Dreaming Small in a “post-Christendom” World

I am reading through the dissertation of one of my students when I was struck by a quote. She quoted Ed Stetzer who was in turn quoting Douglas John Hall.

“Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light. Christendom tried to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to worldly responsibility.”

(Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, 15)

This quote reminds me of one of my favorite posts, “Dream SMALL!!!” Feel free to read it HERE.

The context of the above quote is that of three eras of church history, as suggested by Alan Kreider (also referenced by my student):

  • pre-Christendom EraImage result for small
  • Christendom Era
  • post-Christendom Era

The pre-Christendom era began to end with Emperor Constantine (circa 311AD). The Christendom era began to disolve between the two World Wars. In Christendom, the Church and State are strongly linked.

I am a citizen of the United States and I minister in the Philippines. The Philippines is a product of Christendom. The archipelago was made up of many different peoples who did not have common identity until Spain came with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. The first 300 years of its collective identity found Church and State strongly linked together. Since then the Philippine identity has been more complicated.

The United States has been complicated from the very beginning. I have many friends back home that will loudly declare that the United States “is a Christian nation.” They argue that the US was founded on Christian principles and has some unique link between the Christian faith and the governance and identity of the US. I also have friends that make a nearly opposite claim— that the United States is the first “secular state.” The US governance radically separated ecclesiastical power from civil power, and absolutely rejected the notion of a “state religion.” Both views have strong support (as well as weak aspects). Probably a more accurate statement than either is that “The United States was the first post-Christendom nation.” The governance of the US was not founded on rejection of Christianity. On the other hand, it was seeking to break free from the strong link between church and state found in Europe. It was post-Christendom.

That is not to say that everyone was comfortable with that back then, or now. I am a Baptist missionary. I find it interesting that the Protestant Reformation was a challenge to (Catholic) Christendom in Western Europe. The Baptists, Anabaptists, and other Dissenter groups challenged the Westphalian Christendom accepted by both Catholics and Protestants. Despite this double-strength rejection of Christendom, Baptists are likely as any other group to struggle with understanding the Christian faith in post-Christendom terms.

We like “Big Dream” metaphors:. War (“Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War), Victory, and “Civilization.”

But the metaphors of pre-Christendom are small— As noted by Hall above, Jesus utilized yeast, salt, and light to describe Kingdom of God. That is interesting since the term “Kingdom” sounds big and much in tune with the thoughts of Christendom. Yet, Jesus makes it clear that the Kingdom is small— it is here and not here— it is inside of us… it is a bit of yeast worked into dough, a tiny seed hidden in the soil. It is a small grapevine in a big vineyard. Paul’s metaphors are not any bigger. The church is as a human body, or as a family.

In post-Christendom we can disengage our faith from our culture. We are not stressed out whether our government is passing laws that make our faith practice more comfortable or less comfortable. We are not concerned whether geopolitics appears to be working in our (however we define “our”) favor vice anothers’. We can be that bit of salt, light, and yeast used by God to transform bit by bit where we are.

Our language is not “Winning the world for Christ,” but being a witness of God’s grace to my neighbor and being an agent of transformation in my community. As I noted in the other post, “Dream SMALL!!!,” the Great Commission is actually pretty small— share your faith with someone, bring them into the church body, disciple them to be faithful followers of Christ, and repeat. It’s success is in its smallness— a perfect process for the post-Christendom world.

Praying for WEAK Christian Missions

Missions tends to reflect the mindset of the missionaries, and the mindset of the missionaries tends to reflect the mindset of the churches they come from, and the mindset of these churches tend to reflect the surrounding culture.

The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants o...
The Coronation of Charlemagne, by assistants of Raphael, circa 1516–1517 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since missionaries during the “Great Century” of Missions and into the 1900s, Christianity has had a triumphalistic edge to it. Going back a bit to Constantine, and far more so to Charlemagne (PERHAPS picking up some ideas from his grandfather and Islamic interaction),
  • Christianity has often been tied to powergovernmentally and militarally.
  • With the “Enlightenment” it became tied to power educationally.
  • With the Industrial era and the colonial expansion of Western powers, it became tied to power economically, and technologically.
It is hardly surprising that the dominant church culture and associated missions culture became fascinated with such power and often used these powers to carry out its work. Christendom seemed more than an abstract concept but a workable goal.
Is this always wrong. Is it always wrong to utilize resources one has to carry out work for the Kingdom of God? I believe the answer is “NO.” However, as useful as power is… it is also dangerous. Christian Community Development has shown that internal assets in communities are more important for meaningful transformation than pumping in support from outside (Christian) communities.
An interesting quote from Stan Nussbaum is from his article: “Vulnerable Mission Strategies.” It is to be found in Global Missiology (January 2013). For the PDF, Click Here.
When we try to use money as our strength in so-called partnerships, are we not overlooking 1 Cor. 1 as the default setting for mission—God using the weak to confound the strong? Are we not relegating that “weak” and vulnerable method of mission to those who are too poor to be able to afford to do mission the way we do it? Are we not assuming that people do mission from a position of strength if they can and from a position of weakness if they must?
There is a very difficult choice for the next generation of Western Christians. I see no easy answer. Should we complement the “weak” vulnerable mission of the Majority World church with our strength, or should we forego our strength and copy the vulnerable mission that the Majority World uses by necessity? If missionaries and mission agencies are so interested in bringing more glory to God, why would we not cut back on the mission methods that are failing to bring much glory to him? Why not replace them with a more vulnerable strategy, one that for its inspiration harks back to the cross, the resurrection, and Pentecost instead of the conquest of the Promised Land?
Why not pay the prices of vulnerable mission and bring to God the glory that vulnerable mission in his name brings?

1.  Jim Harries’ Mission. This page was recommended to me (Thanks, Jonathan). Jim is a missionary in Africa and has done a lot of work and writing on Vulnerable Missions. He has some interesting thoughts including the (very interesting idea in my opinion) that the proliferation of “Prosperity Gospel” in Africa came, mostly inadvertantly, from missionaries not utilizing vulnerable missions. That kind of makes sense. Using sender-based communication rather than receptor-based communication can lead to miscommunication… including miscommunication of doctrine. Missionaries coming to an impoverished people from a position of (relative) wealth and power can easily add to the confusion of message.  http://www.jim-mission.org.uk/

Nice article the continues the question of “The Cross and the Sword” in the context of Christendom and Missions History

Global Theology

From the last decade of the 15th century, Europe would welcome the discovery of a new continent, and with it the opportunity for the expansion of empire and Christendom. Those nations most immediately suited to seize this opportunity were the naval empires of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal. Both royal houses were firmly aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and assumed an imperial mandate to expand the authority of the church along with political and economic growth. The missionary endeavors which the Roman Catholic Church would embark upon in the formative years of European global exploration would set in place the foundation for overseas evangelization strategy and reverberate in the methods of other European nations and leave an indelible impact on global Christianity. Understanding the social context for this initial push in overseas missions can put into perspective the successive waves of zealous missionaries and their understandings of Christendom…

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