There was a time when you could plant and grow a church simply by informing people about the new church—and you were guaranteed to have a growing church! I wrote about that here.
That was the case when Western culture was considered to be a Christian culture, also known as Christendom. But it wasn’t always that way. There was a time when the church was persecuted and marginalized by the Roman Empire. And then, somehow, the church ended up at the center of power in Western society.
How did that happen?
How Did the Age of Christendom Begin?
The era we call Christendom could be said to have begun when the Roman emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity in 312 A.D. Christianity was legalized the following year when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, giving Christianity “a position of privileged equality with other religions” (Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, p. 33).
This changed everything for Christianity. Up until this time, the church had been in a position of weakness in the Roman Empire. The period of Christendom began the moment Constantine announced his edict and thrust the church into a position of power.
This was a totally new situation for the church. Barry A. Harvey, in Another City, states:
“With the conversion of Constantine…the church faced a new situation for which it was largely unprepared. The same empire that had regularly ridiculed (and from time to time persecuted) the members of Christ’s body was now expressing interest in their story of salvation and its criteria of true universality, even to the point of inviting the church to order the imperial household” (p. 71).
Can you imagine experiencing such an incredible change in your circumstances?!
Since the emperor himself now claimed to be a Christian, Christianity was no longer a ridiculed and persecuted religion. Instead, it took on a place of advantage and entitlement in the Roman Empire.
But this led to a whole new challenge…
Losing the Mission
Now that the church was in a position of power, the challenge for the church would be to maintain its identity and sense of mission in light of this incredible development. Unfortunately, the change was so radical that the church all but lost sight of its mission.
Harvey puts it this way: “The eventual result of this near-fusion [of church and empire] was the loss of focus on the church’s missionary identity” (p. 81).
A New Kind of Christianity
So here’s what ultimately happened. A whole new understanding of “Christian” began to emerge. This new understanding stemmed in part from the fact that Constantine was neither catechized nor baptized until shortly before his death.
Did you get that? Do you realize what that means?
Throughout his life as a “Christian,” Constantine refused to submit to the teaching of the church and to Jesus’ command to be baptized.
As a result, “Constantine offered the world a new possibility of an unbaptized, uncatechized person who nevertheless somehow was a Christian” (Harvey, p. 37). This led to a whole new breed of Christianity, one that did not require conversion or commitment.
This new and unfamiliar brand of Christianity developed over a fairly short period of time. Harvey writes that before Constantine’s reign, “Christians constituted a distinct minority in the empire…. Recent estimates place the percentage of Christians in the empire around 300 C.E. at about 10 percent” (p. 67).
However, this quickly changed once Constantine became a Christian. Harvey goes on to say that “within a relatively short span of time being a Christian was the accepted norm of imperial society…. By the middle of the fourth century C.E. over 50 percent of the population had been baptized” (p. 68).
This is an incredible departure from the church’s pre-Constantinian existence. It’s no wonder the church was unable to maintain its sense of mission in light of such huge change.
And Here We Are…
This was the church’s reality for over 1500 years. The church has been at the center of society with no mission because when you’re born into a Christendom culture it’s just assumed that you’re a Christian.
It’s no wonder the church in the West today is struggling so much with its Post-Christendom existence. Over the past 1500 years, we’ve gotten used to being at the power-center of culture.
Unfortunately—or, rather, fortunately!—that’s just not our reality anymore.