(Part 1 of series on being a missional church)
For about the last 1,000 years western civilization has been a Christian culture. The governments, schools and other institutions of society reinforced Christian belief. Laws and education reflected Christian moral principles and beliefs. The western world was a “Christian” world. Many have used the term “Christendom” to describe this relationship between churches and their surrounding culture.
There was little need for evangelism in Christendom, since everyone was a “Christian”. I say “Christian” since many were Christians due to the fact that they lived in a Christianized culture. Their Christianity had little to do with the gospel, and more to do with being of Western European descent. There were advantages and disadvantages to Christendom. It’s probably neither healthy nor helpful to either admire or look down on other eras and cultures. But over time, Christendom began to crumble. This crumbling became quite accelerated after World War II.
Around 1950, Lesslie Newbigin, a Church of Scotland missionary moved to India, where he lived and worked with a church as a missionary in a completely non-Christian culture. When he returned to Britain around 30 years later, he discovered that the Western World had changed sharply over those 30 years. Christendom was mostly dead. In its place stood a non-Christian culture, much like Newbigin saw in India.
The problem is that the church had not changed with its culture. It still operated in a Christendom mindset. The church believed that if it continued to run the same services and programs it always had, Christianized people would just show up and join in. In some parts of North America this is still true in part, because a remnant of Christendom still exists, usually in smaller towns and more rural settings. Tim Keller says, “In conservative regions, it is still possible to see people profess faith and the church grow without becoming ‘missional.’ Most traditional evangelical churches still can only win people to Christ who are temperamentally traditional and conservative”. But this is a rapidly shrinking market! Traditional churches will grow increasingly less effective at making disciples in a post-Christendom world.
Lesslie Newbigin was a leading voice in calling churches in the west to adopt a missional posture towards its culture. Churches must recognize that the world has changed and so must we. Like churches around the world that exist in non-Christian pagan cultures, the churches of the west must adopt a similar missionary attitude. The evangelistic programs that worked in Christendom will continue to become increasingly less effective. Ministries that were effective in Christendom are ineffective among secular non-Christian people. Our secular culture needs a movement of missional churches that faithfully bring the gospel of Jesus into this post-Christian culture.
(originally written for Delve on November 14, 2010)