Donovan and The End of Christendom

grayscale photo of chapel

As I read more of Donovan’s ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ I am amazed at how much he had an early grasp on the fact that the end of Christendom was approaching fast.  In 2018, many Christians don’t even understand the implications of that.

Christendom was a social/religious/geographical arrangement created by nation states and the church in cahoots.  They each scratched each other’s backs for close to 1600 years.  The cracks in the system were very clear for Donovan in the late 1960s.

He said, with regards to the preacher/missionary’s job,

‘‘I think, rather, the missionary’s job is to preach, not the church, but Christ. If he preaches Christ and the message of Christianity, the church may well result, may well appear, but it might not be the church he had in mind.’

For too long conceptions about church have got in the way of the message of Jesus.  Don’t hear me wrong, and don’t hear Donovan wrong: When you preach Jesus you pretty much always get the church.  When you make disciples, Alan Hirsch says, you get the church.  However, if you plant a church you don’t always get disciples, and you don’t often get a Jesus culture.  The focus of all we do always begins and ends with Christ.

Throughout the 1600 years of the Christendom experiment, there were always those on the fringes of the church who said ‘we’ve got this wrong’.  Consider the desert monks of the 3rd – 5th century, the Dominicans, the Fransiscans, the Benedictines, the Anabaptists…who, down through the ages were a prophetic witness to the church more concerned with matters of state than the Kingdom of God and got the two confused in the process.  We are in need of a movement today.  Where are the non-conformists of our age who will recognise that all the things we call Christian have become ‘the moon’ instead of fingers simply ‘pointing to the moon.’  That was Thomas Merton’s analogy.

What Donovan discovered first of all, was that he had to find ways to communicate Jesus afresh in a way his hearers could understand.  Brilliantly, in my view, he taught about Jesus through the only framework the Masai knew…as a clansman in the tribe of Israel, who was born in the line of a Great Warrior Leader, and who served many years as a young warrior in the background learning his way in the world, before being initiated into his eldership after his desert trial to become one who offered all the spittle of forgiveness, before becoming the Great Herdsman preparing a new land for those he had spat upon.

That all might sound crazy to you, but this is Jesus in the idioms of the Masai.

Today, we have the triple challenge (at least).  Like Donovan, we have to come to terms with the end of Christendom.  Firstly, we have to recognise it’s over, mourn it, and lay it to rest.  Secondly, we have to rejoice that we can be free from its many disadvantages, as far as socio-political-religious systems go and dream a new future.  Donovan would never have moved in the way he did if he hadn’t dealt with his attachment to the institution.  But, thirdly, we need to learn to talk about Jesus in the language of the people.

If you’re training a missionary to go overseas, you want to teach them the language, the culture, the customs, the traditions, and the worldview the people share.  It is in that context your message has to make sense.  Why do we think we need anything less than that today in our age?

Here is the telling point for Donovan:  after encouraging the Masai to leave beyond their local, parochial views of ‘God’ in order to search for the High God who loved everyone, offers the spittle of forgiveness to everyone, and who is preparing a place for them, they ask Donovan if his people have found this High God.

After a few moments reflection, Donovan says, surprisingly to himself, ‘No…we too need to search.’  In that moment he remembered his war-mongering, narrowly nationalistic home nation and concluded that they, too, were as heathen as the Masai and that they too had to leave behind the tribal God of Christendom in search of a greater vision.

Is our God too small?
Too parochial?
Too manufactured after our own likeness?
Are we allowing God to be free?  If he is not, is he God at all?


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