This post runs through 5 ideas that help us situate the place of the church in society – which I think then helps us to critique and potentially adjust our engagement with society. Over the last few weeks I’ve been part of a conference with Christian Savings, Laidlaw College, and the Carey Centre for Lifelong Learning, where I talked around the idea that “something is different now” in terms of the relationship between church and society. In a previous post I looked at what the church will be like in 100 years – that was the first part of my talk, this post is the second part.
I’ve called the conference talk “something is different now” because our context is different to any other time in the history of the church in New Zealand. And while some of these changes might be unpleasing to us as the church – I think viewing the church through the lenses of these ideas can help with our engagement.
We sometimes talk about being in a “secular society”. And this is often said as if secular is bad or evil.
If you looked up a definition of ‘secular’, it simply means not concerned with religious or spiritual matters, so a secular society is a society not concerned with religious or spiritual matters.
Secularisation can refer to the historical process in which religion loses social and cultural significance. Sometimes this loss of significance can be accompanied with active disregard, but mostly in New Zealand I think the response is fairly passive.
The idea of ‘secular’ actually emerged from within Christian thought and culture. The most widespread contemporary understandings of the terms ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ were fashioned in the modern era, and encourage us to think in terms of separate, stable domains: the religious and the secular.
We know life isn’t usually as clear-cut as binary or black-and-white grand frameworks, but we create them to aid our understanding.
What people mean by ‘secular’ is tied to their particular conceptualisation of ‘religion’… and vise-versa.
So religion and secularity are intertwined. I don’t think we need to lament about the secularisation of society – I think there’s a lot of good in it for the church.
Questions to ponder
If society in not concerned with religious or spiritual matters, have we, the church, fostered this?
Have we encouraged secularisation?
History and tradition
The church tradition I’m part of should flourish in a secular context: early Baptists were known as dissenters. I like to imagine them giving ‘the finger’ to the then current societal framework: no king or pope was going to tell them how to worship God!
This got them in trouble – because society was concerned with religious and spiritual matters – but in a way that some Christians thought needed reforming…
How does your own church tradition and expression fit within the idea of secularisation? Are there any stand out moments that still have an impact today?
Secularisation brought with it some angst toward religion – or at least an underlying negativity.
The next idea follows on:
I’m hearing this term more and more – it refers to a range of theories – (which you can look up online yourself if you’re interested…)
Not everyone is on board with this idea, some would say it’s just part of secularisation. I think it’s worth mentioning briefly here, because I think it brings (or will bring) a lot of freedom for the church:
The idea refers to a resurgence of religious beliefs or practices, and a new peaceful dialogue and coexistence with multiple expressions of faith and reason. (That’s quite an ask!)
The ideal is that religious people and secularist people shouldn’t exclude each other, but rather learn from each other and coexist tolerantly.
So in a post-secular society, religious and secular perspectives are on even ground, sharing equal importance. Fully secular societies may end up changing their value systems to accommodate this co-existence.
I’ve heard a scholar in the UK suggest New Zealand and Australia are showing the most signs of post-secularism of anywhere in the world…
I do think we’re increasingly free to do whatever we want – as Christians and the church – so long as we’re not trying to control society with our religious ideology.
- We are free to be the church,
- to be radical disciples,
- to be bringing forth transformation through our following of Jesus…
The ideas around secular and post-secular and my own personal experience, give me a sense of ease and neutrality: I am free to be Christian, and others are free to be Christian too if they see value in it.
Being Christian in this current context is a great thing – so long as we have an appreciation of others: that Christian spirituality is one option among many: our doctrine might not affirm that, but our engagement with reality must.
And we must not cloister ourselves away, but be gently contributing to many things – including in the public square.
Academically the idea of Christendom gets a hard time – it’s either too simplistic, or can mean too many things (my colleagues at Carey don’t like me using the term, but I think on one level it’s very helpful).
I think it’s useful as a way of trying to illustrate there was once a period of time where certain things had influence, and now we’re in another time, where different things have influence.
So for me, you can’t have Christendom, without also considering post-Christendom (which is point 4).
Christendom can be described as a society where there are close ties between church leaders and secular leaders, where laws appear to be based on Christian principles, where Christianity provides a common language, and where most people are assumed to be Christian. Hugh McLeod
I think New Zealand used to be a bit like that.
