For those of us who participate in the church today, at least in North America and most of Europe, it is easy to find things to lament about. For instance, we tend to focus on the great challenges caused by the marginalization of the church in society and the way in which many are beginning to view the Christian faith itself with suspicion. Some people ignore the church, while others suggest that the beliefs that undergird it have been the source of some of our society’s greatest ills. These are all discouraging realities for those of us who still believe in the church and its message. However, this move to the margins does have its upside too.
Recently I participated in a conference hosted by an organization called FORGE Canada. The name of the conference was “Into the Neighbourhood,” and its focus was on helping to equip churches to engage effectively with the context in which they exist: Their very neighbourhoods. What struck me again (for this is not the first time I have had this realization) was the fact that although the church is being stripped of its power and influence in the broader Western culture, it is being drawn back to its real identity as a missional, incarnational people. The demise of Christendom is a wake-up call for the church to re-evaluate and rediscover its true identity.
In reality, this is to be expected. The ancient Israelites were forced to think deeply about who they were and what it meant for them to live out their identity as a people when they went into exile at the hands of the Babylonians in the sixth Century BCE. This experience of deep marginalization got their creative juices flowing and much of our Old Testament was written as a result. The prophets and poets of Israel reflected theologically on the meaning of their exile and how Israel should respond. Exile can’t help but have a purifying effect on the way it challenges our assumptions about ourselves and the world. It calls us to refocus on who we are: What do we need to recommit to? What do we need to change? How do we now live in these new circumstances? That is what post-Christendom is doing for the church today.
It is never easy. The church leaders I was with at the FORGE conference all agree they don’t have the answers; however, they also agree that this particular time in history is forcing the church to stop resting on any laurels it may have once had. We can no longer expect that because we have been here for a long time we will always be here, or because we exist people will just keep joining us, or because we offer programs people will show up. These are false assumptions and the conference clarified this and helped the church think about how it can go “into the neighbourhood” and serve the people in ways that actually help them and actually make their lives better. This is being incarnational and it is what the church is created to be. Perhaps we lost some of that when we dwelled near the center of things and this time of de-centering is helping us become who we are really meant to be.
Yes, there is much to be discouraged about these days. But let’s not forget that there is also much to be encouraged about too. Thanks to the move to Post-Christendom the church is finding itself again, and that is definitely an upside to our current experience.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*