What's Mattered Most?

Christianity Today magazine is producing the customary year-end and decade-end roundups of news. Among their features is a polling of various evangelical observers and leaders on what has been the most important change in Christianity in the past decade.

They asked me, too, and you can read the responses here. Just two additional notes:

1. I’m pretty sure they asked me about American Christianity, not global Christianity. Otherwise I, too, would have been drawn toward the Big Words such as “Pentecostalism,” “Islam,” “Africa,” and “China.”

2. As if to validate the last claim I make in the feature, I think I’m the only theologian they quote…!

What do you think was the most important development in Christianity (local, national, global) in the last decade?

Happy New Year, everyone: And may the news this year be better.

0 Responses to “What's Mattered Most?”

  1. BW

    My vote is for the election of Benedict XVI.

    Richard John Neuhaus made the claim that B16’s papacy was going to be transformative, not transitional. This was in contrast to the widely-held belief that he would effectively be a place-holder acting as a bookend of a generation in the Catholic Church. Turns out Neuhaus was right. From his travels to his ecumenical efforts, each of the significant actions of his papacy have further signaled a new era in the Roman Catholic Church. And the impact extends beyond the Catholic Church as other Christians are forced to respond to his maneuvers and overtures.

    • John Stackhouse

      Perhaps, BW, you could list the top three or four actions of Benedict’s papacy that distinguish it from that of John Paul II and thus signal a new era?

      • BW


        First, my comments here aren’t meant to slight JP2. I’m actually not Catholic myself, but I enjoy following ecclesial maters.

        I think the recent ‘overture’ to traditional Anglicans tops the list. Yes, JP2 began clearing the path. But with this maneuver, B16 is saying “Look, we’re willing to make significant changes to accommodate you.” Having effectively removed many of the structural and liturgical barriers between Catholics and Anglicans, he’s forcing the latter to make a conscious choice to remain Protestant.

        The big question now is: who’s next? Lutherans? Orthodox? I recently read speculation that he may be willing to limit the declared authority of the papacy if it means full communion with Eastern Orthodox churches. There’s a pragmatic reason for this as well: a unified east and west is a powerful witness of Christian hope in an age of fundamentalist challenges and relativism.

        To a lesser extent the gestures towards traditionalist Catholics can also be seen in the same light. These gestures don’t say “I agree with you”, but “I’m building an umbrella big enough for every orthodox Christian.”

        And, speaking of (lower-case o)rthodox Christians, his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum has led to somewhat of a subversive liturgical revolution. What could have been nothing more than a policy change to free-up the Traditional Latin Mass has led dioceses around the world to explore their liturgical heritage.

        Finally, I think B16’s pontificate has spelled the end of the secretive era that effectively allowed the abuse scandals to go on. He’s met with victims in the US, apologized in Australia, and the Irish report has recently been released. It doesn’t mean the matter is resolved. It does indicate, however, that he isn’t going to stick his head in the sand and that the RCC is learning from its mistakes.

        • John Stackhouse

          Thanks for these, but I’m not convinced yet. The overture to the Anglicans will bring in only a relatively few Anglo-Catholics, not likely the vast majority of non-liberals who are either Prayer Book conservatives or evangelicals. And some might say the whole thing smacks of “time to come home to Rome” that isn’t what one would call innovative….

          Benedict has also been more open to the traditional Latin Mass. Okay, but at this point it’s too early to tell what difference that’s going to make. Four decades after Vatican II, how many Catholics are out there pining for a mass in a language they don’t understand?

          It’s good to see Benedict admitting to abuse scandals. But John Paul II did also, and really, how great a deluge does it take before any sensible person finally has to agree, “Yes, it appears to be raining”?

          So maybe in 2020 we’ll hail this pontificate as greatly significant, but I can’t say so yet.

          • BW

            On the surface I can see where you’re coming from with the “time to come home to Rome” aspect of his actions towards Anglicans. However, what makes this situation different is the way he’s willing to build another room onto the Vatican, if you will. Instead of telling traditional Anglicans “Yeah, your situation stinks.. well.. you can come stay with us, bu you need to leave all your stuff back in the UK” it’s “Come. We’ll make adjustments so that you can keep your books and liturgy and structure.” With that willingness to create these ordinariates, is it possible we’ll see a ‘North American Rite’ for mainline denominations that are being ripped to shreds? Maybe, maybe not. But the point is that the Vatican, under B16, has created a solution to the problem beyond “Let’s just start the 30,001st denomination.” That has to be somewhat compelling to a conservative congregation of any denomination that’s worried about being able to stand on its own (financially and otherwise).

