Switching to Mission Mode
From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age
By Edited by Msgr. James P. Shea, et al.
Publisher: University of Mary Press
Review Author: Christopher Beiting
Back when I was in graduate school, at a meeting of the C.S. Lewis Society, I heard Walter Hooper lament about living in a “post-Christian” society. I challenged him on it, pointing out that there’s no such thing as a “post-Christian” society because all societies are post-Christian, coming as they do after the life of Christ. Rather, what we’re living in now is a post-Christendom society, which isn’t the same thing.
Msgr. James P. Shea, president of the University of Mary, and the university’s faculty members have done yeoman’s work in presenting clearly what I saw through a glass darkly all those years ago. From Christendom to Apostolic Mission is an absolute marvel. In a slim 90 pages, it provides the most penetrating analysis of what is wrong with the world and the Church, and what needs to be done about it, that I have ever seen. The best review I could give of this book is three simple words: Just read it. But for those who need a little more convincing, consider the following.
From Christendom to Apostolic Mission begins with a short but apt summation of where we are as Catholics. In the worlds of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, “We are at the end of Christendom,” which means we are no longer living in a culture that is based on Christian ideas and assumptions. As our culture moves away from its Christian foundations, the key battles we face tend to be intellectual ones. For example, all societies have found ways to dispose of children they don’t want, yet none has developed the elaborate and twisted justifications that ours has to make abortion a “right” or even a moral good. At the same time, our society, which prides itself on being “rational,” proves in practice to be anything but. Moderns are either remarkably oblivious to evidence or adept at bending it to suit their preconceptions. So, though our society’s problems are intellectual, the solutions to them cannot be. Instead, what we need to confront modernity is not a series of rational arguments but the presentation of Christianity as a comprehensive vision of something different and better.
What is the right way to go about doing this? The central point of this book — and its greatest strength — is the contention that there is no one right way to go about doing this. Rather, the Catholic faith has to operate differently in different situations. The authors focus on two: a situation in which the Christian faith is the dominant force in a culture, and a situation in which it is not. They typify these modes as “Christendom” and “Apostolic,” respectively.
The Catholic faith operated in Apostolic mode for its first few centuries of existence and continued to do so sporadically in different times and places (such as mission territory) afterwards. Then, from about the fourth century onward, the Catholic faith began operating in Christendom mode in Europe, and it continued to do so at least until the era of the Enlightenment, finally collapsing swiftly and spectacularly in our own era. It is important to understand that neither of these two operating modes is necessarily better than the other, and each has its strengths and weaknesses.
In Christendom mode, the Church’s operational model is maintenance, with her leaders as administrators. The Church can count on cultural assumptions, like laws and morals, being based on Christian foundations, and so she focuses more on cultural achievement. Society enjoys a greater consensus about the idea of the “common good,” and ordinary people are generally happier. The great problems the Church faces are complacency, lukewarmness, and hypocrisy. The Church can acquire a this-worldly focus, and she risks becoming just another social entity or branch of the civil service. Impetus for mission efforts can be low, and the division among believers is one of nominal vs. serious Christians.
In Apostolic mode, things are different. The Church’s operational model is evangelization, and her leaders are apostles. The Church tends to focus on her distinctiveness from common culture, rather than cooperation with it, since that culture is in active opposition to the Christian faith. As there are no social rewards but often active social penalties (up to and including martyrdom) for being believers, the level of commitment, holiness, and faith among Christians — clergy and laity alike — is often higher than in Christendom mode.
In Apostolic mode, the great problems the Church faces are discouragement, lack of confidence in the Gospel message, and cowardice. The Church lacks resources and finds it difficult to build institutions. Her biggest challenge is maintaining her vision in the face of an oppositional culture, and her greatest temptation is to water down her message and knuckle under to the culture. Believers can fall into a sectarian mentality or else withdraw from the Gospel command to make disciples of all nations in favor of a “let the world go to hell” mentality.
In sum: different eras have different strengths, different weaknesses, and different challenges.
The major lesson to draw from all this is: “Institutional and ecclesiastical strategies that are suited to Christendom do not work well in an apostolic setting.”
In other words, the Church’s chief problem these days is not that she is wrong but that she is using the wrong methods. Too many in the Church are still operating in Christendom mode when they should be operating in Apostolic mode. As a practical example, consider those bewildered parents — and their number is legion — who did everything they could to pass on the faith to their children by making sacrifices to send them to Catholic schools, being active in their local parishes, and doing their best to set a good example, and still found their children leaving the faith. What did we do wrong? is their agonized collective cry. The answer is, Nothing. Everything they did was fine for raising Christian children in a Christendom culture. But we’re not in a Christendom culture anymore. We’re in an Apostolic one, and the methods have got to change.
If that is the case, then how?
From Christendom to Apostolic Mission doesn’t only diagnose the problems; it also articulates some pastoral strategies for moving forward, which can be paraphrased as follows.
