Living in a Post-Christendom Context

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from Steve Timmis and Tim Chester’s book Everyday Church, available in print through IVP in the UK and Crossway in the US.

We are not only living in a post-Christian context but in a post-Christendom context. Christendom is the formal or informal alliance of church and state that was the dominant model in Europe from the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century AD onwards. The state authorised the church while the church supported the state. Christianity became a civil religion. To be born into the states of Europe was to be born into the church. The church as an institution was given special privileges. This mutual legitimisation was symbolised in the overtly Christian coronation oaths, parliamentary prayers and sermons, the parish system, the coronation of monarchs by archbishops and so on. The United States formally separated church and state, and allowed for religious toleration. But in other ways Christendom has been as strong in the United States as in Europe. The assumption is that Christianity should have a privileged status in the cultural and political discourse of the nation. Presidents and would-be presidents overtly reference their faith and close their speeches with the words, ‘God bless America.’

Christendom, however, is increasingly a spent force in the West. Some of the symbolism remains. The British monarch is still the head of an established church, and bishops still sit in the upper chamber of the UK Parliament. But the reality of Christendom is fading fast, overtaken by secularism and pluralism. The Bible no longer has authority in public discourse. The church no longer has a privileged voice. Church leaders still get invited to state occasions, but on matters of ethics they are ignored. When the Pope visited the UK in 2010 he was greeted with all due pomp and ceremony as a head of state. But when it comes to his views on abortion and homosexuality he is ignored by politicians and ridiculed by the media. Lyndon Bowring, Executive Chairman of CARE, said in a recent interview, ‘The greatest challenge . . . is the growing secularisation of society, where Christianity is being increasingly squeezed out of our national life. The ultimate result of this tendency will be a society that is hostile to Christian truth and practice.’

In his book After Christendom Stuart Murray defines ‘post-Christendom’ as ‘the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence’. He also identifies seven transitions that mark the shift from Christendom to a post-Christendom culture:

From the centre to margins 

In Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.

From majority to minority 

In Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.

From settlers to sojourners 

In Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.

From privilege to plurality 

In Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.

From control to witness

In Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.

From maintenance to mission 

In Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.

From institution to movement 

In Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.

The legacy of Christendom is hotly debated. Some Christians recognise that it has come to an end, but believe it leaves a largely positive legacy. Others celebrate its passing, bemoaning the compromises it imposed on the church. The church’s privileged status in society, they believe, meant it had a vested interest in the status quo which inevitably blunted its proclamation of the social dimensions of repentance, meaning that the church was aligned, or was perceived to be aligned, with the establishment.

The future of Christendom is also debated. Historian Philip Jenkins predicts a growing non-Western Christendom doing battle with militant Islam across the so-called Third World. Our focus, however, is on the West.

Here some Christians want to hang on to the last vestiges of Christendom, campaigning to retain symbols such as an overtly Christian coronation oath. Or they talk up the statistics of Christian affiliation, however notional. Lynda Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Church of England, claims, for example, that ‘Britain is still a predominantly Christian country’ because when asked in the census about their religion more than seven in ten people consider themselves to be Christian. Yet a 2007 poll found that only 22% of men and 26% of women in Britain agreed with the statement: ‘I believe in a personal god who created the world and hears my prayers.’ So by any definition of Christian faith almost two-thirds of those who say they are Christians clearly are not, for they do not even believe in a personal God. So why claim that Britain is still a predominantly Christian country? Because some Christians want to retain the notion that our nation is a Christian country with the privileges and securities this brings. It allows us to continue on the basis of ‘business as usual’.

The Mission-Shaped Church report is more realistic:

The Christian story is no longer at the heart of the nation. Although people may identify themselves as ‘Christian’ in the national census, for the majority that does not involve belonging to a worshipping community, or any inclination that it should. Many people have no identifiable religious interest or expression.

But we are not pessimistic. There are many signs of life. Many churches are healthy. We sense a growing commitment to church planting across all the different tribes of evangelicalism. God’s Word is still being proclaimed. The gospel is still the power of God for salvation. The Lord’s arm is not too short that it cannot save. The Holy Spirit is alive and well. Christ will build his church. Our aim in reviewing these statistics is not to make us give up, but to show that the ways we do mission have to change.