A Lament For Christendom
I've read a lot lately about the shifting religious culture in America. It’s hard to miss. From TIME Magazine to EndTimes.com, there us much chatter about our post-Christian society. And there should be. This is a big deal. This is our generation’s defining circumstance. The de-churching of America is the arena in which the body of Christ will either rise to the occasion or fold under pressure.
But the culture is only the arena, not the opponent. An inhospitable culture is not our enemy.
I have little doubt that, as the church shrinks in size and influence, things will get harder for Christians. Our religious liberties will be threatened. Our comfortable seat at the table will be pulled out from under us. That will be a hard thing, but I’m not sure it will be a bad thing — not if bad and good are defined by usefulness to the kingdom of God.
I read recently that Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet who gave us Inferno and Divine Comedy, was convinced that the Roman Empire was a God-ordained vehicle for the spread of the gospel. He and many of his contemporaries thought that a globe-spanning Roman government was rising with the power of Providence to be just the thing the gospel needed to reach every person on Earth.
It didn’t work out that way. When Christianity became the official religion, the kingdom of heaven morphed into a kind of sickly fiefdom of earth. The gospel lost its power as the church gained hers. And there rose an unholy union of church, state and culture called Christendom in which every blessed soul was rinsed with a half-known, half-potent patina of ecclesial commons as a substitute for being washed in the blood of the Lamb.
Of course Christians are intrigued by an enclave for the faithful. The pilgrim vision of a shining city on a hill is attractive to any person of faith. But we also realize that such utopias come with challenges. The gospel is neutered when it’s taken for granted. The church has always thrived when she has lived in inhospitable climates. She tends to get fat and lazy when she’s in charge.
But the church’s modern prophets decrying Christendom may also go too far. Certainly in Christendom, there were more people who professed faith than there would have been in cultures opposed to the gospel. When you aren’t risking your life to walk into a church, more people walk into churches. Surely that’s a good thing! Would our Law-Giver have us rather live under Sharia Law than Mosaic Law? Are God and government destined to be either in bed or at war?
But those Christendom faith professions were also more likely to be nominal. Again, when you aren’t risking your life to walk into a church, everyone who walks into a church may not be willing to risk their life.
If I were more courageous, more zealous for the kingdom of heaven, I would meet this shifting culture with damn-the-torpedos-style faith. I would say, “Bring it on! Persecution is good for the good news. The gospel always spreads out when it’s pressed down. I’m happy to give up my rights for the sake of the kingdom. I’m ready to lay down my freedoms, even my life, in service to my King!"
I realize that’s a little dramatic. At this point, American Christians aren’t being martyred for their faith, just inconvenienced. But even if such challenges are a long way off, I have to admit that I’m not always ready to meet them. Sometimes I want comfort. Sometimes I want to raise kids in a community where I can count on schools to promote the same virtues I teach at home. Some days I would choose the cocoon of Christendom over the mess of the mission field.
Of course, what I would choose matters a lot less than what God would choose. Which would he prefer: a vehicle for easy spread of the gospel or persecution to grow the faith of the faithful? Does God want a lot more nominal followers or a lot fewer committed ones?
If I had to give an answer to that zero-sum question, I would have to come down on the side of fewer zealots over myriad fans. I think there are more Bible passages to support the idea that Jesus is interested in a few deeply devoted followers more than in a whole lot of people who follow because there’s something in it for them. Jesus wasn’t unconcerned about the multitudes. He taught them, healed them, and had compassion on them. But he always called them to deeper, riskier, less comfortable faith.
And, ironically, this winnowed target audience may be where the gospel aligns with our culture in the most winsome way. On the pendulum of quantity and quality, our culture seems to be swinging away from big box, one-size-fits-all options. We want smaller communities, boutiques, simple pleasures. We readily affirm that bigger isn’t always better. Perhaps the best way forward is the hard way, the servant's way, the narrow way. I think Jesus said something about that.