I feel profoundly blessed. God is stirring the waters around the world, and I have had the privilege to witness some of this stirring. Here I share a brief glimpse of my recent God-sighting in the U.K.
As many of you were celebrating Halloween, Blaine Detwiler (FMC Assistant Moderator and pastor of Lakeview Mennonite Church) and I boarded a British Airways jet to across the pond.
Our purpose? To experience ministry in a *Post-Christendom society. Some believe that the U.K. and other places in Europe are pretty far along the path of becoming Post-Christendom societies. Some of us believe that the U.S. appears to be on a similar trajectory, perhaps a decade or two behind. What can we learn from those who are ahead of us on the curve? (Disclaimer: A seminary course and one week in the U.K. does not make me an expert!)
What I saw: I looked and behold, I saw a country with only one Mennonite church that did not worry about how many Mennonite Churches or Mennonite members there were. But I saw Christians who cared deeply that people experience the Good News that Jesus came to bring and were trying creative forms of church and finding ways to share that Good News with their neighbors and people on the margins of society. They were developing ways to equip leaders for ministry. And I saw people from many backgrounds who were genuinely trying to follow Jesus and who said things like, I am an Anabaptist Methodist or I am an Anabaptist Pentecostal. I heard people from many walks say things like, “When I learned about the Anabaptists, I realized that that’s what I am!” Their goal is for Anabaptism to be a leaven within society rather than an end in itself.
What I heard: In brief, I heard people embracing Anabaptism because they understand that to be an Anabaptist means that you are someone who sees Jesus as your example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord; that Jesus is the focal point of God’s revelation; that western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era; that the frequent association of the church with status, wealth and force is inappropriate; that churches are called to be committed communities of discipleship and mission; that spirituality and economics are inter-connected; and that peace is at the very heart of the gospel (www.anabaptistnetwork.com/coreconvictions). I saw them building networks of like-minded people with the goal of complementing rather than competing with one another’s ministries.
In 1999, Jim Lapp (then FMC Conference Pastor) suggested that â€œmaking the Great Commission central to our life as a conference will cost us the following: our sense of family; our polity of control over congregations; our Mennonite heritage that has been precious to our forebears; our image as a conference which symbolizes roots and identity for North American Mennonites. Anabaptists in the U.K. don’t have to give these things up– they have never been central to their identity; and because of that, I have a hunch that they may be able to help us find the more pure core of our own faith.
I think there’s much we can learn from our sisters and brothers in the U.K. as we enter a new era in the U.S., and I’m delighted to learn that they would like to keep the conversation going too.
*For further context on Post Christendom, see my attached sermon text. For more information about Mennonites and Anabaptists in the U.K. go to: http://www.menno.org.uk, http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com, and http://www.rootandbranch.org.uk.
The following sermon was preached by Gay Brunt Miller at Spring Mount Mennonite Church on September 18, 2005, following completion of a course at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary entitled, “Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World.”
Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange, New World
Scripture: Psalm 137 Did you notice that Psalm that John read? What’s the deal with that? It gets downright ugly!! Talking about fingers withering and falling off, tongues swelling and turning black, revenge, and smashing babies’ heads on rocks?!! This is a song of lament!Let me give you a brief history of what led up to this Psalm. Long after Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, King David, King Solomon, and a string of 20 some kings that followed (many of whom were evil), God sent Prophets to try to call his beloved people back to faithfulness, but they refused to listen to the prophets.Around 605 B.C. the young but brilliant new king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, invaded Judah and took thousands of Hebrews back to Babylon. Only a remnant of the weakest, poorest, and least threatening Jews remained in Israel. King Nebuchadnezzar set up a puppet king to sit on the throne of Judah and made him swear an oath of allegiance. And there Israelites sat… for 70 years… as exiles in Babylon!This is the context of Psalm 137. The glory of Jerusalem was gone. The Israelites were wounded physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And they were angry. And they just wanted things to be the way the used to be. And then to hear their captors say… “Oh, go ahead… sing us one of those happy Zion songs!” It just… made… their… blood… boil! They really wanted to hurt someone!!! How could they possibly sing in this situation, when they were so far from the land they loved and the way of life that they knew?The purpose of rearranging the seating in our auditorium today was to give you just a small taste of experiencing a strange, new world. It’s not what you’re used to seeing. Some of you may like the feel of something different, some of you may really hate it! Did it affect the way we did things today in our worship service? Certainly, in at least some ways. So why this focus on a strange new world today? Earlier in August I took a seminary course at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN. I studied with Dr. Stuart Murray, the Chair of the Anabaptist Network in the United Kingdom. (Anabaptist is a term that refers to the larger stream of faith that Mennonites are part of.) The course was entitled, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World.
