by John Vest
Last year, as part of my work on the General Assembly’s Mid Councils Commission, a colleague and I paid a visit to an assembly of the Synod of Lincoln Trails. The gathering was in Philo, IL, a small farming community about 150 miles south of my home in Chicago.
Early that morning I stopped by my downtown office to collect some materials for the meeting. I serve a large, cathedral-like church that happens to sit on one of the busiest corners of the nation’s third largest city. The church where the synod gathered in Philo is a much smaller building in the midst of farms and fields.
This massive stone cathedral and this modest white church-house—and the communities in which they are located—could not be more different. Yet both congregations are part of a single church communion. In fact, the very work that brought me to both places that day was an exploration of our church’s deep connectionalism. Still, given the obvious differences in our ministry contexts, I couldn’t help wondering what it is that binds us together and how we might have meaningful conversations about our common call to ministry in the world.
I am an adult convert to Presbyterianism who wasn’t raised in this church. I mostly grew up in the South in Southern Baptist churches. I experienced quite a bit of culture shock when I transitioned from my conservative Baptist background in the South to more progressive Presbyterianism in a big Midwestern city. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand these cultural differences. And as I’ve traveled around the country for conferences and meetings, I’ve taken those opportunities to learn as much as I can about local expressions of Presbyterianism. There is indeed a great diversity within our national church.
Last week I had the opportunity to make a presentation at a regional NEXT gathering in Dubuque, IA. Once again, I found myself in a setting very different from my ministry context in Chicago. As I contemplated what I would talk about, I wondered to myself, “What has Chicago to do with Dubuque?”
I often wonder such things. When I speak with youth workers from various ministry contexts, for all of the similarities in our work, there are as many differences that result from the uniquenesses of our particular contexts. And much of the youth ministry literature and curricula out there doesn’t quite seem to fit the progressive mainline Protestantism and urban setting of my ministry.
What I am searching for is some common ground for the church—across all of our regional differences—to talk about how to move forward into the rapidly changing contexts for ministry in which we find ourselves. I am increasingly convinced that attention to the various post-Christendom realities we face might provide such a shared sense of what binds us together in mission and ministry in 21st century North America.
For centuries, Christian religion and culture dominated the Western world. This was especially true in American culture up through the middle of the 20th century. But this is no longer the case. Christianity in general—and, for Americans, Protestantism in particular—is no longer the definitive center and shaper of culture. “Christendom”—the triumphal reign of Christianity in Western culture—is over.
Every community in North America falls somewhere along what I am calling the post-Christendom continuum. In some places—like rural communities and communities in the American South (where I grew up)—Christianity is still part of the dominant culture. But in other places—like urban centers (where I have spent my entire adult life)—Christianity is no longer embedded in culture as it once was. What will ministry look like in these diverse contexts?
Last night I spent some quality pub time with old and new friends who were in town for the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. From the experiences of those gathered around that table, we could connect the American South, rural Pennsylvania, Chicago, the Pacific Northwest, and the United Kingdom. It was clear that each of these contexts occupies a distinct place along the post-Christendom continuum. We talked about shared ministry challenges and contextualized our work accordingly.
In our increasingly pluralistic society, as the divides between urban centers and rural communities continue to widen, and as minority populations gradually overtake the majority, post-Christendom realities bind us together into a shared missional context that is regionally differentiated. Reflection on where our particular communities are located on the post-Christendom continuum will help us effectively contextualize our ministry while also framing our dialogues with colleagues and partners in very different contexts.
The challenge for us all is to rethink Christianity in these new post-Christendom contexts. As many theologians and missiologists have suggested, post-Christendom provides the church with exciting opportunities to reimagine itself, return to some of its more humble roots, and recast contemporary culture as a mission field ripe for harvest.
What do you think? Is post-Christendom a helpful way for us to think about our shared mission while also accounting for our real differences?
John Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at http://johnvest.com and is working on a DMin at McCormick Theological Seminary. He dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.