Christianity began as a tiny movement of Jews who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. They spread this message to Jews and Gentiles and planted churches across the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the common era. There is abundant evidence that these churches were generally small and that most congregations numbered something like 30-70 people. Issues regarding how to develop and govern these churches arose over time. It seems apparent that there is no extant blueprint that has been passed on to us regarding how this should be done down through the centuries. Christianity seems incredibly adaptable to various cultures and for this reason it could spread into all cultures.
What we do know is that in spite of many faults the church acquired it eventually provided the basis for a new era of learning, industry and civil order that arose from the impact of the church upon society. In the sixteenth century the Reformation not only divided the church in the West but it led to renewal in the Catholic Church. Eventually this resulted in a great rise in missionary activity from both Protestant and Catholic sources. By the twentieth century a worldwide exportation of products and ideas followed and this global expansion opened the door even wider for global missions. At the same time Europe's civilization began a long, slow slide toward secularism. There is an almost astonishing correlation between the decline of births with the decline of the church and its influence throughout Europe. The question remains what this will mean for North America. Will we follow this European pattern? There is growing evidence that we might follow Europe but there is considerable reason to think that America could follow a very different model.
By 2050 Patrick Johnstone says that less than half of Europe will claim any adherence to Christianity. This leads Johnstone to conclude that there are "uncomfortable parallels between the situation in Europe today and the collapse of the Greco-Roman civilization of antiquity."
But here in America the situation does not entirely parallel that in Europe. Two centuries of Protestant immigration and numerical growth combined with periodic revivals have shaped a different kind of situation. Here church and state were never connected in the same way. The church in America was free to innovate and develop new ideas. (This is a double-edged sword I realize!) The result of these developments is a Christianity that has a huge variety in church life, teachings and worship styles. In the midst of this chaos some very good things have emerged at various times in our history. Cults have grown, for sure, but so have genuine Christian churches and movements that have given us both health and numerical growth.
The rise of non-Christian immigration, in recent decades, and the gains of the non-religious (or "nones") in our religious demographics, makes things extremely problematic for the church going forward. (We are in a period of church decline, make no mistake about this fact.) The influence of secularism remains strong, especially in higher education and among the culturally elite. The problems these changes present will not go away anytime soon. But the separation of church and state makes for a unique opportunity for thoughtful Christians to emerge into new missional thought and practice in America. Let me explain.
Could a new kind of civilization, one not rooted in empire or in dependence upon religion linked with the state in any form, arise in the twenty-first century? Simply put, could a new kind of Christianity emerge that produces a more tolerant, less proud and more deeply caring expression of public faith? Could a vigorous, but less politically motivated, Christianity take the place of a church deeply engaged in culture wars and partisan, divisive bickering?
I do not believe that we know the answer to these questions quite yet. There are signs that give me hope but there are signs that I find deeply troubling. This leads me to ask the question I've been asking for some years now:
"What will Christianity look like in North America when the impact the church once had upon the culture is gone and Christians must then learn how to live meaningfully in a setting where they do not get to directly determine the cultural outcomes of their society?"
How should Christians prepare for this future?
I believe we need to train leaders who are genuine missional-ecumenists. These will be leaders who grasp the central importance of Jesus to all of life. Such missional faith is not privatized religion. It must be very public. But it is not public in the way we've known it in the past. It is not boisterous and in your face about its truth claims. What we need, especially in the face of religious pluralism, is a developed imagination produced by the Holy Spirit. This developed, Spirit-filled imagination, will guide is in knowing how to proceed in our "brave new world." Without this we will not thrive in being faithful to Christ's mission in the decades ahead of us. With it then who knows what kind of civilization might we become under God's grace?
One thing I am sure about in asking these kinds of questions. We cannot go back. The America I knew as a child is gone. Political elections, revival campaigns, new church plants, and a myriad of other religious and social solutions, will not bring back that America. We cannot work ourselves out of this new diverse context. It is here to stay. The question is how the church will respond and what our role will be in a new American reality?