Help for Christians in a Post-Christendom World
By James R. Krabill & Stuart Murray
In most Western nations, Christendom is unraveling. Fewer people know its foundational story or literature. Congregations and other Christian institutions are becoming marginal, and Christians find themselves constituting one of several religious minorities in a plural society. The center of gravity of the global Christian community is no longer within the boundaries of what was once Christendom but in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. Whether the United States will follow the same trajectory as other Western nations, albeit a generation or two later, or prove to be an exception is debated by sociologists and missiologists.
Many Christian leaders in America, however, are now convinced that their future is some version of post-Christendom and are encouraging young adults to spend time in Europe to learn how to engage with this reality. Alan and Eleanor represent the prescience of an earlier generation of leaders who encouraged them to be long-term missionaries in post-Christendom England. Their experience and writings are a gift to North American churches as well as a resource for Christians in Britain. Drawing deeply on the Anabaptist tradition—which has challenged the Christendom mindset for nearly five centuries—and learning from the pre-Christendom early churches, the Kreiders have consistently presented themes and perspectives that are crucial for post-Christendom Christians.
In the post-Christendom era, missiology must precede ecclesiology
Missio Dei is a post-Christendom approach to missiology, locating "sending" in the heart of God rather than in ecclesial strategy. In the Christendom era, ecclesiology preceded missiology as the institutional church took center stage and sought to extend its influence in various ways, some less consistent than others, with its founding story and values. Post-Christendom requires and enables recovery of a more authentic approach to mission, one with a goal more comprehensive and inspiring than just enlarging the influence of the church, and one that adopts attitudes and methods more consistent with the ways Jesus embodied and advanced the mission of God.
But as we pursue a post-Christendom missiology, we must recognize the enduring and frequently maligned legacy of Christendom.
"God's mission" in Christendom was distorted in three principal ways
We will focus here on three examples of distortion that need to be challenged and realigned if we are to move forward more faithfully in the emerging culture of post-Christendom.
The loss of the apostolic function and calling
First, most Christians in the Christendom period had little or no awareness of being sent. In a world in which almost everyone was Christian by dint of being born within the territorial boundaries of a supposedly Christian society, evangelists and evangelism had no relevance. In a society that was ruled by divinely authorized monarchs, there was no need for prophetic witness or campaigns for social justice.
The New Testament ministries particularly associated with movement, pioneering, and being sent—apostles, prophets, and evangelists—were generally regarded as obsolete when the church had achieved an authoritative role within a Christianized society. But the settled and nurturing ministries of pastors and teachers were still required, and these came to dominate perceptions of ministry. Only in persecuted dissident movements, including Anabaptism, did these abandoned forms of ministry reappear from time to time.
Some forms of mission were, of course, still relevant at the boundaries of Christendom. Sometimes dedicated and courageous missionaries, sent out not by local congregations but by papal decree or as members of missionary orders, carried the gospel into distant lands. Sometimes the reach of Christendom was extended by force of arms as soldiers or crusaders, fighting under the sign of the cross, required conversion and imposed the rule of the church on conquered territories. But these expressions of mission were exceptional and disconnected from the worship, community life, and concerns of most local churches.
These distortions need to be recognized and challenged if Christians in post-Christendom societies are to respond effectively to the opportunities and challenges that we face. In many congregations, mission is still associated with other people and other places. We need to recover an awareness that all Christians are caught up in the mission of God and are sent—whether locally or globally. We need to rehabilitate the neglected pioneering ministries and integrate these with pastors and teachers into a more holistic and multidimensional approach to Christian ministry. We must train and release apostles and prophets as well as pastors and teachers. And we must reconnect mission with the worshiping community—as the Kreiders have insisted throughout their ministry and in their most recent book, Worship and Mission after Christendom (Herald Press, 2011).
The loss of risk taking and vulnerability. Second, the missio Dei involves vulnerability and risk. The story of the Incarnation illustrates this truth in such an extraordinary way. The birth and early years of Jesus were fraught with insecurities and dangers. The ministry of Jesus provoked great opposition, against which he had no defense that would not compromise his mission; it ended in the apparent defeat of crucifixion. Entrusting the infant church and its continuing participation in the missio Dei to disciples who had abandoned him and had frequently misunderstood his message was an incredibly risky step for Jesus to take. And the story of the spread of the church in the book of Acts is shot through with dangers and difficulties.
After three centuries of marginality, illegality, and sporadic persecution, Christian leaders in the fourth century understandably welcomed the safety and security offered by the emperor Constantine I. Freed from fear and uncertainty, the church could grow steadily and become established at the heart of the empire. In the Christendom era, there was no longer any risk in being a Christian. On the contrary, it was increasingly risky not to be.
Safety and security appeared to be important gains, but did the church in the Christendom era lose something significant? It may be that another distorting and debilitating aspect of the Christendom legacy is the disjunction of mission and risk taking. Many congregations are instinctively conservative, cautious, and risk averse. The mantra too often seems to be: "Let's not try it in case it doesn't work." A prayer regularly heard in church services today is one thanking God that the congregation is free to meet without fear of opposition—whereas the early Christians (and persecuted Christians through the centuries) rejoiced that they were considered worthy of suffering for the sake of Christ. And what do we make of a major denomination that has an official policy of "risk-free mission"?
