Note: this is the fifth in a series of reposts from my Sabbatical blog, ‘An Anabaptist Anglican’, from thirteen years ago. This post was originally posted on April 27th 2007.
Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom, Part 2.
This is the second half of my summary of the argument of Stuart Murray’s fine book Post-Christendom, which I have been reading on my sabbatical. I need to stress that this is just a summary, and that Stuart’s writing is not easy to summarize. I highly recommend that people read the book for themselves!
Stuart’s final chapters suggest some direction for the Christian church in the post-Christendom world. He begins by thinking about mission. ‘What approach to evangelism is appropriate in post-Christendom? How can churches pursue social transformation without exercising control? What type of political engagement is feasible for marginal churches?’ The strategies he suggests include:
- Frankly confessing our failure to embody the gospel, and inviting others to join imperfect pilgrims, not a perfect community.
- Renouncing imperialistic language and cultural imposition.
- Realizing that churchgoing is no longer normal, church buildings and culture are alien to most people, and many who are searching for spiritual reality do not expect to find it in churches.
- Searching for multiple contact points with the gospel in a culture no longer dominated by guilt—employing the full range of New Testament imagery, learning to relate the Christian story to contemporary angst and yearnings.
- Starting further back when we tell the story, not assuming that people know the basics.
- Rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission.
- Engaging in conversation rather than confrontation, evangelism through dialogue, listening and speaking, receiving and imparting.
- Concentrating on low-profile contextual witness, not razzmatazz.
- Anticipating that the journey toward Christ will take longer—process evangelism courses must assume less and last longer.
- Speaking consciously from the margins and inviting people into a lifestyle which, properly understood, contravenes dominant social values.
- Post-Christendom evangelism must be uncoupled from ‘inviting people to come to church’ (this relates to rediscovering the ‘go’ in the Great Commission).
On the issue of evangelism among people of other faiths Stuart has a few thoughts as well; I quote some of them:
- Assuming that our country is Christian causes immense confusion; members of other faiths who equate ‘Christian’ and ‘western’ dismiss Christianity as corrupt, and see conversion to Christianity as cultural suicide.
- European colonialism meant Christians encountered other faiths as conquerors and masters, not equals, resulting in arrogant religious superiority.
- Inter-faith dialogue suffers from assumptions that other religions lack spiritual value, that Christians can learn nothing from dialogue, and that the conversion of either conversation partner is illegitimate.
- Many Christians seem warier of co-operating with other faith groups than with secular agencies, more worried about spiritual contamination than subversion by secularism.
- However, arguing that we should not evangelize other faith communities implies that we should evangelize only ‘latent Christians’ and that evangelism is unpleasant—both concepts deeply rooted in Christendom thinking!
- Evangelism, however, is not the starting point for mission in a plural society—the first priority is to build relationships of friendship and respect. It is important to spend time learning to understand the spiritual experiences of people of other faiths.
- There is much to learn from the mindset of marginal movements such as the English Baptists, Quakers and Anabaptists—passionate movements with strong convictions, which they eagerly shared with others, but also passionately committed to religious liberty, not because their Christian convictions were unimportant but because they were too important to be imposed.
- We need to develop a missiology that is passionate about the Christian story, passionate about sharing it with others, passionate about defending their freedom to reject it, passionate about resisting all attempts to impose religious views, and passionate about friendship that is not jeopardized by divergent convictions. The foundation for this missiology is renewed reflection on how God in the person of Jesus operated through invitation rather than imposition.
When it comes to influencing society toward the values of the Kingdom, Stuart suggests some strategies, including the following:
- Accepting that we cannot be involved in every issue with our limited resources.
- Doing nothing, rather than acting in ways that contravene our values.
- Accepting that we can no longer expect to be consulted about every issue on the basis of past status.
- Rediscovering the prophetic minority stance and a tone of voice that befits marginal communities.
- Offering a perspective that transcends ‘right wing’ and ‘left wing’.
- Choosing to believe God’s mission can be effective from the bottom up rather than the top down.
Thus mission—now, what about the shape of the church itself? Stuart acknowledges the yawning gap between church and contemporary culture. He investigates two forms of church – the ‘emerging’ church and the ‘inherited’ church (a term he prefers to ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’.
The ‘emerging church’ is hard to track, classify, or evaluate.
- Some emerging churches are refocusing their mission – concentrating their energies.
- Some emerging churches are reconfiguring community and focusing on relationships and groups.
