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Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Christendom

Isaiah 43:18-21
“But forget all that— it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. The wild animals in the fields will thank me, the jackals and owls, too, for giving them water in the desert. Yes, I will make rivers in the dry wasteland so my chosen people can be refreshed. I have made Israel for myself, and they will someday honor me before the whole world.

Deuteronomy 31:7-8
Then Moses called for Joshua, and as all Israel watched, he said to him, “Be strong and courageous! For you will lead these people into the land that the LORD swore to their ancestors he would give them. You are the one who will divide it among them as their grants of land. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.”


In a London school, a teenager with no church connections hears the Christmas story for the first time. His teacher tells it well and he is fascinated by this amazing story. When the teacher concludes the story, risking his friends’ mockery, he raises his hand, and thanks her for the story. One thing disturbs him however, so he asks: “Why did they give the baby a swear–word for his name?”

One Sunday in Oxford, a man visits a church building to collect something for his partner who works during the week in a creative arts project at the church. He arrives as the morning congregation is leaving and recognizes the minister, whom he knows. Surprised, he asks, “What are all these people doing here? I didn’t know churches were open on Sundays!”

The stories depict a British culture in which the Christian story is unknown and churches are alien institutions whose rhythms of life don’t intrude on most members of society. A few years ago, neither would have been believable, but today there are numerous signs that the era of Christendom is fading in the West. In his book The Secret Servant, Daniel Silva observes an old stone church in stately Amsterdam. He writes, “It’s a church without faithful in a city without God.” It could be said of many cities in the Great Britain, and Europe. In Great Britain, only 4 percent of the children are involved in church. If the Church of Scotland continues to shrink at the present rate, it will die in 2033 (only 26 years from now!)

But that can’t be the case in America, right? Isn’t he church in America is still a thriving centerpiece of our culture? Consider these chilling statistics. Over the past ten years, the largest mainline denomination, the United Methodist Church, has experienced a net numerical decline of about 400,000 members. The Presbyterian Church (USA) experienced a net decline of about 336,000 members. The UCC lost almost 230,000 members, about 15% of the total.

How about our congregation? Has TCC experienced the same decline? Founded in 1730 by Puritans, our congregation proudly boasts of its multi-century presence in the community. The founding of TCC is the story of resolute men and women making their way in a flourishing but difficult new world. With good sense, steady nerves, and unconquerable resolution, they began a 279-year record of “faith, tolerance, and good works.” In 1730, the Puritan meetinghouse was the center of all religious and civic gatherings. The early residents of Trumbull saw problem with holding town meetings in a place of worship. TCC had power and influence when it was the only church in town and attendance was mandatory. Today, there are at least twenty-seven houses of worship in Trumbull. At one time, TCC was the symbolic center of the town’s spiritual life. Community residents no longer see our congregation as the center of formation and identity. In 1954, our Sunday School attendance of 176 students, including seventy-eight Junior High and High School students and nineteen teachers. The active church membership rolls swelled to 543 members, representing a net gain of 32 from the previous year. Now our church rolls hover at around 225 active members with 100 to 120 people attending worship on Sunday mornings. Committees do more work with fewer volunteers and less funding. Income rarely exceeds expenses. Worship attendance holds steady, while the cost per worshipper has increased.

Forces far beyond our control have forced us into a land that is very different from our past. Many of the things that have been familiar to us are gone or have changed. These things have been with us for so long we can’t imagine living without them. What’s going on here?

In 313 C.E., when Emperor Constantine, the leader of the Roman Empire, legalized Christianity, Christianity changed from an illegal and sometimes persecuted minority to the favored religion of the Roman Empire. The Empire came to be identified with the cause of Christianity. Church officials used the government as an ally to promote Christian orthodoxy. Convinced that Christendom owned the right answers to the world’s problems, the church used the Great Commission as its marching orders to expand the kingdom of God. Conversion of the masses justified any necessary means of persuasion to make it happen. Christianity evolved into what we call Christendom. It literally means “the dominion of Christ,” the established religion of the Empire and the dominant way of understanding our faith up until recent times.

Christendom calls Christians in local congregations to be good citizens and to support both the state and the church in reaching and overcoming those who live outside its bounds. Christendom calls for absolute unity. It gives no space for difference or dissent. One joins the church as a matter of birth, not volition. The laity are expected to be good, law-abiding citizens, pay taxes, and support efforts to enlarge the state. Loyalty and obedience are the primary virtues of Christendom’s inhabitants. The Christendom paradigm calls upon Christians to support the government and their church leaders with their prayers and even their lives, if called upon.

The form of Christendom known best to our congregation came to the New World on the Mayflower and took on a new name: American Christendom. American Christendom was both different from and similar to the European form. Though this country was founded on principles that separated church and state, Christianity was nonetheless the culturally established religion. In New England, the clergy were influential in politics and in the formation of the new nation. These traditions carried on for a long time. The secular culture helped the churches by doing things like teaching prayer in schools and limiting sports on Sundays. In return, the churches helped the culture build hospitals and take care of the poor. Christendom flourished like this until just a half century ago.