            As far as the abuse scandals are concerned, I never got the sense that JP2 *really* owned up to them. I have, however, felt like B16 is unwilling to gloss over or tolerate any scandal under his watch. A good example of this is the Legion of Christ. We may see the disbanding of the whole organization because of the actions of its founder.

            It’s true that B16’s papacy hasn’t been amazing ecclesial earthquake. Most of the changes he’s made are subtle, indeed probably imperceptible to most non-Catholics.

            I would still contend that, as far as your original question is concerned, his ascendancy was the most important development in global Christianity in the decade. Sure, we may not see it now.. it may take until 2020.. but that doesn’t change the significance of the event. Some Catholics are already referring to him as “The Pope of Christian Unity”. I won’t be surprised if his reputation among non-Catholics is ultimately the same.

  2. Matt Dodrill

    Nationally, I believe it was the reform of theological method in light of 9/11/01. Specifically, postliberal theology seems to have spoken loudly to the issues and questions regarding foreign policy, globalization, and consumerism during a “war on terror.” I realize postliberal theology is not the only voice in the matter. In fact, perhaps fundamentalists spoke even louder. All in all, though, it seems that Christians have been discerning (successfully or unsuccessfully) what the church is supposed to be in such a time. The significance of this reminds me of Barth’s re-consideration of theology in light of Nazism.

    • John Stackhouse

      Brother Matt, I agree that the postliberals spoke up against those things. But they were speaking up before 9/11 just as loudly, since postliberalism predates 9/11 by a couple of decades or so. And I doubt many liberals became postliberals because of cultural and political stresses as Barth did–do you have any evidence for that interesting parallel?

      Indeed, liberals denounced the war on terror, globalization, etc., etc., just as much as postliberals did, I daresay. So again, I don’t see (1) any reform of theological method in the light of 9/11, nor (2) any strong parallel with Barth reconsidering his training as a (nationalistic) liberal and becoming the First Postliberal. Am I missing what you’re saying?

  3. Paul

    Well maybe not the “most important” development, but the decision to consider seriously inclusive language in the upcoming 2011 revision/deprecation of the NIV/TNIV is large!

  4. robahas

    Fascinating question. One of the opiners at CT site, Brett McCracken, mentions “The speed with which the emerging church movement has dissipated, or lost momentum.” This does not ring true to me. I feel like emergent church’s impact on evangelicalism in North America has been huge and has left a lasting mark (so we would need to define what is meant by “movement”). It’s akin to the influence of Vineyard worship music. Over all I think that evangelicals have become more open to and embracing of culture, and less doctrinaire because of this influence. Or maybe it’s just a general trend and “emergent church” is the outter edge. In any case emergent as “Christianity that in some significant ways incorporates the postmodern critique” has been very important in the last decade. Also emergent has opened up theological discussion to more people and connected theological themes to how we live and view our world. FYI, I’m not in an emergent church, but I certainlly see the impact of those ideas im denominational setting. I think I also disagree with the Cathy Grossman’s claim about the “widespread abandonment of Christian doctrinal commitment.” This seems like a tired refrain that is repeated every decade and generation. It’s just that evangelicalism is always conflicted about the relationship between theology and church. But this is nothing new, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that sales of theology books have increased in our late decade. Thank you John for all the interesting posts!

  5. Matt Dodrill

    No, you didn’t misunderstand me. I probably should not have implied that the postliberals are the only ones speaking out. I recognize that Christians in general have something to say about the war – indeed, liberals, I agree. Maybe I just happened to discover postliberal critiques of post 9/11 war, globilzation, etc. at a time when I was very concerned with what’s going on in theology post 9/11. So, instead of it being THE most important development, perhaps it was just the most important discovery for me. Thanks for your comment, Mr. Stackhouse.

  6. teadeum

    Dr. Stackhouse, isn’t this question more or less meaningless??…it’s like asking what has been the most significant development in the Democratic Party over the past decade. It might be a question of great political or intellectual interest, but is probably of little or no importance in the realm of Christian Faith. It reminds my of Kierkegaard’s distinction and stress between “knowing about the Teacher” verses actually “knowing the Teacher”. In my limited view, Christians probably spend far too much time concerning themselves with questions about God or questions about Christianity, than they do about actually knowing Him and growing in faith.

    • John Stackhouse

      Questions of “great political or intellectual interest” are indeed “important in the realm of Christian Faith”–unless one construes the Christian faith in terms of a privatized piety practiced for their own benefit by individuals or groups who think it’s honoring to God to ignore the world he loves and is working hard to redeem.

      The Christian Faith instead has an interest in everything, just as God neglects not even a sparrow’s fall and seeks even a single lost coin or lamb. Each of us can’t be interested in everything, of course. We have our particular callings from God to pursue. But we ought to bless others who pursue callings and therefore interests other than our own.

