There’s no question that we are living in changing times. The church in North America has experienced, and will continue to experience change as our culture and society shifts. Followers of Jesus need to continually ask what it means to be faithful in their context and in their time.
So what kind of a time are we living in? People like Stuart Murray have labelled our context as post-Christendom. There is some disagreement as to what extent this is true or if there are other terms we should use (as Ron Adams notes); however, I think this is a helpful descriptor for us.
Christendom is the social construct that sees Christianity as its dominant religion. Christians are at the centre of society, politics, and power, while believers of other religions are left on the margins. Christian faith is assumed, as citizenship and baptism often go hand in hand. Even though America has tried to separate the church from the state, there’s no question that Christianity continues to hold a huge influence in politics and governance. Political candidates claiming to be Christian to win votes, or even a country being able to call themselves a “Christian Country,” is all a part of Christendom. But this is all changing.
Murray, who comes from the UK, has seen Christendom end in his context, while we in North America are slowly seeing it die. This doesn’t mean that the Church or Christianity will be gone forever, but the place of power and prominence it once held in society is gradually slipping away. We can rightly assume that fewer and fewer people are holding on to nominal notions of Christianity as faith and church become an increasingly smaller part of our cultural discourse.
The responses to this kind of transition are varied. Not all see this as a negative change. Some, like Murray and Tim Brister, see it as an opportunity for the Church to refocus and renew. No matter what we do, we cannot kill the Church because it’s the body of Christ and it’s not ours to destroy. But seeing this change brings fear to a lot of Christians who are finding it hard to give up control and power. A popular response for us has been to claim this change as persecution in the name of Jesus.
I’ve heard many times from church leaders, Christian media, friends, and family, that they are experiencing persecution and that things are getting worse for Christians in the West. I've said it too. What is our reasoning? Public prayers are no longer allowed in public schools. Laws are being considered or have been passed that go against popular Christian convictions. A bakery is being told it’s unjust for them to deny selling a wedding cake to a same-sex couple because they don’t believe they should be married.
Let’s stop for a second and remember the early Christians who were stoned, imprisoned, crucified, or sent to the lions because they chose to follow Jesus. Thinking about this makes me cringe when I compare it to the things we, in North America, call persecution. As I consider the 16th century Anabaptists, Christians in Asian countries where it is illegal to be Christian, and Palestinian and Syrian Christians who are being ignored by us (Western Christians), I believe it’s pathetic to cry “persecution" when our government passes a law that we may not like, but doesn’t actually take away our religious freedom.
Now I’m not saying that real life religious persecution does not exist in the West at all. Of course there are some Christians who have been victim to discrimination, marginalization, and even violence at the hands of people or institutions; however, it's difficult to make the case that any state-led Christian persecution actually exists.
North American Christians seem to be so suspect to controversy and quick to defend themselves. I’m sure the causes are many, but perhaps one is the Western church’s buy-in to a Darbian interpretation of Revelation, where the rapture and apocalypse will be preceded by disaster and persecution of Christians. I can’t count how many times people talk about things like the “wedding cake” laws and say “It’s a sign of the times.” This kind of interpretation turns our perceived persecution into a sign of Jesus’ second coming, and depending on what side of the persecution we are on, we will be raptured or left behind.
It’s true that Jesus warned his disciples that the journey they were about to take would neither be easy nor free of controversy. When He sent them out to preach the gospel, He said, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).
It would be easy for us to interpret this passage (and others) and conclude that any adversity Christians face is because we are doing the work of Jesus. We are simply being hated for who we are, and that’s why bakers are not allowed to discriminate against people to whom they sell their cakes. Now we know how the apostle Peter felt when he was crucified upside down.
Too far? I’m not sure, because there may be a very good reason why we are entering post-Christendom that isn’t a claim of persecution. We, as the church, or Christians, have not been good stewards of the gospel. One possible reason why society is wanting less and less to do with the church is because Christendom has been a big jerk.
Now don’t get me wrong. Most of the Christians I know are better people than I am. There are so many amazing churches making a real impact, and were it not for churches and para-church organizations, our societies would be much worse off. But Christendom has not found a Christ-like way to balance power, dominance and governance with the message of Jesus.
Our attempts to rule society from a Christian throne (Christendom) has led to the crusades, the doctrine of discovery (which branded all non-Christians as savages), colonization, the African slave trade, Indian residential schools which contracted churches to “kill the indian in the child,” and many other abuses carried out by people of power who also called themselves Christians.
As our generation learns about its history, it’s no wonder that the belief in the church to be good, loving, just, and Christ-like is fading. Of course we, as Christians, are not to blame when people don’t choose to follow Jesus, but perhaps we will come to realize what Jesus meant when He said we cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). We cannot be messengers of the gospel while at the same time ruling nation states, pursuing wealth, and seeking power and dominion. That is Christendom, and it’s fading fast.
Again, I don’t disagree that Christians in North America may be facing actual persecution and that it could come to us in the future. But what most of us are experiencing now is not persecution, but a loss of power. Post-Christendom is taking away the privilege and dominance we have enjoyed for over 1700 years. We are being pushed outside of popular culture and losing our ability to dominate the political stage. What I hope we see is that, as great as Christendom was for us Christians, it wasn’t all that great for many others on the margins of society. As power and privilege shift, perhaps we will get down to the core of what Christianity is really about.
Things are changing, of that we can be sure. But should Christians be worried? Maybe we will lose our ability to swing a political election. Maybe we will lose our charitable status that gives us nice tax returns. Maybe we will have to watch as people do things legally that we find contrary to God’s plan for life. But we aren’t losing anything Jesus was concerned with.
Jesus didn’t come to establish an earthly empire or rule with the sword. He rejected that option even though so many Jews of His day wanted it. He rejected worldly power and wealth and rebuked the religious institution of His day. He came to serve and to give His life for us (Mark 10:45). He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). His kingdom is not of this world, and as Christians, we have the task of presenting this alternative reality as a legitimate option in any country, regime, society, or culture. This is what the early Christians did in their time and context, and that’s what they gave their lives for.