Missional as a "Post-" Movement

The working definition of a missional church that the Evangelical Presbyterian Church approved at its 2008 General Assembly states that a missional church is one "that believes that the United States has become post-Christian and is now a mission field" (emphasis added). Knowing that the term "post-Christian" has drawn an unfavorable response from some, I'd like to address another term, post-Christendom. Post-Christendom is used synonymously with post-Christian, and is written about extensively in the missional literature I've been reading.

Christendom asserts that the church enjoys a central and dominant place of influence and power in western culture, or, that western civilization is "Christian."* (Ed McCallum writes in the "Missional Primer" that Christendom is a synthesis between the church and state that began to emerge with the official toleration of Christianity via the Edict of Milan in A.D. 314). This synthesis was complete with the coronation of Otto I as the Holy Roman Emperor by Pope John XII is A.D. 962. With the ascendancy of Christendom, Christianity moved from one of many religions to the dominant religion in Western civilization.

For centuries, the institutions of western culture "Christianized" people and discouraged (and even stigmatized) non-Christian belief and behavior. On an individual level, to be "Christianized" meant that people who were not Christians are familiar with the Bible and its message, affirm the culture's affirmation of Christian belief and behavior, and are favorably disposed to the Gospel. Though people were "Christianized" by the culture, they were not regenerated or converted by it. The church's job in Christendom is to challenge people to enter into a vital, living relationship with Jesus Christ.** In this setting, churches are able to assume that a significant stream of non-Christians who are familiar with and favorably disposed to the Gospel will continually come to church in search of the salvation that is found only in Jesus Christ.

The word "post-" means "beyond" or "following after." "Post-Christendom" means that the time of Christendom, in which Christianity enjoyed a dominant place in western culture has passed. Is it still a factor, an influence in society? Yes, but it no longer enjoys a prominent place in the West, especially in larger metropolitan areas. We find ourselves in a similar position to first century Christians: we are on the fringes of our society, and we cannot assume that people know the Christian message, are open to the Gospel, or even that we will be talking about the same thing when we use a word such as "God."

Missional writers argue that in this new, post-Christendom setting, the western church needs to develop a "missiology" of western culture, in much the same way it has done effective missiology for mission to non-Christian cultures around the world. A missiology of western culture means rethinking and reformulating what it means for do worship, discipleship, community and service in a reformed and evangelical way and to engage effectively with people in post-Christendom society.

* Craig Carter, Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), page 6.
** Tim Keller, "Missional Church," page 1.

Comments(7) Login to Post Comments

Alma Kletke on Sep 25, 2008 6:57pm

Jeff, this was very much appreciated and it is the way I truly feel about America today. Alma
PS: I hope many people read this.

Dan Rose on Sep 26, 2008 9:04am

Jeff,
This is a great post. I think you have really hit the core of what it means to be missional. It's so hard for most to imagine that they are living "out there" where the "missionaries" go.

In college I participate in an exercise called "International Dinner" where the Americans were seen as the "saviors" who brought the gospel to those "poor" nations without the gospel. It's interesting to think that now South Korea would probably be in that role and the Americans would be in a different role.

Too many of us still hold to a belief that we live in the midst of Christendom still. But, clearly we do not. Too often we get into conversations about programs: doing them or not doing them. It seems that the issue is "where" we do them. Do we do ministry "in" the church or do we push ministry "out" of the church.

The attractional/missional dichotomy seems to be a false one. It seems that we are needing to ask in/out questions.

Nate Atwood on Sep 27, 2008 9:37am

I agree that the term "post-Christendom" is a more specific and helpful term than "post-Christian. It's a good step forward and in keeping with the intention of Long Range Planning all along.

Jeremy Grant on Oct 8, 2008 10:22am

Thank you, Jeff, for this clarification. It is my conviction that if we knew the spiritual state of our congregations' neighborhoods, we would throw ourselves into intercessory prayer, strategic thinking about the mission field across our threshholds, and committed organization to proclaim our Messiah and Lord, Jesus, crucified and risen. May this missional conversation continue to trouble us to the point that we "make disciples" according to His Word who are engaged in His mission next door and around the world.

