In the year 252 AD, a plague broke out in the Roman African city of Carthage. Led by their bishop, Cyprian, the Christian community remained in the city during a season of trauma to care for the sick and dying. While many people died of the epidemic, many more survived, and came to the Christian way. Cyprian would later reflect on this important event not in terms of a successful missionary campaign, or a well-forged theological consensus, since the church in Carthage was beset by internal tensions among believers over church vs state issues, church discipline, and ethics. Cyprian would reflect on this event and teach about the importance of patience as a core Christian theme of unity and virtue1. That story, and countless others across the history of the global church remind us that strategy, core values, and theological consensus, while each important, do not provide for followers of Jesus the bedrock necessary amid cultural change and civic strife. Only by walking in the footsteps of Jesus and building a Jesus-centered structured faith in the neighborhood of faiths can we adequately be the church in the long crisis of social strife that lies ahead for Western culture.
Since the era of Constantine, Western Christianity has accepted as foundational the idea that our culture is somehow “Christian.” While certainly each Western Christian tradition has presumed the need for some sort of conversation experience, the culture—the “zeitgeist”—was understood to be shaped by values that were at least nominally “Christian.” Out of that cultural consensus, great works of art, literature, music, and architecture were created for the common good. Across the West, political institutions became increasing representative and democratic, as the divine rights of royalty gave way to “We the people.” Progress, measured in economic growth, literacy, and social development, were all understood as the product of a set of values generated by the Christian story, and backed by political institutions.
With the dominant metanarrative in culture and powerful institutions that controlled culture and societal behavior, Christendom increasingly ruled the world—until the twentieth century.
Whether we mark the date of post-Christendom’s beginnings to the guns of August 1914, or the atomic bombs of 1945, or the summer of love in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in 1967, at some point in the early to mid-twentieth century, the Christian narrative began to lose its cohesive and culturally-unifying power, and Christian institutions began to lose their power to create and sustain moral conformity. Somehow, somewhere, during the accumulation of the greatest ingathering of power and wealth the world had seen, the seeds of disintegration began to take root and bloom.
It seems we must recognize that we now live in a seemingly “post-everything” environment:
- A postmodern world—where there seems to be no unifying narrative we all hold to as our shared story and experience, coupled by a distrust and a disintegration of institutions of power.
- A post-industrial economy—where there seems to be a loss of the capacity to manufacture things, coupled by an inability for capital and labor to find common cause in shared wealth-building.
- A post-truth media—where there seems to be an inability to agree on common facts, coupled by a shrinking capacity to acknowledge the other.
- A post-religious spirituality—where there is a loss of the transcendent as a cultural and communal binding agent, coupled with increasing cynicism.
In this post-everything world, where we are unsure and uncertain about the future, we are not unlike the Hebrew prophets who found themselves facing exile. As the prophet Jeremiah realized, if the people of God were to remain the people of God, a drastic reorientation was in order. The temple, lost, ruined, and abandoned, would no longer be the central focal point of faith. Instead, the neighborhood of a strange new community had to become the starting point for being God’s people (Jeremiah 29:4-11).
As God’s people today, we are therefore faced with deciding how to live in exile. Post-Christendom is here—perhaps unevenly spread across the Western world, perhaps not yet experienced in some communities of the Brethren in Christ Church, but here and now and growing. We are becoming a people in exile and we must make a singular choice about the essence of the exile that is here and to come. With our Christian story unclear to the world and many of our institutions in full-scale damage control, we no longer sit in the powerful positions of the public square. Will we abandon our culture to tend to our wounds, or will we rebuild our lives and our stories in the neighborhoods of faith, faith-seeking, and wonder that are being built across our culture today?
The church in post-Christendom is being relocated: from commanding temple heights to modest homes in the neighborhoods of worldviews, from privileged standing and advantaged institutions to (re)earners of local trust, from proclamation on the hilltops to dialogues across the dining table, from enabling a culture of command and control to creating a culture of conversation and conversion.
This is not an article on the details of expert home-building. I am a practitioner of Christian mission in the mission field of Inland Southern California, where houses are built in a certain way to generate an economy of scale and increase the ability to repair or replace the structure(s) after the inevitable seismic shifts in the tectonic plates under our feet. This is a discussion using an image that has a particular and unique geographic and geologic point of view. Readers are trusted to recreate the home-building metaphors I’m describing in the construction vernacular of their particular neighborhood.
