June/July 2019 - Vol. 104
                  viewing Leeds Abbey ruins
The De-Christianizing of Western Society .

by Steve Clark

This is an excerpt from Steve Clark’s book, Building Christian Communities: Strategy for Renewing the Church, 1996 Edition. reprinted by Tabor House, pages 39-44. It was first published in 1972 by Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, and then republished in 1992 by Word of Joy Foundation, Inc., Quezon City, Philippines.
When society as a whole cannot be expected to accept Christianity, then it is necessary to form communities within society to make Christian life possible.
Providing Christian environments – environments where Christianity is openly expressed and accepted and  where a person can find the support he or she needs to be a Christian – is a top priority and main goal of pastoral work. The question that remains is how such environments can be formed. Our society is not Christian. Even within our Churches, Christian environments are not so easy to find. What can be done?

The answer is that we need to form “Christian communities.” A community is a type of environment – a strong, effective form of environment. (In chapter 3 of Building Christian Communities, the nature of “community” will be discussed, and the different meanings of the word will be distinguished). In this section, community is understood as a Christian environment.

Development of communities in early church period
A historical perspective provides a way of seeing more clearly the pastoral situation of the Church today as regards to environmental forces and community. In the first 300 years of Christian history the Church had a very effective form of social organization for helping Christians to live as Christians. Those who became Christians perceived Christianity as the most important thing that ever happened to the human race. They readily joined with other Christians for the purpose of living as Christians. The communities they joined were relatively small and tightly knit, with a high degree of morale and social cohesion. The result was that a person who lived in the Christian Church in the early centuries had a great deal of help in living as a strong Christian. He was part of an environment (a community) which was much stronger than any other environment he was part of, and it provided for him a strong support in being a Christian. Because of their strength and vitality, these communities attracted others to Christianity.

Formation of Christendom beginning in the 4th century
In the course of the fourth century a major change occurred. The Roman emperors became Christians, and they made Christianity the state religion. The result was a revolution in the way Christianity was related to the environmental forces of the time. In a relatively short period, all of society became Christian (part of the Church). Christianity no longer existed in strong communities within society, but being part of society and being Christians became the same thing.  The Church became the religious institution for all of society and the state became the political institution for all of society. In other words, Christendom (a society almost all of whose members accepted Christianity) was formed.

Christendom brought many benefits to Christian life. For one thing, it brought many more people to the Christian faith and life. At the beginning of the fourth century the Christians were a relatively small percentage of the Roman Empire. At the end of the fifth century, the pagans were a relatively small percentage of the Roman Empire. Every environment in society (with the exception of some frontier situations where two civilizations made contact and, for a while, some remote rural situations) was Christian. There was a strong force drawing people to Christianity and keeping them Christians.

Moreover, because Christianity was the life of society, everything in life could be Christianized and directed toward the glory of God. The following centuries were times in which men tried to see all of life in a Christian way. It would be too much to say that they succeeded perfectly. But the results were impressive.

There was, however, at the same time a certain price to be paid in this change. The environment worked to make more people Christian than had been Christian before, it is true, but it also produced a lower overall level of Christianity among Christians. For one thing, since everyone was a Christian, people were not called upon to make their Christianity a matter of personal choice the way they had to when there were other options. Also, because a person had to become an outcast in society if he stopped being a Christian (since it was a Christian society), many people were inclined to stay Christians even though they had no desire to live a Christian life while before they would have just dropped out. Also, it became harder to maintain Church discipline when the Church was no longer a tightly knit community within society from which someone could be easily excluded.

Rise of Deism and skepticism in 17th - 18th centuries
In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, another revolution occurred in the way Christianity was related to the environmental forces of the time. Society began to fall away from Christian belief. It became acceptable in society not to believe in Christianity (it was socially acceptable even before it was legally acceptable). The change began among certain thinkers in France and England who moved toward Deism and skepticism about Christianity. By the 18th century, the Enlightenment, represented by men like Voltaire, Diderot, Priestly and many others, was a dominant force in Europe. Environments began to change one by one, and as environments changed, the faith of the Christian people weakened. Because they had been taught to identify “what was right” in matters of religion with “what was accepted by society as a whole” most people began to weaken in their Christian conviction and their Christian living when they saw that Christianity was not being accepted by society as a whole they way it had been.

