The Disintegration of Christendom in the Twentieth Century and its Impact on the Church’ Mission: A Dialogue


by John Drury


For the sake of greater understanding, the following pages will attempt to explain the disintegration of Christendom and it missional significance to a teenager born in 1985.  Since I would never dream of simply “talking at” a teenage for very long, I have laid out this explanation in the form of a dialogue.  We can think of this seventeen-year- old student as a leading member of the youth group with a serious concern for the church and ministry.  She comes up to me and says …

Student: I hear they are taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance.  Isn’t America a Christian nation?  What is happening?

John: Well, things have changed a lot.  They have been changing for a long time.  And, if you ask me, the changes are not all for the worse.

S:  What do you mean?  How could a nation not being Christian any more be a good thing?

J:  I suppose it depends on what you mean by “Christian.”  To really understand our situation today, I will have to catch you up on a little history.  Is that okay?

S:  Go ahead.  I’m all ears.

J:  Let’s start at the beginning.  Two thousand years ago, Christianity started out as a small little band of Jesus-followers running around the Roman Empire.  The group slowly grew and grew.  Although it was persecuted horrifically from time to time, it eventually became the most popular religion in the Empire.  This was especially the case after one of the emperors, Constantine, became a Christian in the early 300’s.  It soon became the official religion.  Within a few centuries, Christianity had spread across Europe.  It was the only religion, and everyone was a part of it, whether they were into it or not.

Now many other Christian groups went to other areas of the world, like Africa and Asia.  We don’t hear about these groups because (1) they are not our spiritual ancestors, and (2) many of them never overtook an entire sector of the world for as long a time as the Christians in Europe did.  Europe remained “Christian” for almost one and a half millennia.  People have called this “the West” or “Christendom.” 

To be a Christian in Christendom is to be a member of the church in hopes that one will be saved.  This does not mean one could not be a Christian in Christendom.  That is far from the truth.  It just means that there was little distinction between being a Christian and being a good member of society.  The two were essentially equal.

You have certainly heard in school about the explorations of the world that resulted in the discovery of the America as well as routes to Asia and Africa.  These explorations encountered Christendom with the religions of other cultures.  This was not too much of a problem at first, because Christianity as well as Western culture was assumed to be better than any other religion or culture.  So Christendom was essentially transplanted to places like South Africa, India, and America.

S:  So, you’re saying that America is a Christian nation?

J:  Well, yes and no.  See, we are a part of the history of Western Christendom.  But the last century has been a tragic phase in the story of Christendom.  The first sign came when the supposedly Christian nations of Europe declared war on each other, sparking the First World War.  This really makes Christendom look bad.  Europe was devastated and never recovered.  World War II just sealed the deal.  Christianity found itself competing with nationalism – the obsession and even worship of one’s nation.[i]

S:  That’s interesting, but what difference does it make for the church? 

J:  The big difference is we can no longer take for granted Christendom and all that comes with it.  The “equals sign” between Christianity and Western Culture has been erased.  It is still longed for in many places, even fought for.  But it just is no longer a reality.  This situation is not all bad, mind you.  Actually, it helps reveal what is core to the gospel and what is just cultural habit.

Think for a minute what missionaries have to go through.  Now there was a time when a missionary would just try to replant the European or American way of life in its entirety into a new area.  This is Christendom-thinking at its worst.  What happens when the local people start reading the Bible for themselves and discover that not everything the missionaries demand can be found there?  They may even find some of the missionary’s ideas to be against biblical teaching or the spirit of the gospel.  What should the missionary do when this happens?

S:  Well, they should try to follow the bible, too, even if that means changing the way they have always lived their Christian lives.  Boy, that makes sense of a lot of things, like how people from around the world can be Christians yet seem so different.  They do things I could never get away with here.

J: And you do things they could never get away with there!  You are on to something here.  You are seeing that the Western world does not have a corner on the best way to live Christianity.  Who knows how we may have distorted the message?  The death of Christendom may be an opportunity to reveal what the real message is.  We can’t take it for granted anymore.

S:  Are you saying we should not think Christianity is any truer than other religions?

J:  No.  I affirm the Christian gospel as the truth.  The end of Christendom just changes our attitude toward that truth.  We are compelled to be open to what Christian living might look like in a different culture.  We should expect that some of our ways of living it out would be judged as falling short.  Most of all, we should look at persons of another culture not as immature and in need of our help, but as equals, and friends.[ii]  There should be no distinction between the mature churches here and the young churches “over there.”[iii]  We are all churches in the midst of a mission field.  We are struggling to relate to our culture as much as they are to theirs.  They are not trying to emulate us.  We are all trying to become more like Christ together.

S:  I guess what I need to do is keep reading the Bible to see what the gospel is really about, and not just assume what I have always heard is the gospel truth. 

J:  That’s right!  It might also be a good idea to sign up for one the summer mission trips.  Such experiences can really expose you to the many ways Christians serve our one Lord.

S:  Thanks for taking time to talk.

J:  No sweat.  Never be afraid to ask.  I pray God will continue to guide your inquisitive mind.

[i] Cf. International Missionary Council, "Partners in Obedience" in C. W. Ranson, ed., Renewal and Advance: Christian Witness in a Revolutionary World, London: Edinburgh House Press, 1948, pp. 173-221.

[ii] Cf. Azariah, Rev. V. S., "The Problem of Co-Operation Between Foreign and Native Workers, World Missionary Conference,” 1910; The History and Records of the Conference Together with Addresses Delivered at the Evening Meetings, (vol. IX), Edinburgh & London: Oliphant, Anderson, & Ferrier, 1910 (1990), pp. 306-315; Bosch 369-370.

[iii] David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission (Mary Knoll: Orbis, 1991) 369-370.