The Church and the Post-Chrisentdom Age

Christianity once shaped British society, however, as the rise of the current culture occurred, the Christian faith lost influence and position. Christianity no longer holds the authority it once had. Christianity is no longer the ‘belief’ of choice in culture. Britain is now in a Post-Christendom setting, this brings significant challenges and opportunities to the local church, which if embraced, could lead to serious impact for the Kingdom.

What is Christendom?

In the fourth century, the Roman empire had begun to decline. During AD 312, Constantine, the then Emperor converted to Christianity. Murray suggests that there was some doubt over this conversion, but at the very least, Constantine knew that Christianity could unite a flailing Roman Empire.[1] Constantine, throughout his reign, continued to build a Roman Christian society, becoming known as the Christian ruler. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the viewed as the legal state religion which all were ordered to follow.

The period that followed is known as Christendom. During this time, it was widely seen that other than Jews, all people were born as Christians – it was this status that would unite the nation. With this distinction, the empire was run with what was perceived as a strict Christian morality. Where Christians were persecuted prior to Constantine, they now had legal protection and the persecution was placed on pagan individuals. Amongst other elements, Murray gives examples of the practical outworking of Christendom:

  • “Obligatory church attendance, with penalties for non-compliance;

  • The practice of infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into this Christian society;

  • The imposition of obligatory tithes to fund this system.”[2]

The Christendom view of faith in the form of a state religion did produce negative outcomes. Rather than people voluntarily attending church and receiving the Gospel, the state had control over population by forcing onto them a twisted view of religion. However, Christendom placed Christianity in an influential position. It shaped and guided how people lived. It pointed Governments toward morality and justice. Ultimately, Christianity became foundational to all of society.

What is Post-Christendom?

As hinted in the term, Post-Christendom is what occurred after the end of Christendom. Where under Christendom you saw Christianity as playing a central and pivotal role in society, it has now moved to the margins, with limited authority. As this shift continues, the Christian faith becomes a minority in society. The Christian that once enjoyed freedom, responsibility and privilege, now lives in a society where others are taking lead and position.

It is interesting to note that post-Christendom does not mean post-Christian.[3] Christianity still exists, it has not been eradicated. It has however, reduced, and is no longer the main driving force behind societal shifts and decision making. We can therefore deduce, that in post-Christendom, the state religion can still remain Christianity, however it has lost any sense of authority over morality and belief systems in the general population.

Amongst other elements, Randall quotes the Anabaptist Network Newsletter in stating a significant shift in the West from Christendom to Post-Christendom – “From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story; in post-Christendom - aliens, exiles and pilgrims.”[4] We can see that Christians in the post-Christendom setting, no longer feel like they belong. The atmosphere and culture they live in no longer represents their beliefs. In some context, the Christian is never at home on earth, but seeking the everlasting Kingdom of God. However, the post-Christendom world feels even further away from such a Kingdom. It is almost void of Kingdom minded principles.

Britain and Post-Christendom

When we consider Britain, we know as a set of countries it has a rich Christian heritage. Christianity came to Britain in the late 4th Century, however, it was not till Alfred the Great in AD 849 – 899 and the Magna Carta in AD 1215 that we begin to see Christian principles in the hierarchy of society. What followed several centuries later, was the great reformation and the development of the King James Bible. Scripture had been handed down to the masses and no longer ‘held’ by the religious establishment. What followed was years of faithful preaching and evangelism through the likes of George Whitefield, John Wesley and William Booth. In the early 1900’s Britain saw the Welsh Revival, where over half a million were converted. In 1952, Britain had a new Queen who became the head of the Church of England, the state choice of church. Finally, in the 50’s and 60’s, Britain saw a huge increase in the Pentecostal church movement.

It is fair to say, that Christianity was central to Britain in how it was governed and how it was shaped. The Bible influenced how schools were run (the rise of the Church of England schools), the calendar (national holidays) and how families operated (christening, church membership, parish ministry). However, in the last three decades, Christianity has been in steady decline in Britain. Let’s take a look at the statistics:

  • In the 2011 Census, Christianity had declined from 71.7% (2001) to 59.3%.[5]

  • In the 2011 Census, No Religion had increased from 14.6% (2001) to 24.7%.[6]

  • In the 2011 Census, Christianity was the only religion to decline.[7]

Although Christianity still holds the title position of the main religion of choice, it is clear to see from the statistics that there has been significant decline in the impact of Christianity within our society. In fact, if the reports and papers are to be believed, there has been such an erosion to Christianity that many are now turning to ‘no religion’ at an alarming rate.[8] Christianity is moving to the margins. It now sits on the very fringes of British society.

However, we don’t just rely on statistics to show Christianity in the margins. Murray Williams gives two accounts of individuals whom the Christian story is unknown to. In this he describes churches as “alien institutions whose rhythms do not normally impinge on most members of society.”[9] There is a growing ignorance to the Christian faith and to the teaching of the church.