1. Get apostolic. Anyone who is tempted to despair over the state of the Church — which, I assume, is much of the NOR readership (myself very much included) — really ought to look at this book’s humorous, fictional “Balance Sheet of Resources for Church-Building and Evangelization” issued by the Apostles to put things in perspective. What resources did they have? Absolutely nothing. All they had was fervor, but their successes show that a tiny handful of fervent Christians are better than a large number of lukewarm ones.
2. Don’t believe the sociologists. By any set of modern empirical measurements, the Church is doomed. But those empirical measurements do not factor in the Church’s remarkable regenerative ability, at least when a few people with apostolic zeal get operating. In the early 1800s the Church in France looked to be on her last legs, with about 12,300 nuns and 3,000 priests. But by 1878 there were 135,000 nuns and 30,000 priests in France — more than a tenfold increase in a matter of decades. As a friend of mine once said, “We Catholics are like cockroaches; there’s no getting rid of us for long.”
3. Use institutions differently. Established institutions tend to adopt the values of the culture around them, which is fine in a Christendom era but fatal in an Apostolic one. Catholic institutions need to focus more on their mission, aims, and spirit, resisting the temptations to cling to Christendom-era practices that aren’t working anymore or to adopt “best practices” from a hostile culture that don’t work either.
4. Articulate a coherent vision. More and more, Catholic institutions need to stress the “vision thing,” chiefly by reminding us that our destiny is Heaven, not earth; that the soul is more important than the body; that there is an invisible world of spirit around us that is more important than the visible world of matter; and that the victories that are most important are likely not tangible or perceptible. We need to remember that, in this age, our role is to be countercultural.
5. Rethink priestly formation. Since priests have such an important leadership role in the Church, their formation programs need to be based on Apostolic-mode practices, particularly those that enable them to provide one another with true support and enable them to counter secular culture rather than be absorbed by it.
6. Allocate resources apostolically. Sometimes in a war, an army has to give up territory that was hard-won and has been long-defended. An Apostolic-mode Church is smaller and poorer than a Christendom-mode Church and needs to allocate her resources accordingly, prioritizing what works over what doesn’t. Getting smaller and poorer is never fun, but Christian history shows that renewal always comes from small groups that are more intense.
7. Accept mess. Lacking the ability to rely on established institutions the way the Christendom-mode Church does, the Apostolic-mode Church instead must rely on the charisms and zeal of inspired members, though they can be a little idiosyncratic, sometimes resulting in confusion, conflict, or chaos. We just have to roll with it because sometimes “it is better to have to tame the over-zealous than to try to convert the skeptical and inspire the apathetic.”
If all that weren’t enough for a mere 90 pages, there’s more. From Christendom to Apostolic Mission offers a brief but penetrating analysis of the key elements of the errors of modernity. It also provides excellent insight into why the Church’s efforts to preach Christian morality to the world are failing so dismally. That approach works in Christendom mode but not in Apostolic mode. Indeed, “the reason why so much of the Church’s moral teaching falls on deaf ears in our time is because it makes no sense according to the ruling vision of society.” What we need is a renewal of the mind through an appeal to the imagination; the morals will come later.
For those of us left over from the Christendom era who don’t quite know what “evangelization of culture” means, who wonder what was wrong with Thomism, and who despair at the younger generation, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission concludes with an important point. What kind of popular entertainment do young heathens favor these days? Tiresome novels about English professors contemplating adultery? Dreary sagas of the plight of miners in Bolivia? No. Rather, it’s all “epic dramas” and “cosmic battles among powerful spiritual forces for good and evil that demand of the young hero or heroine extraordinary character, commitment, and sacrifice for the saving of the world.” Today’s youths have active imaginations and a desire for the heroic, which would seem to be ripe ground in which the Greatest Story Ever Told can take root. Perhaps this age is not so much in need of Augustines and Aquinases as it is of J.R.R. Tolkiens and Dean Koontzes.
Even a book as brilliant as this has shortcomings, and one is acknowledged at the very beginning: While we are certainly in a post-Christendom age, we are not exactly in an Apostolic age either. Rather, “we are dealing with the first culture in history that was once deeply Christian but that by a slow and thorough process has been consciously ridding itself of its Christian basis.” That makes applying Apostolic-mission tactics this time around a bit more complicated than it was the last time around. The book is wise enough to reference C.S. Lewis’s analogy about the difference between a man wooing a young maiden and wooing a cynical divorcée back to her previous marriage. The latter is obviously a much greater challenge, as is our task today.
Moreover, there is the practical problem of how we are to go about rebuilding the Church while wreckage is still falling on our heads. For example, how does one deal with those who don’t “get” the contents of this book? A lay leader at a Catholic university run by a religious order once confided in me, “You know, the biggest problems I have trying to get this institution to live up to the mission and charism of its order…are the actual members of that order here on campus.” I’m sure many of us can cite similar experiences. Getting people from a Christendom mindset to an Apostolic-mission mindset is no easy task, and until it happens, those who should be part of the solution are part of the problem.
These trifles notwithstanding, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission is a brilliant work. Had I the power, I would ask every parish in America to give out this book free to parishioners at Christmas, instead of another Matthew Kelly title. It’s an excellent template for the future development of the Church — and a strong argument for sending your kids to the University of Mary.
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