Gone are the days where identifying as a Christian gains you cultural capital. We no longer live in a world where the Church sits at the center of political power, where the Church guards the ethics and morality of society.
Our world has changed and continues to change, and that may seem scary to some, but I don’t mourn the death of Christendom, I welcome it.
As difficult and challenging and confusing as these times may be, the Church is now back to the place it’s always thrived. We find ourselves, one again, on the margins of society, no longer at the top but at the bottom. Culture doesn’t see us as respectable and influential, but instead they see us as idiots and bigots. And, though I hope we never have to experience persecution like the early Church, I’m excited about our cultural moment. We’re back in the place where we have historically flourished. It’s an opportunity for us to step out in faith and be the people of God living out the mission of God - but one thing is for sure, it’s going to take courage.
The Realities of Christendom
Looking at God’s people throughout history around the world, we’ve rarely been in a place of power and favor. In fact, the very roots of the Church grew from the soil of a Roman Empire that attempted to stamp out the faith, feeding early Christians to lions, putting them in prison, crucifying them upside down and boiling them alive. When we look at the people of God throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament and in the centuries that followed, Christians always found themselves on the margins of society. Then everything changed.
By the late fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, creating a marriage of Church and State, and Christendom officially dawned. Over the next few centuries, the Christian faith spread even further outside the rule and reign of the Roman Empire. It came to include the whole of Europe, Russia and then eventually America. What came to be known as the “Western world” was essentially Christendom.
I don’t know if you paid attention in history class, but not all of Christendom was merry and bright. In spite of what might appear to be a wonderful movement of the Spirit, there has always been a gross underbelly to it all. From the Crusades to Manifest Destiny, horrendous and treacherous things were done in the name of Jesus Christ.
While there were certainly times of struggle and decay, Christendom reigned supreme for roughly 1,400 years throughout Europe and the Americas until cracks were caused primarily by the Enlightenment. There was a shifting thinking. Human reason - and the intellect - became king. Though many Enlightenment thinkers still believed in God, this line of thinking led to a way of life where God ceased to be the center of reality - man became the center. Before long, the church was no longer considered the guardian of moral and ethical behavior.
Thriving on the Margins
Now we find ourselves in a society where not only fewer people are confessing Christ as Lord, but more people are beginning to grow hostile toward him, and his people. In that context, no impressive smoke machine or entertainment is going to keep people coming to a gathering which seems not just out of touch, but outdated and foolish. The Church has been removed from its place of cultural and political power and is being pushed further and further toward the margins. Yet the Church thrives on the margins. That’s why our cultural moment doesn’t need to be viewed as depressing but exciting.
No impressive smoke machine or entertainment is going to keep people coming to a gathering which seems not just out of touch, but outdated and foolish
History has shown us not only that the Church functions best when it’s further removed from power, the State, and not closer to it, but also that our Western “Christian” world was essentially a mirage. The age of unbelief enables us to see Christendom for what it always was - no more or less sinful than this new age of unbelief, that people and societies have always been corrupt and sinful and no more “Christian” than they were when Adam and Eve rebelled and were sent East of Eden. It also sniffing out those who are “Christians” because of their family or because they go to church but have no interest in placing their lives under the authority of King Jesus. Marginalisation is the space where we find out where our loves and our allegiances really lie.
We have to get used to no longer being seen as honorable, but to being seen as bigots. We have to realise that people will respond to our views on life and death and marriage and sex with outrage, ridicule and even aggression. We have to accept that Christendom is dying, that in many places in this nation it’s already dead, and that that’s both a hard thing and a good thing.
The Need and Means for Courage
This is how we got to where we are today, and why I don’t mourn that we are where we are today. But living faithfully and effectively as God’s people in the age of unbelief won’t happen automatically or accidentally. We are going to need to live with courage. And that’s easier said than it is done. After all, it’s hard to be brave in the dark. But then again, it’s only in the dark that you can find out that you’re brave.
The church before Christendom was made up of individuals who had a courage that could not be quenched by the fires nor torn apart by the lions. It was made up of ordinary people who together unleashed an unstoppable multiplication of churches through the known world. The church after Christendom can, by God’s grace, rediscover that courage and rediscover that mission. Our response to the twilight of Christendom must be courage instead of fear - not a courage that we muster up and maintain by our strength and our efforts, but a courage that comes from the Lord and causes us to continue to call on the Lord.
It’s hard to be brave in the dark. But then again, it’s only in the dark that you can find out that you’re brave.
There are a number of ways that we can find courage in these challenging times, but I think it starts with taking the focus off ourselves - and not to mention man-made institutions - and on God. After all, the great 20th century theologian AW Tozer once said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." More specifically, I believe that seeing God as being infinite in riches and wisdom and being a warrior who fights on our behalf can help us recover the courage we need to live faithfully in this age of unbelief.