John Crimmins on Oct 15, 2008 4:37pm

I object to the use of “post-Christian” or “post-Christendom” or any other similar expressions in the “working definition of a missional church” or any other document that might be adopted by our General Assembly meant to define our purpose or our mission and the relationship of our purpose and mission to the larger culture around us.

My objection is not new. I briefly served on the Long Range Planning Committee as the representative of the Central South Presbytery, where I raised my concerns in the first meeting I attended and afterward with the leadership. It was my sense (rightly or wrongly) that things were pretty far along already and the committee was wedded to its drafts on many matters, including the use of “post-Christian”. I subsequently withdrew from the committee due to other pressing demands. It was therefore with some relief that I heard that the 2008 General Assembly had asked for further work to be done before the report of the LRP would be accepted, citing in particular concerns over the use of “post-Christian”.

I am aware, to some extent, of the contemporary use of the term “post-Christian” in evangelical and reformed circles. It goes back at least to Francis Schaeffer, who used it as a descriptor of a culture and a nation increasingly secularized and godless. Secular modernism was (and its successor, post-modernism, is) winning the battle for the minds of more and more educated Americans. And modernity (and post-modernity) in turn, with no ultimate source of truth or authority, having abandoned the principle of non-contradiction, was (and is) increasingly awash in relativism, especially moral relativism.

In succeeding years the term has gained a much wider and more popular usage. Leadership Journal in October, 2004 contained an article on “Reaching the Post-Christian”; in May of this year political commentator Pat Buchanan headlined an Op-Ed piece, “Post-Christian America,” in which he associates the decision of the California Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriages with the loss of Christian values as foundational to our democracy; and the term appears with increasing frequency in the writing of Tim Keller and many other respectable leaders and thinkers concerned about how the church should approach the culture today. Therefore, there is clearly a reformed provenance to the term and a contemporary usage base, so why object to its use in our denominational documents and in particular in our denomination’s thinking and reflection on its mission and its mission-field?

First, let me briefly say that I do not find the suggestion that a substitution of “post-Christendom” for “post-Christian” alters my basic concerns, except to suggest that a problematic (in my view) term be replaced by one even more problematic, without addressing my fundamental concern at all. To suggest that “Christendom” is just now falling apart in our day is certainly to recognize the door is open long after the horse has left the barn. Historian Jacques Barzun traces the fall of Christendom to Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Church door and greatly laments the act and the loss. If others would find that locus in another, later event, few would find the critical moment anywhere in the 20th Century and even fewer would find it in America. In fact, insofar as viewing America as an expression of “Christendom”, many, including the founding fathers, would have argued that that was precisely what they were not doing. In fact it could be and has been argued (and I think cogently) that one of the foundation stones of the republic, born out of the reformation experience, was that the new nation would have no Constantinian connection. There would be no king ruling by divine right and no Pope to interfere in the affairs of state. The people would decide their leaders and their destiny. If there is a Christian heritage in America it is precisely because, by the grace of God, a passionate church had won many to the cause of Christ and the nation’s government reflected the values of its people. Frankly, I think that the latter is still precisely the case and thus explains the current direction of the government. The only thing that has changed is that a less passionate church has been far less effective in making its case to the watching world. This of course is what the work of the LRP is all about and what makes it worthwhile to reflect carefully on what we want it to say about our mission. For contemporary church analysts to refer to the current state of affairs in the United States with respect to the church and its culture as “post-Christendom” or the like muddies the water. At best it provides a framework for thinking and writing about how the church should now interface with the larger culture, but it does so at far too great a price in historical clarity and reduces much of the thinking and intent of the nation’s founders to nothing.

