It’s easy for Christians to feel discouraged when we read about declining church attendance or see the growing secularization of our culture. But we are excited about the future. In many ways the opposite of secularism was actually nominalism. So growing secularism is an opportunity to develop witness to Christ, unclouded by nominal faith. Much of the decline in the church in the West has been the falling off of nominal Christians. As a result, what remains may be more healthy. We now have the opportunity to become communities focused on Jesus and his mission. The number of true Christians may not be falling so steeply – if at all. But what is fast disappearing is the opportunity to reach notionally religious people through church activities.
To seize these opportunities we first need to recognize that the Christian gospel has moved, and continues to move, from the center of our culture to the margins.
Living in a Post-Christian Context
To many people, ‘Christian’ is a cultural or ethnic label. It is not a declaration of faith in Jesus as Saviour, nor allegiance to Him as Lord, nor membership of His redeemed people. One report found that almost 70% of the UK population have no intention of attending a church service at any point in the future. And this figure is set to increase over the coming years with affiliation to Christianity and attendance at church lower among young people. Only a third of sixteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds even call themselves Christians.
That means new styles of worship will not reach them. Fresh expressions of church will not reach them. Evangelistic courses will not reach them. Guest services will not reach them. Churches meeting in trendy venues will not reach them. Toddler churches meeting at the end of the school day will not reach them. The vast majority of un-churched and de-churched people would not turn to the church, even if faced with difficult personal circumstances or in the event of national tragedies. It is not a question of ‘improving the product’ of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events.
America has a far more Christianized culture than Europe. Yet despite this, 100 million people in the United States have no contact with church. Although among this group are up to 15 million people who express a commitment to Christ and accept him as their Saviour, this still leaves 85 million Americans who are un-churched and unbelieving.
Pluralism means that, while mainstream America is not secular, this does not necessarily indicate it is Christian. We should not mistake religiosity for biblical faith. In eighteenth-century America, Christianity was the dominant worldview.
Not any more. Now Western societies are a melting pot of worldviews. We can no longer assume that if people want to find God or discover meaning or cope with a personal crisis they will go to church. They may attend any number of religious bodies or sects. Or they may go to a therapist. Or read a self-help book. Merely opening our doors each Sunday is no longer sufficient. Offering a good product is not enough.
It may be that Middle America follows the lead of its cities and becomes more secular. Or it may be that America becomes an increasingly divided nation with secular élites, but a religious heartland. What is clear is that great swathes of America will not be reached through Sunday morning services. George G. Hunter concludes: ‘As measured by the simple indicator of church attendance, nations that were once substantially Christian are now largely lost to the Christian movement.’
Living in a Post-Christendom Context
We are not only living in a post-Christian context but in a post-Christendom context. Christendom is the formal or informal alliance of church and state that was the dominant model in Europe from the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century AD onwards. The state authorized the church while the church supported the state.
The United States formally separated church and state, and allowed for religious toleration. But in other ways the Christendom model has dominated. The assumption is that Christianity should have a privileged status in the cultural and political discourse of the nation. Presidents and would-be presidents overtly reference their faith and close their speeches with the words, ‘God bless America.’ But the Bible no longer has authority in public discourse. The church no longer has a privileged voice.
But we are not pessimistic. There are many signs of life. Many churches are healthy. We sense a growing commitment to church planting across all the different tribes of evangelicalism. Christ will build his church. Our aim in reviewing these statistics is not to make us give up, but to show that the ways we do mission have to change. Most of our current dominant models of church and evangelism are Christendom models. And this needs to change as we move to a post-Christendom and post-Christian context.
We build evangelism around the traditional rites of passage, connecting through christenings, marriages and funerals. We use baptism and marriage classes to present the gospel. We use these occasions to invite people to attend church regularly.
There is nothing wrong with any of these endeavours. In fact there’s a lot that is right with them. But they are fading opportunities. The question we need to grapple with is how to reach the many, many million of people who are out of reach of church as we know it? Any apostolic church that derives its nature from the character of God has no option but to face its mission to the non-churched, even if this is at the cost of finding new ways of being and doing church to exist alongside what we do and are at present.
From Attractional Events to Attractional Communities
We need to do mission outside church and church events. This is something we need to recover rather than discover, for the modern evangelical movement was born out of a recognition that the UK was not a Christian nation and therefore needed to be evangelized outside of church buildings and services. George Whitefield and John Wesley preached the gospel in the open air not simply because they were not welcome in church buildings, but because the people they wanted to reach were not in those church buildings.
It is no good blaming the lost for failing to turn up, or bemoaning the drift of our nation away from Christianity. A farmer cannot blame his crops if he fails to sow and reap. We need to do church and mission in the context of everyday life. We must think of church as a community of people who share life, ordinary life. And the bedrock of mission will be ordinary life. So, an everyday church with an everyday mission.
Strangers and Exiles
Peter opens his first letter by describing his readers as ‘God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia’. The idea that Christians are ‘strangers in the world’ is a key motif in the whole letter. Peter calls his readers ‘strangers’ or ‘foreigners’ in 1:1 and 1:17, and ‘aliens and strangers’ in 2:11. Christians are like immigrants, foreigners, temporary residents, refugees. We do not belong. We do not have the rights of citizens. We are outsiders, living on the edge of the culture.
The terms ‘aliens’ and ‘strangers’ describe real, social realities. By virtue of being followers of Jesus they were ostracized and marginalised. They were no longer ‘at home’ in their community. Peter uses their experience of social marginalization to describe their experience in Christ.
We are foreigners and exiles because we have been born anew into a new homeland, cf. 1:3–4. Peter emphasizes that we have been born into something: a living hope and a new inheritance. We have become citizens of a new homeland by being born again.
Unlike the millions of refugees scattered around the world, Christians are certain of going home to receive our inheritance, through the resurrection. Jesus has returned home ahead of us, opening up the way (1:3). So we may be strangers on earth, but we are not strangers in God’s kingdom. And the reverse is also true: being members of another kingdom makes us outsiders here on earth.
The message of Peter is that Jesus sets the pattern for the church: suffering followed by glory. Jesus suffered the ultimate marginalization when he was pushed out of the world on to the cross. As Jesus said, ‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also’ (John 15:18–20).
We too have become outsiders just as Jesus was an outsider. We are marginal in our culture because Jesus is marginal. The cross is the ultimate expression of marginalization, and to follow Jesus is to take up our cross daily, daily to experience marginalization and hostility. Being on the margins is normal Christian experience. Christendom was the aberration. Rather than assume we should have a voice in the media or on the high street, we need to regain the sense that anything other than persecution is an unexpected bonus.
But we can not only survive on the margins, we can thrive. From the margins we point to God’s coming world and offer an alternative lifestyle, alternative values and relationships – a community which proves incredibly attractive. 1 Peter equips us to go back into the world, into our classrooms, boardrooms, factories, playgrounds, changing rooms as men and women who, like our Savior before us, can be marginal yet truly world-changing.
* This excerpt is from the first chapter of Tim Chester and Steve Timmis’ latest book, Everyday Church, published in the UK by InterVarsity Press and due out in the USA by Crossway and Re:Lit in the Fall of 2012. This follow-up from Total Church calls Christians to embrace, from our place on the margins of society, a gospel-centered, community-shaped life that is all about the mission of Jesus.