(Some text from introductory talk)
The topic which we are going to be addressing over the next few days are these words from Psalm 137 How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land – and I feel eminently qualified to address it because I am a foreigner in this land. Although I believe that some 15% of Canadians claim to be of Scottish descent…so I may be okay although I do not know how that holds in this part of the country and Scots are not well known Mennonites…it might scare you to realise that some people think I was the nearest thing to a Mennonite that Scottish Baptists have…
So I am a foreigner
… but of course that is not what this theme is about…
The issue is rather how the church can bear faithful witness in a cultural context where the role of the Christian faith appears and feels increasingly marginalised.
This topic interests me as a Christian living in the so called West. For many years now, first in pastoral ministry and then in theological education, the theme of what it means to be church “post-Christendom” is one that has dominated many conversations. This term post-Christendom was probably popularised in the UK after 2004 by a series of books written or edited by Stuart Murray Williams in the “After Christendom” series. This said not only was the term used before this but its actual meaning is somewhat complex and contested.[i] For me the situation described by this term is not simply about the nature of changing church and state relations. Nor is it simply about numerical church decline, although both these issues are important in analysis. Rather the matter runs deeper. It is about the implicit and explicit decline of the cultural significance of Christian values and practices in a nation’s psyche. It is about the loss not simply of the story but the memory of the story of God’s redemption centred in Jesus Christ as something of personal and public significance. It is about the moving of the church from the centre of public discussion to the margins. For Christian people this loss can often be experienced at best as confusing and at worst as persecution. In part this is often because we have not been aware of our previously privileged position over and against other religions and ideologies. In part it is because things really have changed as the challenges of secularism, pluralism, and globalisation have pressed home.[ii] While my reflections have taken place in Europe this language and experience are also recognised in North America.[iii] It is precisely in attempting to name and reflect upon this experience that theologians, preachers, and missiologists have variously appealed by the way of “dynamic analogy” to the biblical notion of “exile”.[iv] From this perspective without ever physically moving country post-Christendom Christian people at least in the West now find themselves practicing their faith and singing their songs in a foreign land.
To be sure not all Christians see the church’s current need to learn to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land as necessarily a bad thing. For some from an Anabaptist position the “bad” is rather to be located in the earlier Christendom context with the explicit and implicit, formal and informal, personal and public compromise between Christian faith and witness on the one hand and national identity, power and violence on the other.[v]
Following on from this it can be argued the changed situation creates new “missional” opportunities and therefore is not so much something to be suffered but to be embraced. Michael Frost in his book Exiles writes:
I, for one, am happy to see the end of Christendom. I’m glad that we can no longer rely on temporal, cultural supports to reinforce our message or the validity of our presence…If we are exiles on foreign soil – post-Christendom, postmodern, postliterate and so on – then maybe at last it is time to start living like exiles, as a pesky, fringe dwelling alternative to the dominant forces of our time.[vi]
I resonate in many respects with these Anabaptist and missional responses. Yet I hesitate to unreservedly welcome exile if it means the decline of Christian values from public life when and where these have contributed to establishing and maintaining practices of democracy, freedom, justice, and human rights. The situation, therefore, and how we respond to it is complex. It is complex because it involves responding to a changed and changing situation in such a way which bears witness to the gospel in the public realm yet without the previous power alignments being given, sought, or taken.
[i] This whole theme is discussed in a very helpful article by a colleague of mine: Ian Randall, “Mission in post-Christendom: Anabaptist and Free Church Perspectives”, Evangelical Quarterly 79.3 (2007), 227-240.
[ii] David Smith, Mission after Christendom (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003).
[iii] Daniel L. Guder (ed.), Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998).
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, “Conversations Among Exiles”, Religion Online, 1997, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=26, accessed 30 January 2015.
[v] Russ Eanes, “Post-Christendom: lament or opportunity?”, The Mennonite, https://themennonite.org/opinion/post-christendom-lament-opportunity/, accessed, 1 February, 2015.
[vi] Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Michigan: Baker Books, 2006), 9-10.