The coming evangelical collapse?

10 03 2009

Monday was a big news day re the status of the church in North America – here’s what went down:

arisreport20081) The ARIS survey results title American Religious Identification Survey 2008 was widely reported. The full report is available here.


2) The Barna Group released results of a recent survey titled Changes in Worldview Among Christians over the Past 13 Years – it was not widely reported. A printable version of the findings is here – the key nugget: “less than one-half of one percent of adults in the Mosaic generation – i.e., those aged 18 to 23 – have a biblical worldview, compared to about one out of every nine older adults.”

csm3) But to top it all off the Christian Science Monitor published a very provocative article titled The Coming Evangelical Collapse (print edition to be available later in the week). If you are already uncomfortable from reading other posts on this blog you may want to skip this one (as if the title wasn’t warning enough). But for those who want to read the author’s thoughts in greater detail check out the unabridged version – a three part series posted the end of January 2009 here, here and here (or a printable version of all 3 available here).

Apologetics in post-modernity

1 01 2009

One of the statements made by Andy Stanley at the Catalyst Conference this fall keeps ringing in my head: “If you are over 45 years old, you aren’t going to have any good ideas. It’s your job to recognize the good ideas.” I take a statement like this as a challenge not another nail in the coffin for those of us in this age group. The challenge is to not submit to the comfort of just “doing church” but to press forward – learn new things and engage in new ways.

Well, Andy Stanley’s statement rang again today when I read a series of questions that John H. Armstrong used in a graudate class in apologetics he taught last month at Wheaton College. I think these are the type of questions that can really help us move toward engagement – they provide a good map about what we need to be learning and applying. John Armstrong credits these questions to Newbigin’s book Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship:

1. What are the questions that the postmodern person asks that were not asked 25 years ago?

2. What specific influence does Hinduism have upon the “new-age” movement in the West?

3. How can we speak about apologetics in a way that makes it accessible to ordinary people?

4. How do we approach the issue of evil with unbelievers?

5. Does conservative and fundamentalist Christianity actually pose a major problem for serious apologetics in today’s world and if so how do we deal with this problem?

6. Do Marxism and radical Islam have anything in common and if so how do we address these problems?

7. How do we respond to the “So What?” responses of many postmodern hearers?

8. Does our commitment to seeking justice and mercy in society act as a form of apologetics and if so how can we do this better?

9. How do we change every sphere of society?

10. In what ways is the Christian faith “public truth” as Newbigin cogently argues?

11. Is the community of Christ our greatest apologetic and if so what does unity and John 17 have to do with this in actual practice?

Liquid church

4 09 2008

Alan Hirsch posted the following on August 5:
When we use the word “church” it is very hard to get some kind of building out of our minds.  But this is not the way that phenomenal expressions of Christian movements experience it.  This is due partly to the fact that the early church didn’t have such buildings and the Chinese had all their church buildings taken away from them.  But it is also because buildings are not what is meant in any of the theological images of church in the Scriptures.  Since Constantine it seems that we have simply got it all mixed up.  On comparison, the Chinese church is much closer to what the New Testament intends, as well as more consistent with the New Testament experience, of church.  It is we who are inconsistent in this regard-it’s that simple.  So what do networks look like?

Peter Ward has written an excellent book exploring the theological, ecclesiological, as well as sociological dimensions of networks. Following Zygmunt Bauman’s brilliant analysis of culture in terms of liquid and solid modernity, he uses the term liquid church to describe the essence of what a truly networked church would look like; a church responsive to that increasing fluid dimension of our culture which Bauman called “liquid modernity.” He contrasts liquid church with what he calls “solid church.” To simplify this, solid church is roughly equivalent to what I have here described as institutional church. Because of the continuing existence of solid modernity he does not counsel the total abandonment of solid church, but he does suggest that it is one of decreasing effectiveness. Solid church is related to solid modernity. And solid church has generally mutated from its original basis into becoming communities of heritage (that embody the inherited tradition), communities of refuge (a safe place from the world), and communities of nostalgia (live in past successes). He suggests that almost all manifestations of solid church fall into one or more of these categories.

He says that “the mutation of solid church into heritage, refuge, and nostalgic communities has seriously decreased its ability to engage in genuine mission in liquid modernity.” This is so because the church finds itself increasingly stranded from its surrounding culture. He remarks that this has seriously damaged the gospel genetic code of the church because the church cannot truly be and become itself in such a condition. Solid church has mutated the gospel code because it has by and large ignored cultural change and found itself changed in ways that are less than planned or perfect. In catering to the religious needs of some (largely the insiders) it has as a consequence failed to respond to the wider spiritual hunger of not-yet-Christians. What is more, “the mutant genetic code within these kinds of churches means that they are a poor starting point for a new kind of church that connects with the flow of spiritual hunger evident in our societies.” This highlights the need to engage liquid modernity with a liquid form of church. Liquid church is essential because it takes the present culture seriously and seeks to express the fullness of the Christian gospel within that culture. The defining element of this is church as a living, adaptive, network highly responsive to the deep spiritual needs and hunger expressed in surrounding society.

