church on the fringes

In my last post on Anabaptism related to Stuart Murray’s book, Naked Anabaptist, I asked this question: Is the language of "witness" just semantics, or does the church's role in the world significantly change once we accept our role as witnesses in our post-Christian reality?

The church as witness - a voice to God’s presence in the world - implies a move to the fringes, a posture of observation, not control. In a post-Christendom society, witness provides an alternative identity for the church to live by. No longer a central institution - authority and influence - the church is now free to focus on the biblical values of community and discipleship (ch. 5) in a fresh way, witness to a alternative reality.

Now, Murray realizes not everyone is ready to accept a shift in role for the church. “Most Christians continue to participate, enthusiastically or reluctantly, in expressions of church that have been inherited from the Christendom era. Indeed, the largest and most vibrant churches are traditional in style, conservative in doctrine, autocratic or managerial in leadership style, patriarchal, and institutional. Many of these churches look with disdain at the fragile communities emerging alongside them, seeing no need to take cognizance of the end of Christendom or to adapt more than pragmatically for a changing culture.”

But it’s unclear if such resistance to change is sustainable. What if this type of sentiment is just a last ditch effort to save the church’s centrality in culture? What if this represents “the last generation for whom Christendom is their natural habitat" as Murray ponders?

If indeed churches continue to decline in formal cultural influence (not necessarily size), a posture as witness will no doubt require cooperation and unity amid the diversity that is global Christianity. Not only will Christians need to give up control of cultural influence, they will need to give control of Christian uniformity, lest our only witness becomes the church in conflict, where internal bickering and theological policing characterize our witness to the world. 1 John 4:11 anybody? Again, Murray offers timely advice: “A time of transition calls for provisionality and generosity, rather than dogmatism and competition...Post-Christendom is likely too diverse for any one expression of church to be adequate.”

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