So, what’s wrong with “post-Christian”? I want to answer that question along three separate lines that ultimately converge in my mind. My first line of objection has to do with how I think the term must be heard by a watching and listening world and that disturbs me. “Post-Christian”, whatever it might have meant to Francis Schaeffer, must today be heard against the backdrop of “post-whatever” language that has become popular within the larger culture. Three examples will serve to illustrate my concern: two from the culture at large and one from LRP’s own “Missional Church Primer”. Let us take the two examples from contemporary culture first. We regularly hear that we are now a “post-modern” culture. What does that mean to the person on the street when he or she hears that term? One thing it must certainly mean (and that is clearly implied in its construction) is that modernism is something through which we have come and have now moved past. No writer I have read or commentator I have heard that believes that we are now “post-modern” has any idea of ever returning to “modernity.” In fact for most, if not all, such a thing would be, if not literally unthinkable, highly unworkable and certainly undesirable. The post-modernist looks back on modernity, with its supposed polarities of true/false, right/wrong, and its reputed certainties about “the way things are” and “the way forward” and “progress”, as something decidedly unappealing. It was a phase, we have (thankfully) moved through it, it is over, and we need not go back there or experience that again.

We could ask similar questions of the term “post-industrial” and arrive at similar conclusions. We are assured that we now live in a “post-industrial” age. We have had the smoke-stacks, the heavy metal pollution, the urbanization, the poverty, labor/management strife, and the will to power by the industrialists. It was a phase. We entered it, survived it, but now we have moved on. We are now a “post-industrial” society (so they say), with an economy based on finance, trade, and education. We do not expect to “fall back” to the previous industrial age.

But let us consider for a moment a term used by LRP itself in its own 2007 Missional Church Primer. It occurs on p. 4 and elsewhere: “post church growth”. Though I did not locate a clear definition of the term within the primer, it seems safe to say from its use in context that the Church Growth movement is being seen as a movement through which much of the 20th Century American and evangelical church moved, but it has now moved on to more relevant and (hopefully) better models. In other words the LRP primer uses “post church growth” in a way exactly analogous to the way in which the larger culture is using terms like “post-modern” and “post-industrial”, etc.: a movement or phase which one experiences, but from which one “progresses”.

The question then becomes how the larger watching and listening world is going to understand the term “post-Christian”. It seems to me inevitable that it will, almost certainly and perhaps exclusively, understand it as exactly analogous to the popular understanding of such terms as “post-industrial”, “post-modern”, or “post church growth.” Namely, that Christianity is a phase through which the culture has come and beyond which it has “progressed”. Further, the term must put the hearer in essentially the same place of existential reaction a post-modern hearer would have when being told he should return to modernity and its mindset. He or she might well ask, “Why do I want to go ‘back’ there? We did that. Its time to move on.” If the church begins its dialogue to or about the watching and listening world with the announcement that the world is now post-Christian and then concludes with, “but we want you back!”, is it not obvious in how many ways the church has just poisoned the well? By carelessly buying into a “progress of history” idea in its language, it sets itself up for irrelevancy in its appeal. This is not a good way to begin or revise or reinvigorate a mission endeavor in my opinion. And in my opinion this consideration alone should be sufficient to cause us to seek a replacement term (and review our perceptions of history and its purpose and “progress”).

My second line of objection is theological and related to the matter of the “progress” of history mentioned above. To the extent that there is “progress” in history it is eschatological and Christo-centric. Since the end of history is eschatological and Christo-centric, there can never then be a “post-Christian” anything in any real conception of the term; at least not for the follower of Jesus Christ. We live in the Age of Christ. It will not end until he comes again. His orders remain our orders. His gospel remains our gospel. His love remains our hope. A given people may wax or wane in their level of obedience to or disobedience of the law of Christ, but the gospel will advance until, “the full number of the gentiles is gathered in…and all Israel is saved.” (Rom. 11:25, 26) To declare that any people or any culture is in any real sense “post-Christian” would be to declare Christ’s reign null and void. I realize of course that neither Schaeffer nor our LRP had or has any such implication in mind, but surely anyone can see the concerns that are raised by any absolute use of “post-Christian” taken out of a carefully defined context. And that is what will certainly happen with this term, especially if the larger Church (represented as it inevitably must be by the EPC and it General Assembly) adopts its use in primary documents meant to explicate its mission, not only to itself, but to a watching and listening world.