Persecution may seem a remote prospect for most Christians in post-Christendom Western societies (although it is a reality for converts from other religions in Western societies), but we are likely to be increasingly vulnerable as our numbers decrease and our social and political influence fades. Perhaps it is time we challenged the safety-first culture in many of our churches—most of which are located in the safer parts of town. Maybe riskier forms of mission will be needed if we are to have an impact on societies that associate the Christian faith with an outdated worldview, a fading culture, and an insurance policy for life beyond death.
The loss of shalom as primary means for carrying out God's mission
Third, the most serious distortion of the missio Dei in the Christendom era was surely the propensity of the church to employ and justify violence for missional ends. If the goal of God's mission is all-embracing shalom (including the reconciling of enemies), then those who participate in this mission cannot use means that so starkly contradict the ends. If God refrains from using force or violence to compel obedience or move forward the missio Dei, those who are sent "to incarnate and enact the way of Jesus in the world" cannot condone violence in the pursuit of any aspect of this mission.
There have always been Christians who knew this and rejected the use of force to achieve missional goals. The Anabaptists and many dissenting communities who were passionately committed to mission recovered marginalized pioneering ministries and were ready to take risks in spite of the severe consequences in order to participate in God's mission. For these communities pacifism was in no way equated with passivism.
But the use of violence—within Christendom to suppress dissent and heresy, and beyond Christendom to extend the rule of the church—was endemic for many centuries. Sophisticated theological arguments were deployed to justify this violence, and serious attempts were made to restrain it by imposing conditions, but these were of little comfort to the millions tortured, brutalized, oppressed, and slaughtered in the name of Christ.
Post-Christendom requires a Christian community that wholeheartedly renounces the use of violence and commits itself unreservedly to use only peaceful means in the pursuit of the goal of shalom toward which the mission of God is heading. Many Christians in post-Christendom England seem to be moving in this direction. These encouraging signs may or may not be related to the widespread disquiet about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the attitudes of churches and other Christian groups have been surprising since then. Rather than being resistant to the suggestion that violence is unacceptable for those who follow Jesus, many Christians have been receptive to this idea and even seem to strug¬gle to understand why anyone would oppose this view.
This changing reality makes one wonder, in fact, whether the legacy of Christendom and its distortions of the missio Dei may be less powerful than we often imagine. It is not unusual to encounter Christians in many contexts who are unfazed by the prospect of risky missional initiatives, with limited or nonexistent financial and institutional support, and who are willing to invest their lives in pioneering activities that might well not succeed.
Needed: A vision of the missio Dei rooted in the biblical grand narrative
What many of these pioneers—and all of us in post-Christendom—need is a vision of the missio Dei that is rooted in the "grand narrative" of the Bible and expressed in images and language that inspire and sustain courageous missional discipleship. For too long the concepts of shalom and missio Dei have been the preserve of theologians and the tiny minority who read what they write. Only now are they filtering down into the lives and imaginations of many Christians. But when they do, the lights go on, eyes light up, and all kinds of things fall into place.
One of the most significant contributions of Alan and Eleanor Kreider has been their ability to make these foundational concepts of missio Dei and shalom accessible to Christians on the threshold of post-Christendom. They have helped us see how mission and worship, peace and evangelism, hospitality and justice, lifestyle and witness can and in fact must be integrated. These diverse aspects all fit together because they are all essential parts of God's compre¬hensive plan to address the comprehensive brokenness in which we and the world tragically find ourselves.
In the earliest stages of discussion about creating a volume that would celebrate the Kreiders' important contribution to the church's thinking and practice in these matters, the idea emerged of producing a more traditional scholarly piece designed to bring together academics who represent wide-ranging disciplines and who have, in one way or another, been influenced by the Kreiders' writings, life, and ministry.
There was, however, something strangely incongruous about such a plan. Not because the Kreiders have over the years failed to generate serious and prolific scholarly reflection, but because they have been equally if not more passionate about "extending the table" and bringing the whole of Christ's body into the conversation.
Not surprisingly, when the Kreiders caught wind of the project underway, their reaction was immediate and their appeal crystal clear:"Please make of any such piece something that builds the church, something rooted in the daily reality of God's people, something that equips and empowers followers of Jesus to live out more faithfully their calling as active participants in God's reconciling mission in the world."
We as editors have attempted to honor that request. The result is the present volume—a conversation in the form of written reflections grouped around the three primary themes that seem to best capture the message Alan and Eleanor have so faithfully and energetically communicated over the years: mission, community, and worship.
James R. Krabill of Elkhart, Ind., and Stuart Murray of Bristol, England, are the editors of Forming Christian Habits in Post-Christendom: The Legacy of Alan & Eleanor Kreider, from which this article was excerpted.