I often write about leadership, power, and church structures. Some of the issues and ideas I’ve presented may seem at odds with how the church has always done things. And some of the questions I receive from readers back that up.

There is an old story where one fish asks another, “How’s the water?” and the second fish replies, “What’s water?”

For those of us raised in the church, Christendom is the water we have been swimming in for much of our lives. And it is the water the church has lived in for over 1700 years. So, in that light, when we believe “this is how it has always been”, it makes sense. However, Christendom was not what the church was intended for.

Since much of what I write assumes everyone has a solid grasp of what Christendom is…or better said was, I thought it would be helpful to give a bit more depth to the term. It will also give you some idea of where I’m coming from.

Over the next several posts, we’ll dig into the following:

  • What was/is Christendom?
  • How did Christendom start?
  • How did Christendom change the world?
  • How did Christendom change the church?
  • Are we truly Post-Christendom?

Another post may be thrown in as ideas pop up, but this will serve as a general outline. This post will deal with the first question.

So, what was/is Christendom?

Christendom can be difficult to explain in some ways as it was never just one thing. Stuart Murray, in his book, Post-Christendom, tries to describe the term and notes that Christendom was a “geographical region”, a “historical era”, a “civilisation”, a “political arrangement”, and “an ideology”. 

A succinct definition is also challenging because Christendom in 13th Century Europe looks different from Christendom in 1950’s America, which looks different from Christendom in 1970’s Ireland.

What makes Christendom Christendom, regardless of where it is, is that the church is at the centre of life. Literally and figuratively.

Walk around a large European city, and you will be unable to avoid seeing the cathedral often towering over the other structures in its vicinity. Visit a village in Upstate NY or New England, and while you won’t find any cathedrals, you will find the church building in the centre of town.

But Christendom went far beyond the church’s physical location. In Christendom, almost everyone considered themselves a Christian, whether or not they bought into the whole Jesus thing or not. I was born in a “Christian country, so I am a Christian”.

In Christendom, the pastor or the priest held a position of respect and authority. When they spoke, people listened.

The World has Changed.

In multiple ways, we are living at a time of incredible change. Globalisation. Computers and the Internet. Post-Modernity. Political Upheaval. Cultural changes. Whether you like the changes or not, the fact is, we are never going back to how things used to be. Rather than wasting time and energy trying to return to the “good-old days”, we are better suited determining how best to navigate the new water we find ourselves swimming in.

Post-Christendom is another change we need to accept…and in my opinion, celebrate! (but more on that in upcoming posts).

When I grew up in 1970s America, most people went to church, and most stores were closed on Sundays. At my elementary school, classes ended early on Wednesday so we could go to religious education…in the school. There was a class for Protestants and a class for Catholics. There was also a room for the kids whose parents opted to keep them out of Religious Ed. I always wondered who went there, but no one talked about it.

And yes, this was a public school in New York State.

When I was pastoring a church in Ithaca, NY, thirty years later, and looking for places to meet, every public school refused to even consider allowing a church to rent space their facilities for a Sunday worship gathering.

You are not in Christendom anymore.

While we are living post-Christendom, not everyone believes that or is willing to let go. 

When you read of efforts to have the 10 Commandments placed in school classrooms, or outside of courthouses, or hear book banning or cries for prayer in school, you are seeing those who fear the loss of Christendom attempting to hold on to a position of power an influence that is rapidly fading away. 

(quick question, why do people always want to put the 10 commandments up rather than say the beatitudes or another portion of the sermon on the mount?)

There were two major referendums in Ireland over the past several years. (Ireland makes constitutional change through popular referendums). One referendum legalised same-sex marriage and the other legalised abortion. (Homosexual relationships were only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993…more rapid change).

Following the abortion vote, a priest announced that anyone who voted in favour needed to go to confession.

You can imagine the response.

In his mind, the church still holds a position of influence, respect and authority. It does not. Nor do most people care what the church or its leaders think about the various topics of the day.

Post-Christendom

In his book Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger, a vice president at Fuller Seminary, notes that seminaries prepare church leaders for a world that no longer exists. While it still hangs on in some areas, we live in a post-Christendom period.

Remember the prefix “Post” while acknowledging that one thing has ended. Modernism to Post Modernism. Christendom to Post Christendom…it illustrates that we don’t yet know what is coming next. 

In the next post, I’ll cover some history detailing how Christendom started.