My third objection is biblical and springs from consideration of the first and second objections. If “post-Christian” is liable to disastrous misunderstanding and is fundamentally flawed theologically, why use it at all, when there are plenty of other ways of speaking and writing about the culture, the church’s relationship to it, and our desire to fulfill the Great Commission in our day? Would we not be much better served to seek and use terms and language directly from or closely associated with the language of scripture? Why may we not speak of a “rebellious people” as the Old Testament prophets did? Or if we feel that too many are beyond the reach of that rebuke and don’t view themselves as rebelling against the Divine majesty, then why may we not speak of an “uninformed” people and tell them of what they would worship or seek “in ignorance” as Paul did in Athens?

Are we not to address the licentious rulers in our day as John the Baptist did in his, because they are “post-Christian” and presumably beyond our hearing? Does anyone seriously think that our leaders are less informed on matters of basic morality than, say, Herod Antipas? Are leaders who embrace abortion on demand or advocate for same sex marriage or engage in personal immorality, not to be rebuked by the pulpits of the church? If they are genuinely “post-Christian” why bother? Do we not believe that every man, woman and child on the face of the earth and in the United States in particular must appear before the throne of judgment to give account for their actions? In view of such a fearful prospect do we not urge them to Jesus at every opportunity?

The answer to the final questions is a resounding of course we do! We emphatically believe and proclaim these things. And we do so precisely because we live today in the Age of Grace and in the Age of Christ. Let us say we live in a sinful culture, an increasingly disobedient culture, a monstrously secularized and materialist culture, a deeply ignorant culture, a neo-pagan culture, an eroticized, complacent, foolish and self-absorbed culture. And let us bend every effort to reach our culture, as it is today and not as it was yesterday, with the claims of Christ. Let us confess that we are a post-passionate church, a post-effective evangelism church, a post-new testament church and with that confession let us repent and return to our “first love.”

But let us not say that we live in a “post-Christian” culture. The implications of that are beyond all reckoning.

Anonymous on Oct 30, 2008 11:40am

After that lengthy evalution of the term...I do not think it wrong to use such language. I believe it is all symantics. I do however agree with the Biblical understanding of our culture today. What I believ to be the bigger question is "What are we as the body of Christ doing about it?" Being missional means that we are engaged in our culture, but too many time we continue to "DO" church without the body functioning as it should. Until we open our doors and walk out into our communities, we will never know how to connect and meet the needs of those around us. We often create events and programs for people to come to intead of going to where they are. I would love to have more conversations about getting out into our communities than what colors should the foyer be and should we use a pulpit or hightop table? I Love the fact that we as the EPC create forums for these discussions. Blessings

David McBeath on Nov 14, 2008 9:26pm

Jeff,

Thanks for the posts. I do believe we live in a post-Christendom West and the church must learn to face this fact in order to effectively accomplish the mission God his given it. John Crimmins may be technically correct when he suggests that our our republic was founded out of the refermation experience with no Constantinian connection. However, I think few can deny our republic has existed in an environment which most writers refer to as functional Cristendom. Post-Christendom or Post Christendem we must regognize we live in a world where the church is not valued or look up to as it once was. We live in a world that does not know or understand the metanarrative of Scripture. So, the church must learn to as much as it can about this new culture it finds itself in so it can communicate the never changing Good News of Christ in all its dimmensions in order that God's name will be worshipped and praised. As Piper says: "Missions exist because worship doesn't." Let's learn to missionaly reach our communities with Christ's gospel so worship of our God Most High will increase!