Today it’s customary, even cliche, to observe how the cultural situation of Christians in the 21st century most resembles Christians in the early centuries under the Roman Empire. What’s meant by this is that the Church exists after Christendom in a post- Christian culture where the faith is suspect by many in society and certainly not shared by many more.
Few would deny that today there exists a strong sentiment of our losing our ‘traditional’ culture. It’s not always clear that what’s being lost is Christian culture so much as a particular form of Christianized national culture; nonetheless, it’s true that for Christianity not only to survive but to thrive in the next century it must discern how to impact the culture in ways different from the past.
I believe the early church provides us lessons in this regard. Today most U.S. Christians (especially Protestants and especially United Methodists) exist in rural and suburban areas. Christianity as an urban social presence is almost unheard of. And while Christians have done an extensive job at building parallel institutions in media and education (Christian music etc) they no longer exercise a strong influence in the institutions that drive, determine and change our culture.
What the early church teaches us, I believe, is that if the Church is to impact and change our culture and the world in the 21st century it must do the same things the Church did in the first century.
That is, it should continue to offer a lived alternative to the values of the wider world.
In large part, we’re already doing this.
What the early church also did, however, was engage the long-term process of nurturing disciples who could engage the culture and become leaders of it- a 21st century version of paideia.
In a time of declining church membership and loss of visible stature, it’s common to hear church leaders bemoan how we don’t know what it means to be faithful in this changing context. Ironically, what it means today is what it meant then.
Check out this description of Christians from a letter written before much of your New Testament.
“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle….
While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.”
“They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign.
They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are `in the flesh,’ but do not live `according to the flesh.’ They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.”
“They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect.
When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life….Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.”
“In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world.”
– Letter to Diognetus (2nd c)