Suburban Context – Residual Christendom and Hard Secularism

Ok so back a question of mission and theology in the west…

One of my observations over the last few years is that when it comes to mission and evangelism in the west we aren’t just facing a tough secularism, but we are also contending with a form of residual Christendom.

I’m not sure which is the bigger challenge.

While there are those who are a long way from the gospel and completely unfamiliar with the Christian story, there are also those who have an inkling of what we are on about and who would come back to church if they ever wanted to find answers to their questions about ‘religion’. What’s interesting is that those who have the residual Christendom thing going on want to be able to return to a church that sings songs and listens to sermons (a ‘real church’ I have heard it called) while those who are more secular have less hang ups about how church gets expressed and are just as likely to be content in a different environment.

Our challenge is that both of these groups exist in our local community and we have to consider them both in our mission and evangelism. I say we need to consider them because a significant part of mission is helping people connect with a faith community and different expressions suit different people.

How do we reach both groups of people and how do we express church in a way that makes sense to both?

You could say that for the ‘residual Christendom’ folks we don’t really need to do anything. They will turn up as they want to and generally their comments are ‘it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be…’ There are a number of these folks around, especially when half your suburb are South African. But simply holding a church service isn’t a form of mission to them. The church service is a form that they will feel at ease in if they choose the path of faith, but they are often quite content outside of faith.

Perhaps the question is ‘how do we connect with these folks rather than waiting from them to come to us?’

My guess is that for some of our church community these are the folks they will feel most comfortable engaging in mission with. They know the story, have some level of familiarity with church and just need some convincing to ‘come back’.

To use an Acts analogy (from ch 17) they are ‘The Jews’. They know Yahweh and are familiar with the Torah, but they haven’t discovered Jesus. On one level they are an easier mission field, because they have some sympathy for the worldview, yet on another they are much tougher because it can be much harder to change distorted preconceived ideas than to help someone new form fresh ideas.

If residual Christendom parallels the Jews then the hard secularists may parallel the Greeks. These are folks with no exposure to the story who are going to start from scratch. Lately I’ve been involved in some discipleship with an Iranian guy who is a new Christian and in some ways it much easier to help him ‘get’ faith than it is to help someone with some wacky fundo-bizarro ideas from their teen years.

But I think most churches find the hard secularists a really difficult gig. They are generally content with life as it is – unless there is a crisis – and then there is a small window of curiosity, before the shutters go up again. And when I say ‘hard secular’ I don’t say it pejoratively, it’s just an apt description for people who find their hope and meaning in life in the physical and tangible rather than in a God.

Paul described himself as the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ – the one who sought out and even went after the ones with no history in the story of Israel. I feel some affinity with that framing, but there are days when I’m weary and I find myself just wanting to catch the fish that jump over the side of the boat… a bit lame…

I’m a bit lost for inspiration when it comes to ‘hard secularists’ as it seems that very little has had significant impact. Maybe that’s just how it is? Or maybe – as I consider Paul and his approach – we have trod too gently and need to be somewhat more confronting in our conversations?

If you read Acts you don’t see much of a slow relational approach from Paul – more of a short and intense blast… hmmm… food for thought…

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