The frame church as established and dominant began to crack and then disintegrate early in my ministry. For so long I didn’t have a frame to replace it. I couldn’t find the clarity I needed to lead a congregation.
In the early 80’s the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall appeared on my life stage, soon assuming a major role. His bold insight became a re-frame that mattered. With convincing lucidity he announced: Christendom is over! The 1,500 years of church prominence in Western civilization is at the end of its ending. Rejoice! Be glad! Claim the freedom in shaping a new future of Christianity!
Perhaps my journey toward this clarity might sufficiently parallel your experience, enough so to make sense of this new perspective.
Born in 1934, a Knoxville, Tennessee native, growing up during “pre” to “post” World War II years, I experienced the church as established. Like other standing institutions (governmental, legal, educational, medical) the church in its varied forms was visible and prominent, its permanence assumed. It was a dependable trellis, a trustworthy frame that seemed to uphold the moral structure of the community. In those days religious identity was generally inherited, much like skin color or last name.
Gestures of this establishment were conspicuous: church and state arm and arm in the “war effort”; opening prayer at civic occasions, even football games; attendance at church services more the norm than not; “ministerial discounts” for pastors; church property as tax free; Jews in their ghettos, Muslims non-existent. After all, we were a Christian nation.
During my university years I came alive with a sense of larger purpose. Defining myself within the Jesus story took me to seminary to learn more. Serving the church vocationally was not my motivator at the time. During my seminary years the church was still firmly established, with Protestant Christianity presumed to be the dominant religion nationally and the superior religion globally. Foreign missionaries bore the badge of supreme devotion.
But gaping cracks were appearing in the established church. The Secular City by Harvey Cox announced the growing assumption of secularism. As graduate students we pondered the meaning of Bonhoeffer’s inscrutable phrase, “religion-less” faith; the “death of God” theologians were even more mystifying. Various religious and non-religious worldviews surfaced as the norm in our neighborhoods and workplace. All the while, loyalty to congregation and denomination was eroding. Even the renewal movements of the time felt like efforts to recover something important that was lost and needed recapturing.
Yet churches were growing, or were expected to, when I assumed my first position as pastor in 1967. Still fueled by the optimism of post-war years, the American economy, American global power, and suburban congregations were growing. Once a pastor accepted the role, it was assumed that, given effective leadership, the congregation would surely grow larger. Anything less would be failure.
But an uncertainty persisted. Something was changing that I couldn’t see, name, or measure. It seemed that deep underground plates were shifting — “foundations were shaking,” to borrow Tillich’s phrase. I just couldn’t settle the questions: What is the church for? What is a pastor for? No longer could I embrace without question the church’s mission to “save” people, win souls, convert the world to Christ. Equally dissatisfying was defining the church as another social agency that served the world in its need for mercy, healing, and justice. After all, weren’t we still called to share the hope within us? And wasn’t this a hope in God, from God?
Along came Douglas John Hall just when I needed him. He offered a clear frame that gave borders to my confusion. Hall invited me to step back . . . way, way back to see the larger picture. I heard him saying: “Open your eyes. See it! See the evidence all around us. Christianity in Western civilization is winding down from its privileged status that began in the 4th century. Face it. We are experiencing the end of Christendom’s fifteen hundred years of church prominence.”
Hall’s framing differentiates a beginning and ending. The beginning was Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the 4th century; the ending, after fifteen hundred years, was a gradual decline of the church’s established and dominant positions. These two great social transitions mark the history of the western church. During those centuries empires, kings, philosophers, and political systems came and went. But through it all the church in the West maintained its superiority as the official religion. While it’s true that during these centuries there had always been small alternative faith communities, the larger church always maintained its established status. Hall convincingly names the bit-by-bit ending of Christendom, noting its few remaining vestiges in places like the southern states in our country.
Then Hall, once he makes his compelling case, responds with a surprising challenge: “Welcome dis-establishment! Don’t fret it. Embrace it! Claim the gift of it for the church in our time!”
I remember thinking that it was no wonder I had been confused. It’s appropriate to be confused when the church we serve is experiencing the end of a fifteen-hundred-year period of dominance. Of course the future is uncertain with no clear path forward. How could this awkward moment in history be otherwise?
The gift from this new frame was this: as pastor, I felt invited to sit down before a new set of questions.
The old establishment questions are familiar: How can we attract members? How can we raise the budget? How can we keep our building repaired? These are worthy questions, ones that I dutifully asked as a leader of an established congregation that was just beginning to feel the angst of this vast transition. But these inquiries are secondary questions.
With dis-establishment confirmed, I felt the excitement of different questions, more basic and future oriented:
- What does following Jesus look like in our time?
- What is the church for?
- What is the pastor for?
- What new metaphors, forms, and directions are trying to be born within us?
- What are we being asked to let go of that is no longer life-giving?
- How do we respond respectfully to those among us grieving the loss of what was?
- Being increasingly dis-established, side-lined, and alternative, how can we learn from other Christian communities throughout church history whose witness was anti-establishment, marginal, and alternative? (See Bass, A People’s History of Christianity)
- How can we respond to the particular longings of our time? (Hall, in The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, mentions four such longings, or quests: the quests for moral authenticity, meaningful community, transcendence and mystery, and meaning.)
To reiterate a former point, in our nation and particularly in the South, ample vestiges of Establishment are still present, so much so that some deny that such a major social and religious shift is occurring. Any pastor can identify those members who believe that “if we could just do ‘this’ or try ‘that’ then our church could return to its ‘better’ days.” The denial of death, so strong and deep within each of us, is an equally powerful drive in us institutionally. In another Re-frame I express an overlapping observation with this Re-frame today: pastors are both hospice chaplains and mid-wives. We stand in the breach between what is ending and what is being born.
This too I appreciate from Hall: he pictures the church of today and tomorrow as coming alongside the church in the first centuries before Constantine. Those first followers of Jesus, not inhibited by being a minority, even at times a persecuted minority, claimed the transforming power of the small. In parallel, we too can be small, feisty communities of our day. The favorite metaphors of Jesus can be ours to manifest in fresh ways by self-identifying as salt, yeast, and seeds — as a small “light shining before others.” (Matthew 5: 16)
Thanks to you, Douglas John Hall, for your location of the contemporary western church. Your frame, when I allowed it, gave me new questions to live as I went about my leading, preaching, teaching, and pastoral caring. You invited a lightness, curiosity, and trust in the Spirit at work in our dying and in our rising. You gave me a re-frame that mattered.