“Post-Christendom” is a term used by a small group of theologians (primarily European Anabaptist theologians, from what I can see) to describe society after the death of the 1700-year-old concept of “Christendom.” The Roman emperor Constantine linked Christianity and Empire, and in Europe and European-dominated lands they’ve been linked ever since — until recently.
Here in the United States, with an avowed Christian in the White House and Christians dominating Congress and the courts, it may sometime feel as if we are becoming a more Christian country. But even here, church attendance has been dropping slowly for decades, and we’re seeing increasing numbers of persons affiliated with non-Christian religions, as well as seeing increasing numbers of persons with no religious affiliation at all. Now when someone offers a prayer at a graduation, it’s no longer unremarkable; instead, it has become an act of defiance. At the moment, Christendom in the United States appears to be dying.
So where does that leave those of us in post-Christian congregations? For some post-Christian congregations, the death of Christendom has probably helped somewhat, because now it is more socially acceptable to join a post-Christian congregation.
I can’t speak for all post-Christian congregations, and really I can only talk about what I’ve seen in a handful of Unitarian Universalist congregations that have become post-Christian. Mostly what I have seen Unitarian Universalist post-Christians who seem pleased that Christendom is dying, but who forget the extent to which Unitarian Universalism has been supported by Christendom.
And yes, we have been supported by Christendom. Here’s one example: Up until very recently, most of our best new members were “come-outers,” those who had “come out” to us from Christian churches. They found it easy to enter Unitarian Universalist worship services, because our worship services felt very familiar — we have hymnals and sermons and things like that, and the come-outers knew how to do hymnals and sermons and things like that. But as Christendom slowly dies around us, more and more of our new members have never set foot in a church before, so that our worship services may feel a little strange or uncomfortable. Yet we are not good about trying to integrate these newcomers into a Unitarian Universalist worship subculture that is increasingly divergent from mainstream culture.
Take another example: Sixty years ago, such a large percentage of the population went to church that it was easy for Unitarian Universalist congregations to get new members. Tons of people just walked in our doors to check us out, and we barely had to advertise. It was as if dump trucks full of potential new members backed up to our doors each Sunday, and unloaded more people. Sure, we didn’t have a great retention rate and we lost a lot of these visitors, but who cared? –the dump trucks would be back next Sunday to dump more through our doors. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice that those dump trucks stopped running between 1960 and 1970, and we have few ideas about how to integrate the kinds of newcomers we now get.
And one more example: In the 1950’s, at the height of what has come to be called “civic religion,” children had prayers and Bible readings in public schools, families read the Bible and prayed together at home, and there was a rich ecology of religious education throughout society. So when children came to Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools, they had lots of knowledge about religion and all we had to do was teach them that Jesus isn’t God, the Bible isn’t literally true, and that there are other religions out there besides Christianity. Today, typically the only time children learn anything about religion is when they come to Sunday school — which means most kids get about 20 hours of religious instruction a year. Yet we still run our post-Christian Sunday schools as if it’s the 1950’s.
So you can see that on a pragmatic level, we continue to act as if Christendom is in place, and we continue to act as if our place in Christendom is to offer an alternative to Christendom. Even though we think we are post-Christians (and in our hearts, many of us are post-Christians), we run our congregations as if we were still in 1950’s congregations, in a land dominated by the civic religion of Christendom.
So what do we do about this? On Wednesday, I’ll offer some suggestions for post-Christian congregations in a post-Chrsitendom world.