ANNIVERSARY COLLECTION: Navigating Post-Christendom Cultures: The Future of Mission in North America

by David Fitch

In large parts of North America, there is not only a new public ignorance or casual disregard of Christianity, but there is a disdain for Christianity and its perceived record of judgementalism and divisiveness within the culture. Christianity is no longer the consensus religion it once was in the West.

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Global Missions Today 

Editor’s note: As we celebrate fifty years as a publication committed to equipping and encouraging those in mission, we continue to take seriously the issues we face today. We asked top mission leaders around the world to reflect on missions from their respective vantage points. We pray that God will use their thoughts to challenge, inspire, instruct, and correct us all. 

This article was contributed by David Fitch.

THERE WAS ONCE A TIME in North America when “mission” referred to something Christians “did” in foreign countries. We, the local church, would call ourselves the “home church” or the “sending church.” We would raise up leaders, train them, prepare them with language and other cross-cultural skills, provide funds for them, and formally send them overseas as missionaries. 

We would then hold mission “conferences” celebrating what God was doing around the world as we sent missionaries to foreign lands. We would come and hear stories of God working on the mission “field.” People in our country, so we thought, had all had the chance to hear the gospel. 

We would emphasize the need to reach “unreached nations” that had never had the opportunity to hear the gospel. This was the golden age of North American missions, the church world of fifty years ago, the year of the founding of EMQ. Few people back then could have imagined that just a few generations later, the local church would be sitting in the middle of a mission field, the post-Christendom places of North America. 

Much has changed since those days. North America looks more and more like a post-Christian place (unless you’re in the American South). Churches are shrinking in terms of numbers and influence. Many denominations are withering. There has been a significant ingathering of what is left of Christians into large mega-churches. 

But as a result, some complain that the “consumerist” mindset of the American Church has sapped it of sacrificial commitment towards world missions. Add to this, the secularization of North America. 

In large parts of North America, there is not only a new public ignorance or casual disregard of Christianity, but there is a disdain for Christianity and its perceived record of judgementalism and divisiveness within the culture. Christianity is no longer the consensus religion it once was in the West. Certainly, the statistics are debatable. And the degree to which these cultural conditions are entrenched varies from place to place. 

But few doubt that we are living in an increasingly post-Christendom North America. Although statistics vary, if continental Europe is known for ten percent church attendance on any given Sunday, and Canada twenty percent, the United States is at forty percent and heading further in the direction of Canada and Europe (see Pew Research Center 2013; Dickerson 2013; Fitch 2011, xii-xiv; Comiskey 2005, chp. 1). North America is fast becoming a mission field with the distinct characteristics of post-Christendom. 


We must renew our focus on mission in our own backyard
and see our work overseas as a partnership we are in together.


For many then, the local “home” church finds itself in a mission situation. It has no choice: it must engage in mission locally or die. We must surely continue mission work to other countries, but it will not be unilateral “from us to them.” In fact, there are many of the diaspora who have come to us and who live with and among us who are natural partners in mission. We are collaborators learning from each other. We are, after all, as much in need of mission here in the West as these other places. We must renew our focus on mission in our own backyard and see our work overseas as a partnership we are in together.

How might we diagnose these socio-cultural changes in our places of ministry? And what do these changes mean for how we practice being Christ’s Church today in North America? How might the Church in North America respond in mission to these new cultural challenges of post Christendom?  

Diagnosing the Shifts: Three Posts

These cultural shifts can be summarized in the form of three “posts.” The prefix “post” indicates “after.” In what follows, I use “post” to talk about the socio-cultural conditions of the past that the local church once depended on in order to organize its life together. But now, “after” Christendom, these conditions no longer exist and our church organizations therefore no longer make sense. We must diagnose whether and how much these transitions are taking place in the context where we minister. Each of these three posts helps us to discern the cultural shifts and respond to them if we wish to engage the local context for mission (cf. Fitch and Holsclaw 2013, 1-15).

