Christendom is gone! According to Will Willimon, author, Duke professor and now retired Methodist Bishop, it ended in July of 1965 in a small town in North Carolina, when the local movie theatre decided to open on Sunday afternoon and show a film. Christendom is a word used to describe the time period from roughly 325 til 1965 or 75 or 95 or2005. The term refers to the time when the Christian faith was the dominant religious and political power in the western world. Some of you reading this blog will recall a time when Sunday morning was set aside for Christian worship in this country. There were no stores, movie theatres or soccer leagues open on Sunday. The dominant culture reinforced participation in the Christian faith. As Peter Steinke says, “We had home field advantage.” That world, that framework of understanding who we are is largely gone. We have a few vestiges of that time, such as sales tax exemption for churches in most states, pockets where politicians are expected to be Christian in name to be elected, and a few other hints here and there.
But, for the most part, Christendom is gone. Yet, most of our congregations, not just in the ELCA but in all of Christianity in north America, have not discovered that a new world surrounds us. One of the ways this reveals itself is in our expectations of how people will enter into our congregations. The traditional pattern has been to believe first (accept the doctrine), then choose to belong (membership) followed by participating in the behaviors (sacraments, spiritual disciplines, bible study and responsible living) of the faith. The church of Christendom was largely based on this method of ministry, but does it still apply?
The general expectations of many of our congregations involved people selecting a congregation because they agreed with the belief system of the prescribed doctrine of faith. (I recognize that not everyone chose the particular denomination, many simply attended the one their parents attended) In other words they believed their way into the faith. This followed with an acceptance by the congregation that they would belong to that community of faith. The practice of church councils approving people for membership based on their adherence to the particular standards, creeds and confessions of that denomination is a good example of this pattern. After belonging (aka membership) one was invited to participate in the behaviors of the Christian community – receive the sacraments, practice their faith in community life, participate in mission trips, retreats, etc.
That model is largely a thing of the past.
Diana Butler Bass has suggested that the new pattern emerging is behave, belong, believe. (See her book Christianity after Religion) We are now in a time when people are exploring the Christian faith by testing out the practices. People want to try on, test and see if the faith fits. In other words, they want to test the behaviors. I have maintained elsewhere on this blog that the BIG question about Christianity is shifted from, Is it true?, to Does it work? This is a challenge for a doctrinally oriented denomination as Lutherans. We have built our church on a doctrinal approach to the faith. This is not a strictly Lutheran approach, but we are most often emphasizing a right understanding or articulation of the faith. Lutherans are unique in that we are both a confessional church (i.e. the Augsburg Confession) as well as a creedal church (i.e. the Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian creeds) The idea of our behaviors taking the lead makes Lutherans extremely nervous, because we are concerned people will see their actions as a prerequisite for receiving God’s Grace, Love and affirmation. Martin Luther was so suspicious of the New Testament book of James, that he suggested it be removed. “Faith without works is dead” made Luther fear that it would be used to reinforce a middle ages works righteousness.
But, context is everything.
The beauty of the reforming movement within the Christian community that is Lutheran theology has been its dramatic impact. Justification by Grace through Faith has even been embraced by the Roman Catholic church in the 1980’s. (We can argue about how fully this doctrine has fully lived out in the Roman church, much less other traditions, but the doctrinal agreements have been embraced) My sense is that grace is a dominantly accepted framework for many people in the west.
I’m suggesting, along with Butler Bass, that in our time the emerging pattern is behave, belong and lastly believe. I think a case can be made for allowing people to participate in many aspects of the life of the community prior to their accepting or buying into a belief system. Could this mean that our historical practice of requiring people to be baptized first, prior to receiving Holy Communion needs to be examined? One discussion group on this topic suggested that maybe we could be ‘communing people on the way to the font.’
But, this may relate to both an historical and contemporary approach to mission. I believe there is high value to inviting people, who are not a part of the faith/church, to participate in a mission trip or habitat for humanity type project. As they come along to try on some of the behaviors of the Christian community they explore what it means to be a person of faith. They just might behave their way into belonging.
In a different approach Alan Krieder has written about the practice of the early church, where candidates for catechetical instruction were first expected to demonstrate behaviors of moral uprightness. In other words, they wanted candidates for the faith to be working on their lifestyle, before they engaged the community. The pattern in the early church seems to be behave, believe and then belong.
All this suggests a way of thinking about the Christian faith using three legs of a stool, and those three legs are not static. Belonging, Behaving and Believing are all significant aspects of a fully embodied disciple of Jesus Christ, but we may need to be flexible in our ordering. For some people, there is an intellectual connection to the faith, for others it will be the attractiveness of belonging to a community, and others it’s the behaviors. In other words, there is no one path. We are wise to see that there are multiple ways into the faith.