Anyone who has spent much time around Christian literature and the work of the church knows that there is a great propensity to develop terms which receive pop culture status in certain circles. Words like ’emerging’, ‘organic’, and ‘purpose-driven’. Another term which is quickly climbing this later, even into the secular realm, is ‘post-Christian’. Blog posts and magazine articles and books are all coming out with ‘post-Christian’ emblazoned into their heading. Yet the danger that always comes with such sexy phrases is the distinct possibility that they will be used so widely as to end up meaning a whole bunch of nothing.
With that in mind, I came across a post yesterday on a popular SBC site in which the author seemed to take issue with the idea of ‘post-Christianity’, questioning if a supposed ‘post-Christian’ turn is really the crisis within the church that many people are claiming it to be. Specifically, he acknowledges an idea of ‘post-Christianity’ within the culture but argues that this state has existed for several decades and that it is arrogant to assume that the church needs to reform its mission to better deal with it.
My intention with this article is to first define ‘post-Christianity’, second, to show that such an idea of ‘post-Christianity’ is existent in the American culture today, and finally, to show that the American church does indeed need to make evangelistic and missiological reforms in order to more appropriately engage the present ‘post-Christian’ context.
To start with, I believe we can look to the writings and surroundings of Dr. Albert Mohler to get a good working definition of ‘post-Christian’. In the Newsweek article to which he contributed entitled The End of Christian America, ‘post-Christian’ is defined as “a period of time that follows the decline of the importance of Christianity in a region or society.” They go further to state that “The post-Christian narrative is radically different [than the Christian narrative]; it offers spirituality, however defined, without binding authority. . . . It is based on an understanding of history that presumes a less tolerant past and a more tolerant future, with the present as an important transitional step.” An important feature of post-Christianity thus defined is the fact that it retains certain pieces of a Christian memory from previous Christian generations without any longer holding to the same Christian commitments. It is this characteristic which makes post-Christianity an important cultural component to deal with, if in fact it does exist.
So, does it exist? Is post-Christianity as featured above a sociological reality in America today? Statistically this would appear to be the case, as Dr. Mohler argues in the aforementioned Newsweek article. In it they discuss the fact that the percentage of Americans self-identifying as “Christian” has fallen 10-points in the last 20 years. Combining with that the fact that Barna has a number of times shown that the number of “Christians” compared with the number of “Evangelicals” (as defined by affirming all in a set of eight orthodox criteria which seemingly all Southern Baptists would hold to) can differ by as radical a ratio as 22 to 1. That means that, assuming the maximal boundaries of the statistical research, it is possible that only roughly 5% of all Americans actually hold to faith in Biblical Christianity. (Conservative estimates tend to place this between 10- and 15% of the American population, still substantially lower than the self-identifying group.) Thus, in the last decade approximately one-tenth of Americans have decided to abandon Christianity, choosing instead to move towards various types of agnosticism or atheism. As well, for all intents and purposes, three-quarters of Americans claim Christianity but only at most one-fifth could be said to hold to a biblical faith, meaning that about half of all Americans nominally abide by a faith which pragmatically works its way out in assorted ungodly ways in their lives. This clearly seems to fit within the mold of what we defined post-Christian to be.
But what if we ignore the statistical evidence (as the author of the post inspiring this one casts aside the SBC “pollster prophets”), what can we glean from the anecdotal evidence we all have gathered? I will recount one recent experience, and you can tell me how often you’ve seen this:
A couple of months back I went out on a Monday night visitation with another man from my church to see a family that had attended our service the day before. Our goal was to approach them with the gospel, assess if they believed in it, and if they did not to share it with them in an evangelistic manner. The method by which our pastor had asked us to share the gospel with them was through using the “Bridge to Life” tract put out by the Navigators. So, we arrive at this person’s house and sit down with them and begin to talk about their background. The man tells us that he has been attending another church for a few years but wanted to check out our church because he was looking for better options for his children. He talks about the message and our pastor and so finally we get to the point where we ask him the key question, “If you were to die and stand before God tonight, what would you say to him is the reason that he should let you into his heaven?” The man proceeded to answer this by telling us that he does not think about heaven and believes that every person should live in accordance with their conscience.
Recognizing this as a troubling response we share with him from the gospel tract. On each page there is an illustration and a question to be asked, “What is the canyon that separates us from God?,” “What is the bridge that is offered over this canyon?,” “How can we cross that bridge?,” and to each question we asked the man knew every answer that we were looking for even though by all appearances he was a non-believer.
This is picture perfect post-Christianity and is a scenario repeated numerous times daily in the American church. People who fill up the pews, no all the answers, and yet in there hearts are no more than functional pagans. They have the Christian knowledge, the Christian memory, and yet practice”spirituality . . . without binding authority.” That is our definition of post-Christianity and I see no way in which we can deny that that is what exists predominantly in our culture today.
Now to the big question: if the culture we are engaging is largely post-Christian, is there anything about our evangelistic and missiological practices that we need to change in order to more effectively reach it? I think it is important that we all work on the assumption that the church should seek to obey the principle taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9.19-23 in presenting the gospel in a culturally appropriate manner, or else this conversation will never get off the ground. Then, with that assumption in place, I would argue that yes, there are several important evangelistic and missiological changes that we need to make in order to most effectively reach the post-Christian culture in which we live.
Among these are preaching in a manner that assumes less about the audience’s a priori biblical comprehension and evangelizing in a way that more acutely tests the heart of the hearer and not just challenging them to recite a formula followed by praying a canned prayer. Only 5% of people actually believe they are going to hell, so asking, “If you were to die tonight, where would you spend eternity?” is not going to get us very far anymore.
As well, we need greater emphasis on what is actually in the Great Commission (Matthew 28.18-20), namely “mak[ing] disciples” and “teaching [people] to observe all that [Christ] has commanded,” and less emphasis on what’s not in it, namely getting decisions. People in the post-Christian culture are all about making emotional decisions, but when it comes to walking it out they opt for choosing their own steps to peace with God.
So, what about the initial concern: “Where do young Baptists get the idea that the older generation is crassly uninformed concerning our ‘post-Christian’ culture?” It is from the church! Look at our churches– the way in which they preach; the way in which they evangelize; the way in which they disciple-is it effective for reaching post-Christians, for reaching people who know all the answers and yet still feel justified in following their own way to (G/g)od? I do not believe we can honestly assess ourselves as being geared this way. And please don’t hear me wrong; what I’m advocating is deeper Christianity, not shallower as those who propose “contextualizing” are often accused of. I believe the church needs to be more responsible in the gospel message they preach, more intentional in the evangelistic lives they live, and more devout in their study of God’s Word.
That means doing it from the heart, not simply constructing laws and procedures which “good Christians” are to follow. This is our malaise. The church has grown lazy and out of our laziness we have essentially immunized the culture to the gospel. Unless we can recapture the gospel as something life-changing, something worth laying down our life for, and not just a verbal ascent to some FAITH outline, this present post-Christian age is hopeless for us to reach.
Maybe the post-Christian age is, as the original post claimed, nothing new, but that is saddest of all, because that means that for several decades the church has been neglecting to fulfill it’s mission as faithfully as possible by knowing those to whom we are taking the only message that is sufficient to save men’s lives.