#1: Post-attractional. In Christendom, there was a societal orbit around the church building. In the words of Alan Hirsch, there once was a strong “in-drag” to the church on Sunday morning in our culture (2009, 61). Picture, if you will, the piazzas of medieval Italy, where the town’s streets all led to the cathedral and it was here that all of life, including market exchanges, took place. Likewise, in North America it used to be that the stores closed on Sunday and people went to church. Sports programs were put on hold until morning church was over. 

But in the new cultures of post-Christendom, the vestiges of that orbit have all but disappeared. The attractional dynamic toward church has shifted. Many people no longer think of church first on Sunday morning. Indeed, church is not even the first place many people go for spiritual counsel. 

Instead, people seeking spiritual guidance turn to the therapist’s office, the Oprah show, or even the local bookstore. The church therefore can no longer organize itself in mission expecting people to come to it for Sunday services, Bible studies, or even basketball clinics. Having an event at the church building might even foster suspicion and keep people away. 

To diagnose this post, leaders should look for sociological patterns around them. Are the stores closed on Sundays? Do little league baseball teams avoid playing their games on Sunday morning? Are Sunday services listed in the newspaper? A yes to any of these questions suggest one is still living in Christendom. A no suggests the shift is underway.

#2: Post-positional. In Christendom, the church inherently carried respect. People looked to the church/clergy as an authority. Authority was hierarchical, vested in the office. People in and out of church instinctively respected that. In the aftermath of Christendom, however, all authority must be earned relationally. The exception to this is in businesses/corporations where the expert is still looked up to and the CEO must be respected because he or she signs the paychecks. 

But in post-Christendom, it is only well-trained Christians who heed the voice of the singular hierarchical leader. In the surrounding community, the church can no longer trade on the respect of the church’s voice in the community to speak into a community’s social problems or moral conflicts. Today, a pastor showing up at a local school board quoting the Bible about “sex education” probably hurts his or her cause as opposed to helping it. 

To diagnose this post, leaders should look for cultural patterns of the way authority works in their communities. Do civic meetings/sports events start with prayer? When there is a controversial moral issue in town (with the schools) who is consulted, who is excluded? 

 #3: Post-universal (language). In Christendom, there was a general fluency in the Christian language within society. Even the most secularized of folks still went to church on Christmas and Easter. The Christian language, including the core understanding of the Christian story, was still part of North American culture. The word “sin” was still known. And even if Jesus was not followed, most people still knew and accepted the orthodox view of Jesus being very God and very man. 

Today, this general fluency is almost gone in post-Christendom. These theological assumptions are not a given. Many know of the historical Jesus, but few recognize that he was God the Son, the redeemer of the world. There is not even a common rationality from which to explain and reason about who Jesus is. 

And so most of our evangelistic strategies that depend on the Christian back-story no longer connect with the average person in the street. What we discover is, even if someone does understand our words, he or she reacts negatively because he or she hears our words with negative cultural baggage attached to them. 

To diagnose this post in your context, leaders should look for linguistic factors around them. Ask people around the church whether they understand the word “sin,” what they think of when they hear the word, and what emotions come forth. Ask, “Who do you think Jesus was?” 

The Missional Church’s Response

Each one of these posts calls for a response from churches. If indeed we are living post these conditions, then we must discern the ways we have organized church life based on these conditions that no longer exist. We must discern ways of being God’s people in mission where people no longer come to church, respect a pastor because he or she is a pastor, believe something because it is in the Bible, or understand our language. I suggest three responses.

#1: Incarnational. Instead of depending on people coming to us, let our churches instead develop practices of inhabiting our neighborhoods, identifying with the hurting and living among our neighbors. Think of the way God came to us in his Son, in our skin, inhabiting a particular context, speaking a particular language, doing the things people did in Nazareth as part of his everyday life.  

