In the western world, by the middle ages, church and state had become pillars of the social culture, supporting each other. Where at one time followers of Jesus had met secretly, now they were given some of the greatest temples and meeting spaces of the empire. Christianity moved from being a dynamic, revolutionary, social and spiritual movement to being a static religious institution with its attendance structure, priesthood and sacraments. It became Christendom.
But it has been in decline, where the institutions and values no longer have a major role. The church is experiencing a “sharp and dramatic deterioration in its influence and impact on western society” (p 5), as “the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence’ (p 6). Some see the church as dying; others express hope not in the reconstitution of Christendom but that the end of this epoch “actually spells the beginning of a new flowering of Christianity.
The death of Christendom removes the final props that have supported the culturally respectable, mainstream version of Christianity” (p 7). The passing of Christendom might be compared to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, best described as exile, where we can no longer rely on temporal, cultural supports to reinforce our message, moved by the confronting message of Jesus.
Frost refers to Brueggemann’s analysis (in Cadences of Home) that calls for exiles to reaffirm their dangerous mission, practice dangerous promises, offer a dangerous critique of society, sing dangerous songs. The book is a powerful call to follow Jesus. The work of exiles is the rediscovery of the genius of the teaching of Jesus and the practice of the earliest Christians (p 26).
Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.