Religion After Religion: It’s the End of Christendom as We Know It

It’s the beginning of a new year. And, it’s the end of Christendom as we know it…and I feel fine. And also a little anxious. And I don’t think I’m alone.

For decades, those of us who work in mainline Christianity (as I do with team DoC) have been sensing a disruption. Declining membership and depressing pew studies about the rise of the “nones” have left us clergy fighting a bit of ecclesiastical creative paralysis at best, and just plain hopeless at worst.

Indeed these are dark days for Christendom. It’s dying.

And quite frankly, it needs to.

Now before we throw our hands up in the air about me pronouncing the end of Christendom, let me explain.

By Christendom, I mean that predominantly white, Western form of Christianity that has been conquesting the world under the banner of salvation since the Constantinian shift in the 4th century. This is what is ending. By Christendom, I do not necessarily mean:

  • The end of the Christian faith
  • The end of global Christianity
  • The end of Eastern and more mystical forms of Christianity
  • The end of churches (that is, those beloved communities of people marked by the way of Jesus)

Although, on the whole, they are all admittedly declining as well. To be sure, there are varying cultural factors that both have and still are contributing to the decline of Religion in the West. But, what I am naming here is that form of Christianity that has linked arms with both Religion and empire, and whose sordid history has contributed to the form of the faith that more and more 21st century people are saying a hard no to. This form of the faith I often associate with these 5 C’s:

  • Crusade
  • Coerce
  • Convert
  • Conform
  • Colonize

This is what has functioned under the banner of “Christendom,” which many American postmoderns might know as simply, “Institutional Religion” in its Christian form in the West. This form of Christian Religion is bound up in an (often well-intentioned) evangelizing impulse to convert the world for the sake of the gospel, and yet often retains many coercive and conformist impulses that eventually end up curbing the transformation of individuals and communities, and especially dehumanizing the marginalized. What we are inheriting is a Religion of empire, and people are leaving this form of Christianity in droves.

This is what the sun is setting on, and it’s time for a new dawn.

Most of my friends who have awakened to this fading reality have just walked away from Religion altogether. And to be fair, I think that many times that is the right response. But, it’s not the only way forward in a secular age.

What if the darkness that enshrouds many Christians today isn’t solely a tomb…but rather a womb?

What if this groaning and pain that many of us are sensing means that we’re feeling the birth pangs of something beautiful and novel trying to make its way into the world?

It’s just that…the difficulty is that with the new always comes death and change and leaving some things behind. And that’s really (really) difficult. Especially for humans. And yet, in its uniqueness, this specific cultural and historical moment presents those of us beholden to curiosity with ever-new and distinct possibilities for faith today.

So…what’s next?

Well, it’s time for those of us who still desire to carry the light of Christ forward to repent of and bereave what has been in Christendom, and to be bold enough to midwife this new moment of religious becoming.

It also means that we must risk everything:

Models, methods, beliefs, framings, rituals, and all kinds of isms.

It means that we must embody a sort of religion after Religion. The Latin origin of the word “religion” is ligare, literally meaning “bound together.” People binding their lives together, especially with a common purpose, isn’t going anywhere. We are all actually and wonderfully relational in our deepest parts, and to be a person is to be tethered relationally to the rest of the cosmos, and especially, to other bodies.

In a sense then, to be alive is to be religious. To be alive is to be bound together in relationality. One of the great dangers in our world is failing to realize that our actions deeply affect the world around us.

So the question for those of us some 500 years from the last great emergence in Christianity is, of course:

What now shall we be bound in?

We are all inextricably bound together anyways. It might as well be in something beauty-full, right? To be sure, though there are ancient responses to this massive question, and expansive pathways of healing and restoration already carved out, what is crucial now is that we form beloved communities that take this wisdom forward and incorporate it into more contemporary ways of being.

We need innovators, curators, and forward-thinkers to help bring more beautiful possibilities to bear in a world so desperately in need of them. Because, as Kurt Vonnegut once said:

“You can see all kinds of things from the edge you can’t see from the center.”

We are taking it upon ourselves to inhabit a new set of 5 C’s to subvert the colonizing impulses of Christendom and to forge a way forward for Christians and those wanting to find intentional community. The following five practices distill the heart of Jesus’ life and mission, the best of what religion in its boundedness has to give to our world, and offers our civilization a way beyond the trappings of Religion and toward a collective future bound up in peacemaking. Although these practices aren’t embodied solely by Christians alone, we think we need more Christians willing to choose shared practices and values over the spreading of their Religion. The following are the 5 C’s that our community has identified as core to living in the way of Jesus:

  • Connection
  • Contemplation
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • Compassionate Action

These practices are paired with the values of (in order): hospitality, mystery, wisdom, beauty, and love/justice.

What if more communities and churches committed to shared practices and values in an effort to come together to see what new way is possible in the 21st century?

How might that transform the landscape of religion in the West, and what fruit might we reap as a society?

Here in Santa Barbara, CA, there is a group of us who are committing to walk in these together in a new community we are developing called the Way Collective. We are an ecumenical group of mainliners, agnostics, (post)evangelicals, believing skeptics, non-faithers, and inter-religious people coming together to unite in shared practices and values in the Jesus way. As our world polarizes and fragments, this is, for us, an attempt to be bound in a sort of religion after Religion as we adventure into a deeper way of being in the world; one not obsessed with a singular way of believing, but committed to take our faith into the 21st century by living well for the common good and for the transformation of our city.

There is always ever more to come. Stay tuned.

You can follow along with me on our journey on Twitter here: @tdburnette.

Articles on the soul’s journey of becoming & wholeness. I’m singing the world using theopoetic & contemplative Christian languages. It’s a #processparty.