Some years ago I co-authored a book, Resident Aliens, which announced the demise of the Christendom era. Since then, many have noted that the church today finds itself in a radically different situation than the past decades in America. What are the implications of this? My friend Peter Steinke wrote a meditation on our life today as journey and exile. As we enter the season of Lent, I thought you might find Peter’s thoughts helpful: -Will Willimon
There once was a world where the church functioned according to what some have called the “attractional” model…. People come to a place, consume the spiritual goods, and serve as patrons to “meet the budget.” But a shift has happened. North American culture has taken new turns.
Christendom refers to a period of time when the Christian faith profoundly informed the culture. And, in turn, the culture carried the traditions, symbols, and rituals of the Christian faith. Another often-used term—post-Christian era—… In a “post-Christian” world, the church cannot expect favorable treatment or higher visibility.
One could say that a gathering storm—a confluence of factors—has assailed the church and its dominant perch on the societal ladder. None of this has to do with the church’s internal functioning. The sea change is external or contextual. There once was a world that was eager to be hospitable to Christian churches and supported “blue laws,” soccerless Sundays, eating fish rather than meat on Friday, public prayer in schools and at nodal events, deferring to clergy by way of discounts, weekly religion sections in urban newspapers, and greeting others with “Merry Christmas.” Now, suddenly, with steep changes happening in our society, congregations have to ask themselves whether they are responding to a world that no longer exists.
The loss of members, influence, and a sense of mission—the church’s misfortune of the moment—resembles the experience of Israel’s exile. The lesson of the present dislocation is clear, if still not learned. The era of Christendom is gone. No longer is culture subsidizing and supporting churches.
Today’s rapidly changing world is pressing the church to respond to a shift of paradigms—but not for the first time. In previous shifts, the church has both responded slowly and responded imaginatively. …Faced with a strange new world, the church is challenged to be true to its purpose and attuned to its context. I believe the paradigm shift of rapid change constitutes a rich opportunity for the church. God has set the door open to the future. But the new day is as perplexing as it is promising. …these dislocations could be part of God’s new creation. It may be God working through the unknown that contributes to the destabilization of the world. God is no stranger to Eden’s deportation, Babel’s scattering, the exodus, the exile, and crucifixion. God can be surprising, mysterious, taking history into unexpected turns.
The challenge of change for a congregation on a steady downward slope is precisely to redefine and redirect its mission. …Congregations may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result—but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation.
Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey …Transition time is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning.
The Bible is replete with stories of transition and exile. …Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness—alone, hungry numb—and the devil tempts him three times. The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons… Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey.