe the late Roman Empire – the first several centuries after Christ, when the early Church experienced explosive growth. In many significant ways, the post-Christian world looks more similar to the pre-Christian world of 100 AD than it does to the world of fifty years ago.
So what are we to do about this? Should we be travelling from town to town, preaching on the village greens and daring the authorities to arrest us, like Paul and Silas and Timothy? Perhaps some will find this effective. What seems clear, though, is that it does little good to go on pretending that all we need to do is to open the doors to our magnificent buildings, and that people will show up seeking what we have to offer.
When Constantine established Christianity as the state church of the Roman Empire, many in the early church believed that this was a disaster for the Christian faith. How could the world-shattering gospel of Jesus Christ function as an arm of the imperial government? Many pious men and women were called to turn their backs on the empire and retreat to caves and huts in the desert, where they could practice their radical faith without compromise.
When the United States disestablished religion, it seemed like a disaster for the churches (and in fact was a very difficult time for the previously established Anglican Church). But in the generations that followed, the world was amazed to see religious revival burning across the American frontier, and the US became one of the most enthusiastically religious nations in the world. Establishment was a crutch and a straitjacket; disestablishment set us free, and demanded from us an intentional decision to follow Jesus.
Look at the first two paragraphs again. While the world of the first paragraph may seem cozy and familiar to some, it was also stifling and stultifying to many. I am quite sure that there are many people active within our parishes and faith communities today that would not have felt welcomed or engaged by the church-world of the first paragraph. The second paragraph offers us no guarantees, but allows much more space for the Spirit to teach us new ways of being the Body of Christ.
The world is changing, but the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be silenced, and will ultimately triumph over the principalities and powers of this world. The church is changing, but the gospel of Christ, the mission of God, will triumph with or without the sponsorship of this world’s culture and civilization. Of this I have no doubt.