If you are roughly 40 years of age or older then in your lifetime you have been a witness to a massive sea change in our culture. Our culture, once awash in the stories, songs and symbols of the Christian narrative, has now changed so greatly that segments of our society don’t even know a Christian personally. With this sea change has come a loss of cultural prestige, privilege and position for pastors and churches, and much of conservative Evangelicalism has responded to this change through what is known as the Culture Wars. The Culture Wars are merely the attempt to preserve Christendom’s former place in American culture, mostly through the use of political power, but the Culture Wars are much like giving CPR to a week old corpse. So, rather than fighting this turn in our culture, is there an opportunity for the Church to be the Church again? A book titled Prodigal Christianity, by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, examines this question and our new opportunity.
Christendom is a term often used to describe the period of Western history that began when Constantine, the Roman Emperor, claimed a conversion to Christianity and his Edict of Milan (313 AD) promoted Christianity within the legal and social structures of the Roman Empire. This was the beginning of Christian dominance in Western civilization that would last until the turn of this past century in North American culture. During this 1700 year period, the Church was the dominate authority in culture, possessing the power and privilege within Western culture to shape all aspects of cultural life. Even in North American culture up into the 1950s, the standards of morality and social norms were set by the Christianized culture. However, the Baby Boom generation in the 1960s set about questioning traditional institutional powers and cultural assumptions, and they set into motion a massive cultural revolution that pulled the rug from out from under the feet of the Church in North America.
Fast forward to the 21st century, we are, according to Fitch and Holsclaw, living in a time when “the church is more likely to repel people” rather than attract people during times of “personal or social spiritual need.” In other words, in contemporary culture people’s natural reaction is not to go to church when they find themselves in crisis.
Also, pastors and churches no longer carry the respect and authority they once had in our communities. Pastors were once viewed as educated, trained and ordained professionals that could be consulted on a variety of community concerns. Now all Christians “must earn authority, and it has to be earned relationally.”
In addition, there is no longer a universal American culture. Fitch and Holsclaw put it this way, “We all live in overlapping networks of languages, cultures, and histories generating different hopes, passions, fears, and expectations.” Where America was once a melting-pot it is now a pastiche. No longer can Christians simply trot out its standard, scripted lines and perform them to the culture with the assumption that the culture will comprehend the meaning of our narrative.
Many conservative Evangelicals have witnessed this cultural shift with horror, and many have responded by engaging what is often called The Culture Wars. This hostile engagement with the powers, that are shifting culture away from the assumptions of Christendom, usually takes the form of political action in the name of “taking America back for God.” This type of cultural engagement attempts to put the rug back under the feet of the Church by possessing and wielding cultural, political power. Many conservative Evangelicals are fired up for this fight by a vision that believes Christendom was as a time when “things were good,” lamenting the bad times that have fallen upon us. However, they fail to see that Christendom also was a time when churches produced a faux Christianity, nominalism, complacency towards racism and other problems. It is just another case of looking at history through rose colored glasses.
However, the Post-Christendom situation is an incredible opportunity for the Church to relinquish earthly power and use our imagination to form a new type of engagement with the culture. It is an incredible opportunity to move outside our country-club walls and incarnate an authentic expression of Jesus that is transformative. It is an opportunity to be an authentic family or community that works for the benefit of the common good and for the broader community, all for the glory of Christ. It is an opportunity for the church to be less concerned about the show quality of our Sunday worship, hoping to attract people to us, and it is time to care more about how the church feeds the poor, heals the sick, liberates the captives and bring Jesus’ Messianic mission to the world. It is an opportunity for the Church to become a bridge between Christ and Culture rather than a pugilist for Christ against Culture.