How does the Western Church proclaim the gospel to a post-Christian world that does not care about its message? The Church must speak with confidence the authority of Christian scripture, despite the temptation for scriptural relativism. As an alternative to the idolatrous individualism perpetuated in the West, the Church must provide a visible testimony of authentic community. And the Church must adopt a missional identity in which every church member is recognized as an agent of gospel mission. The world is changing, but the Church can make a difference with a renewed, gospel-centered heart.
The death of Christendom has been a revealing time for evangelical churches throughout the West. Stripped of their place of social privilege and prominence, many churches are finding themselves ill equipped to address the relativism, indifference and religious marginalization that increasingly characterize the post-Christian world of today. Some are convinced that they will be able to ride out the storm if they just “keep being faithful.” Others think it will be enough to make minor tweaks and adjustments to their church programs. And yet others are content to follow the latest fad–small groups, Key Result Areas or the occasional swear word in their preaching.
If Western churches are to serve as beacons of hope in a dark and messy world, however, we are convinced that a much more profound change must take place. It will not be enough to put a new façade on a deeply flawed structure. Instead, we must start from the ground up. If Western churches are to effectively and faithfully engage the post-Christian world, they must reclaim a truly biblical, missional ecclesiology. They must become what Tim Chester and Steve Timmis have called “gospel-centred churches.”1 And for this to happen, they must place a renewed emphasis on biblical authority, authentic community and missional identity.
In an age characterized by deep skepticism concerning the existence and attainability of absolute truth, it may appear counter-intuitive to emphasize the absolute authority of the Scriptures for the life and mission of the church. After all, isn’t the absolute nature of Christian truth one of the great stumbling blocks for the post-Christendom world? However, no matter how great the temptation might be to de-emphasize scriptural authority for the sake of effective, contextualized ministry, it must be rejected. It is a temptation toward a false path to glory, one which deserves the same rebuke given by Jesus to Peter: “Get behind Me, Satan, for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Mk 8:33). If the church is going to effectively minister in a post-Christian world, it must have something to say, and what it says must be rooted in the authoritative, saving message of the Christian Scriptures.
Arguing for the importance of dogmatic truth or doctrine in the church, David Mills writes:
The church cannot act effectively without knowing what it believes. It cannot convince its own members to work together or convince others to join them, if it cannot give them a reason. The church cannot proclaim a word of judgment or speak a word of healing unless it can speak dogmatically, unless it can say with confidence, “Thus saith the Lord.” Otherwise its words are just opinion, of no more value or interest than anyone else’s… The church is not alone in offering salvation, and its version is often less appealing and more demanding than most versions the world offers. All it has to offer, its only selling point, is that the story it tells is true.2
When the church no longer functions under the absolute authority of Scripture, it loses its authority to speak. In a culture characterized by relativism, the gospel becomes one message among many, neither better nor worse, offering neither greater nor lesser hope. It is simply one opinion among many. In this context, the church can no longer speak authoritatively because it can no longer speak certainly. If the American mainline denominations, European state churches and the Spanish Roman Catholic church have shown us anything, it is that scriptural relativism and/or ignorance cannot sustain a Christian movement, but leads instead to an ever-increasing liberalism that results in cultural irrelevance and decreasing commitment. If the post-Christendom church is not built upon the foundation of the Scriptures, it will soon find itself–and indeed already has found itself–on a crumbling foundation incapable of weathering the coming storms.
Particularly in the areas most deeply affected by Christendom, scriptural authority is often more assumed than actually practiced. A genuine commitment to biblical authority will require that Christian communities allow the Scriptures to change their beliefs and practices in ways they had not previously considered.
The authority of the Scriptures has obvious implications for the moral life of the people of God, but it also speaks to their ecclesiological practices. Particularly in the areas most deeply affected by Christendom, scriptural authority is often more assumed than actually practiced. A genuine commitment to biblical authority will require that Christian communities allow the Scriptures to change their beliefs and practices in ways they had not previously considered. It is here that the conservative, evangelical church’s commitment to the authority of Scripture will be most sorely tested (as well as that of any missionaries it may send out). Will they genuinely allow the Scriptures to call into question their church structures, teaching methodologies, leadership organizations, celebration of the ordinances, community dynamics and evangelistic strategies? Or will their fear of cultural compromise cause them to stick with what they have always known? How they answer will reveal whether the driving force of their ecclesial life is found in the Scriptures or in their own principles and church traditions. And that will dictate their ability to meaningfully engage the Western world for the foreseeable future.
