By Jim Tune
In the fifth century, Romans reclined in their villas in the south of England feeling secure that their world was intact and would remain that way for years to come. Life was good. Sure, the army was busy, always off to subdue an uprising here or resist a barbarian raid there. But the roads still bustled with trade, the public baths were thriving, and the harvest was under way.
Meanwhile the Saxons were already crossing the English Channel with designs on the land that once seemed to be the permanent possession of the mighty Roman Empire. Soon the Saxons would invade, pillage, and plunder Roman Britain.
In less than one generation, Roman Britain vanished. The villas were ransacked. Those who defended their homes were killed, driven out, or sold as slaves. The physical signs were still there—roads, villas, and buildings left mostly intact—but the society as it once stood was completely gone.
The Roman world had seemed stable, even unshakable. Rome had ruled for centuries. But times change, and sometimes it doesn’t take long.
Season of Change
This story may seem an unusual one for an article about the International Conference on Missions (ICOM). Yet it addresses both the age we live in and the theme of ICOM, scheduled for October 29 to November 1 in Richmond, Virginia.
When I was asked to serve as ICOM president, a theme rapidly emerged. As a Canadian, I’ve served all of my ministry life in the pluralistic, postmodern, post-Christian context. To use a sports metaphor, the church in Canada has never enjoyed “home-field advantage.” The church exists on the margins of Canadian society as a visiting team in the very country in which I was born. I have played my entire ministry as a member of “The Away Team.”
American Christians are experiencing a similar season of change.
Toronto church planter and blogger Darryl Dash, quoting Rico Tice’s new book, Honest Evangelism, helps us think about this. Dash writes,
In the 1950s, people generally believed “in a Creator God, the notion of sin, and in the truth that Jesus is God’s Son.” When people heard the gospel, many were ready to respond.
Even for most of the 1960s, American Christians could assume there were more of “us” than there were of “them.” And we were sometimes confused about who we meant when we said “us.” Most Americans shared common goals with Christianity, at least at the level of values. Most Americans could identify with Christianity. The goods of Christianity, such as churchgoing and moral self-restraint were approved of by the culture as a means of molding good citizens and well-behaved children.
“By the 1990s, people were hardening against Christianity,” Dash wrote. “It was harder to get them to come to a special service, or to hear a visiting evangelist. Some blocks (objections to Christianity) had to be removed first before the gospel could gain a hearing. In particular, Tice describes four of these objections: Christians are weird; Christianity is untrue; Christianity is irrelevant; and Christianity is intolerant.”
Sometimes, though, if a Christian could adequately respond to these objections and provide answers to their intellectual issues, people would be willing to give the gospel a hearing.
Twenty years later, Tice says, “people are on a totally different road.” Our culture is now defined by tolerance and permissiveness. People no longer engage with faith in order to accept or reject it. They simply dismiss it out of hand.
In Canada, at least, people don’t care to argue about the truth claims of religion. Here we are pushing back against the idea that religion is so farfetched that it’s not worth talking about at all. The assumption is that all sensible people must be atheists. The burden of proof is entirely on religion, because it makes such freaky and bizarre claims that believers have all the credibility of the tooth fairy group.
The church is now the visiting team in our culture. The crowd is not cheering for us. Any measure of “home-field advantage” the church may have once enjoyed has vanished. A new game plan is needed.
In recent decades, Evangelical Christians have identified their movement with the culture wars and with political conservatism. In his book unChristian, David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, quotes an “outsider” as saying: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, anti-gay, anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”
A New Response
As the culture continues to retreat from Christian values, the church needs to reconsider its response. It will become increasingly tempting to retain the illusion of a previously Christian America and grow even angrier, thinking that we have lost something that rightly belonged to us.
The world as it existed for a long time has undergone a change almost as dramatic as the de-Romanization of Britain by invading Saxons. Ways of life, ideals, and positions of power and influence that have long been established no longer exist as they once did. There was a time when the church’s place in society was central to the culture, and it may have been hard to imagine it any other way. However, those of us who have lived in North America or Western Europe in the past few decades understand how things can indeed change in a relatively short period of time.
Many of us long for the “old days” of Christian prestige and influence. As the majority, Christians were accustomed to shaping the culture and determining the institutions and overarching moral structures of society. The old days, as we knew them in America, may never come back.
I understand the grief this brings to believers who grew up in “Christian America.” I hear Christians shout the war cry, “Take America back!” I get it. But could it be that we will be forced to finally understand who we are, and to see that we can be Canadians and Americans best if we are not Canadians or Americans first?
The church now has the opportunity to bear witness in a culture that doesn’t even pretend to care about our “values.” But that’s OK, since our mission is not really about promoting values. Our mission is to declare and live out the gospel. Our mission is not to put the right man or woman in the White House or win Supreme Court judgments.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were like helpless sheep with no shepherd. Too often when Evangelicals see the harassed and helpless crowds, our response is anger rather than compassion. And anger isn’t working.
A New Playbook
During ICOM in Richmond, we will begin to discuss a new playbook—one that recognizes the opportunities these cultural changes bring. The opportunities require that we embrace an orientation that understands that we were once on “home” turf, but this is no longer the case.
As citizens of a different kingdom—God’s kingdom—nothing eternal has changed. Jesus rules and sits enthroned as Lord and Christ. We are not losing. We have not lost. But we may need to learn to engage our neighbors and our culture in new ways. Christendom, a very old idea, is the term given to the religious cultural and political influence that has dominated Western society since the fourth century, when Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the empire. It’s time to regard the decline of Christendom as something that need not be detrimental to the church or its mission.
Christendom may be nothing more than a phase in the history of Christianity, one that represents only one of many possible relationships between the church and society. After all, the church grew and permeated Greco-Roman society for centuries in the face of official hostility and mob hatred.
The end of Christendom is not the end of Christianity. Yes, the changes make us uncomfortable. I don’t especially like the way our two nations have changed. It’s disorienting to see moral laws and ethical changes happening all around us. Still, we must shake off our grief and nostalgia and figure out what to do.
This is why I’m so excited about our “Away Team” theme at ICOM this year. As we examine the realities of our culture and the changing place of the church within it, we can begin to identify new ways for the church to find its way in a post-Christian era. The gospel never changes, but paradigms and methods do. Governments and empires come and go, but our real kingdom is eternal and Christ is still in charge.
Jim Tune is founding minister of Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada. He is president of Impact Ministry Group (an international church planting ministry) and president of the 2015 ICOM in Richmond, Virginia, October 29—November 1, 2015. Learn more at www.impactministrygroup.org and www.theicom.org.