Before Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the state in the year 313, Christianity was a subversive, counter-cultural movement that existed at the margins of society – not at the center. The subsequent move to the center of society had advantages as well as dis-advantages.:
- The advantage was that there was a common (Biblical) language and reference point for public moral discourse with which society could discuss what was “good” or “moral,” or “right.”
- The disadvantage was that (legislated) Christian morality without the Holy Spirit and gospel-changed hearts often led to cruelty, hypocrisy, and the abuse of power and authority.
There is an often-told story of Thomas Aquinas (13th century) when he visited Pope Innocent IV and found him counting a large sum of money. “Ah, Thomas,” said the Pope, “the church can no longer say, ‘silver and gold have I none.’” That is true, Your Holiness,” said Aquinas, “but then, neither can it now say, ‘Arise and walk’” (Ref Acts 3:6).
One of the downsides of Christendom is that we’ve placed way too much emphasis on the WORDS of Christ and not enough emphasis on the WORKS of Christ. We’ve been a voice without sufficient action. Again, in Christendom nations — and people groups — have been “Christianized” without becoming whole-heartedly converted.
Since about the mid-19th century the church in Europe and North America has been losing its privileged place in the center of society and as the authority of public morality. The decline of Christendom has accelerated greatly since the end of WWII, when science and reason ultimately failed to fix all our problems and concerns (i.e., the decline of modernity).
We are now living at a time that many would consider “POST-Christian.” (Or, if you’re an optimist, “Pre-Christian.”) Once again the church is finding itself at the margins of culture and society – we are losing our place of moral authority. This will force us, as the church, to engage the culture around us in a whole new way. (That is what it means to be “missional.”)
Studies indicate that unchurched people do not have a problem with God, or even Jesus — they have a problem with the church. Our current context in North America is more like the early NT context – the church has been pushed to the margins and is no longer at the center of society.
The people who make-up a missional church see themselves as missionaries to the dominant post-Christian culture that surrounds them – as well as the various sub-cultures. As missionaries to a “post-Christian” culture it would be wrong to assume the people we encounter have any basic background regarding the availability of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ – or that they have read the Bible. And the ones who have grown-up in churches may, very well, have an extremely negative view of the church.
As missionaries we are invited by God to seek new ways to tell the “Jesus story” to the surrounding culture. It takes understanding the culture (contextualizing the gospel for the culture we are investing in) and looking for redemptive ways to share the Jesus story.
What other parts of our current cultural context are redemptive? One de-churched person asked how a church can sing (the hymn), “This is My Father’s World” on Sunday and rape the environment on Monday? Justice issues? Affordable housing? Oppressed poor? Aids? Care/treatment for the homeless?
A missional church is seeking to engage the surrounding “dominant” culture with redemptive relationships – and move people toward reconciliation – with one another and with God. We don’t want to lower the bar; we want to lower the barriers.