More in-depth than Stephen McAlpine’s Being the Bad Guys and more practical than Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, this new book by Australian author David Rietveld is, I believe, one of the best books out there on discipleship, ministry and mission in the rapidly changing, post-‘Christendom’ Western cultural context.[1]

Its subtitle: Where Are We? How Did We Get Here? What Went Wrong? What Is the Solution? outlines the theme and structure. The sociological emphasis of this inter-disciplinary book[2] makes it more rounded than Trueman’s, which is almost entirely an intellectual history (and often little more than a genealogy of ideas). Rietveld writes as a pastor and evangelist, and you can see this in the practical recommendations he offers in the book’s final section and in the deliberate acknowledgment he gives to naming and grieving the good things of the past.[3] An added benefit for Australian readers is Rietveld’s primary focus on our country’s history and statistics, and giving Australian examples.

Being Christian after Christendom

Being Christian after Christendom

Wipf and Stock. 286.

The social landscape has radically changed over the past fifty years. Christians were once respected, sought out, and trusted. Now we are blamed, marginalized, and viewed with suspicion. In this book, David Rietveld explains what, how, and why this has happened, in a way that the average person can understand. He begins with Christendom, where both Christians and non-Christian held shared beliefs and values. He explains the church’s role, and how evangelism and discipleship worked in that era. He then tracks the changes that have occurred and clarifies what and why things are now different.

Wipf and Stock. 286.

In this review I am going to engage with Being Christian After Christendom critically, because it deserves in-depth engagement. It is because I am so convinced of the book’s value that I give it careful attention. Rietveld succeeds in writing with both intellectual precision and an impressively conversational style. There is a strong and coherent line of argument through the whole book, which he recaps regularly. As is to be expected with a book this ambitious but brief, I didn’t find some of his arguments or examples of cultural analysis persuasive—perhaps at times simply because he did not have the space to justify them.[4] I felt that the weakest section of the book was his description of the explanations Christians offer for the decline of Christendom (chapter 7). By using his own typology (‘liberal or progressive’, ‘mainstream’, ‘successful’ and ‘evangelism’), which represents significantly overlapping churches, it seemed too rubbery. This section doesn’t get under the skin of our surface-level rhetoric quite as well as the rest of the book does. A study of a few specific leaders or organisations, would have been better here.

Among many intriguing observations, a few distinctive elements of Being Christian After Christendom are worth singling out.

The Difference Between ‘the Christian Worldview’ and Christianity

Rietveld distinguishes between a loose set of agreed beliefs and values that previously dominated in ‘Christendom’, more or less assumed by “Average Joe”; and the more doctrinally detailed ones of devout “Christian Chris”. He calls the former ‘the Christian Worldview’ (CWV). It includes belief “in an all-knowing God who is the source of all life; he is personal and loving, and just”; and “the Bible contains divine wisdom” that will generally lead to a contented life.[5] This CWV also brings with is certain values: “humility, the dignity of all humanity, freedom of the individual, and rationality.”[6]

The CWV beliefs and values are largely good but clearly fall far short of a truly biblical Christian worldview. This sub-Christian worldview also leads to a distorted perception of the church’s role in society: to reinforce cultural beliefs and values (28–30). Our culture today has lost a substantial degree of respect for Christianity, but Rietveld shows us that this loss must not be confused with the loss of true Christian faith, life and witness. Most of those who’ve abandoned the CWV weren’t actually Christian at all.

The difference between the broader CWV and genuine Christianity explains why there has never been a neat match between the dominance of the CWV, church attendance and cultural influence.

Most of those who’ve abandoned the CWV weren’t actually Christian at all.

The Difference Between Church Attendance and Cultural Influence

At several points, Rietveld notes that neither regular churchgoing nor vibrant spirituality were consistent features of centuries of ‘Christendom’—pointing to statistics from the mediaeval, early modern, and modern periods (154–163). For example, speaking of ‘Christian Chris’, he writes:

Take the Middle Ages for instance. Church attendance was seldom … Biblical knowledge was poor. Godlessness was common. Christian Chris feels a profound sense of loss. She mourns the passing of a church that perhaps never was …
It was the church [as an institution] that was most prominent in Western history … Christianity as a view of the world. The local church—St. James or New Hope—may never have been that impressive. (30)

Rietveld draws out several important and related observations about the church in the West:

  • “church attendance has a long history of rising and falling” (164);
  • “[t]he decline of church attendance is different from the decline of the Christian worldview and its influence” (4);
  • “sometimes church attendance rises at the very same time that church influence is in decline” (164).

These are paradigm-shifting insights for any of us interested in cultural analysis, political advocacy or evangelistic impact. The simplistic narratives that capture our imaginations and sometimes drive our strategic plans do not fully represent the way our Lord has worked down through the centuries.

