In the West for nearly 1,000 years, the relationship of (Anglo-European) Christian churches to the broader culture was a relationship known as “Christendom.” The institutions of society “Christianized” people, and stigmatized non-Christian belief and behavior. Though people were “Christianized” by the culture, they were not regenerated or converted with the Gospel. The church’s job was then to challenge persons into a vital, living relation with Christ.
There were great advantages and yet great disadvantages to ‘Christendom.’ The advantage was that there was a common language for public moral discourse with which society could discuss what was ‘the good.’
The disadvantage was that Christian morality without gospel-changed hearts often led to cruelty and hypocrisy. Think of how the small town in “Christendom” treated the unwed mother or the gay person.
Also, under “Christendom” the church often was silent against abuses of power of the ruling classes over the weak. For these reasons and others, the church in Europe and North America has been losing its privileged place as the arbiter of public morality since at least the mid 19th century. The decline of Christendom has accelerated greatly since the end of WWII.
The British missionary Lesslie Newbigin went to India around 1950. There he was involved with a church living ‘in mission’ in a very non-Christian culture. When he returned to England some 30 years later, he discovered that now the Western church too existed in a non-Christian society, but it had not adapted to its new situation. Though public institutions and popular culture of Europe and North America no longer ‘Christianized’ people, the church still ran its ministries assuming that a stream of ‘Christianized’, traditional/moral people would simply show up in services. Some churches certainly did ‘evangelism’ as one ministry among many. But the church in the West had not become completely ‘missional’–adapting and reformulating absolutely everything it did in worship, discipleship, community, and service–so as to be engaged with the non-Christian society around it. It had not developed a ‘missiology of western culture’ the way it had done so for other non-believing cultures.
One of the reasons much of the American evangelical church has not experienced the same precipitous decline as the Protestant churches of Europe and Canada is because in the U.S. there is still a ‘heartland’ with the remnants of the old ‘Christendom’ society. There the informal public culture (though not the formal public institutions) still stigmatizes non-Christian beliefs and behavior. “There is a fundamental schism in American cultural, political, and economic life. There’s the quicker-growing, economically vibrant…morally relativist, urban-oriented, culturally adventuresome, sexually polymorphous, and ethnically diverse nation…and there’s the small town, nuclear-family, religiously-oriented, white-centric other America, [with]…its diminishing cultural and economic force….[T]wo nations…” (Michael Wolff, New York, Feb 26 2001, p. 19).
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, as Wolff notes, this is a ‘shrinking market.’ And eventually evangelical churches ensconced in the declining, remaining enclaves of “Christendom” will have to learn how to become ‘missional’. If it does not do that it will decline or die.
We don’t simply need evangelistic churches, but rather ‘missional’ churches.