Christendom Vs. Christianity

November 19, 2012 — 2 Comments

Christendom Vs. Christianity was first published on 8/13/2011) 

In his book House Church Manual William Tenny-Brittian insists “the institutional church is in trouble in the United  States. According to Tom Clegg, the Western culture is the only culture in which Christianity is an endangered species.” He goes on to point out that, according to Clegg, the church is “losing more than three million people each year”  with three times more churches closing than opening. He reports that Thom Rainer’s research indicates that “it takes the combined efforts of eighty-five Christians over the period of one year to produce one convert to the faith. And get this. “Worse yet, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, the institutional church spends $1,551,466 for each new convert” (William Tenny-Brittian, House Church Manual,St. Louis,Missouri, 2004 p. 2).

There are many great things going on in churches throughout the United States. But when we do an honest checkup the modern American church has to admit many failures. There is, of course, nothing new with this. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) blasted the established church of his day with his Attack On Christendom. He recognized that the church had become politicized, institutionalized, and spiritually impotent. Famed Christian writer and speaker Malcolm Muggeridge insisted in his book The End of Christendom that Christendom is something very different from Christianity. He described the former as an administrative or power structure created by humankind. He admitted it might be argued that it is viewed by many as an institutional form of Christianity, but he said this is like confusing laws with justice or ;moral codes with moral behavior.

Even the famous Catholic theologian Karl Rahner argued that Christendom would not survive as an institutional religion forever. He wrote in his book Mission and Grace: Essays in Pastoral Theology (vol. 1, trans. Cecily Hastings, London: Sheed and Ward, 1963, page 25) “On the contrary, the Christendom of the Middle Ages and after, peasant and individualistic petty-bourgeois Christendom, is going to disappear with ever increasing speed. For the causes which have brought about this process in the West are still at work and have not yet had their full effect.” Loren Mead, in his seminal work called The Once and Future Church (1991), made essentially the same arguments.

Of course, there are parts of theUnited States, like the area in which I live, where institutional forms of Christendom are still relatively strong. But any student of history realizes that the cultural changes we see in Europe eventually make it to America. Cultural changes we often first observe in California, eventually make their way across the continent.

But now comes the question. Is the death of the “established, institutionalized church” we’ve been calling Christendom, really a bad thing? I’m one of those who think it just may not be. Could it be that the death of “cultural Christianity leads us to a more vibrant, life-transforming faith? I pray that it does. As we have already seen in an earlier blog, the overwhelming evidence suggests that Christendom in America is not producing disciples of Jesus Christ who live different lifestyles from the rest of society. Most Christians in the United States engage in the same behavior as their neighbors and ratify the same consumerist values. Most Christians live without ever discovering the exciting, life-transforming existence, with the meaning, purpose, and peace that God had planned for them.

All the way back to 1961 Sociologist Peter Berger published his book The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co.)  in which he argued that the disestablishment of the American church would not be a bad thing. American society possesses a cultural religion that is vaguely derived from the Judae-Christian tradition and that contains values generally held by most Americans. The cultural religion gives solemn ratification to these values. The cultural religion is politically established on all levels of government, receiving from the state both moral and economic support. . . Affiliation with a religious denomination thus becomes ipso facto an act of allegiance to the common political creed. Disaffiliation, in turn, renders an individual not only religiously but also politically suspect” (page 63). 

Berger published this in 1961. We can already see from what he wrote here that much disestablishment has already taken place since then. But is this bad or good? He goes on to write “Our churches can then be accepted as an essentially harmless ingredient of a social reality that we are willing to live with. There is one crucial assumption, however, that we must be willing to abandon–namely, the assumption that these churches have anything to do with the message of the New Testament and the historic experience of the Hebrew people” (page 112).

These are only a few of those who have predicted the fall of Christendom’s institutional form of the Christian religion and the disestablishment of its influence in our culture. There are many today who even predict a coming time of persecution. There have also been many in the past who believed that the disestablishment of the church will be a positive thing for the living, organic faith of Jesus Christ.

 

Dr. Gary Thompson

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I am a retired United Methodist pastor. I write adult curriculum for the United Methodist Church and have been doing so for over 10 years. My passion is helping the Christian Church more effectively fulfill its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ and to help individuals identify and fulfill their God-given personal mission.

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