Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Preparing for the Post-Christendom Era

I recently read a couple of essays that caused me to wonder once again about the future of the Christian tradition in the Western world. Before commenting on the essays, let me set up the discussion by repeating some of my thoughts from two years ago regarding Loren Mead's The Once and Future Church:

...Mead breaks down the history of Christendom into three eras; the Apostolic, the Christian, and the Emerging. He identifies three different environments in which each era existed. During the Apostolic era, the environment was hostile to the message of the Gospel. During the Christian era (which lasted through most of the 20th century), the environment was primarily Christian, as that was the dominant world view. In the Emerging era, the external environment is, at best, ambiguous to the message.

Some of us have witnessed this shift from the Christian to the Emerging era in our own lifetime. Here's just a few of the indicators;

In the Christian era, all of society was understood to be religious. In the Emerging era, society is often not religious at all.

In the Christian era, most public institutions were permeated with religious values. In the Emerging era, most public activities have no reference to religion.

In the Christian era, most people were expected to be members of a church. It was almost considered un-American not to be. In the Emerging era, church is for religious people, not ordinary people.

In the Christian era, religion was very public. In the Emerging era, religion is private, irrelevant, or optional.

In the Christian era, almost everyone is acquainted with the biblical story. In the Emerging era, few people know anything about the bible.

I think much of the Church is in denial of this reality. The energy seems to be drawn towards trying to recapture the glory days; to turn back the clock. In the meantime, God has continued to work in the world, but not always in the same ways as the Church has perceived the movement of God in the past.

The apostolic mission of the Church has to be rethought; no longer can the mission of the Church be primary. It has to give way to the mission of God, which can often be discovered outside the traditional boundaries of what we understand to be "church" or "religion."

Our mission of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ is hindered when we understand that to mean we are taking something out into the world that does not already exist; that our message is the most important one. That blocks our ability to see what God might already be doing in the life of someone else. When we insist on others accepting our understanding of God, and use the bible as a weapon to beat them into submission, we turn them away from Christ with our arrogant manner.

The world has changed. Today, we are called to meet people where they are in their spiritual life, and not drag them to where we think they should be. We listen to their story, offer our story, and look for the places that God's story intersects them both.

This doesn't dismiss the need for a catechumenate process, continuing education, amendment of life and spiritual disciplines. Those are elements that will gradually become meaningful to a person who is nurtured into developing a relationship with Jesus Christ. To demand it all from the beginning is blocking the way into the kingdom for others. It seems to me this is the error that Jesus saw within the Pharisees. Are we doomed to continue to make the same mistakes over and over again?

The first recent essay related to those ideas that caught my eye was John Bartley's Renegotiating Christian Polity after Christendom. Here's some excerpts that I found to be especially relevant:

...Ever since Christendom began its decline - around the time of the Reformation and the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment that sought to end the bloody conflict often seen as being caused by religious motivations - the church has been increasingly radicalised by a new awareness that the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus can apply to the political as well as the personal. During the last few centuries of course, much of the vestiges and culture of Christendom has remained, but as it has weakened, so movements such as that which led to the abolition of the transatlantic Slave Trade have periodically emerged.

Within Christendom of course the church did mediate the more negative effects of social institutions, working to improve the lot of slaves, prisoners and the poor. But less often was it prepared to fundamentally subvert or reform them. Whereas before Christendom, Christianity had often posed a challenge to the social order, within Christendom the Christian religion became the glue which held the social order together.

But as Christendom has broken down, so again the church has felt a diminishing need to be the defender of social institutions, and has been prepared to be their radical reformer.

