Christians in Britain today find themselves in an unprecedented situation: they are living in an increasingly post-Christian society. After centuries of power and influence, the churches now find themselves a relatively uninfluential minority. After centuries of living in a society whose values and mores were to a significant degree christianized, Christians find it increasingly necessary to be counter-cultural if they are to live faithfully to the Gospel.
This is not to deny that important remnants of the historic role of the churches in our culture persist. But we would be unwise to place much reliance on them. It is pleasing to notice how many prominent politicians now are not only Christian believers but also speak quite openly of their faith. But if Christianity is making a comeback in conventional politics, at the same time most young people are as indifferent to conventional politics as they are Christianity.
The cultural marginalization of Christian faith is easily observable. Look, for example, at the television schedules for the Easter period. There will probably be very little related to the Christian meaning of this season, and even less of a positive Christian character. Even ten years ago there was much more. Moreover, there are signs that the process of secularization is moving beyond indifference to Christian faith. A deep hostility to Christianity comes to the surface now quite often in the media and in youth culture.
Although this post-Christian situation is novel, it may be worth considering whether Christians in this situation have anything to learn from the past. Before the long process (beginning with the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century) which made Christianity the religion of western society, Christians lived in a non-Christian society. It was pre-Christian, not post-Christian, and so the parallel with the contemporary west is limited. Intense cultural hostility to Christianity in the Roman period often led to persecution by the state authorities and to martyrdom. In our context that is unlikely. But nevertheless there is a significant parallel in the Christian church's minority position in a culturally hostile situation in both cases.
The growth of the early church was remarkable. In the 250 years up to Constantine, it grew from nothing to the size of at least 5%, perhaps as much as 10%, of the population of the Roman empire. Yet the church seems to have done rather little to spread the Gospel, at least not in the ways we might expect. After the earliest period of which we read in the New Testament, there is hardly any evidence of public preaching in the marketplace or public meetings that outsiders could attend. Outsiders, even enquirers, were usually prohibited from Christian worship meetings in the second and third centuries. For the most part Christians kept a low profile - for safety's sake.
How then did the church grow? Two factors stand out. First, Christians carefully nurtured a counter-cultural community and lived a counter-cultural lifestyle.
Converts were very thoroughly instructed, even before baptism, not only in Christian beliefs, but even more in the practice of Christian life. They were thoroughly socialized and then supported in a community way of living which was very different from their pagan background. The lifestyle was by no means introverted. Christians cared for the poor and the sick, not only the Christian poor and sick. Sometimes they even bought slaves in the slave market and gave them their freedom. And although they had no professional evangelists or public preachers, they talked about the Gospel to workmates and neighbours as they won their trust.
Secondly, there was just one way in which the Christian message was likely to reach people not personally acquainted with Christians. The one point at which Christians came out in public was when they were put to death for their faith. The crowds who marvelled, even mockingly, at the Christians’ joyful confidence in the face of death heard them explain a faith they were prepared to die for, but more than that - a faith their deaths validated, enacting Christ’s triumph over death. Martyrdom was the extreme instance of counter-cultural faithfulness to the Gospel. We cannot measure its effect, but it was certainly considerable.
Are there lessons for the church today? Perhaps this especially: that in contexts of cultural hostility to the church and its message, the nurturing of strong Christian community and of consistency in counter-cultural lifestyle are priorities. The more counter-cultural the church is required to be, the more important is thorough initiation, education and integration of converts into a supportive community. Christian community and Christian lifestyle, so long as they are not introverted, bring their own opportunities for mission and evangelism, even when mission and evangelism may otherwise be difficult.