For sixteen centuries Christianity has been the official religion in much of the world, but we are living near the end of an era in which all of that is changing. How can churches respond constructively?
On my recent four-day ride through the Willamette Valley, I carried with me the perfect book for a minimalist bicyclist. It was a small format, paper bound volume with 69 numbered pages, so light in weight that it doesn’t register on any of the scales we have at home. Its title and author: The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, by retired theologian Douglas John Hall.
Despite its small size, this easily read text provides a concise interpretation of one of the most important structural changes in the history of western society. Furthermore, it offers a way for people like me, who are rooted in the religious system that is disappearing, to act constructively during this transformative period.
Christendom, as Hall uses the word, refers to “sixteen centuries of official Christianity in the Western world.” Its literal meaning, he continues, is “the dominion or sovereignty of the Christian religion.” It began when Constantine embraced the Christian faith in order to advance his imperial power and is ending now, most social observers agree, as a broad range of religious and secular systems vie for our private loyalty and a place in shaping public life.
In Peoria, Oregon, my boyhood village, official Christianity is represented architecturally in the century-old church building, which for most of its life has represented the publicly affirmed values and patterns of belief and practice for all of the systems of private and public life.
More dramatic illustrations were televised for all to see during the Tour de France. In every French village on the Tour’s course, the dominant building was a centuries-old, massive, ornate Catholic church where for many generations the actions of the family, the school, practical politics, and the feudal system of economic life were tightly intertwined.
Hall is certain that this fundamental change is far advanced and that there is no way to reverse this process, no matter how fervently churches might fight against it.
He proposes that for the most part Europe has undergone the change to a post-Christendom model more gracefully than Canada and the United States. The reason is that in North America, the establishment of Christianity “has been infinitely more subtle and profound than anything achieved in the old European parental cultures.” In Europe, the establishment of Christianity was “at the level of form,” while in our part of the world, it has been “at the level of content” (p. 29).
To Europeans, he continues, it is relatively clear “where the line is drawn between serious faith and civic cultus,” whereas in North America “Christ and culture are so subtly intertwined, so inextricably connected at the subconscious or unconscious level, that we hardly know where one leaves off and the other begins” (31).
Churches in Canada and the United States, Hall continues, have responded by concentrating upon the congregation itself, building everything upon the idea that “the church’s purpose is to be a fellowship…The church is a meeting place where people ‘get to know one another’ and to ‘care.’ In the livelier congregations, programs are developed for every age and stage of life” (p. 24).
Recognizing that this self-centered way of life is insufficient, many of these churches reach out into the community with social programs “and involvement in current ethical and social issues.” Hall observes that this model works best in suburban communities and acknowledges the constructive character of what they do.
“There are indeed more than enough human needs in our social arena to ensure that any organization exercising sensitivity and imagination in meeting them can find a place for itself.” These congregations “often perform admirable and profoundly humane services in our society. It may even be said that these services are Christian services, inspired by Christian ideals of love, hospitality, and tolerance” (p. 25).
Hall believes, however, that this response largely avoids the deeper issues that disestablishment brings. One result, especially in liberal Protestant churches, is to minimize Christianity as “an explicit faith tradition.”
“Those who are looking for meaning (and that is the most gripping search of humanity in our context) are not likely to find it in such churches. For one thing, part of the secret of their being reputedly friendly is their consistent avoidance of deeper human concerns, which are usually divisive. A superficial friendliness is no substitute for depth of meaning, or even of genuine community” (p. 27).
In the second half of his little book, Hall offers a proposal for how churches can respond more effectively. He believes that churches should not just “let this happen to us,” but instead we should give “concrete direction to this process.”
To be continued.