      If you don’t care about matters intellectual and political, well, okay: I trust you are faithful in your mysticism or whatever it is you do care about. But I trust you will not disparage those called by God to further his purposes in intellectual or political terms.

      Yes, we need to know God personally, relationally, existentially, as Kierkegaard warned us we must. (We didn’t need Kierkegaard to tell us that, of course: every decent preacher, evangelist, Sunday School teacher, youth group leader, theologian, and parent has told people that from the beginning of the Christian Church.)

      But God doesn’t call us just to groove on Jesus or bask in the Spirit all the time. He calls us to live whole human lives that rejoice and strive in every dimension of life as we cooperate with his global purposes.

      Some of us, then, are called to undertake the kind of analysis this post exemplifies, analysis necessary especially to equip leaders for the path ahead. Again, you may find it uninteresting, but that doesn’t mean that it is meaningless. It just may not mean much to you, which isn’t the same thing, right?

  7. teadeum

    Thanks for your response Dr. Stackhouse.

    I don’t think I’d want to say that a Christian should not be concerned about, or involved in the spheres of politics or academia. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want to suggest that one should “bask” about all day in the Spirit, or “groove” all day on Jesus. Followers of Christ should no doubt be concerned about injustice,oppression, and caring for the broken and poor. It is interesting though to note that we don’t see the Apostle Paul trying to abolish the evil of slavery. In fact he actually returns Onesimus back to his slave master!! As Emil Brunner points out in his book “Justice and the Social Order”:

    We are faced with the question why the Apostle (Paul) neglected to deal with the problem of slavery in all its implications, considering that it was a matter of importance not only in this concrete, personal instance, but for the whole of humanity. It was because Paul’s business was not to set up a general doctrine of justice but, as a missionary and a spiritual father, to place concrete instances in the supreme light, that of Christian love. If the Apostle had been asked why he had not spoken of slavery, he might well have answered that it was not his business to teach worldly justice, but to proclaim to the world that divine justice which is identical with the love of Christ. But if he had been asked whether he did not regard slavery as an unjust institution, indeed as the acme of all human injustice, and whether Christianity should not be called upon to protest and revolt against it, he would, we may imagine, have replied that he and the Christians had more important things to do than to protest against the unalterable, and that an open struggle against the iniquity in the given situation might increase the wrong, but could not put a stop to it. Slavery was an integeral element of the economic and legal system of the time,as money and the machine are integeral elements of our economic and legal system. The protest of a tiny minority must perforce remain purely academic. ..For the Christian there was no alternative but to behave differently themselves, in such a way that the legal system did not come into play, tha the whole question of law and justice was left out of account, or rather that the legal system was recognized, just as the Roman law as a service for good against evil…

    In that light it strikes me as relatively unoriginal and meaningless to ask what the biggest development has been in Xtianity over the past decade, century, millenia, etc… It kind of seems like it would make a fitting Jeopardy category “Alex, I’ll take the biggest developments in Xtianity over the past 500 years for $800”. Something to discuss in the classroom or write about in the papers, or in uncreative, dry and repetitive Evangelical “not so best sellers” at your local Xtian book store.

    Brunner was bang on when he said that “the ultimate meaning of human existence is not the rational existence of the individual, but life in love.”

  8. Frederick Harrison

    What mattered most?