Here’s a really basic diagram – the last 2000 years:
Christendom can be defined as the period of time from about the 4th century (AD) until some time in the 20th century, so about 1600 years – which is why historians don’t like the term: so much happened over that time.
Constantine and his Christian conversion are said to have been the launch into this new paradigm called Christendom.
- Christians were now free to gather in public spaces
- The church began to be more formally organised
- It is said that sitting in organized rows of seats in big rooms are also a product of Christendom
In Christendom-dominated-cultures the church had significant power in shaping the way of life. Some of this was good: for example, a lot of our systems of law and order are based on Christian principles. But some of it was bad: the church became a well-oiled religious institution. It lost some of its organic-ness and creativity.
Over time, due to things such as the abuse of power and control, and influences such as science and modernity, the church gradually crumbled in terms of its position and influence in society.
Christendom changed the church.
In some expressions of the faith, Christendom brought a church-building, institutional and power focus to the Christian-faith-community (church).
That’s not to say plenty of good things haven’t happened because of the church through this time – this is just a critique of some of the evolution of the church into what we have today.
The net effect…
A favourite quote on Christendom from a neighbouring pastor and academic, Mike Frost:
The net effect over the entire Christendom epoch was that Christianity moved from being a dynamic, revolutionary, social, and spiritual movement, to being a static religious institution with its attendant structures, priesthood, and sacraments.
And this leads us into idea number 4:
People who subscribe to the idea that our current period of time is very different to the paradigm of Christendom, have a desire and hope that in this new period, the church will again become a dynamic, revolutionary, social, and spiritual movement.
Baptists then and now
For Baptists – back in our history, Baptists have been known as ‘radical disciples’- there are some great stories from our origins.
As a movement of churches in New Zealand at the moment, words like ‘dynamic’ and ‘revolutionary’ aren’t used to describe us. In fact, we’ve been described as ‘stale, pale, and male’ and that we’ve run out of imagination!
That’s perhaps a bit harsh. If you’re not a New Zealand Baptist, how is your own church tradition/community being described at present?
What’s different about us now to when Christendom was in full swing?
Loss of coherence
Post-Christendom is the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian conviction decline in influence. Stewart Murray. 
Something is different now.
But I think we often operate as if Christendom still exists: As if the church still has influence like it once did. With an expectation that society will follow our moral code and listen to our… clanging cymbals?
Embrace, relax, fear not
However we define the changes that have formed the current context, I think we need to embrace the context as it is, relax within it, don’t fear it, and find new ways – which might actually be very old ways, to be the church and engage with society.
The final idea on my list is
Here Christianity is described as a sub-culture. At the end of last century an English academic described Britain as post-Christian. He didn’t mean there is no Christian existence or expression, but rather that Christianity has become marginal.
In this post-Christian Britain, there are obviously still people like us that find Christianity a profound and vital influence in our lives, but we are situated outside the mainstream of social life, culture and influence. He described these Christians in post-Christian Britain as:
Like the early Christians in a pre-Christian, classical world, they became a ‘peculiar people’, anomalous in their primary beliefs, assumptions, values and norms, distinctive in important aspects of outlook and behaviour. They become a sub-culture. Gilbert, A. D.
I think this sounds great! This is starting to sound a bit New Testament – a bit radical even!
A purpose of the church
If one of the purposes of the church is to realise the kingdom of God – or God’s transformative plan for the world – people will see the transformation in this sub-culture: in our lives, and families, and neighbourhoods – and they’ll want to know why – not because a church billboard said they should, but because my life, and your life has been transformed – and that is attractive.
These 5 ideas, or lenses
However we frame the changes in society – let’s try to be at peace with them, and find ways to be transformative within them. Let’s not expect the church to have any control over society, but imagine how we might express the love of God in ways that connect and engage with society.
Something is different now. But as far as I can tell, there is still no substitute for the present and future hope of salvation that the church has and does offer with its ideals of justice and selfless love.
I can imagine an amazing church existing in New Zealand in the year 2117. I expect it will look a lot different to many of our 2017 expressions.
 Troughton, G. (2016). Introduction in Sacred Histories in Secular New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press. Page 12.
 McLeod, H. (2007). The religious crisis of the 1960s. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
 Murray, S. (2004). Post-Christendom: church and mission in a new world. Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster. Page 19.
 Gilbert, A. D. (1980). The making of post-Christian Britain: a history of the secularization of modern society. Harlow, England: Longman Group. Page ix.