Dr. Murray and many others believe that a period in history which is known as “Christendom” is coming to an end. The tricky thing, when you’re coming to the end of something, is that it’s not always clear what new is beginning. That’s something that only time will reveal. In the meantime, they are calling what they see beginning to emerge, “Post Christendom.”
If you’re not familiar with the term, “Christendom,” you’re probably wondering what that is! Let me first clarify that it does NOT mean post Christian. But to give you some context about what it is, I’d like to invite you to take a journey with me.
Close your eyes, and travel back in time with me. We’re going to Italy. It’s October in the year 312. We see an army camp overlooking Rome which is under siege and winter is approaching. The Roman Empire is experiencing a civil war. There is a fierce battle over who will be the new Roman Emperor, with two people wanting that job. The one was Maxentius, who was holed up in Rome. His rival, Constantine, has surrounded Rome with his much smaller army. The odds were clearly in favor of Maxentius.
The Roman Empire has been around and unchallenged for a long time. It has become spiritually hollow with barbarian tribes beginning to test the resolve of empire. There was a sense of impending doom–of fear and foreboding that the empire was dying.
The church has grown enormously from Judea, through Samaria, and into rest of Gentile world. It has permeated the Roman Empire, though its presence is stronger in some places than others. Though approximately 10% of the empire are confessing Christians, they have suffered severe persecution.
You see, the church is an illegal organization by their own choice. Because Caesar is the one unifying factor for the whole Roman Empire, Rome requires everyone to proclaim that Caesar is Lord. Christians refused to do that… standing firm that Jesus is Lord and no one else. And because Christians wouldn’t bend to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, they were persecuted. Some periods were vicious, others less so.
The church was marginal and illegal but growing rapidly. They were good citizens, nice people, but they were a secret society. Some of their terminology and practices were misunderstood. Because they said they participated in the body and blood of Jesus Christ through communion, some accused them of cannibalism. Because they referred to one another as “brother” and “sister,” they were accused of incest. Their references to “love feasts” were misunderstood as orgies.
But then a pandemic swept across Europe and approximately one-quarter of the citizens of the Roman Empire died. To survive the plague, most people fled the cities. But Christians chose to stay and nurse the sick, including family, friends, and strangers. This witness caused people to ask questions.
Well, back to Constantine. We left him and his army surrounding Rome. Constantine is worried that he has not penetrated Rome’s defenses and winter is coming. As the story goes, Constantine sees a vision of a rising sun with a cross in front of it and hears a voice that tells him, “In this sign conquer.”
That was good enough for him! Constantine immediately had rising suns and crosses painted on all military equipment. When Maxentius marched out of Rome and engaged Constantine, Maxentius was killed. Constantine took this as a sign that the God of the Christians gave him the victory.
Because of this experience, Constantine legalized and embraced Christianity. In fact, he more than embraced it… he decreed that Christianity was to be the imperial religion of the whole Roman Empire and proceeded to try to make every single person a Christian… whether they wanted to be or not! Constantine saw it as his mission to evangelize the world… whatever it took! And this was the start of Christendom… an inseparable mixing of church and state.
History gives us vastly different evaluations of Constantine and his rule. The Orthodox Church thought he was so wonderful that they called him the 13th apostle; other historians recorded him to be a brute. Constantine was a consistent supporter of the church but an unusual kind of Christian. Ironically, since Constantine was not interested in instruction about Christianity or in getting baptized, the church wouldn’t let him be a member.
Why didn’t he want to get baptized? In those days it was believed that if you sinned after baptism, you could lose your salvation. The Christians really wanted to see changed lives and were not to commit the “3 big sins.” Unfortunately (for Constantine) those “big sins” were entirely intertwined with his role–idolatry (the kingdom proclaiming him as Lord was part of being the emperor), murder (he had a reputation for bumping off anyone that he felt was a threat to his power), and adultery (which was generally considered one of the perks of the job). Constantine waited until he was on his deathbed to be baptized… when he no longer had to worry about committing one of the “3 big sins.”