All houses, to achieve some semblance of permanence, require a foundation. In post-Christendom, building a Casa de Cristoin the neighborhood of pluralism also requires a foundation. Inland Southern California foundations are almost always “slab-on-grade.” To grossly oversimplify the process: after compacting the earth into a flat and level surface, the correct forms are dug and staked out, and then concrete is poured. Upon this rock, the house is built.
For the Casa de Cristo, the foundational role of Christology is absolute. A foundation of any other substance will not stand up to the stresses that the Casa de Cristowill experience in the neighborhood. The Apostle Paul was absolutely right in 1 Corinthians 3.11: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (NIV). The central question of the church seeking to be the church in post-Christendom is “who is Jesus?”4 The Brethren in Christ Church would do well to temper any need to create institutional uniformity with a through, heart-felt, and biblical conversation about how we together understand who Jesus is and how Jesus serves as foundational.
While foundations serve as the base upon which to build, we generally don’t walk on foundations. The Casa de Cristorequires a subflooring—a mediating system that transfers the protection of the foundation to the flooring which we see and where we walk. In the Casa de Cristo, the “subfloor” is what we might call “missiology.” Missiology, simply put, is answering well the question, “what does Jesus want us to do?”5
In the 2007 book, Jim & Casper Go to Church6, Jim Henderson, a veteran Christian pastor and conference speaker, and his friend Matt Casper—a confirmed atheist—travel the United States in search of what churches actually do. Among all sizes, shapes, and denominations, Casper finds himself asking over and over again, “Jim, is this really what Jesus wants you guys to do?” The ways the church answers that question determines the capacity of the Casa de Cristoto adequately define and sustain the work of the house of in the neighborhood.
The flooring of the Casa de Cristo—that which gets walked on and is seen by those who come inside the house—is what we might know as ecclesiology. How we do church is a product of the foundation laid and the subflooring set. Out of our understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus wants us to do, we discover the church—the “how Jesus wants us to do it.”7
The three dimensions of the essential foundation of the Casa de Cristomust be laid in the proper sequence. A home built with “carpet on grade” will not survive. Christology, then missiology, and finally, ecclesiology, represent the critical sequence in building the Casa de Cristowithin the neighborhood.
Of course, a foundation laid does not a house make. Further construction elements are necessary in the Casa de Cristo. The compression strength of walls holds a house together. The four walls/pillars of the Casa de Cristorepresent spiritual practices needed to provide and channel spiritual strength.
Differences might emerge among Christian groups seeking to build a Casa de Cristo. Distinct groups may also wish to insert doctrinal statements in addition to spiritual practices as things that holds the construction together. In post-Christendom, amidst narrative incoherence,the strategy of forming boundaries and supplying strength to the Casa de Cristothrough doctrinal formulations may not work as well. Belonging in order to believe requires consistent practices, not consistent formulations. The interior logic of the post-Christendom church is the need for a conviction of practice, not just the conviction of logic.8
- Humility—a capacity to bear witness to and own my own story and experience of Christ and faith as not entirely complete but requiring participation with others. Values such as experiencing of God’s love and grace10, believing the Bible11, and worshipping God12guide us into a life of humility.
- Solidarity—a capacity to listen and dialogue with respect to the other’s story. Values such as following Jesus13and witnessing to the world14shape an approach to solidarity with others.
- Community—a capacity to suffer and to wait patiently for our stories to ferment into something wonderful (such as the church in Carthage during the plague). Brethren in Christ core values such as belonging to the community of faith15and serving compassionately16guide the formation of a community patient enough to embrace God’s mission.
- Hospitality—a capacity to celebrate and experience healing together by means of sharing the hope of our stories. Core values such as pursuing peace,17living simply,18and relying on God19create a frame of reference that enables celebration and healing.
Understanding the core values of the Brethren in Christ Church as spiritual practices (a post-Christendom expression), instead of “core values” (the language of corporate and institutional power) provides a vital framework for the construction of the Casa de Cristo.
Theological foundations and spiritual practices require a canopy to cover and to locate the Casa de Cristowithin the neighborhood of pluralism. A canopy (i.e., ceiling and roof) regulates the environment inside and keeps undesirable stuff out. It also defines and locates a home spatially. In the Casa de Cristo, the ceiling and roof are what the neighborhood sees, and what we become known for.
