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