    1. The growth of the church in developing nations, especially in those nations where the church is actively persecuted.
    2. The self-evaluation of the Willow Creek church movement that found that growth amongst newcomers reached a plateau and tended to stay there, and that those who wanted to grow tended to leave to find a church that challenged them to grow. Where do we go from here?
    3. A breaking down of the boundaries between denominations (ecumenism), and a corresponding proclamation of new statements of orthodoxy and orthopraxy i.e. This We Believe and the Ancient-Future church.
    4. The succession of marketing terms and techniques over the living out of the Gospel in Spirit enabled and interdependent community. We’ve had the Post-Modern Church, Progressive Church, Purpose Driven Church, Prevailing Church, Emerging Church – all of which remind me of the Simpsons episode where the same old Malibu Stacey doll is foisted upon the consuming public with the only difference being a new hat. Also associated with this are the terms “relevant”, “exciting”, “Spirit led”,”spontaneous”,”celebratory” which are invariably used to brand your church in opposition to those “other” churches. When the corpus Christi becomes a corporation in accordance with worldly business practices, it become a corpse. Whatever became of John’s exhortation to “love one another”? When did the great commission to preach the gospel to all nations devolve into targeting certain demographics – usually favouring those with wealth, power, privilege and prestige and ignoring the last and the least?
    5. Speaking of the Simpsons, the use of clips from movies and TV shows as sermon illustrations.
    6. Speaking of movies, The Matrix as spiritual manifesto of a new generation. Whoa.
    7. The continuing efforts of Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, the late Robert Webber and others to point out that there’s more to worship than “what we like” and that theology is not an ivory tower abstraction but an essential foundation for our faith. In this regard, the annual Calvin College Symposium on Worship and The Arts has become a primary force in presenting and disseminating the potentialities of what worship can be.
    8. The recovery of the primacy of the Christian meta-narrative in a sea of competing narratives, despite the insistence of post-modernism that there can be no overarching meta-narrative. Somebody seems to have realized that saying there are no absolutes is self-contradictory.
    9. The Shack. Who’d have thought that a novel originally intended as confession/allegory for the extended family of the author would go on to become both a secular and sacred bestseller? Quibble about the writing, theology, or portrayal of the Trinity if you will, but millions responded to the notion that God is especially fond of you and deeply wishes to heal you, rather than despise, judge, and condemn you. Not that Brennan Manning hadn’t been saying much the same thing since he first published Lion & Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus.
    10. The Passion of the Christ, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Amazing Grace. Good: Hollywood wakes up to the fact that there is a market for Christian themed movies, or at least movies where a recognizable and exemplary good defeats an obvious evil. Bad: Hollywood wakes up to the fact that there is a market for merchandise tied into Christian themed movies. Wanna buy some authorized replica nails from Passion of the Christ? Or a CD of music inspired by the movie (but not actually in it)?
    11. Ordination of gays/lesbians, same-sex marriage, toleration (or not) of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-sexual, trans-gendered, exploring, or queer persons. The last threshold of the civil rights movement or the last straw? Silence doesn’t resolve the dilemma, but is dialog possible? The future of many church communions hangs in the balance.
    12. The demographic shift in power that will result in Islam becoming the dominant religion in Europe in the next 25-40 years. Many see this as the greatest threat to Christianity, a few see this as the the greatest mission opportunity for Christianity. It will be a costly task, but we start from the common ground of belief in One God, which is a great advantage over non-belief in God or belief of the self as god. Plus there is the fact that many of the Muslims living in Europe or North America fled the extremes of Islamic fundamentalism and Sharia law and are not likely to want to be ruled by a system in which they would be viewed as traitors to the faith.

    On the radar for the coming decade…

    The death of the small independent bookstore and the triumph of the marketing reach of the big box chain. This, coupled with the shift by many publishers to more expensive print on demand editions as opposed to maintaining a warehouse for inventory means that any book outside the bestseller list is going to cost you significantly more – which translates into fewer sales. This will be the final nail in the coffin of many bookstores already on the verge of collapse. And don’t expect the big box stores to discount the special orders you will need to place to obtain the dwindling selection of theologically substantial works.

  9. Josh Rowley

    Some important changes (for better or for worse) over the past decade have included:

    1) the missional conversation going mainstream (the word “missional” is now ubiquitous, and its overuse has led to confusion as to its meaning);

    2) an increased civil religion in America, characterized by the expectation of some Americans that the church should parrot the nationalistic and militaristic rhetoric of the state (and even serve as a cheerleader for America’s wars);

    3) a reaction to the Constantinianism of the “right” (see #2 above) with a Constantinianism of the “left” (there is now a Religious Right and a Religious Left in the U.S., with some of us wishing for a more visible third alternative);

    4) the politicization of almost every issue (now even heard in debates about caring for God’s creation), with polarization the result.

  10. poserorprophet

    Ratzinger? No way. He was one of the biggest obstacles to Christianity in the 20th century and he has remained that way in the 21st century. Hell, I’ve got him rated second only to Milton Friedman as the man who did the most evil in the last century! For, while Friedman was responsible for the most death-dealing in the 20th century, Ratzinger was responsible for choking out some of the most inspiring efforts to produce life in that century.

    Of course, this is only confirmed when one observes that a person such has Neuhaus had such high hopes for Ratzinger’s transformation into Benedict XVI! 😉

    • John Stackhouse

      I certainly enjoy vigorous opinion, Dan, but I’d enjoy it more in this case if you would tell us WHY you hold the provocative opinions you do about Milton Friedman, Cardinal Ratzinger, and R. J. Neuhaus.

      • poserorprophet

        I keep meaning to write a post about this… maybe this will inspire me to buckle down and do so.

        Also, I’m not sure if this opinion about Friedman is so provocative! However, I know a lot of evangelicals are flirting pretty heavily with Ratzinger (including at least one of your colleagues, eh?) so maybe I should spell that one out a little more… although it may fail to convince (to extend the flirting analogy, abusive husbands often begin as very charistmatic boyfriends).


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