If the church is to place a renewed emphasis on biblical authority, this will necessarily require that the entire community place a greater emphasis on the faithful teaching of the Scriptures. Such teaching, however, cannot be limited to a Sunday event or to a single person, no matter how exegetically sound the pastoral leadership might be. Genuine discipleship and gospel faithfulness are not the fruit of one man’s teaching, but of an entire community’s, as each member challenges the others to authoritatively bring the Scriptures to bear on their daily lives. And this does not happen primarily at set times or in formal Bible studies but in the actual context of the temptations and struggles and ebb and flow of daily life. Just as Moses called the people of Israel to diligently teach their children the Law of God in the ordinary moments and routines of life–“when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut 6:7)–so also must this community of Christian brothers and sisters commit to teach, reprove, correct and train each other in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16) in daily life, whether at work or at home, at school or at play.
This does not negate the need of formal training by gifted pastors and teachers. But it does emphasize that such training will never be sufficient. If the full force of scriptural authority is to be felt by the post-Christendom world, it will be the fruit of an entire community that takes seriously Paul’s charge to: “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another, with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). It will be a collective effort.
If the church is to effectively minister in a post-Christian world it must lay aside the syncretistic, idolatrous trappings of Western individualism and place a renewed emphasis on authentic Christian community.
One of the key characteristics of the post-Christendom age is an “idolatrous notion of self-sufficiency.”3 This seductive worldview has had a dramatic influence on the entire Western church, but its influence has been perhaps most noticeable in the evangelical community due to its emphasis on God’s saving purpose for the individual. With the rise of modernism and then postmodernism, this evangelical emphasis on personal faith was slowly co-opted by an individualistic faith that often had more to do with Western cultural values than it did with the Christian gospel. However, “If [the church] is to remain faithful to its Lord, it dare not let itself be co-opted by other interests and become the ideology of any of the other forces at work in this world.”4 If the church is to effectively minister in a post-Christian world it must lay aside the syncretistic, idolatrous trappings of Western individualism and place a renewed emphasis on authentic Christian community.
Community has always been an essential part of the Christian faith. The evidence is overwhelming. God created man and woman to live in community. He called Israel into existence as a community of hope and salvation. The very first Christians were gathered into communities called churches. The early church understood itself as constituting a new family. Christian spirituality and discipleship, far from being individualistic endeavors, have always been rooted in the community-oriented “one anothers.” Effective Christian witness is bound up in the community’s love for its members (Jn 13:35). Even the vast majority of the New Testament books and their commands are written to and can only be genuinely fulfilled by communities of believers. As Robert Banks states: “The gospel is not a purely personal matter. It has a social dimension. It is a communal affair.”5
Though authentic Christian community has always been a key to genuine discipleship and effective evangelism, the role of community must take on a renewed importance if the Western church is to effectively minister in a post-Christendom age. Both studies and personal experience make clear that many Westerners are indifferent to the message of the Christian gospel. They simply do not care. This has certainly been our experience in Spain. Consequently, Westerners often express little interest or willingness to discuss the gospel message, even less so when there is widespread cultural prejudice against the Christian tradition.
The church itself is a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Consequently, for both the believer and the unbeliever the gospel-centered life of the Christian community is the context where the transforming power of the gospel is most clearly seen and experienced. The verbal gospel may be rejected as irrelevant, but its visible testimony in the church will not be so easily ignored.
But this is precisely why the issue of community is so important. “The very shape of the church in the form of its ordinary practices and patterns of social process constitute its witness to the world by providing a visible and material foretaste of God’s rule.”6 The church itself is a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Consequently, for both the believer and the unbeliever the gospel-centered life of the Christian community is the context where the transforming power of the gospel is most clearly seen and experienced. The verbal gospel may be rejected as irrelevant, but its visible testimony in the church will not be so easily ignored.