Instead of fashioning services to attract people to come to us, let us go and enter our neighborhoods being present “with” our neighbors, listening patiently long enough to discern what God is doing there so as to proclaim the gospel in ways people can hear, understand, and receive as good news. This means we must develop practices of presence as part of our church life. 

When Jesus sent the seventy to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom in the villages, he sent them with no money to go eat and be with the people (Luke 10). Let us likewise stop trying to attract people to come to us. Let us find ways and learn practices that place us in the middle of everyday life in the cities, neighborhoods, suburban subdivisions, and rural towns where we minister.

 #2: In humility. Instead of depending on the church’s inherent power in a community, let us instead enter the surrounding community humbly in service. Instead of taking the posture of power in our communities, let us remember the way God came to us in the Son—although being equal with God, he did not count his divinity something to be held onto. Instead, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). 

Likewise, let us enter the world recognizing God is at work in the world and he is “with” his people. Let us recognize that Jesus is Lord of the world and that he goes “with” us (Matt. 28:18-20). Instead of doing basketball programs in our church’s gyms on our own terms, let us serve with love, prayer, and the gospel as coaches in the neighborhood gyms. Let us open up the spaces for God to work in and through our presence there in Christ. Let us refuse to enter a place coercively seeking a pre-conceived agenda. 

Instead, let us respond to what God is doing among a people always ready to facilitate reconciliation, share healing, and proclaim the gospel under his Lordship as the Holy Spirit prompts out of everyday service. 

#3: Embodied witness. Instead of using our own language that we have communicated with among ourselves for years, let us embody everything we seek to communicate in a way of life before a watching world. Let us recognize that language requires a context, a way of life in which it makes sense. Language does not merely represent a reality; it is an expression of a reality from which it can make sense. 

To understand the words “Jesus is Lord” requires knowing the whole story of God in the Bible. It also requires understanding the way this affirmation transforms the way we live. We therefore must live the salvation in a way that makes sense of our language for people outside Christ. Instead of crafting evangelism tracts and strategies with a prepackaged gospel that assumes we know what people are going through and the questions they are asking, let us live the gospel so compellingly that people come to us asking us to “account for the hope that is in us” (1 Pet. 3:15).

Conclusion

If today’s Church finds itself in these new post-Christendom places, then the Church must change its posture in them. We must reshape our practices of church via a posture of incarnation, humble service, and embodied witness. By being present, we must open up spaces in the places where we live for God’s activity to be recognized and invited into (cf. Fitch and Holsclaw 2013).  

This is the posture of mission in North America. We will not forsake foreign missions. Indeed, there is a new need to partner with our co-laborers around the world for God’s global mission in which we now see ourselves as full participants. Through partnership, we share and learn together out of a new mutuality that enriches our lives in mission around the world. 

From our new posture in our own culture, from this new place of inhabiting God’s mission, mission goes from being a tired program run by tired committees to being who we are as God’s people. It is our very calling until he comes. It is the future of mission in North America. 

References
Comiskey, Joel. 2005. The Church that Multiplies. Moreno Valley, Calif.: CCS Publishing.

Dickerson, John S. 2013. The Great Evangelical Recession. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Fitch, David. 2011. The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission. Eugene Ore.: Cascade Books.

Fitch, David and Geoff Holsclaw. 2013. Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts Into the Missional Frontier. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hirsch, Alan. 2009. The Forgotten Ways. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Pew Research Center. 2013. “Canada’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Accessed May 25, 2014, from www.pewforum.org/2013/06/27/canadas-changing-religious-landscape.

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David Fitch is Betty R Lindner chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Chicago. He directs their MA and DMin programs in theology and mission. He is an ordained pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance and has helped plant several churches and currently coaches church planting with Ecclesia Network. He writes at www.reclaimingthemission.com and tweets at @fitchest. 

EMQ Oct 2014, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 408-414. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use please visit our STORE (here).

 


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