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In a minority? Don’t panic

by
11 November 2016

Mike Starkey looks at two views of church life post-Christendom

A Vast Minority: Church and mission in a plural culture
Stuart Murray
Paternoster £9.99
(978-1-84227-837-6)
Church Times Bookshop £9

 

Called to Witness: Doing missional theology
Darrell L. Guder
Eerdmans £19.99
(978-0-8028-7222-7)
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

 

TO SAY that Stuart Murray is fascinated by the demise of Christendom would be an understatement. The Church’s shift from cultural domination to the margins of our society forms the backdrop to all Murray’s recent writings, including his earlier books Post-Christendom and Church After Christendom. This new work complements those volumes, but stands alone.

Murray’s introduction draws intriguing comparisons between the late Roman Empire in the year 315, and the UK in 2015 — some 1700 years later. In both, the Christian population could plausibly be estimated at about ten per cent. In Rome, of course, it had grown to that figure, whereas in the UK it had declined to it. In both, the Church could be said to form a “vast minority” within its culture. Murray’s concern is to explore what minority status for the Church means now, in terms of self-identity, morale, expectations, strategy for mission, and a range of other issues.

Some commentators, both inside and outside the Church, see post-Christendom as a sign of decline and growing irrelevance. For Murray, writing in the Anabaptist tradition, it is a cause for hope: it restores the Church to the marginal, prophetic place it should always have occupied. Murray’s potent analogy for the Church’s new identity is the young David, casting off unwieldy and alien armour in order to engage Goliath. For David, “being light on his feet and and accurate in his aim was much more important than being well protected, resplendent and heavily armed.”

Murray draws on the history of other minority faith communities in Europe, such as the Jews and Anabaptists, to illustrate hopeful ways of living, witnessing, and dealing with persecution at the hands of an unsympathetic majority culture. His other main biblical analogy, alongside David and Goliath, is the Exile — particularly Jeremiah’s advice to the exiles to make peace with their new minority status and to work for the welfare of the society around them.

This leads to some provocative conclusions, such as his uneasiness with contemporary prayers for revival. These may, he says, be a panic strategy: a way of evading the hard challenge of learning to live in post-Christendom.

Murray writes clearly and compellingly. His analysis of our current condition is readable and razor-sharp, and his rejection of nostalgia and defeatism is inspiring. His own strategies for the future in later chapters feel necessarily more tentative, and have a distinctively Anabaptist feel to them — such as challenging consumer capitalism and militarism, peace-building, and encouraging restorative justice.

The culture of post-Christendom also forms the backdrop to the writings of Darrell Guder, an emeritus professor at Princeton Seminary and a leading light in the Gospel and Our Culture Network of North America. Guder covers similar ground to Murray’s, but at a more technical and scholarly level. Many of the same Christian thinkers are name-checked in both books, particularly Karl Barth, David Bosch, and Lesslie Newbigin. Similar themes recur: the challenge of Christian witness in a changing culture, contextualising the gospel, a Missio Dei understanding of evangelism, the value of incarnational theology, and theologies from the margins.

Guder’s book is a collection of his essays over the past decade, and so necessarily feels rather piecemeal. His thinking is stimulating and wide-ranging, but has something of the feel of contributions to an in-house debate for academic missional theologians. As a sustained and accessible polemic, Murray would be the better introduction for the non-specialist.

 

The Revd Mike Starkey is a tutor for the Church Army and author of the Faith Pictures evangelism course.

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