Where in Christendom, families would attend church and raise their children through Sunday school, in post-Christendom Britain, there has been a rise of Sunday sports, entertainment and family time on a Sunday. With declining numbers in the church of Scotland, Methodist Church and the Catholic church,[10] it is clear that Church is no longer the choice activity on Sunday. Britain is moving away from a Christendom setting, sending Christianity to the margins and promoting the rise of Spiritual thinking. Britain is now in a Post-Christendom setting.

Implications for Mission in the Local Church

In the initial outlook of the church in a post-Christendom era, there will be several negative implications. Firstly, changes to the law have recently meant churches have to consider who they will marry, the provision of gender-neutral toilets and equality across the sexes. Secondly, with shrinking memberships comes a reduction in funding. The church needs to do more with less. Thirdly, fewer individuals are entering Christian ministry training, meaning a long-term shortage of workers. However, I want to concentrate on the simple issue of reduced attendance.

The church can no longer assume attendance, or even a basic knowledge of Christianity. For the local church to make an impact, it needs to re-think how it approaches society. Where enforcing attendance was once possible (although arguably ineffective in true discipleship), the church will gain no success in compelling people to attend. Christianity, the church and believers need to develop new strategies to reach their communities.

1. Community research is essential!

With society moving away from a basic understanding of Christianity, so the church is moving away from the knowledge of their community. It is not only advantageous but paramount to successful ministry for the church to research their local setting. Who lives in their community? What age ranges? What is their socio-economic background? The church could undertake an online survey, or door to door survey or simply access local statistics for information.

Getting a better understanding of who is in your community will help in determining whether the church is relevant and effective in its outreach. If there is a rising population of children with parents who have never attended Sunday school, the church should not expect a ‘normal’ Sunday school model to work. Equally, if the population has no church background, a complex sermon series might not be attractive.

2. Re-think the Sunday service.

In a post-Christendom Britain, attending church is unfamiliar, yet carries many prejudices. To embrace the community and welcome them in, new styles of ‘church’ should be considered. The rise of the café style church is an example. The service is shorter, it removes straight lines of chairs and replaces with tables with refreshments or even lunch. Another example is messy church, where the community is invited to have a family day, with various activities focused on a Bible story. On the other end of the scale, evening seminars might be appropriate, with a ‘get to know Christianity theme’. In providing safe, friendly and engaging services, the church can reach out to a community who otherwise ignores the building.

3. Consider engaging with societal conversations.

As Christianity is pushed to the margins, society begins to research new ways of thinking. It isn’t secular in the sense of complete unbelief in God, but people begin to respond to a broader spiritual message. Often, this becomes acute in recent topics such as Transgenderism, Homosexuality or Immigration. The church would be wise to engage in these conversations, reminding society of a Biblical perspective. Depending on the setting, it could be possible to run a seminar evening focused on “what the Bible says about…” This type of model engages a society that is seeking answers but is ignorant to potential insight from the church.

4. Relationship Building

The idea of large-scale evangelism, such as the Billy Graham crusades has become unattractive or unwanted in our society. The church needs to concentrate on the low-level relationship building with those they come in contact with. In providing the support and care when needed, or the guidance through a difficult time, or even the joy of joint community projects, the church builds a friendly front. It is no longer seen as irrelevant and without purpose in society. Instead it is seen as an integral part to a local community.

Relationship building comes from 1-2-1 contact, believers sharing their faith with their friends. Members quietly coming alongside their neighbours or work colleagues and providing support and sharing wise words at key moments. The church needs to step back into the model of reaching the community one person at a time.

Conclusion

The church, although faced with the difficulty of an ever-increasing ignorance to Christianity, has a significant opportunity for Gospel outreach. The old way of doing things no longer works. To reach communities for Jesus, the church needs to re-invent how it impacts the local population and how it presents the timeless truths of Scripture. Post-Christendom does not need to be a curse for the church, but rather the opportunity to reap the rewards from obedience to the great commission.[11]

Pastor Ross Ferguson

SOURCES:

[1] Stewart, Murray, Christendom and Post-Christendom (Missional Church Network, 2010) http://missionalchurchnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/christendom-murray.pdf (accessed 29/06/2019) p.1

[2] Stewart Murray (2010) p.2

[3] Stewart, Murray Williams, The End of Christendom (Global Connections Interface Consultation, 2004) https://www.globalconnections.org.uk/sites/newgc.localhost/files/papers/Global%20Interface%20christendom.pdf (accessed 29/06/2019) p. 3

[4] Ian, Randall, Mission in Post-Christendom: Anabaptist and Free Church Perspectives https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/2007-3_227.pdf (accessed 30/06/2019) p.238

[5] National Archives, Changing picture of religious affiliation over last decade https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105213323/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html#tab-Changing-picture-of-religious-affiliation-over-last-decade (accessed 30th June 2019)

[6] National Archives (2011)

[7] National Archives (2011)

[8] Guardian News Paper, More than half UK population has no religion, finds survey (2017) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/04/half-uk-population-has-no-religion-british-social-attitudes-survey (accessed 30th June 2019)

[9] Stewart Murray Williams (2004) p.3

[10] Stewart Murray Williams (2004) p.3

[11] Matthew 28:18-20