Come on back to 2005, now, and open your eyes. What does it mean for a whole nation to become “Christian”? Is that a good thing or is that a bad thing?
Well, it was a little bit of both. I don’t have time to go into a lot of detail about Christendom, but suffice it to say that in a mere 80 years the church moved from being illegal and a persecuted minority on the margins to a position of preferential treatment and official status as the imperial religion! In the midst of that rapid transition, the church moved from being the persecuted to, in many instances, being the persecutor. Coercion for people to become “Christian” was common, and instruction for converts concentrated on avoiding heresy and did little to encourage ethical transformation or spiritual growth. Church leaders were becoming powerful and wealthy even as the church became increasingly filled with nominal Christians. The church provided religious legitimization for state activities, and the state provided secular force to back up ecclesiastical decisions.
This was very much in contrast to the society that Christians up until that time would have known. And it was this very kind of state church that persecuted and killed any who deviated from the state church authorities or who appeared to hold counter-cultural values or alleged heretical beliefs. This book … The Martyr’s Mirror, tells the stories of more than 4,000 people who were put to death for their faith. It is subtitled, “The Story of Fifteen Centuries of Christian Martyrdom from the time of Christ to A.D. 1660.” And the sad part is, friends, that many (if not most) of these stories are of persecution at the hands of official church authorities! And many of these stories are the stories of the early Anabaptists… the spiritual foundation of the Mennonites!
So why do Dr. Murray and others believe that Christendom is coming to an end? Here are a couple of snapshots that Dr. Murray offers:
Snapshot 1: In a London school a teenager with no church connections hears the Christmas story for the first time. His teacher tells it well and he is fascinated by this amazing story. Risking his friends’ mockery, after the lesson he thanks his teacher for the story. One thing had disturbed him, so he asks: “Why did they give the baby a swear word for his name?”
Snapshot 2: On Sunday in Oxford a man visits a church building to collect something for his partner who works during the week in a creative-arts project the church runs. He arrives as the morning congregation is leaving and recognizes the minister, whom he knows. Surprised, he asks: â€œWhat are all these people doing here? I didn’t know churches were open on Sundays!”
Snapshot 3: A young man visits a Cathedral in Barcelona. The tour guide points out a pattern of squares on the floor that added up to 33. The young man asks, “Why did they use 33 squares?” The tour guide replied that that was the age of Christ when he died. The young man comments, “That’s young– what did he die of?” He goes on to query why there are so many statues of a mother and baby in the Cathedral–“Who are they?”
These are a few of the stories that show how far parts of the European society are moving from Christendom and the assumption that “everybody knows” and “everybody is a Christian.”
In Europe today the church is in serious decline. It’s sobering to hear that if Great Britain’s current trajectory continues, five of their major denominations are likely to close their last churches in approximately 30 years! Just this week a Dutch Mennonite visitor shared very similar statistics for the Mennonite Church in the Netherlands.
This certainly isn’t true around the world. The church in the Global South is experiencing phenomenal growth and vitality. The churches I’ve visited in Mexico and Haiti and the leaders I’ve met from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and other places report God’s moving in amazing ways and people coming to faith without coercion in numbers that can only be the work of the Holy Spirit. In many of these countries, Christians also face severe persecution.
What about the U.S.? Can we learn from these persecuted but growing churches in the Global South and find vitality and renewal? Or are we on a similar trajectory as Europe, but perhaps 30-40 years behind our European brothers and sisters? The jury is still out.
So the question I’d like to raise but don’t really have time to explore is… if Christendom is coming to a close in the U.S., and if we really are entering a strange new world, how will we sing the Lord’s song? How will we share the Good News of the Kingdom of God in a world that is increasingly alien and where the name of Jesus may only be known as a curse word or where people are surprised that churches are open on Sunday? Can we find fresh and “non-churchy” ways to talk about our faith that do not depend on people knowing much, if anything, about Jesus or about the Christian faith?
The good news is that it’s not all up to us. Whatever may come, God is still on the throne and will still be in charge. It’s not what we do or don’t do that will make or break the Kingdom, but we are invited to participate together with what God is doing in this world.
In closing, hear these words, recorded in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 42:
(42:8) “I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.
(42:9) See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare;
before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
(42:10) Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth….
So come on, brothers and sisters, let’s sing a new song to the Lord!