If you’re visiting Europe this summer, take in a castle. You’ll see why in medieval times there were two types of Christians. They continue to coexist to this day.

Castles are a European invention born of necessity. Life in medieval times was “nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes). Few traveled (travel from the English travail, meaning “a journey fraught with danger”). Castles were safe havens in an unsafe world.

But only for a few. Most castles were private residences of lords or nobles. Few could afford them. Charlemagne, king of the Franks, could. He built one of the first castles. It was for family, friends, and close associates.

Over time, castles became their own self-enclosed communities. They had their own systems of commerce and community inside the walls. Protection was provided by fortified high walls that kept enemies out. The drawbridge was the only way in or out. Few went out, but traders were allowed in if deemed to be safe.

You might be wondering where this is going. I’ve been meeting with a local pastor (I’ll call him John). He read my piece on the accelerating decline of Americans who say they are evangelical. I mentioned the rise of religious “nones.” I asked if anyone had a plan for addressing this. John thought: My church doesn’t have a plan. So we began meeting.

A few weeks ago John said he felt American churches (his included) need to “lower the drawbridge” and get out into the community. I love John’s heart but I doubt this will happen. It has to do with the whole idea of drawbridges. If churches have drawbridges, they’re castles. Castles attract Castle Christians. Castle Christians seek protection from a world that’s often hostile to the faith. I get it. But I don’t think Castle Christians “get” how we should define success and community.

Take success. Castle Christians measure success inside the walls of their church. They’re enamored with big churches. I get it. Big castles are impressive. But Castle Christians assume if their church is large or growing, Christianity in America is making a large impact and growing. But it’s not. It’s declining. Every day, twice as many evangelicals leave the church as join the church. Few Castle Christians see this.

Or consider community. I’ve been reading Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity. For the first 500 years, Christians were communal. Community was a messy blend of believers and unbelievers (even heretics!) collaborating for the common good. We see this in Tolkien’s Fellowship—Community—of the Ring. They strove to solve a Big Problem.

Then came castles. Built during the medieval period (500-1500AD), castles created a second kind of Christian. Castle Christians. John senses this, which is why he wants to lower the drawbridge. Get out of the castle. But Barna surveys say unchurched Americans are the most resistant to outreach efforts by the church and friends than they’ve been in 20 years. Why leave the comfy confines of the castle to face that?

It’s helpful to remember Communal Christians continued to operate in medieval times. But they lived outside castles, in towns and cities. Their community groups were a messy blend of believers, doubters, and unbelievers. They built networks and communities with no walls, open to people of faith and no faith. They promoted human flourishing, the common good. They didn’t do outreach because they were in there.

Between 1000 and 1500AD, Communal Christians built the necessary infrastructure for cities to flourish. This included reliable law enforcement, banking, judiciary, a system of market exchange, private property, and private accumulation of profit.[1] They made it safe to do business in the wider world. Castles had lost their competitive advantage.

Gunpowder also played a part. As it became widely used in the late 1300s, castle walls were no longer the invincible fortification they had once been. People began to move out. Castles were abandoned.

Social technologies are today’s gunpowder. Castle Christianity is no longer the invincible fortification it has once been. The better move is becoming a Communal Christian.

This is Clapham Institute’s niche, mentoring Communal Christians. One of our protégés is a young man working at Under Armour in Baltimore. He takes Jeremiah 29:7 seriously: the faith community flourishes only to the degree that Baltimore flourishes. That requires institutions like Under Armour taking the gospel seriously and acting on it. That requires overlapping networks and communities with no walls, open to people of faith and no faith promoting human flourishing. That’s not yet happening.

But it could happen. It requires Christians who don’t live in castles. Communal Christians. That’s that kind of Christian that John and I are seeking to build.

 

[1] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005).

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3 Responses to “Castle Christians”

  1. Ron. Morley says:

    Mike’:
    Grace Fellowship Church just held a Saturday event called Be The Bridge, where communal Christians intentionally crossed the racial divides and, in Christian love became Bridge Brothers. It was the first of its kind here in Baltimore but their are multiple chapters in the US. I believe it is an honest attempt at starting the healing that needs to occur in racial areas. We Christians , if not purposeful, are full of implicit bias , as opposed to explicit bias. I think Christians fear this crossing over the mote. But the only thing stronger than fear is hope. Intentionally hope , if we cross over , that we will keep Jesus first. In this racial area things aren’t the way they ought to be , but the way it currently is , is not it can be , or will be. His kingdom
    Come , on Earth as iit is in Heaven!

  2. Byron Borger says:

    You are so gifted at naming so many important trends and making insightful proposals, with such a good use of history and metaphors. Keep it up, brother. I’ve always admired your thoughtful work and wise perspectives (I learn so much) but the last few have been gold — and fire! Yay.

    By the way, keep an eye open for a soon to be released IVP book by Jake Meador called “In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World.” It includes some really clear explanations about modernity, a really clear and compelling summary of Charles Taylor and some generative stuff about ordinary practices to help us not be “castle Christians.” Tim Keller wrote a very good foreword. It’s going to be a helpful resource with the sort of blend of historical acumen and practical energy that you model for us here.

  3. Larry A. says:

    I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for thirty-one years. One of the things A.A. does well is institutional work; bringing our message of recovery & hope through a lifestyle founded on spiritual principles to rehabs, detoxes, prisons, and mental health facilities. The fact that those principles are derived largely from the New Testament is “news” to some, although anyone who has studied both texts (New Testament & Alcoholics Anonymous) would notice it. This work is in the DNA of A.A. I believe God revealed to our founders a need to share their recovery with others similarly afflicted. Bill especially “recruited” alcoholics from sanitariums and hospitals. Our text has an entire chapter devoted to “Working with Others”. It is replete with warnings about “speaking down from a moral or spiritual hilltop to the new comer. I have been involved in only one Church that did similar outreaches to a drug and alcohol rehab for veterans in Baltimore (The Baltimore Station). The biggest barrier to that now is “enhanced” security that many jails and prisons have. They require significant personal information at least two weeks in advance so they can run background checks. Outside of that roadblock, many groups send representatives to tell their stories inside detoxes, rehabs, prison, etc. Planting seeds.

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