Furthermore, when lived before a watching world, such authentic community is also deeply attractive. Individualism may appeal to humanity’s desire for autonomy, but it cannot cover up the fact that men and women were made for community. Speaking from their experience in England, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis write:
In my experience of church planting, time after time people have been attracted to the Christian community before they were attracted to the Christian message. Of course, attraction to the Christian community is not enough. The gospel is a word. Conversion involves believing the truth. But our generation–and perhaps there is nothing special about them in this–understands the gospel message better when it is set in the context of a gospel community.7
Whereas individualism and sin ultimately result in fractured relationships, authentic Christian community demonstrates that there is another way, a way in which men and women, rich and poor, blacks and whites, Basques, Spaniards, Gypsies, Arabs, Asians and Latinos genuinely come together as brothers and sisters under the saving and transforming lordship of Jesus. Authentic Christian communities offer the gospel, not just as an objective truth, but as a living reality. Though this is true in any context, how much more so in our diverse urban centers which are so characterized by racial, class and tribal divisions. It is not enough to say that the gospel can reconcile people with their heavenly Father; churches must show that the gospel can also unify people with their very human neighbors. They must demonstrate that they are capable of accomplishing through Jesus what humanity has never achieved through any government agency, non-profit organization or military machine.
Our attempts to plant house churches and start small groups has made clear that authentic community is much more difficult and demanding than most people imagine. A very genuine desire for community often clashes in practice with an equal or even greater desire to maintain individual autonomy. At other times it clashes with a related desire to protect one’s own privacy, intimacy or even the appearance of spirituality.
In our experience both in the United States and in Spain, many evangelical believers get excited when we talk about this sort of community. They are deeply dissatisfied with the Sunday morning church “event,” with the preponderance of shallow church relationships and with the many programmatic attempts to “create community.” However, they often do not genuinely understand what they are longing for. Our attempts to plant house churches and start small groups has made clear that authentic community is much more difficult and demanding than most people imagine. A very genuine desire for community often clashes in practice with an equal or even greater desire to maintain individual autonomy. At other times it clashes with a related desire to protect one’s own privacy, intimacy or even the appearance of spirituality.
Authentic Christian community, however, will always fall apart when joined together with any such human expectations or conditions. Bonhoeffer states: “The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams…. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive.”8 The church cannot seek community on its own terms, but only on God’s. And that will require a biblical, missional love for God and for neighbor that seems to have grown cold in many Western congregations.
Like the Israel of old, an inward-looking community will begin to view outsiders as a threat to the good thing they have going on instead of viewing them as objects of divine love, which the Bible says they are. If a community does not exist for the good of the world, it is not and cannot be authentically Christian.
The missional purpose of the Christian community is also essential to its achieving a truly biblical authenticity. Community can never be an end in and of itself. Otherwise the church becomes “inward-looking rather than missional.”9 This is particularly a danger for Christians who are discontent with their past church experiences. Authentic Christian community must exist for the sake of mission unto God’s glory or it will become the enemy of mission to the detriment of God’s glory. There is really very little middle ground. When gospel mission is not at the core, a community becomes incapable of reaching an unbelieving world, proving itself neither attractive nor provocative, neither inviting nor prophetic. Like the Israel of old, an inward-looking community will begin to view outsiders as a threat to the good thing they have going on instead of viewing them as objects of divine love, which the Bible says they are. If a community does not exist for the good of the world, it is not and cannot be authentically Christian.
Since the fall of humanity, God has been calling into existence a missional people for His own glory and for the salvation of the nations. Although it is often forgotten in the midst of all the Old Testament Sunday School stories and history lessons, this was one of the primary purposes for which God called into existence the nation of Israel, so that it might be a blessing to the nations. They were to be a kingdom of priests through whom the world would come to know a saving God. Israel, however, utterly failed in its task due to its unfaithfulness both to the covenant and to its God. Furthermore, Israel began to view the peoples of the world as either objects of conquest or as threats to its own security and spirituality, despite the fact that the peoples of the world were meant to be viewed as a God-given field of mission.
Since at least the day of Pentecost, this missional calling has been bestowed upon the Christian church, the new people of God. Over the centuries, however, instead of learning from Israel’s failure, the Christendom church began to follow the same, deeply misguided path. At the height of Christendom, this path was exemplified in the coercion, violence and cultural imperialism of the Crusades, the Inquisition and Western colonization. In more pietistic, monastic and fundamentalistic circles, mission was often lost in the church’s zeal to protect itself from the corruption of the outside world. As the world entered into modernism and then postmodernism the liberal church ceased to embrace biblical mission because it ceased to believe in it. But perhaps in the majority of Western contexts, mission was lost simply due to the church’s ongoing preoccupation with its own general maintenance and well-being. If the Western church is to be a force for the gospel today in the post-Christendom world, however, mission must once again find its place at the center of Christian identity.
