For some reason, there seems to be a nostalgia, a longing for ‘the good old days’ (which never really existed for all too many). We tend to mythologize the past. Of course, there were many blessings for which to be grateful. Even so, to seek to reclaim yesterday is a vain pursuit. The future emerges irresistibly, like it or not. For the church, it is even more critical to look at the shifting culture, and at the emerging generation. This past week many churches celebrated both Reformation Day, and All Saints /All Souls Day which look back at persons and events that have been models of faith and obedience. This is all very appropriate. There are treasures from the past that need to be owned, to be sure. …

But, … the cultural landscape has gone through a radical change in the past generation, or so. Some have described it as a cultural diastrophism—that phenomenon which takes place when the subterranean tectonic plates shift, and everything on the surface is altered. For two millennia, since soon after the emergence of the Christian faith into human history, western civilization has been considered as a Christian-influenced (dominated?) culture, and designated as Christendom. Take note: this has all eroded and ceased to be a reality in very recent history. Post-Christendom has quietly but (again) ineluctably emerged. The church’s influence as a culture-creating force, and as a respected institution has begun to dissolve before our eyes.

Yet, those seeking to reclaim the past in the church have refused to open their eyes to that reality, have continued to seek to create the church institutions, and denominational expressions of Christendom without opening their eyes to the fact that the younger generations, produced by this post-Christian culture, have become more and more immune to its influence, or even cognizant of Christian faith and Christian church.

Missionary-theologian Lesslie Newbigin sought to alert the church to this a generation ago, when he returned from a distinguished missionary career in India, to his native United Kingdom, only to find that it was more difficult to communicate the Christian faith in England than it was in India. He became a prophet and his works were heralded and studied by church leaders widely—but even they found it difficult to translate into church structures formed by Christendom assumptions. I was part of one of the ‘think-tanks’ that grappled with this reality, where it was obvious that most of the participants could nod approvingly at Newbigin’s thesis, but were, albeit, still captive to the patterns and structures of Christendom.

Ah! but the younger generation, now on the scene, Generation Z, has come on to the scene, and the moment of truth has emerged that, overall, the Christian faith and church are not even on their scope. I first became graphically aware of this in my practice of hanging out in a coffee shop near a major university, and inhabited by young urban professionals, and university students. In conversation after conversation, while sharing current involvements, when I was asked what had been my career, my answer that I had been a teaching-pastor to the church (now get this), they respond: “What is the church?” or “What is a teaching-pastor?” These were not dummies; they were bright successful students and professionals.

In response, I wrote a book: What on Earth is the Church? in an attempt to explain to the utterly ‘out of it’ and secularized younger generation something of the reality.

More recently I have been made to realize that we are dealing with the first truly post-Christian generation. In coming blogs, I will be pursuing this theme. Meanwhile I commend a brilliant study: Meet Generation Z, by scholar and pastor James Emery White, and I will be piggy-backing on his consciousness-raising insights. “Forgetting those things that are past, and pressing forward …” Stay tuned.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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