I have been reading the presentations from a Pro Ecclesia Conference a few years ago (which Linda and I attended) on the topic, “The Emerging Christian Minority.” One essay in particular, by Presbyterian Joseph Small, captured my interest.
Small writes on the topic, “Professing the Faith in ‘A Secular Age.’” He notes that “A central experience of our secular age is the lived understanding that moral aspirations and worthy lives do not necessarily originate from God or intend toward God.” He adds that “believers in a transcendent God experience a social setting in which many others live quite contentedly with negligible or no religious faith.”
Certainly, I have seen this change within my lifetime. Some church members still speak of C&E Christians, those who pack the churches on Christmas and Easter but are absent otherwise. The reality is that C&E Christians joined the dinosaurs and dodo birds decades ago. Those who would once attend to satisfy parents or grandparents now join their parents and grandparents in non-religious “holiday celebrations,” since none of them have any significant church involvement any more.
Small looks to the minority status of the earliest Christians, and asks how they made a difference in their world, in which within a bit more than 300 years the minority became the majority. Small says that the first thing the church needs to do is turn away from the “proclamation of itself — marketing its attractive suite of religious goods and services — and turn toward God’s new Way in the world, the Way in and through Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and ascended.”
The earliest church, he notes, did not have evangelism programs or emphases. It isn’t even clear that individual Christians thought they had a primary responsibility to convert others. “The unusual religious life of Christians was formed in closely knit communities across the empire in a new, universal family.” Persons were drawn to the church not for personal benefit but for guidance into a shared life with communal practices centered in the Triune God.
Interestingly (and perhaps disturbingly for us as Lutherans), there was no hurry to induct new members into the church. Catechesis took a long time, and first the would-be convert had to demonstrate the ability to live as a Christian. Only then were the theological elements of the Gospel communicated to them.
Our world is increasingly hostile to the values Christians hold based on the Bible. It remains to be seen what form this might take with a new administration in charge of our federal government, but some of the proposals bandied about give reasons for concern.
As Joseph Small points out, in the end it is not about whether we are a majority or a minority. And we may well have squandered our birthright by becoming a vendor of religious goods and services instead of the Body of Christ.
Our minority status will be uncomfortable for us who grew up in (or have heard fond tales about) Christendom, the era when Christianity, and especially Protestant Christianity, had great cultural status and influence. But those days are gone. And it may be for the best.
Now is the time to ask: What will it look like to be the Body of Christ in a secular world? What does it mean for you and me to follow Jesus as faithful disciples in this time?
Steve Shipman, STS