What, then, does the political future hold for the church? It seems likely that the church will continue in its rediscovery of mission to, rather than maintenance of, the social order. A great deal will have to do with the increasing identification of Christians with those on the margins of society, as Christianity also moves to a similar position. It has also to do with the diminishing association of Christianity with the nation state, as Christians rediscover their identity as part of a global church, whose primary citizenship is derived from the Kingdom of God...
What is frustrating in many "in-house" discussions among Christians is that some folks glimpse the obvious future of Christianity, while others seem to be oblivious. We have at least two generations in which the majority have had little or no exposure to Christianity, let alone the Church. All they know is what they hear from the televangelists. They don't care who our bishops are. They have no interest in theories of the atonement. Cliches like "saved by the blood of the lamb" are disgusting. Being told they are going to burn in hell is, appropriately, considered extremely rude and insulting. The Church is seen, at best, as a club, which charges dues. Many of these folks suspect that what the Church is really after is their money.

When Christians reach out to those on the margins of society, when they "show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith," not only are they faithfully responding to the teachings of Jesus, but they are also engaged in the most effective form of evangelism in today's world. When our acts of mercy are offered to those who may never be able to give us a "return on our investment," others who suspect the Church is just another racket after their wallets sit up and take notice. Maybe those Christians really are all about loving their neighbors? And then, when we are asked why we are expending our resources on those who live on the fringes of society, we can give the glory to God. We can tell them our story. We can share how faith in Jesus Christ has transformed our lives.

I was encouraged to hear Bishop Jefferts Schori affirm that the MDGs would be an integral part of the future mission of the Episcopal Church. This is exactly the right approach. In today's world, our actions may be the only Gospel our neighbors ever read.

I think it is essential that we make this shift because I believe the harvest is still plentiful. Humanity still has a spiritual hunger; that hunger is simply no longer necessarily religious. In the above article, Bartley (and to some degree Mead) differentiates between spiritual and religious as pre-Constantine (Christian) and post-Constantine (Christendom). The common cliche sometimes heard among those who avoid the Church to describe the difference is "religion is for those who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for those who have already been there." You may disagree with that statement. Personally, from my experience, I find more than an element of truth in it. But to agree or disagree is really not the issue. The point is that it is the mindset that we will encounter outside the walls of the Church.

This separation of spirituality and religion presents a whole new set of considerations regarding how we can effectively proclaim the Good News. The latest edition of Anglican Theological Review contains an interesting essay on this topic by Owen C. Thomas; "Spiritual but Not Religious: The Influence of the Current Romantic Movement". Thomas suggests that we are in the midst of a Romantic movement that began in the 1960s. He offers historian Craig Brinton's definition of the Romantic temperment as "sensitive, emotional, preferring color to form, the exotic to the familiar, eager for novelty, for adventure, above all for vicarious adventure of fantasy, reveling in disorder and uncertainty, insistence on the uniqueness of the individual to the point of making a virtue of eccentricity."

Note the focus on the individual. When it comes to things spiritual, the need for community, with shared values and a shared mission, is considered optional, and possibly even irrelevant. Even though I would hope that most of us recognize that such a spirituality would be missing out on much of the joy of being a spiritual being (why celebrate, throw a party, all by yourself?), in today's world it is essential that we meet people where they are, and begin by affirming the positive aspects of their spiritual journey. This also means that we need to offer resources to meet their spiritual needs. Outreach to those on the margins is important, but it must be balanced with inner nurture; opportunities for personal spiritual growth. In his essay, Thomas more fully describes this necessary balancing act between the private and public aspects of our faith:

...Thus I am suggesting that the spirituality movement should balance its emphasis on interiority with an equal concern with the outer life of the body, the community and history. It should harmonize its emphasis on private individual life with equal commitment to the importance of the public life of work and politics. And it should equalize its concern for feeling with an emphasis on the life of reason and reflection. In sum, it should balance its commitment to spirituality with an equal commitment to the life of religion with its concern for tradition, communal life, and involvement in public life...
It seems to me that those of us who are members of the Kingdom of God are called to spend less time debating among ourselves, and more time proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ in ways that today's world can hear. Beyond that, I think it is also past time for us to discern the movement of God, and begin to prepare for a future in which the Christian faith will be transformed, as God continues to make all things new.


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