Pre-Christians, “Christians” & Post-Christians

pre-christians

All mission is not the same.  If we have learned anything about missiology over the last few decades, it’s that the culture creates the context for mission.  Different cultures= different missions.

Let’s look at three different types of “mission spaces” in Western Culture.

Pre-Christians & Mission

Yes, pre-Christian was a term used in the early 00’s (largely by seeker churches) to speak in a less-offensive way about those who are outside of the church and outside of the faith.  Fortunately that term is now largely dead and buried and not what I have in mind.

Pre-Christians are quite literally people for whom Christianity is something completely new.  In North America, at present, these are almost always immigrant communities: Chinese, people from Arab countries, some Africans.

Mission to pre-Christians offers plenty of opportunities for denominations and churches who are forward thinking.  Many immigrants to the United States are fairly open to the dominant religion of our culture.  For some, the Christian narrative can be quite liberating from the previous religious groups in which their homelands reared them.  A case could be made that Christianity has always been a reforming movement: playing on the natural religious impulses of people- yet freeing them from a crushing sense of moral duties and maintaining religious practices that no longer seem to work in the modern world.  Themes of grace, agape love, and the renewal of the heart, can be life-giving when encountered for the first time.

Yet challenges remain. There is always the temptation of winning people to an overly Americanized faith that includes the de-humanizing effects of hyper-individualism and hyper-consumerism.  Additionally, these missional projects are almost always only effectively led by ex-patriate pastors which can be in short supply.  Finally, as second generation immigrants fully assimilate to America, they can easily leave the faith behind.

“Christians” & Mission

This is similar to what many people simply consider “normal” Christianity in America.  A gospel framed as an abandoning of self-justifying moral obligations and finding new life through faith in Christ.  This includes a strong emphasis on Biblical teaching vis-a-vis dead ritual, and appeals to personal faith vis-a-vis obeying traditional duties.

Christian mission is still quite effective in pockets of the U.S.: the fly-over country of the Great Plains, many small towns, and of course the American South as a whole.  Basically, any place where people are socially conservative, where they naturally value traditional families, and where a strong sense of biblical, personal morality remains.

These sub-cultures are still often overwhelmed with a sense of guilt.  They believe in the God of the Bible, the 10 commandments, and fidelity to one’s kin.  Many times they have an internal sense that they are not good enough, and that they never quite live up to what they believe is right.  Preaching the Bible, and a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, is still quite effective.

The downside of Christian mission is that it rarely delivers people from nationalism, racism, and sexism.  Additionally, if a young person grows up in these environments and then later on travels the world, attends college, and generally becomes cultured, they will often see the faith as little more than the baptizing of old world politics, values, and ideologies.  They will often be lost to Jesus.

Post-Christians & Mission

This missional endeavor is almost always the opposite of the previously mentioned context. Persons of this persuasion, more or less, often grew up in a home (or at least a cultural context) that was considered Christian. And yet, these persons saw that the emperor is standing there completely naked.  Their experience of Christianity, or at least their impression of it, is that it is a silly myth that narrow-minded people champion for their own power games.

Post-Christians have a chip on their shoulder towards any kind of organized religion.  Any slavish adherence to the Bible, any whiff of anti-intellectualism, any claim of exclusivity of Christ, is often easily dismissed.

The challenges for mission are probably rather evident.  Post-Christians are reticent of commitment in any form- in faith or to a church community.  They highly value all forms of tolerance, which can act as an antidote to any talk of sin.  They are generally pre-supposed to irony and deconstruction, much more than building upon any kind of faith.  Many times, even if post-Christians personally buy into Jesus, there is often a reluctance to share their faith with others.

But there are some opportunities.

The post-Christian posture towards skepticism can be a heavy load to bear.  Learning to inhabit their frames of reference and gently pointing out the darkness of nihilism – does offer some promise.

The way of Jesus framed as a way of life vis-a-vis the gospels of capitalism, mindless entertainment, and the identity-less-ness of a “make it up yourself” orientation- can bear some fruit.

Finally, the natural inclinations of post-Christians can be harnessed to contrast virtue with hypocrisy, compassion with indifference, and transcendence with emptiness.

Final Thoughts

Would-be 21st century missionaries would do well to recognize who they are, where they come from, and the particular kind of context they find themselves in when considering a call to the work of Jesus.  All missional contexts offer some opportunities and perils- but they will need to be considered in their particular specificities before any fruit of the Spirit will bear out.  “Christian” mission won’t work with post-Christians.  Post-Christian mission attempts with pre-Christians, will simply sound like gibberish, etc.

Additionally, some of these contexts may change and morph over the next generation or two.  Some pre-Christian immigrants will naturally grow into “Christian” cultures or post-Christian ones, over a generation or two.

Some “Christian” peoples may actually become pre-Christians over time.  The statistics are showing that more and more lower-income and working class people in traditional pockets of America are dropping out of church.  This not necessarily due to reasoned skepticism, but is the natural by-product of poverty, messy lives, and the fragmenting of all level of societal cohesion.  Parts of what is now considered conservative America, may actually become thoroughly pre-Christian in the coming years.

Finally, a minority of scholars wonder if the emergence of post-Christians may simply be a phase.  Socially and politically liberal people tend to have few children, and therefore, are less likely to pass on their values.  Additionally, post-Christian is a rather white phenomenon.  As the U.S. becomes increasingly post-white, we may also become rather post-secular.  Immigrants and ethnic minorities could, quite possibly, lead to a renewal of faith in America.

If so, we may no longer be a traditionally Protestant America, but instead, a more Pentecostal land.

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