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Post- Christendom...Not so simple

 

According to sociologists we are living in the post- generation. We have rejected the institutions and values that were trusted in the world of modernism to enter post-modernity; we have left behind the absolute truths of structuralism to embrace a post-structural mindset. And we have witnessed the demise of the social dominance of the church, and so we are told we have entered post-Christendom. In the last few years this has increasingly become the language we have used to describe the mission context and challenge in today’s Western world. But we want to raise a question over this and suggest that this description used to sum up our context is in fact misleading. Indeed, not only may it be an inaccurate assessment, but it may cause us to misread the appropriate range of mission responses that we need in this complex new context and unnecessarily narrow our options.

 

Now Christendom and its complexity as well as its weaknesses has been very thoroughly analysed by Stuart Murray-Williams in his book of that title. We might summarise Christendom as a description applying to countries and cultures where the Judeo-Christian tradition shaped the worldview, values, laws and norms of society, and where the relationships between church and state and secular institutions became intricately inter-woven. To be sure, this Christendom is no longer the force it once was in Western society. But it is our contention that whilst it’s been in rapid decline for a century, it is not true to conclude that it has completely disappeared. Its affects and holds in England have substantially declined but it is not “post” in the sense of gone and forgotten.  Furthermore, the rate of decline and the aspects most affected by the decline have varied in different European countries... so that even within the UK, Northern Ireland shows stronger remnants of Christendom than does England. And further a field in Europe, Finland in a different way also has some very strong manifestations of Christendom even though church attendance may be among the lowest. And then even in England there are more vestiges of Christendom remaining in rural communities than suburban, more in parts of the North then the South.

 

There is no doubt that the church’s voice carries much less authority than it used to, especially in guiding decisions and behaviour, and in some areas it may sound more of an echo than a voice – repetitions of an old message, not representative of what needs to be said now – but to be diminished is not to be dead. Post-Christendom suggests that Christendom has gone. That it lives only in the past, and though it may be something we remember and even celebrate, it carries as little authority over today’s world as the times of the absolute monarchy. This, we would suggest, is overstating the situation!

 

It is certainly true that as a dominant all pervading and unifying cultural grid it has gone. But the term post-Christendom can give the wrong impression that its effects can now be ignored. Christendom may be disintegrating, being eroded by other forces, but it is far from gone. The actual context we find ourselves in is one characterised by rapid change and a mixture of influences – one of which remains the Christian faith, worldview and assumptions about church, even if it has become diluted in a sea of materialism, the free market, self-governance, individualism, consumerism and evolutionism and the search for comfort. There are still many values, assumptions and expectations that shape society and culture beyond the church, which survive from Christendom. And the landscape continues to be populated with churches that in so many ways are defined by Christendom. In current language, this is what now may be referred to as being the “inherited mode” of church.

 

So parts of Christendom still exist and still carry sway over some areas of society, both within and without the church. But then there are so many other voices clamouring for the attention of the masses, and all claiming some degree or other of influence over people’s assumptions and identity. The question is, given we find ourselves in this fast-changing state of mixed identity, how can the church effectively respond, to the mixture of residual Christendom and to the complexity of what is coined as post-Christendom culture?

 

The answer in part lies in what, following the Mission-shaped Church report, Archbishop Rowan Williams has called the need for a mixed economychurch – continuing to bless, encourage and grow the inherited mode of church, whilst simultaneously resourcing and releasing fresh expressions of church to emerge from within our diverse society.  And it is precisely because there is much of Christendom that still hangs around in our culture that inherited patterns of church can, with adaptation, still have significant missional effectiveness. We would like to suggest that within this mixed economy response it will be helpful to recognise the following principles, which respond to elements which remain from both Christendom as well as from increasing post-Christendom:

 

Principle 1: There are three strategically appropriate missional responses we can make to the context we find ourselves in, of ranging strengths of Christendom and post- Christendom. These responses can be summarised as being Attractional (they come to us), Engaged (we go to them and bring them back) and Emerging (we go to them and stay to discover what their sort of church would look like). These are described and unpacked further in an earlier ACPI web article expanding on Hirsch & Frost’s two categories – Making Sense of Emerging Church(click here to read). The key value of understanding these three responses is that it releases us to be context specific. We don’t need to ditch Attractional thinking if there are significant threads within the context that are still derived from Christendom; whereas in contexts where Christendom has much less sway, a more Engaged approach may be appropriate; or then again if what we see is post-Christendom more fully taking hold, then Emerging strategies are likely to work best.

 

Principle 2: From these three strategies come three likely outcomes. Firstly, in the case of Attractional approaches, inherited church models can be on a journey to missional effectiveness in contexts which continue to be significantly affected by Christendom. At the other end of the scale, if we find ourselves in a context best suited to Emerging approaches, then we can plant fresh expressions of church. Or thirdly, some churches are becoming mixed economy in themselves and developing both the cultures of Go and Bring. They are becoming blended in that sense. Examples of this may lie in forms of church that are developing cells and mid-sized clusters or missional communities. Or in those that are combining a building, Sunday centred congregation with all sorts of fresh expressions of church.

 

Principle 3: In the development of any healthy mission initiative, be it congregation, group, missional community or project, there are three elements that must be considered, understood and then integrated. We call this process mission match-making.  The three elements are: a clearly defined mission field that can then be researched and understood, matched up with a mobilised and focused mission force (or team), which in turn develops an appropriate mission strategy for engaging the context within the resources of the team (for more on this click here to read our web article – Mission Match-Making).

 

Principle 4: There are at least three routes to releasing movements of mission. First, inherited churches that grow large, instead of becoming Attractional mega-churches, can become Transitional churches – releasing a multiplying network of groups, such as mid-size missional communities (for more on this click here). Second, a movement of the type of organic church or simple church can be initiated and spread. Or thirdly, one church that pioneers a successful fresh expression can seek passionate pioneers within that expression who can be released and coached to plant the same fruitful model elsewhere, so beginning multiplication. This is like ‘infecting’ all sorts of inherited churches with a virus to multiply a single type of fresh expression. This is an idea we first picked up being implemented by Phil Potter in Liverpool diocese. The fresh expression multiplied from inherited church to inherited church could be one of the now well known types such as Messy Church, Café Church, but could be any other such as council estate church.

 

Each of these four principles offers us both understanding and strategy as we seek to respond to the declining position of Christendom within a rapidly changing world. However, if we truly want our response to be empowered by the Holy Spirit then there is one key attitude we must carry – a high value on the diversity and potential of the whole Body of Christ. This means that, rather than different church ‘tribes’ criticising one another, having prideful attitudes that they are it (the radical edge!), a mixed economy church will only produce kingdom transformation if it is fired by mutual love and respect. With this covenant foundation for our expectation and hope combined with openness to the power and direction of the Holy Spirit, we will be able to pray and work for more of God’s kingdom mission of reconciling all his people and all of his creation to himself and one another, in these changing times.

 
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