Simply stated, “Mission is the central purpose of the church in the world.”10 The biblical texts that argue for this centrality are well-known, though we believe it worthwhile to repeat at least a few of them here:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. (Acts 1:18)
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. . . . Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14, 16)
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
These passages–and many others–clearly demonstrate that the Christian community, individually and corporately, has been created as a people and graced with salvation so that it might proclaim the saving greatness of God to the world. But there is a great difference between the typical Western evangelical emphasis on missions and the church being truly missional. The former has to do with a specific type of activity; the latter has to do with the church’s fundamental identity. Ed Stetzer explains:
Don’t confuse the terms mission-minded and missional. The first refers to an attitude of caring about missions, particularly overseas. Missional means actually doing mission right where you are. Missional means adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound…. A church becomes missional when it remains faithful to the gospel and simultaneously seeks to contextualize the gospel (to the degree it can) so the gospel engages the hearers and transforms their worldviews.11
For the missional church, all theology is missional, all people are missionaries, all geographical and social contexts are mission fields and all programs are mission-focused.
Missional identity is a corporate calling to bring the gospel to bear on all of life. It involves every church member and rejects the unbiblical distinctions between the secular and the sacred in the Christian life. It refuses to confine mission to a branch of theology, to a specific class of highly trained professionals, to specific geographical regions or to just another church program (among many). For the missional church, all theology is missional, all people are missionaries, all geographical and social contexts are mission fields and all programs are mission-focused. “Mission is not an agenda item–it is the agenda.”12
For this reason, a church’s missional identity will place mission at the center of all that it does. Teaching becomes missional as it equips the saints for works of gospel service. Community becomes missional as it seeks to bring and demonstrate the gospel to an unbelieving world in the day to day. Marriages become missional when they become counter-cultural demonstrations of God’s love for His people. Even the most mundane activities of everyday life–work, shopping, having coffee–become missional when they are done with gospel intentionality, especially so when they are done in the context of authentic community. Missional identity is not about doing more evangelistic activities, but about living a more gospel-centered life.
Taking seriously the church’s missional identity is both a scriptural mandate and a necessary response to the challenges of Christendom. When properly united with scriptural authority and authentic community, it pushes the church out of its cultural marginalization, refuses to allow the gospel to be limited to the “private” or subjective sphere of life and forces the world to take seriously the Christian community and its message on its own terms. Genuine missional living is a powerful force that is capable of calling into question established religious traditions–whether they be culturally dominant or self-imposed–by contrasting their spiritual weakness with the actual transforming power of the gospel as seen in a community of transformed people. It also gives the church and its members a sense of purpose that will sustain them as they commit themselves to the sort of long-term relationships that are essential for effective gospel mission in post-Christian contexts.
What the church requires is not a new strategy, but a renewed, gospel-centered heart. When the Western church is willing to repent of its arrogant disobedience, its gospel denying individualism and its selfish, self-centered ecclesial life, then there will be meaningful change.
The Western world has changed, but the need for the gospel remains. What the church requires is not a new strategy, but a renewed, gospel-centered heart. When the Western church is willing to repent of its arrogant disobedience, its gospel denying individualism and its selfish, self-centered ecclesial life, then there will be meaningful change. Then the mustard seed will be revealed as that glorious tree in whose branches the nations will find rest. Of course it will be difficult to engage culture without the safety net of Christendom. There are no easy answers. But perhaps this is precisely what the Western church needs if it is to awaken from its long slumber of complacency. Perhaps this is part of God’s purpose for the post-Christendom church.
1 Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community (Nottingham, England: IVP, 2007), 16.
2 David Mills, “Necessary Doctrines: Why Dogma Is Needed & Why Substitutes Fail,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st-Century; Essays in Honor of Thomas C. Oden, eds. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 116.
3 James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2006), 26.
4 Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2005), 112.
5 Robert J. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Settings, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 26.
6 Bryan P. Stone, Evangelism After Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 313.
7 Steve Timmis and Tim Chester, The Gospel-Centred Church: A Tool For Shaping Your Church Around Christ’s Mission, rev. ed. (New Malden, UK: The Good Book Company, 2005), 75.
8 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), 26-27.
9 Stuart Murray, Church After Christendom (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2005), 87.
10 Timmis and Chester, Gospel-Centred, 9.
11 Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2006), 19, 25.
12 Murray, Church After Christendom, 137.