Being Church in a non-Christian society
Rev Iris Carden
The myth that Australia is a "Christian country" is prevalent in the Australian psyche. For some reasons, Australians, and particularly, Australian Christians like to believe this nation is based on "Christian values", without ever questioning if there can be "Christian values" outside Christian faith. This myth arises in the mind-set of Christendom (discussed below), which allows people to believe that being a good Christian equals being a good citizen. The Christendom mind-set made sense in an era of Christendom, but as that society and culture is breaking down, and falling away, much having already fallen away, it will not serve Australians into the twenty-first century.
Loren Mead very helpfully divides the history of the Christian church into three major stages: The early church, or apostolic era; Christendom; and post-Christendom.
The first stage, the apostolic era, was the time of the early church. In that time, the church was a minority group, relating to a pagan empire. The basic unit of the church was the congregation, and the boundaries as to who was in the congregation, and who was outside of it was very clear. This boundary had to be clear, the world outside the congregation was hostile, and dangerous. The mission field was the world outside the front door, and every member of the church was actively engaged in mission. To be a Christian, one had to be able to live in a pagan society, and relate to a pagan society, but to take the risk of being faithful to one's belief in Christ.
The second stage came with the conversion of Constantine, lasted throughout the middle ages, and is still seen in fragmentary form today. This was the era of Christendom. Once Christianity was the "official" religion of the empire, the church came to be an arm of the state. As the whole empire was nominally Christian, the mission field became those outside of the empire. So, instead of each person being engaged in mission, mission became the task of specialists, supported by ordinary Christians, who were sent out to the fringes of the empire and beyond. Military conquest and religious mission could go hand in hand, as in the Crusades of the middle ages. The state and church worked hand in hand to put down heresy and other religious beliefs, allowing for medieval witch hunts, and the persecution of Jews. In Christendom, there was no risk involved in being a Christian - it was the automatically expected thing. Because the church became an arm of the state, the definition of being a good Christian was to be a good citizen of the state.
One key failing in Christendom therefore can be seen in the loss of the church's ability to critique the state - so the theologians who opposed the rise of Nazism in Germany prior to World War II were the minority. Another major failing of Christendom, is that it is understood that everyone automatically belongs to the faith - there's no test of belief, and people can "go through the motions" of Christianity, or claim to be part of the faith, as a socio-political exercise rather than as a matter of faith. A hang-over of this nominal Christianity can be seen in church membership statistics. An example is the Uniting Church congregation in the very small town of Kin Kin. Four people attend the Uniting Church there - another half dozen or so are on the church's roll but don't attend currently for various reasons. According to census data, quoted in the National Church Life Survey, more than 100 people in Kin Kin claim affiliation with the Uniting Church. So of the people who are claiming to be not only Christian, but a part of a specific church, only four percent are actively involved in the life of that church. One can imagine the residents of Kin Kin on census night, deciding what religion they are and opting either for the church on the edge of town (Uniting), or the church in the middle of town (Anglican), simply because the buildings are familiar, or they felt some sense of sympathy towards the church. This percentage is probably not representative of results for all churches, but it is an indicator of what happens to a greater or lesser extent in many places. The Christendom belief that being a good Christian means being a good citizen, means that people can believe they are Christians, without taking part in the life of the "body of Christ", and often without even understanding the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. People undertaking the Christianity Explained program, are asked: if they were to die and God asked why they should be allowed into heaven, what would they say? The response, frequently, is about being a good person, rather than about Jesus' salvific action in death and resurrection.
Mead's third era of the church is the post-Christendom era, the time we are still in the beginning phases of now. Church no longer equals state. In fact, church and state once more are at times at odds. This era bears some significant relationship with the time of the early church, except for one important factor: we are still carrying the image of Christendom. That means that some people in the church are not yet ready to believe that the world has changed. It also means that there are many non-Christians, who believe they know what Christianity is about. The church has been caught by surprise, as the main mission field is no longer "out there" where the specialists are supplied and resourced. (Although some mission is still carried on, validly, in overseas missions.) For the church of today - and into the twenty-first century - the key mission field is once more just outside the front door. It's not the completely hostile mission field of the early centuries of the Church. Now, it's a mixture of hostility, sympathy, interest, ambivalence. Like the early church, the key to the life of the church is in the congregation, not in the larger area structure of the parish. (This has been recognised in the recent restructuring of the Uniting Church, to bring the church back into line with the Basis of Union, which saw the congregation as the primary council of the church.) The congregation, however, which has become comfortable with the mind-set of Christendom, has to learn to adapt now to a variety of local situations, and learn the art of each member being at mission. This is a challenge, especially to older Christians who are used to seeing the church as the centre of the community, and are now discovering the church is at the fringe of community life. That does not mean the church is dying: it means the community is changing, and the church has to change as well.
There are a number of things the church of today can learn from the early church. The early church not only survived, but thrived, in a pagan society. Learning the lessons of our earliest parents in the faith, and applying those lessons to the world we live in - the modern church can do the same.
