Do you worry about the decline of Christianity?
The Guardian reports, “Churches are closing at rapid numbers in the US, researchers say, as congregations dwindle across the country and a younger generation of Americans abandon Christianity altogether” (see here).
You might be tempted to think of that as bad news. For over 1500 years, Western civilization has been “Christendom,” the union of church, state, and culture, and it may seem scary to think of Christendom falling.
Or is it scary?
Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), who was a professor of modern history at Cambridge and a Methodist lay preacher, thought it was good and exciting. Why? I’ll let him explain:
“After a period of fifteen hundred years or so we can just about begin to say that at last no man is now a Christian because of government compulsion, or because it is the way to procure favor at court, or because it is necessary to qualify for public office, or because public opinion demands conformity, or because he would lose customers if he did not go to church, or even because habit and intellectual indolence keep the mind in the appointed groove. This fact makes the present day the most important and the most exhilarating period in the history of Christianity for fifteen hundred years; and the removal of so many kinds of inducement and compulsion makes nonsense of any argument based on the decline in the number of professing Christians in the twentieth century. We are back for the first time in something like the earliest centuries of Christianity, and those early centuries afford some relevant clues to the kind of attitude to adopt” (Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, p. 35).
We’re back to where Christianity started—as a counter-cultural movement.
In the past, in Christendom, to be a Christian was to be a member of a certain state. If the king said you were a Christian, that’s the religion you had to follow whether you believed it or not. Tribes “converted” en masse, people were baptized as children as a matter of state citizenship, and so, churches were filled with false believers who were only there because of social and legal pressures.
The situation is very different today. If you believe in Jesus, it’s probably because you actually mean it, and there are relatively few social pressures that would motivate someone to attend church. If anything, the cultural establishment ridicules and penalizes people for being Christian, so there is a cost for confessing Christ. That’s a good thing. The result is that with the decline of Christendom, we’re returning to a believer’s church, even in traditions that would prefer a state one.
Where does that put Free Grace believers? The decline of Christendom does not mean that we have more evangelism to do; it reveals how much work has always needed to be done.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.