How are we to evaluate the heritage called Christendom?
The Western world has moved from, or is currently in transition from, an era of Christendom to an era of post-Christendom. Many theologians have presented substantial theological considerations for how we are to evaluate the historical and cultural heritage called Christendom and how we are to understand the role of the church in a post-Christendom society. One of them is the English theologian Lesslie Newbigin. Even though Newbigin does not consistently unfold his theology in response to Christendom, one might say that in his early writings he develops a missional ecclesiology on the basis of his critique of Christendom’s ecclesiology, and that his later writings reflect on the mission of the church in a Western, post-Christendom society.
According to Newbigin, the rise of Christendom resulted in the church ceasing to understand itself as a missionary community. Given that the time of Christendom is over, the church in the West now seems to be re-appropriating its missional identity.
It is easy to mourn the collapse of Christendom: Why is the church marginalised? Why are so few participating in the church services? Why are churches losing members by the thousands? However, as we learn from Newbigin, this situation may serve as a benign moment in history, which can enable a realisation of a fundamental aspect of the Christian church’s identity and its role in society. This challenging situation should awaken us to realise what all churches, anytime and everywhere, are essentially called to, namely proclaim Christ as saviour in word and deeds to the whole of creation. Living amidst atheists, agnostics and Muslims, a new awareness of the missionary task of the church may come alive. Hence, the challenging situation in which the churches in the West find themselves holds great potential for a revitalisation of these churches.
(The text above is a revised excerpt from the conclusion of my article Beyond Christendom: Lesslie Newbigin as a Post-Christendom Theologian).
Jeppe Bach Nikolajsen
Associate Professor, Lutheran School of Theology Aarhus, Denmark
Adjunct Professor, MF Norwegian School of Theology Oslo, Norway