- Some emerging churches are refreshing worship, exploring treasures old and new.
The most hopeful emerging stories involve the integration of all three of these elements.
How do they look through the lens of post-Christendom?
- Christendom meant enforced uniformity and contextual insensitivity. Emerging churches are avoiding this; may are configuring mission, community and worship specific to particular contexts.
- Many are small, because they value human-scale community; they may be better placed to flourish in post-Christendom and nurture disciples.
- Many share features with the dissident tradition: replacing hierarchy with egalitarian structures, exploring multi-voiced worship, using accessible venues rather than church buildings.
- It might help them to know more history so they can learn from earlier movements; they especially need to take the demise of Christendom seriously.
- They need to develop inter-generational strategies for passing on the faith (many are single-generation communities).
- Are some of them more concerned with style than core values?
- Some of them are parasitic on inherited churches, primarily recruiting dissatisfied Christians.
What about ‘inherited churches’? They need to eschew nostalgia and welcome the challenges and opportunities of post-Christendom. Some inherited practices that need to be reconsidered include:
- The clergy/laity distinction, which hinders recognition of the ministry of all God’s people, perpetuates the myth that clergy are the ‘front line’, and leads to performance-oriented front-led services. Instead Ephesians 4:1-16 needs to be central: the church is where God’s people are resourced for mission and ministry, not the place where clergy staff the front line and expect the laity to resource them! An agenda for change might include appointing leaders from their own congregation, regarding bi-vocational team leadership as normal (i.e. teams of part-time leaders, rather than a single full-timer), and replacing the reductionist concept of ‘ministry of word and sacrament’ with ‘equipping God’s people for works of service’.
- Monologue sermons, which became dominant in Christendom. But the monologue is one of the least effective means of instruction and encourages passivity in hearers. Today we can explore alternatives: open-ended presentations, posing questions rather than dispensing answers, making room for comments, challenges etc., having several speakers debating issues with congregations invited to participate, forming discussion groups during or after sermons etc. We also need to go much further in the direction of multi-voiced worship.
- Church discipline needs to be recovered, but first congregations need to learn skills in handling conflict. Matthew 18:15-20 is the model, but it is not hierarchical (leaders are not mentioned).
- ‘Peace church’ – a modest proposal: ‘Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other’.
- Beyond tithing – ‘if just war thinking is inadequate for challenging western militarism, tithing cannot subvert Western consumerism’. Instead we need to learn to pursue economic justice and participate in Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor.
We should beware of complicating this; church is really quite simple! Simple church might mean things like:
- Recovering friendship as our relational paradigm.
- Eating together a lot.
- Lots of laughter.
- Imagine a community stirred by poets and storytellers (the emphasis on doctrine and morality rather than narrative in most sermons and hymns offers little help for communities to rediscover and celebrate their stories).
- Imagine the church as a ‘monastic missionary order’—combining prayer and social action evangelism and contemplation.
- Imagine churches as safe places to take risks.
Stuart concludes his book by suggesting some resources to help us in post-Christendom – we can find helpful things in the pre-Christendom church, in the anti-Christendom traditions such as Anabaptism, in the extra-Christendom world beyond the west, and even some things from Christendom too.
- He suggests learning different ways of reading the Bible (from the point of view of the underdog and the marginalized peoples), learning the texts that spoke to people in exile, rediscovering the language about ‘principalities and powers’.
- To what extent have Christendom power-structures influenced theology? (Creeds, atonement theories, retribution and judgement, triumphalism.
- Helpful images for post-Christendom include marginality, liminality (a threshold state), exile, pilgrimage.
Terminology we might let go of includes:
- ‘House of God’, ‘sanctuary’, ‘church’ (for a building).
- ‘Clergy’ and ‘laity’.
- Ecclesiastical titles (‘reverend’ etc.)
- Non-inclusive language.
- ‘Home mission’, ‘foreign missions’, ‘campaigns’, ‘crusades’, ‘winning converts’, ‘taking cities’.
Above all, in post-Christendom we need to intentionally put Jesus as the centre:
- paying attention to his life, relationships, radical teaching, and their implications for discipleship.
- recognizing that we need to ask not only ‘why did Jesus die?’ but also ‘why did they kill him?’
- living in the gospel narratives
- reading scripture from a Jesus-centred perspective
- refusing to allow systems of interpretation to muffle Jesus’ call to discipleship
- not just worshipping Jesus, but actually following him.
- allowing ourselves to be challenged by his Sermon on the Mount and his kingdom prayer