One of the greatest missional activities of the early church was love. People saw the Gospel being visibly lived before they learned any other thing about it. Christian love attracted people to the church. The love of the early Christians was costly, dangerous love, for each other and for outsiders. One example of such costly love was in caring for the sick. In the overcrowded cities of the Roman empire, plagues of disease were a constant danger. As a plague swept through a city, people would evacuate for their own safety. The Christians would stay behind to care for the sick. Such love was costly - Christians risked their lives to save others. However, this love also meant that the survival rate for Christians was higher than for the rest of the population, because Christians were never left uncared-for. The lesson for the modern church is this: that each congregation needs to look at the surrounding community, establish who is unloved, uncared-for, and find ways to show them love.
Another lesson from the early church is a catechumenate to prepare for baptism. This is not to take away from the place of grace in baptism, or from the Basis of Union's statement that the "children of believing parents" ought to be baptised. However, the church should not fall into the trap of offering cheap grace. Believing parents ought to be parents who have some basic understanding of the Christian faith. Adults presenting for baptism ought to have some understanding of the faith. People cannot be expected to believe what they do not know and have not had the opportunity to learn. There are ample programs available which give an overview of the Christian faith - eg Christianity Explained and Alpha or for those who have been a part of the church for some time, Belonging. When people come asking for baptism, the church cannot assume that they know what it is they are asking for. The era of Christendom is past. If what they really want is a secular naming ceremony, then to give baptism is to denigrate the sacrament by using it for far less then it is meant to be.
While the early church had to live in the pagan world, it still had to find a way to be the church in that world. That meant standing against society in some ways. Saying "Jesus is Lord", was necessary to be faithful to the Gospel, but also a radical anti-establishment statement. Only the emperor was "Lord". It may be that in our society, the equivalent is to say "Jesus is Lord in every aspect of life." In modern society, there is a tendency to "compartmentalise" life. The industrial revolution led to specialisation - people gaining ever larger amounts of knowledge about ever smaller areas. Each part of life becomes a seperate area, presided over by a specialist or group of specialists (doctor, dentist, teacher, counsellor, etc). The challenge for the church of today, and of the future, is to say that Jesus has something to say about each part of our lives.
For this reason, the Christian church should be involved in operating hospitals, schools, media outlets, welfare agencies, shopping centres, every way it is possible to be in contact with as wide a variety of aspects of human life as possible. Each of these functions of the church should proclaim that they are parts of the church: using the church logo instead of, or as well as, a separate agency logo, having the name of the church on all of its stationery, promotional material, and signage. The church needs to place chaplains in every area of society it is able to do so. Christians should be encouraged to enter politics - in whichever party appeals to them, but to carry the Gospel with them, and bring theological reflection to each issue they encounter. The point of being involved in these things is the modern equivalent of saying "Jesus is Lord!" In Roman times, the power vested in the emperor was symbolic of all authority. In our times, authority is vested with a wide variety of specialists in different areas of human lives. To claim Christ as Lord in our society is to say Jesus has greater authority in medicine than the doctor, greater authority in education than the teacher, greater authority in the newspaper than the editor, greater authority in business than the CEO, greater authority in politics than the Prime Minister. In effect, in every area of specialisation, every part of human life, Christ is the ultimate authority.
More than any other thing, the church should never fail to meet to worship God and participate in the sacraments. In the days of the early church, Sunday was not a holiday, yet Christians found time to gather, to hear the word of God, to share the eucharist. While Sunday is becoming less and less a holiday (or holy day), Christians still need to gather to worship God, to be fed on word and sacrament, and be sent out to live lives of faith in the world. Whether Christians meet on the first day of the week with the theological implications of that, or on other days because of practicalities, meeting for worship needs to always be the highest priority of the Christian community.
Assembly Task Group on Church Structures, Roles, relationships and resourcing of church councils, 1996
Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia.
EASUM, William. Dancing with dinosaurs: Ministry in a hostile and hurting world. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993.
GIBBS, Eddie. Beyond church growth. (seminar) Brisbane, March 9, 2000.
MEAD, Loren B. The once and future church: Reinventing the Congregation for a new mission frontier. Alban Institute, 1991.
WILSON, Bruce. Can God survive in Australia? Sutherland, NSW: Albatross, 1983.
Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a new mission frontier, Alban Institute, 1991. pp 8-29.
National Church Life Survey, Church and Community Series: Community Social Profile, Kin Kin. 1996.
Michael L. B. Bennett, Christianity Explained, Homebush West, Australia: Anzea Publishers, p50.
Assembly Task Group on Church Structures, Roles, relationships and resourcing of church councils, 1996, p. 7.
Eddie Gibbs, Beyond church growth. (seminar) Brisbane, March 9, 2000.
Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia paragraph 7.
Bruce Wilson, Can God survive in Australia? Sutherland, NSW: Albatross, 1983, pp 55-56.