In the Casa de Cristo, the ceiling—that which ties the foundations and spiritual practices together—is the presence of authentic Christian community.20When authentic community is created by tying our foundations of Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology to the spiritual practices that are authentic to who we are and who we have been as a church, the Casa de Cristobecomes a genuine and plausible alternative in the neighborhood of pluralism. The ultimate credibility of the Casa de Cristo, however, is in the appearance of the roof. Is the community in good repair? In short, is the Casa de Cristoa home of and for reconciliation?
In the Gospel of John, the great commission Jesus gives his disciples is not to go into all the world, but to forgive sin (John 20:19-23). In a foretaste of the Pentecost to come, the risen Jesus gives his disciples the breath of the Holy Spirit, and sends them on a mission of discernment, repentance, and forgiveness. This is the Casa de Cristo’svisible work: to forgive and to reconcile. In short, the Casa de Cristois not built in the neighborhood of post-Christendom pluralism to hunker down as a fortress buffeted by the loss of cultural privilege. Instead, built on a foundation framed by Jesus, we practice and provide God’s reconciliation to one another and the rest of the neighborhood. If we believe the rest of the neighborhood is built on substandard foundations (see Matthew 7:24-27), our place in the neighborhood is not to point out the deficiency of the other homes, but to make sure our Casais Christ’s Casa, built in his image and shaped by his mission of reconciliation, so that when the neighborhood is flooded, we can offer the saving refuge of Christ. We can practice loving our neighbors. We can practice the art of neighboring.21
A final postscript is needed: all homes require furnishings. Central to the furnishing of the Casa de Cristois the table. In the post-everything world and in the post-Christendom neighborhood, it is at the table where we offer the bread and cup, conversation, consolation, and conversion. It is at the table that our witness will be best heard. In the recovery of the Eucharist as a feast, we witness to the presence of Christ.22
The late social critic, Ivan Illich, has said, “. . . if you want to change society then you must tell an alternative story.23The alternative story for our time is a new house—a house of Christ, a house built with a vision of a new city, complete with a park for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2).
For a detailed discussion about the centrality of patience, and its role in both the early church and the contemporary church, see Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016).
A broad and rich discussion of the foundations of Christendom and the possibilities of post-Christendom can be found in the After-Christendom series, published in the UK by Paternoster Press, with some titles re-published in the U.S. by Cascade Press. See Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World(Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2004; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018).
The image of the “Casa de Cristo” is one I have borrowed in part from Dr. David W Shenk, missiological consultant to Eastern Mennonite Missions and well-known expert on Christian witness in Islamic contexts. Simply stated, Dr. Shenk, in his training on how to do Christian witness in the Islamic world, teaches about the need to understand the concept of the “Dar al-Islam” (literally, “House of Islam”), and invite Christian workers in Islamic environments to understand themselves as houseguests among Islamic communities as a means to gently and loving share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, I created an analogous image, and used Spanish to increase the cognitive dissonance a native English speaker might feel toward the concept. In a post-Christendom environment, Christians build their spiritual homes in the pluralistic neighborhood and learn to love all their neighbors.
An important discussion for developing a meaningful approach to Christology in post-Christendom can be found in Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the Twenty-First Century (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 33-59.
See Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011). While the paradigm suggested in this section isn’t necessarily how Scandrette organizes his material, I believe there are common elements and a common focus on spiritual practices that are necessary conditions of life as a post-Christendom church.
The four spiritual practices of the Casa de Cristoand the 10 core values of the Brethren in Christ Church have remarkable overlap. See Terry L. Brensinger, ed., Focusing Our Faith: Brethren in Christ Core Values (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 2000).
See Fred Fullerton, “Building the Body: The Church as a Means of Grace,” in Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm, ed. Diane Leclerc and Mark A. Maddix (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2011), 87-96. I particularly appreciated Fullerton’s use of Cyprian to discuss the essential character of the church.
Brent D. Peterson, “Worshipping as Created: God’s Gift of Communal Worship and the Sacraments”in Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm, ed. Diane Leclerc and Mark A. Maddix (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2011), 97-106.
Ivan Illich, quoted in Jim Baumgaertel, “Story-telling or Myth-Making? Frank Viola and Ivan Illich,” Proclamation, Invitation, and Warning, July 2007, https://procinwarn.com/counterfeit/storytelling.htm.
Author: Jeff Wright
Jeff Wright is pastor of Madison Street Church, Riverside, CA. This article is an adaptation of part of the 2017 IMPACT seminar of the Brethren in Christ Church U. S., led by Jeff, entitled, "A Different Game of Thrones: Imagining the Peaceable Kingdom Overcoming the Empire."