Are Christian trends the trends of the Church?: Christian, Christendom and Church, once again.

David Hayward, the Nakedpastor, reflected upon Ed Stetzer’s post on current trends around the term Christian and the statistics of the identity.

Stetzer is concerned that congregations (churches/denominations?) don’t see the decrease in self identification as Christian as an indication of the death of the church.  Hayward’s concern is for how this explanation of the decline of self-identification as Christian will create isolationist congregations and groups of “pure” Christians.  He doesn’t come out and say it but I hear behind Hayward’s concerns that this will exclude people of faith and spirituality that could be nurtured by a more open approach to these trends.  Stetzer, doesn’t think his Convictional Christians nor his analysis will lead to the negative and isolationist fears of Hayward.

From my perspective Haywards critique of Stetzer’s article is based on a concern for a narrowing of the term Christian and thus of drawing the lines around church too closely.  I’m less clear on where Stetzer wants to take us in relation to these statistics, though he objects to Haywards pointing out the potential negative conclusions one may draw from Stetzer’s analysis.

This interchange seemed to fit in my own recent attempts to get at some clarity on what Christian, Christendom and Church are and how I’ve experienced them in these blog posts, here and here.

One might place my attempts to distinguish between Christian and member of the Body of Christ in Stetzer’s category of the “convictional Christian”, or Hayward’s group of “pure” Christians. But that would be to mistake my ecclesiology, my attempt to distinguish is seeking to live out my baptism, to be aware of the continuity between the apostles and us now.

My guess is that Stetzer and Hayward have similar starting places for their respective ecclesiologies.  Hayward though has a concern (like I have) for those beyond the walls of our Christian institutions (again note I wish to avoid the term church, this has to do with my ecclesiology which leads me to hesitate to equate all current Christian institution with the Church). Stetzer’s  concern is for those who are in and loyal to these Christian institutions denomination and congregation. Or more charitably concerned about how those in the institutions relate to those outside the congregations and denominations.

At this moment things get a little fuzzy for me: what do Hayward and Stetzer mean by “church” or “The Church”?  In following Hayward at a distance I get the sense that “Church” for him is a non-specific spiritual reality that could also simply be called community.  My guess (and I will admit being almost entirely unfamiliar with Stetzer’s body of work, I know him only by reputation) is that Stetzer would use church and congregation interchangeably and may apply “Church” or The Church to all throughout time who are “true”(however that is defined) followers of Christ.  Yet, I would guess that being genuinely Christian is probably more important to both authors then having  clarity on the nature of the Church.

What I’m trying to get at is to contrast Hayward’s and Stetzer’s approach to the space I’m attempting to clear here in Ecclesial Longings.  I’m less and less concerned about the term Christian, who claims it or whether they are cultural, nominal or convictional.   Based on my reflections and the heuristic I’m seeking to develop I’d argue that Stetzer and Hayward are in differing ways concerned with Christendom.

Christendom is the  space in which Christian belief (of some kind) and Christian institutions (possibly including the Church) form part of the basis and fabric of a particular society or culture.

If this is a solid definition of Christendom, Stetzer’s categories of Christians are actually categories of types of people in Christendom.  If Christendom in our context is collapsing or disappearing, then it’s not surprising that the various types of Christian are also disappearing.  The convictional Christian would also eventually disappear or as Stetzer’s own article suggest simply be all Christians, once the collapse and shift from Christendom is complete. Stetzer doesn’t seem to admit that this collapse of Christendom is what makes Christian identity meaningless to “nominal” and “congregational” Christians.  But also this shift removes the structures upon which most Christian institutions depend upon.  Hayward seems to want to in some sense preserve a form of Christendom, that is keep the church with some influence upon the wider culture.  Stetzer is willing to envision a context where the church has lost its cultural influence but doesn’t (in the article) reflect upon that the institutions of convictional Christians are institutions that are in terms of their form and structure dependent upon the existence of Christendom.    For the local congregation, this is shown in that as “nominal” and “congregational” Christians cease to be those identify as Christian and leave these congregation the congregations and denominations no longer have the ability to maintain structures, programs bureaucracies and buildings all built at the heyday of American Christendom.

All of these trends can be talked about without reference to the Church as Body of Christ.  Why is this?  I think it is because for Hayward and Stetzer church is simply the community of individuals who identify as Christians (Hayward may want to name church as all those who identify as spiritual).  I’d argue this understanding of church fails to see the Church as something that encompasses and transcends individuals who make it up, like Paul’s metaphorical language of church as Body.  Like the affirmation of church as Mother.  Taking these mystical and material affirmations seriously, I’m less concerned about who’s a Christian, or how inclusive or exclusive we are. My concern is with seeking to be part of and lead others into the physical, historical and transcendent reality of the Church.

I have a suspicion that much American Christianity isn’t in that continuity and is more concerned about being right than being formed into the mystical Body of Christ.  Neither a tightening of the ranks nor seeking to be as open as possible are the way to be formed as the Body of Christ. In that search it is good to be aware of the demise of Christendom and the trends around Christian identity but none of that gets to the heart of the matter for one who has an ecclesial longing.

My stab at a definition here: The Church is that which is in spiritual and historical/material continuity with the Apostles and Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, is formed by God and who has as its head Jesus Christ.

If your interested Steve McSwain has a year old series of posts in this arena, the first of which can be found here.  Though here in this review of one of McSwain’s book’s I recommend taking him with a grain of Salt.