Many of us grew up in this world of American Christendom, a world where church and culture were interwoven in ways that we were mostly unaware of. For example, many of you who grew up in the East can remember times when all the stores were closed on Sunday. In fact, not much of anything happened on Sundays, except church. No youth sports, no charity walks or runs, no college sports. Public schools opened the day with the pledge of allegiance and a prayer – sometimes even a reading from the Bible. These were central ways in which the culture supported the church.

Today’s world is much different. Certainly no prayers and Christmas pageants in public schools. Sundays have become a day to get more things done, not a day of worship and rest. We kick around all kinds of terms for our times: post-modern, post-Christian, post-denominational, pluralistic, multi-faith. The simple way of putting it is to say that the world for which we were carefully preparing, the world in which we learned what it meant to be a Christian, is being taken away from us.

I believe that today the church faces a crisis of apostolicity. The term “apostolicity” has the word “apostle” in it. It describes the affirmation that the church is chosen and sent by God into the world to share God’s blessings to others. Apostles are people who bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the apostles of today. We are the ones who bear witness to the resurrection and the teachings of Jesus. This does not mean that we remain stuck in our traditions and comfortable worldviews. It does mean we need to be realistic about our situation. We are not the church at the center of life anymore. We are becoming a church on the margins, and we need to redefine ourselves if we want to faithfully proclaim our faith to the next generations.

We are not the first ones to experience a seismic shift in our religious practice. In the Bible, the people of Israel went through something called the Exile. God’s people were taken over by the armies of Babylon and deported from the Promised Land. Babylon’s armies killed the monarchy and smashed the temple in Jerusalem to the ground. Some Israelites remained in their devastated homeland, but most were forced to live as defeated slaves in Babylon. Everything they relied on to define their spiritual existence was taken from them: the Temple, the religious establishment, the monarchy, their sense of entitlement, their self-assurance of God’s favored blessing. All they had were God’s promises that they were not doomed to extinction. God would not leave them. God would not forsake them. God would not bring them to the Promised Land just to snatch it away. God would make a pathway through the wilderness and lead them home.

It is not so different today. We can’t imagine living without our church buildings, our denominational structure, our preeminent place in the culture, our belief God will favor us and our nation forever. But those things are changing. Our buildings are so expensive that they compromise our witness. Our denomination seems to be fading away. Christianity is no longer the unofficial state religion. Sometimes it feels like God has withdrawn favor toward us. In other words, we are being forced to live in a land and a church that is far different from what it was when most of us grew up.

Many of us are feel is a sense of loss — a grief over what no longer exists, and a sense of discouragement about the church. Our sanctuaries are not as full as they used to be. Some of our neighboring Congregational churches that used to be the bedrock of the town are closing their doors. Denominational identity is unsatisfying. Church programs that once worked are now ineffective. We are being forced into exile. In this time of loss and change, we can feel anxiety, anger, desperation, and a rush for answers or programs or people who will take away our pain and take us back to the time when life was better and easier. We want the one program that will revitalize our church, bring in new members, put money in the offering plate. We want the denomination to do something. But none of them seem able to do what we want or need. We are entering exile.

Of course, great things are still happening. The church is still a meaningful place for us. It’s just that the world around us changed and we didn’t think we had to change with it. The sooner we acknowledge our current experience and fully enter the exile the sooner we will find out why God has put us here and what God offers us while we are here. I say that because, ultimately, it is God who wants us in exile. And for good reasons. God is up to something new. God wants us to embrace our new place on the margins of society so that we can more fully become the church God created us to be in the first place. This is the place where we can learn about the deep value of forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, the restoration in families, and the power of neighborhood organizations. This is the place where we can rediscover the meaning of spirituality. This is the place where we can learn about worship and recognize that something deeper is needed in our life, a place where in spiritual roots can be nurtured and grow so that we can are anchored in faith in the face of relentless stress in a global community. This is the place where we learn to build a sense of community and break down the loneliness, isolation, and polarization of life in Trumbull. This is the place where we support each other as we experience the demise of culturally supported Christendom and affirm the liberating decision to be a Christian. We don’t have to apologize for our faith, yet in a pluralistic culture we must find creative ways to invite others to join us while being careful not to be intolerant or feel superior to others.

This is our opportunity to become the church that God intended us to be: the caring, creative, counter-cultural, critical, and Christ-following apostles who bear witness to new life. If you are ready for adventure, this is a great time to be a member of the church. We face a wondrously exciting time that can help our congregational enter into our changing times and the new life that comes with it.

Sources
· http://www.pcusa.org/research/reports/denominational_size.pdf

· A “Funeral” for Christendom. Available online at http://www.firstchurchlongmeadow.org/firstchurch/PDFFiles/Sermon%20of%20November%2012%202006%20MSB.pdf

· “It’s Not About You” a sermon preached by Dr. Larry Corbett. Available online at http://www.pinnaclepres.com/sermons/2007/sermon_070812.html

· Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church (Washington D.C.:The Alban Institute, 1991.

· The Trumbull Congregational Church, “Meeting Minutes,” January 18, 1954.

· Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1994).

· Stuart. Murray, Church After Christendom (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004).

· Stuart. Murray, Post Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2004).

· Dana Lindsley, “Life is Hard in Exile.” Available online at http://www.psne.org/Ref%20D.pdf

· Anthony Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

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