The simplistic narratives that capture our imaginations and sometimes drive our strategic plans do not fully represent the way our Lord has worked down through the centuries.

Reasons for Opposition to Christianity

In chapter 3, Rietveld argues that a new worldview is emerging, sufficiently distinct from and influenced by Christianity that it can be described as the Post-Christian Worldview (PCWV). He suggests its beliefs include: “I am unique and special, as is every other individual”; “I am the expert on me”; and “When I am being my best me, and everyone is being their best selves, we will naturally express concern and care for others”.[7] This emerging worldview also upholds corresponding values.[8] Although Rietveld mentions emerging movements of right-wing populism and nationalism (141–2), I think he could have said more throughout about these strong cultural counter-currents.

Chapters 4 and 5 explains the new status of the church and the reasons the CWV was displaced in the West. These chapters survey the influential ideas of Rousseau, Foucault, Jung, Piaget and several others. But they also point out the relationships between economic liberalism and the rise of self-interested individualism and belief in constant progress. They likewise note that globalism and technologies like the internet increased the appeal of religious, moral and even intellectual relativism. This inter-disciplinary approach shows us the influence of particular beliefs and values is only partially explained by the history of the ideas of progressive intellectuals.

Rietveld acknowledges the very compromised track record of both the church and Christendom more broadly. He lists its many positive contributions while providing important qualifications to those who critique Christendom. He also outlines the intellectual and social weaknesses of the PCWV (chapters 3, 5 and 6). There could have been more recognition of the social, political, environmental and economic factors that played a part in the triumphs of Christendom. I would have also liked Rietveld to have named the way the celebration of Christendom is entangled with what has now been labelled ‘whiteness’ and also with contemporary right-wing ideologies. Still, so much of his exposition in this section of the book is helpful and nuanced.

Rietveld clearly explains the particular intensity of opposition to the CWV with three interconnected impulses. First, the previously dominant worldview and institutions are deserving of disproportionate scrutiny, especially in the interests of those who have been disempowered. Second, those who were in power are suspect of wanting to wrest that power back. Third, demonising the previously dominant worldview is an important step in the process of establishing a new consensus:

Whenever there is a transition of worldview, a certain amount of unpacking ‘the things we could not previously see but have now become clear’ occurs. Such conversations and insights are used to justify the need for change. (63–4)

This is helpful to those of us who feel the inconsistency and injustice of disproportionate negativity towards Christianity.

Neither Decline Nor Future Revival Is Within Our Control

A somewhat distinctive and extremely vital element of the book is its macro-level analysis of the rise or decline of churchgoing, conversion and the influence of Christianity in society (chapter 8). In a paradoxical way, its thesis is both disempowering and encouraging. When we notice population-level trends across entire countries (even multiple countries) it is implausible that an adjustment to our church leadership practices or theological distinctives are primary causes.

For example, how should we explain the rise in Australian church attendance in the 1960s? The 1959 Billy Graham Crusade was a factor, as was the evangelistic outlook of key leaders, such as the Sydney Anglican archbishop Howard Mowll. But the fact that church attendance statistics trend upward across denominations beyond those directly connected with such leaders suggests this is hardly a full explanation. Rietveld points to the post-war boom, immigration and rapid suburban growth as equally important factors (163–5).

There is some biblical and historical justification for the expectation among Western Christians that healthy churches will always be growing churches, but only some. One reason we feel this expectation so strongly is our experience of technological progress and liberal economic values (134–7, 150–2). Sometimes healthy and faithful churches experience plateau or decline for factors largely outside their control. Just because things aren’t going well doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong.

None of this means there is nothing we can or should do; that there have not been glaring failures and incompetence that have contributed to decline; that there are not many contexts where our prayer and activity can lead to growth. What it does mean is that when we zoom out to analyse decades-long trajectories, our efforts may not neatly map to these trajectories. These observations provide a stirring and consolidating exhortation: sometimes our moment in the flow of history is to be faithfully endured.

Just because things aren’t going well doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong.

What’s the Solution?

Being Christian After Christendom has one chapter that proposes solutions. Rietveld could have easily given another chapter to this section of the book for more balance. Nevertheless, this twenty-four-page chapter is substantial. His recommendations are:

