3 Phases of Christianity in Culture and How to Respond
- Tim Brister Pastor, Author, and Blogger
- 2015 21 Jul
Christendom is dead. For some, this is a time of lament. For others, it is a time of renewal and revival. I want to offer my reflections on the three different phases of Christianity and culture and the corresponding posture for Christian cultural engagement.
Christendom: Synced with Culture
Syncretism is the blending or assimilation of two belief systems into one. There was a time when Christianity enjoyed cultural approval and widespread recognition. When someone spoke of religion, it was rare that anyone thought of another faith beside Christianity. Monuments to the Ten Commandments were erected in the public square. Prayers were offered by teachers in public schools. Love for God and country were seen in churches who displayed a Christian flag on one side of the pulpit and an American flag on the other. Christianity was synced with American culture.
This syncretism took three primary manifestations: nominalism, moralism, and zionism. Because of its popularity and being somewhat normative in American culture, people identified as being Christian without ever actually becoming a Christian. There were Christian in name only. Identifying with being a Christian without actually becoming one afforded people goodwill in society as they would be seen as virtuous, upstanding, and respectable.
Christianity also assimilated with moralism because many of the identity markers of Christianity were what you did or did not do. Christians do not drink or smoke. Christians did not dance. Christians were dedicated to religious activity. Christianity was not so much defined by what you believed but by how you lived. Christianity was in a way moral gatekeepers for the culture and enjoyed relative success in advocating the law, even when unable to keep it themselves entirely.
Then, there was zionism. There is a blending of the American dream with Christianity. This is where it became popular to drape the cross in the American flag. The United States was considered to some degree God’s great gift to the world, the last great hope for humanity. Verses with promises tied to Israel in the Old Testament easily found a home in sermons from American pulpits. Christianity was depicted in particularly American imagery, and American culture was governed by particularly Christian values.
Dying Christendom: Fight Against Culture
Then came the time when Christendom began to fade away as American culture began a shift away from Christianity. This is the birth of the culture warriors, the silent majority, and the religious right. This was the time when the lamenting prophets would cry out, “Let’s take back America,” and due to the contrarian posture, Christians were known more for what they were against than what they were for.
As culture went from bad to worse, increasing in lawlessness, dying Christendom took a bunker mentality from which to fight. Most notable in this battle plan was the rise of the “one-stop-shop megachurch.” Megachurches were great because you could do everything you wanted to do in the world without ever having go into the world. Dads had their softball leagues. Kids had their own basketball and soccer leagues. Moms had their “mom’s day outs” and aerobics classes. Aside from the cultural commodities in the church, there were many more religious goods and services to occupy the time and energy of Christians, effectively keeping them busy and safely removed from the wicked world out there. The megachurch became a breeding ground for religious consumerism in the supermarket of the religious ghettos that protected Christians from the rampant wickedness increasingly on display in the culture now fought by the religious/political special forces.
Another aspect of dying Christendom was the underpinnings of pluralism and postmodernism in both high culture (academia) and low culture (pop culture). Morality that was once standardized by the Ten Commandments had been replaced by “it is not wrong if I don’t hurt myself or anyone else” kind of ambiguity. What was once considered true for all was no longer considered true for anyone. The objective was replaced with the subjective. The universal was replaced with the relative. And John 3:16 was replaced with Matthew 7:1. When you refer to “God” or religion, you no longer had the cultural reference point of Christianity. And the idea that there was only one way to God was considered intolerant and full of bigotry.
Post-Christendom: Re-enters Culture
I believe we are now living in a culture of Post-Christendom. While it may be the death of Christendom, I believe it is also the rebirth of Christianity. All cultural assumptions are now gone. Nominalism is dying off because Christianity now only has value to those who value Christ above all things. Moralism is dying off because Christians are returning to the message of Christianity (the gospel). Zionism is dying off, because we are more globally aware of what God is doing in the world and how we play a small part in it.
In Post-Christendom, we have an opportunity to be known for what we are for rather than what we are against. We have an opportunity to bring clarity to our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ, to come out of the sub-cultures and ghettos we have created in the past to live, work, and play to a world where we are called to shine as a city on a hill. We can reintroduce ourselves to our neighbors, coworkers, and playmates with compassion and conviction. We don’t have to seek cultural approval and acceptance because the gospel tells us the only approval and acceptance we need has already been given to us and is sitting at the right hand of God the Father.
The posture in Post-Christendom is to enter in culture in ordinary ways by ordinary people and demonstrate the extraordinary love of God by laying our lives down for the sake of the gospel. It is a posture that recognizes we are dealing with a world where John 3:16 does not make sense to them because Genesis 1:1 does not make sense to them. We enter in with humility and kindness, understanding the posture of our Savior towards us who were once hostile in mind and rebels to His cause of redemption.
Perhaps there has never been a time more exciting and opportunistic for Christians in the United States than right now. May God be so kind to bring renewal and revival to the apostolic faith once for all handed down to the saints as we live, move, and have our being in Him—exiles proclaiming the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light!
Photo credit: GettyImages/Prostock-Studio
Tim Brister is a pastor, writer, and church planting specialist. Find out more on his blog: Provocations and Pantings.