“Christendom” means the dominion or sovereignty of the Christian religion.
The Christendom phase of the Christian movement is drawing to a decisive close.
The question is: Can we get over regarding this as a catastrophe
and begin to experience it as a doorway into a future that is more in
keeping with what our Lord first had in mind when He called disciples
to accompany him on his mission to redeem the world through love, not
The decline and fall of Christendom…
What started to develop in the fourth century under emperors
Constantine and Theodosius I – the imperial church with its great power
– now comes to an end. That beginning and this ending are the two great
social transitions in the course of Christianity in the world.
Christendom gives way to new cultural realities, including
widespread secularism and religious pluralism. New attitudes are
developing toward the whole phenomenon of religion: that it is strictly
an option; that it is a purely individual decision; that there is no
reason why the children of believing parents should be considered
potential members of religious communions; that religion may be useful,
but truth does not apply to this category, and so on.
Although some semblance of Christendom may find a new home in
Africa, Asia, and Latin America, its period of Western dominance is
The status of the confessing church is no longer one of singular
power and influence but that of a peripheral voice. Precisely as such,
however, this voice may be a prophetic one.
Denominations behave as if nothing had happened – as if we were
still living in a basically Christian civilization; as if the Christian
religion were still quite obviously the official religion of the
official culture; as if we could go carry on baptizing, marrying, and
burying everybody as we have always done; as if governments would
listen to us, and educational systems would respect us.
Too many confessions of faith do not succeed because they still
assume a Christendom framework. They speak as though from positions
within the power centers of society. Therefore they almost always fail
to convince anyone outside the fold or even to raise significant
The church’s responses to the end of the Christendom era.
If not expanding the church’s sphere of influence and territory, what are churches for?
The most common answer that is presently given is a concentration
upon the congregation itself: The church’s purpose is to be a
fellowship, a “friendly church”. In cities and towns that are large and
impersonal, the church is a meeting place where people “get to know one
another” and to “care”. In the livelier congregations, programs are
developed for every age and stage of life. This is accompanied with
outreach and social programs. Strangers making their way into the
fellowship should be welcomed, and they should be encouraged to attend,
because of the fellowship. But only rarely, it is felt, would it be
appropriate to approach others as disciples of a quite explicit faith
tradition. Even Christian preaching must honor the rights of others to
believe what they will.
Christians are called not only to serve their neighbors but to
confess their faith. Congregations have to be communities, not only of
fellowship but of discipleship – not only of behavior but also of
Concentration upon fellowship has definite limits. Its success is
dependent upon its location among a constituency that places high
premium upon such fellowship; hence its strong identification with
suburban, racially and economically homogenous churches.
The problem with the friendly church model is that those who are
looking for meaning (the most gripping search of humanity in the modern
context) are not likely to find it. The main reason for this is that
consistent friendliness goes hand in hand with the avoidance of deeper
If Christians want to preserve their faith and not just some of its
moral and aesthetic spin-off, they are going to have to become more
articulate about their basic beliefs and about the manner in which
these beliefs, when taken seriously, distance them from many of the
values and pursuits of society at large.
Our theological task: Disestablishing the church.
God is offering us another possibility, a new form, indeed a new
life. But we may accept this gift of the new only if we relinquish the
old to which we are stubbornly clinging.
We must relinquish the social status that belongs to our past: the
comfortable relationships with ruling classes; the continuous
confirmation of accepted social values and mores by means of which we
sustain those relationships; the espousal of “charities” that ease our
guilty consciences while allowing us to maintain neutrality with
respect to the social structures that make such “charities” necessary;
the silent acceptance of racial, sexual, gender and economic
injustices, or their trivialization through tokenism; the failure to
probe the depths of human and creaturely pathos by confining sin to
petty immorality or doctrinal refinements drawn from the past, and so
We must give up the redundant role of official religious cult in
society. We must disengage from the dominant culture. This is the
necessary precondition for a meaningful engagement of that same
dominant culture or society.
Intentional disengagement from the dominant culture means that
every Christian should learn how to distinguish the Christian message
from the operative assumptions, values, and pursuits of the host
society. The Christian message is not just a stained-glass version of
the worldview of that same social stratum.
This disengagement is aimed at the reengagement of the same
society. There are no shortcuts. We must begin with the basics. Without
a deeper understanding of what Christians profess, it is absurd to
think that ordinary folk will be able to distinguish what is true to
the Judeo-Christian tradition from the mishmash of modernism,
postmodernism, secularism, pietism, and free-enterprise democracy with
which Christianity in our context is so fantastically interwoven.
Instead of catering exclusively to what are usually described as
“pastoral needs” (though the term often cloaks institutional busywork),
ministers today are recalled to the teaching office.
The Christian Movement in a Post-Modern era. Being Salt, Yeast, and Light…
The end of Christendom could be the beginning of something more
nearly like the church – the disciple community described by the
Scriptures and treasured throughout the ages by prophetic minorities.
To grasp this opportunity, however, we must relinquish our
centuries-old ambition to be the official religion, the dominant
religion, of the dominant culture. We must disengage ourselves from our
society if we are going to reengage our society at the level of truth,
justice, and love. We must stand off from the liberal middle-class
culture with which we have been consistently identified; rediscover our
own distinctive foundations and the ethical directives that derives
from them; and allow ourselves, if necessary, to become aliens in our
In this way we find ourselves in an awkward situation vis-à-vis our
society. We are a disciple community distinguished from the world (Rom
12:2) as well as sent decisively into the world (Matt 28:19). The
church is in the world just because it is not simply of the world.
Christian disengagement from the dominant culture is not to be
confused with the abandonment of that culture. The end that we are to
seek is the redemption of our world – the world that is truly ours and
of which we are ourselves part.
If we are faithful and imaginative enough to disentangle our
authentic faith tradition from its cultural wrapping, we will have
something to bring to our world that it does not have – a perspective
on itself, a judgment of its pretensions and injustices, an offer of
renewal and hope.
We will be able to bring this to our world
• while actively discerning how God wants us to live in the world,
• while engaging in the formation of a community which breaks the homogeneous mold that churches still project,
• while searching for God “in the midst of life”, therefore engaging in the quest for transcendence and mystery, and
• while searching for meaning, carrying our emptiness and yearning into the presence of the Holy One.
Our role as Christians is precisely what Jesus said it was: to be
salt, yeast, and light. Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of
witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a
Christendom wanted to be great, large, magnificent. It thought
itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of
its election to worldly responsibility.
Today we are constrained by the divine Spirit to rediscover the
possibilities of littleness. We are to decrease in order that the
Christ may increase. We cannot enter this new phase without pain, for
truly we have been glorious in this world’s own terms. It seems to many
of us a humiliation that we are made to reconsider our destiny as
Can such a calling be worthy of the servants of the Sovereign of
the Universe? Yet, if that Sovereign be the One who reigns from the
cross, could any other calling be thought legitimate?