So…the more I think about this (and I’ve been thinking about it a lot) – I really firmly believe that we are living in a “pre-Christian” age.
I know, I know, the prevailing narrative of our times is that we are in a post-Christian world. And in one sense, that is true. As Europe was Christianized and then brought Christianity, more or less, to the New World and to other parts of the British Empire, “the world was Christian” – especially the West, or developed, world. This is kind of an over-romanticized, simplistic version of the truth, but as a basic summary, I suppose it suffices.
And so now, when much of the developed world including Europe and North America, is falling away from Christianity, or at least Christendom as we’ve romanticized it according to our visions of the Middle Ages and/or the 1950s, we talk about being in a post-Christian world. People – society – the world used to be Christian, and now they’re not.
But…claiming to live in a “post-Christian world” assumes that most people in the world today have heard the message of Christianity (or even a reasonably orthodox approximation thereof), have sincerely evaluated it on its merits, and have rejected it. We blame it on the Enlightenment, or the heathen Baby Boomers, or “taking prayer out of schools” or whatever. We used to be Christian and now we’re not.
Except, well…I just don’t think that’s true.
Instead, I think that we are living in a pre-Christian age. I think that the vast, vast, vast majority of people living in the developed world today have not heard the gospel and rejected it; rather, they have never really heard it in the first place. We aren’t dealing with individuals who need to be called back to the faith that they know but have left, we are dealing with individuals who need to be catechized in the first place.
This is the “nones”. In all the recent surveys that ask (especially younger) people what religion or faith tradition they hold to, when given the option of choosing from among various forms of Christianity or other world religions, a great number are now choosing “none of the above”. And what we hear of “the nones” is that they “are good people”, are “spiritual but not religious”, care about “helping people and doing justice”, and so forth. They aren’t hardened atheists, they are just sort of spiritual drifters, pulling together bits and pieces from a variety of traditions and sources, seeking after their own wisdom, trying to make their way in the world.
And I don’t know about you, but this sounds an awful lot to me like, “…as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship…” (Acts 17:23).
Further, beyond the “nones,” I also believe that in identifying the pre-Christians among us, that we’re also talking about a whole lot of people who would check the “Christian” box, because it is still sort of culturally expected (particularly in certain locales), or because they go to church on Christmas Eve. But these people, despite attending on Christmas, and possibly even getting their kids baptized, wouldn’t know Christianity if it bit them in the armpit. I don’t say this to be mean or judgmental – I just say it because it’s true. Lutherans argue that the basics of the faith are “the six chief parts” of the Small Catechism – the Ten Commandments, the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. The writer of Hebrews claims they are “repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.” And let’s be real: a very significant number of people in the pews each week couldn’t give a 30 second overview of the Scriptures if their lives depended on it.
But let’s lay off the guilt trips. Again, this isn’t about judging people or making them feel bad for not knowing this stuff. We could blame this on poor catechesis by the pastors of yore, or heathen Baby Boomers who didn’t take their kids to church, or suburban youth athletics that require Sunday games/practice, or whatever. But that doesn’t solve the problem. It doesn’t catechize the ignorant, and it doesn’t introduce Christ to the pagans, so it’s a waste of time.
Look at the rest of the Acts story – the second half of Paul’s sentence: “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” (emphasis mine) And then he proceeds to do so. Verses 24-31 constitute a fabulous Christianity “elevator speech”, that I think is worth memorizing, or at least, adapting to our own contexts and then memorizing.
We Christians, and especially those of us who are “Christian public leaders”, live amongst “nones” and “just-shy-of-heathens, not-even-baby, ‘fetal’ Christians”, and we need to know how to teach the faith to these people. We need to know how to introduce them to it, and how to teach them the basics, and how to teach them to teach others the basics.
We are not in a post-Christian era, where people who know this stuff need to be called back to it. We are in a pre-Christian era. Without getting too big for my britches, we Christians (“public leaders” and non-pl’s alike) are like the Apostles. We know this stuff, and a relative handful of other people do as well, but to the rest of the world, we are the stuff of myths and legends, we appear to be either crazy or awful, or both, depending on what rumors have been circulating in a particular neighborhood.
Thinking about it like this has changed the way that I think about ministry inside and outside the walls of the congregation, and it’s definitely changed the way I think about evangelism. We don’t live in some “Christian nation” that needs to recover its own values, or around people who are “backsliding” just because they’re terrible people. We live in pagan freaking Athens. They need to hear the story, and be told the Gospel. They don’t know it. They know they need something…but what that is, they can’t quite…or can only barely…put their finger on.
A lot of us – and I include myself here – look at the passing scene and want to “do something” – things are horrible, the world’s gone to hell in a handbasket, and people need to shape up! So we say things like this:
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done." To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Romans 2:5-8)
Or even, if we’re feeling a little more Gospel-y than Law-ish, we might go this route:
“Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1b-5).
But those sorts of messages are only helpful for people who are actually already Christians, who have been well-catechized, who “get it,” and need to be reminded of it. It doesn’t work with people who really have no idea what you’re talking about it.
Shouting Romans 2 or Galatians 3 at somebody who comes to church on Christmas – or never – is a little like yelling at me for not following the rules of lacrosse. Well, one, I am not trying to play lacrosse, and two, I have seen a total of probably 30 seconds of the game being played, mostly if I flip to ESPN looking for baseball. (Is that right? Are the two played during roughly the same season?) I (think I) know that it’s big on the East Coast, played mostly by preppy white kids from the richy-rich suburbs. I have a couple friends that I think used to play, but to tell the truth, the 30 seconds I’ve seen on TV makes it look hard and exhausting, and the uniforms aren’t even all that suitable for checking out players’, well, anyway… ;) So don’t yell at me about lacrosse. I will just stare at you like you’re crazy, wonder why you’re yelling at me, and then walk away to go find a good book.
It’s my contention that we have an awful lot of people who don’t play lacrosse in this world. There are an awful lot of people who worship statues to an unknown God, who need to hear this:
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said,‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Yes, some will sneer (see verse 32), and we can’t control that. But some will want to hear more (we can’t control that either). We need to give people the chance to hear it. Give them the opportunity to want to hear more.
I don’t know about you, but “and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” sounds like a pretty awesome, adventurous challenge. How will you answer it? What is your Christianity elevator speech (or as Peter might say, the ‘reason for the hope that you have within you’)? Do you agree that we’re pre-Christian, not post-Christian?
Talk to me, people!