In the Church of the first centuries, the fact that most men did not believe in Christianity was not necessarily a motive for losing faith. In fact, for many it was a strengthening motive, because they expected that when they became Christians, they were joining a group within society that had something the rest of society did not have. But since by the end of the 17th century Christians considered themselves to be society and not a group within society (they identified themselves primarily as Christians), a change in the religious convictions of Christians. Therefore as society became less and less supportive of a person’s being a Christian, there was a gradual weakening of the environmental support for being a Christian.

A variety of things happened as a result of this change. Some environments in Western society stayed Christian because they were out of touch with the main currents of society (many rural environments are still in this condition today, although less and less so). In the United States, ghettos were formed by immigrants who had little social contact with the rest of the country because of t he nationality difference (and this trend was strengthened by the attempts of the Church to maintain a separate school system and a separate social system, by forbidding mixed marriages, etc.). These ghettos stayed Catholic – in fact, they tended to perpetuate a form of Christendom. But in an increasing number of situations in Western society, the environment provided less and less support for thinking and living as a Christian, and the result was a weakening of Christian life.

Environmental forces against Christianity today
Today many parts of Western society are de-Christianized, and the trend is in that direction. In fact, even within Church institutions, even in environments which during the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries were traditionally Christian (like Polish and Irish neighborhoods in American cities), the environmental forces are now against Christianity. Since there is less and less of a natural separation between different environments (modern forms of communication have drawn modern society much closer and made it much more homogeneous), the Church can rely less and less on natural environmental forces (rural or ghetto conservatism, for instance, or separate schools systems) to maintain Christian life.

There are two pastoral approaches that can be taken in the face of the de-Christianization of Western society. One is to try to make society as a whole Christian (or different environments as a whole Christian). Traditionally this has only worked when someone or some group of people who had control over a whole environment (the secular rulers, usually) became Christian and were willing to use their influence to Christianized the parts of society they were in control of. Conceivably making environments as a whole Christian might also be accomplished through Christians and Christian ideas beginning to permeate society in different environments in society gradually, the way technological changes or political ideas begin to permeate society gradually. But the approach of making society as a whole Christian does not seem very feasible, because society as a whole is resistant to Christianity, and therefore it seems highly unlikely either that secular rulers would or could make all of society Christian or that Christianity will permeate society by natural trends.

Returning to the pastoral strategy of the early church period
The second pastoral approach is to form Christian communities. This approach would mean returning to the strategy which the early Church (and many other religious groups throughout the centuries) found so useful. A real Christian community (especially in a society like our own in which there is little sense of common purpose and identity) would have the ability to provide an environment in which people could live strong Christian lives. If people can find Christian communities which are alive, they will have the strength as Christians to exert influence upon society (and not simply conform to society). And the more these Christian communities grow, the greater the effect they will have upon society.

A "diaspora Christianity"
The main goal of pastoral action in the Church today can be described in a variety of ways. We need to find an alternative form of Church life to a Christendom approach. To use a phrase which Karl Rahner made popular: We need to form a diaspora Christianity. We need to find a way of providing for people an authentically Christian environment of sufficient strength to make it possible for them to live as vital Christians if they so choose. We need to form real Christian communities.

> See other articles in Living Bulwark by Steve Clark

top photo: The ruins of Kirkstall Abbey Hall in Leeds, UK being explored by a tourist, (c) photo by Matt Latham
Bigstock.com Photo ID: 276692632

Steve Clark
Steve Clark has been a founding leader, author, and teacher for the Catholic charismatic renewal since its inception in 1967. Steve is past president of the Sword of the Spirit, an international ecumenical association of charismatic covenant communities worldwide. He is the founder of the Servants of the Word, an ecumenical international missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord.

Steve Clark has authored a number of books, including
Baptized in the Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, Finding New Life in the Spirit, Growing in Faith, and Knowing God’s Will, Building Christian Communities, Man and Woman in Christ, The Old Testament in Light of the New.


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