  • Give up on political influence: revise down our ambitions and be willing to adopt a “guerrilla offensive” (235–41). The best posture, Rieteveld writes, is not necessarily as a ‘ChrisTian’— meaning “a proud Christian who is unashamed of their allegiance to Christ [and] an uncompromising person who stands up for Jesus and the Truth at every opportunity” (206); both the biblical and strategic approach to faithfulness can be more nuanced than that. I largely agree with him in general emphasis, but I think he overstates his case (his passing reference to Romans 13 is unclear and inadequate).
  • Understand the role disruption plays in conversion: the sociological literature of conversion points to the way that life stages and individual circumstances can bring about disruption that makes someone open to religious conversion (241–9). This section gives good, stimulating and creative suggestions. I want to warn against shaping ministry methodology too closely around sociological findings—not only because with God all things are possible, but also because our attempts to read and respond to sociological realities are doomed to have blind spots.
  • Form missional communities: these are somewhat culturally-specific groups for the purpose of mission (243, 249). In my observation and experience this works best either when it happens organically, or when it is tied to a medium-sized group. When we try to engineer it in other settings (“you might consider expanding the brief of your small groups”, 249) it falters.
  • Embrace our role as a minority subculture: Christian evangelism, discipleship and social influence is often best conceived as sustaining and enriching our religious minority subculture, and speaking from that standpoint (250–5). Rietveld encourages us to think about how we articulate our worldview and values, critique those of the world, and recognise the “rituals and rhythms, unique vocabulary, narratives, and boundary markers that affirm and sustain those beliefs and values” (253). I believe he is right, but find myself reflecting: first, this is no guarantee of greater success; second, we need to learn from how minority subcultures (including previous Christian subcultures) of the past gradually integrated with the wider culture and lost their saltiness.
  • Re-contextualise the gospel message: our gospel preaching can be nuanced to reflect our current context (255–9). The book ends anticlimactically with this section. Rietveld, in seeking to be open-ended, is arguably more slippery than he needs to be. His earlier example could have been returned to: the mildly salesy, heavily formulaic, individualistic gospel outlines of the twentieth century, with a strong focus on correcting against works-righteousness and aiming for immediate decision, need to be modified in our day and age (183–5). This is not a revision of doctrine, but a diluting of the peculiarities just listed, making the outline less focused on decision, more alert to our participation in community; looser in formal presentation, less intensely fixated on salvation by faith alone.


Being Christian After Christendom deserves a great deal of attention and a wide readership. The breadth of his social and cultural analysis, his pastoral and evangelistic experience and the Australian focus all make this a very rich and useful book for Australian leaders active in the everyday ministry work of commending and contending for the gospel. It’s not just another book on the topic, I think it is a must-read.

[1] Rietveld does not use Christendom in a formal, political sense (the rule of a Christian government) but in a broader sociological sense: “The term ‘Christendom’ refers to an historical era when many Western cultures shared and held to the Judeo-Christian worldview” (3–4 fn 1).

[2] “This is an exploration of how social, cultural, historical, psychological, and theological perspectives shed light on the present. All disciplines are given equal voice because, after all, all truths are God’s truths. I hope you find the inter-disciplinary dialogue stimulating” (xiv).

[3] Chapter 9 is entitled: ‘Lamenting What Has Passed, Unlearning What No Longer Works’. This process is necessary to be receptive to necessary change, he argues.

[4] For example, in his discussion of homophobia, he focuses on self-actualisation and barely mentions violence against homosexuals or ingrained self-hatred (60–63). While interesting, his claim that Christianity is concerned for the wellbeing of gay people because the countries that have adopted same-sex marriage legislation are predominantly historically Protestant and Catholic is far from conclusive (71–2). Again, the use of growing rates of depression as a proxy indicator for Western individualism was unconvincing (119–20). At other times, his generalisations are so broad as to appear inaccurate (“It is presently unacceptable to group people into categories … Skin color is peripheral, almost accidental” (107)).

[5] Other beliefs are: “that he has created a world with a moral fabric, with good and evil …  that Jesus’ teaching and life are the highest expressions of the good life … in a God who sees and knows us, and will judge with some combination of grace and justice. His judgement of our life determines where we spend eternity.” (10).

[6] These values find wider social expression in “other values like democracy, progress, mercy, humility, capitalism, the rule of law, and education for all” (31).

[7] Other beliefs are: “When I am in touch with my true inner self and give expression to me through my choices, I am being authentic … [a]ctions that cause me to feel better about my ‘self’ are morally good in their outcome”; “others have a way of contaminating my sense of self; when a person does not have power to make choices that express their true self, this is unjust”; “those who have experience systemic discrimination … need our support and encouragement”; “moral discussions now center around empowering individuals to express themselves, as long as they do that in a way that does not imping on the freedom of others to express themselves”; “suffering is also harmful … I have a right to protect my ‘self’ from negativity”; “[i]f I believe a spirituality enriches me, I embrace it … [s]pirituality is self-referential, not God-referential” (43–4).

[8] PCWV values, Rietveld suggests, are: “1. intuition and feeling … 2. truth as subjective and affective … 3. the freedom of the autonomous individual to make choices .. 4. love as the non-judgemental acceptance of the other … 5. justice as empowerment … 6. Self-expression or self-actualization  … 7. the market is a neutral space” (57).