Throughout Scripture, we see just how big and powerful our God is. He creates the world out of nothing, and a number of passages refer to his unending and eternal riches. God is sovereign over everything. All the resources of the world are his and at his disposal. This means that in a world where Christians are being put in situations that threaten their jobs, their careers, their livelihoods, we can be bold and stand firm. It doesn't ultimately matter if we end up being broke or end up in prison. The wealth of God is immense and eternally ours, giving us courage that conquers our fears of what we may lose in the here and now.
We also see that God is not just infinitely rich, but he is also infinitely wise. God sees all and knows all, and he is managing things in ways we can't comprehend. He's playing the long game, and we need to hear that because we live in a culture that doesn't value the long game. Our digital, throwaway culture of instant information and instant gratification struggles to see the big picture. We want everything, and we want it quickly. But that's not how the Lord works.
This is important because there will come a day when we will be marginalised, ridiculed or oppressed for our faith, if it hasn’t already happened. In that moment, God’s wisdom and knowledge will be foundational to whether we respond in fear or with courage. When we begin to enter these spaces, whether it involves losing friends or being removed from certain spaces and conversations, there will be a temptation to lose hope. But in all things, God knows what he's doing.
As we seek to fight fear and embrace courage in the age of unbelief, it is pivotal too that we recapture the biblical reality that God is a warrior fighting on our behalf. This aspect of God has almost completely vanished today - when did you last hear a sermon on the warrior nature of our God? Without realising it, we can end up with a Tinker Bell Jesus, who has a bag of pixie dust and all he does is sprinkle us with blessings. He never gets upset about anything. You can't do anything wrong. His sprinkle dust is there to help you understand that, yes, you really are amazing.
Don’t get me wrong. You cannot think too much about or appreciate too deeply the grace, mercy, long-suffering, patience and kindness of God. We must never neglect those attributes of God. But make no mistake, the Bible also paints God as a warrior. Throughout the story of scripture, we see an epic story, a cosmic war, of God fighting on our behalf. And it is not a long battle. In the end, Jesus returns and defeats those who have refused to come under his rule and enjoys the shalom of his reign. Then we return to what we read in Genesis 1 and 2. The prophet Isaiah pictures the deserts blooming with flowers, the mountaintops producing sweet wine, and the lamb and the wolf laying down together (Isaiah 35:1-2; 25:6-8; 65:25). It's creation remade. Every man and woman on earth will bring glory to this God.
We do not wring our hands over the progress of some culture war if we know the result of the cosmic war.
This world is full of stories. All those Netflix binges you go on, all the sports that you keep up with on your television, your phone, your computer and your radio, all these sorts of things that we consume and enjoy for our entertainment, they’re telling us a story about ourselves, about our world, about our future, and, yes, about God. They’re discipling us, every day, shaping and forming us. If we’re not careful, we’ll look at what lies before us, this age of unbelief, and let these other stories shape the way we not only see it but also the way that we respond to it. But praise God we have a true and better story to live in - the greatest story ever told!
Since we know the end, we live towards it. We draw courage from it. We take heart in it. We do not wring our hands over the progress of some culture war if we know the result of the cosmic war. We look not to ourselves but to our great God, who is a warrior, fighting on our behalf and who has already won the war. We look to a God who is infinitely wise and rich, who is bigger and better than anything that would come before us.
When I look at the cultural landscape - the political situation, the economic situation, the racial divide, global terrorism, the numbers leaving the church, the growing hostility toward God’s word - I begin to feel afraid. I get that impulse. We find ourselves in hard, confusing times right now, in the wake of Christendom
But we can’t sit in this fear. We can’t let this fear grip us and cripple us, robbing us of our joy and holding us back from living faithfully and holding out the gospel. It’s okay to feel fear. That’s normal. That’s human. We’re weak and frail. But we must not stay in that place. We must move beyond it. We must learn to lean on something bigger, we must find something greater that transcends it - or rather, we must learn to lean on someone greater.
The courage we need only comes from getting our eyes off of ourselves, and onto the Lord. That is not an idea that will get quoted alongside a cute picture of your coffee cup and Bible on Instagram. But it’s so freeing and so transformational. God is far greater, far more eternal, far more sovereign, far more wonderful than anything this world may take from you. We are more than conquerors, always, through him who loves us. When the Church gets this, I believe we’ll not only survive, but we’ll thrive. After all, this is the place where we’ve always flourished.
Matt Chandler is the lead pastor of teaching at The Village Church in Texas and the author of Take Heart: Christian courage in the age of unbelief.