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Why community?

1 06 2008

“Many of us who are church leaders are just now coming to terms with the negative impact of the last 50 years has had on the church, particularly in modern, high-tech societies. The United States has been dubbed by many sociologists as the most individualized society in human history. Our lives are severely fragmented by planes, trains and automobiles; by excessive activity and just enough discretionary money to pay for it. We are a society that only asks can we do something, not should we do something.

“It is in this context that church leaders must form authentic, Christ-centered community. Most leaders were born into isolation and individualism and “do not know that they do not know” that there is a fundamental problem. Other leaders see the vision of Christ and try to do what they can, but at times it seems nearly impossible. It is easy to give up and many do.”

Randy Frazze, Willow Creek Community Church

“The Necessary Revolution”

1 06 2008

Peter Senge is a well regarded thinker, strategist and writer currently serving as a senior lecturer at MIT.  His new book, The Necessary Revolution, to be released next week, appears to go far beyond what he was saying in 1990 in his highly acclaimed and widely read book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization.  The focus of The Fifth Discipline is how organizational structures need to change from hierarchical structures to learning teams:

“Almost everyone agrees that the command-and-control corporate model will not carry us into the twenty-first century. In a world of increasing interdependence and rapid change, it is no longer possible to figure it out from the top.  In the knowledge era, we will finally have to surrender the myth of leaders as isolated heroes commanding their organizations from on high. Top-down directives, even when they are implemented, reinforce an environment of fear, distrust, and internal competitiveness that reduces collaboration and cooperation. They foster compliance instead of commitment, yet only genuine commitment can bring about the courage, imagination, patience, and perseverance necessary in a knowledge-creating organization. For those reasons, leadership in the future will be distributed among diverse individuals and teams who share responsibility for creating the organization’s future.”  (See also Communities of Leaders and Learners, Harvard Business Review (Sept/Oct, 1997)).

Senge’s new book is about the need for much bigger shifts in organizational structures – shifts that are revolutionary – not just changes to what currently exists.  It should be an interesting read.  From the blurbs I have found on the book, Senge is convinced that very significant and lasting transformative changes are happening now and these changes are beginning to dramatically affect all of us.  His perspective of the world is much different than in 1990.  In 1990 organizations could be reshaped from within – now they must change more radically if they are going to flourish:

“A revolution is underway in today’s organizations. As Peter Senge and his co-authors reveal in The Necessary Revolution, companies around the world are boldly leading the change from dead-end ‘business as usual’ tactics to transformative strategies that are essential for creating a flourishing, sustainable world. There is a long way to go, but the era of denial has ended. Today’s most innovative leaders are recognizing that for the sake of our companies and our world, we must implement revolutionary-not just incremental-changes in the way we live and work.

“Brimming with inspiring stories from individuals and organizations tackling social and environmental problems around the globe, The Necessary Revolution reveals how ordinary people at every level are transforming their businesses and communities. By working collaboratively across boundaries, they are exploring and putting into place unprecedented solutions that move beyond just being ‘less bad’ to creating pathways that will enable us to flourish in an increasingly interdependent world.”

My interest in Senge’s research is the implication for the church – particularly how we do church in North America.  The term “working collaboratively across boundaries” strikes a strong intuitive chord in the direction I think we need to head.  I’m sure there are some that would raise the question – what does a book(s) like this have to do with the church – the church is not a business.  That thought is exactly what has the church stuck!  We have a modern history of viewing the church far too narrowly – as just another thing we do – fragmented and compartmentalized.  We need to be about so much more than just doing church.  What needs to change individually and organizationally is frankly not an easy process – and not something most of us want to experience.  But should we reach the point where we make a decision to really change what follows will be best described as revolutionary.

Tired of Reading?

28 05 2008

Get some popcorn and watch this movie!  While this 18 minute video won’t win any academy awards it does a good job of helping to fill out the explanation of Missional Church. This video is a discussion between Alan Roxburgh and Craig Van Gelder, Professor of Congregational Mission at Luther Seminary (but he is a RTS grad!).

What is Liminality?

21 05 2008

Following is a brief but fairly comprehensive discussion of the term as it relates to the church, and church leadership, during our present period. The author is Rob Mackintosh, Executive Director of the Leadership Institute, Canterbury, England, who is an Anglican priest that teaches a broad range of areas on leadership in the UK and foreign countries, including Russia and Southern Africa.

Liminality is the awareness that as a group we have become largely invisible to the wider society.  The experience of being marginal in contemporary culture accounts for much of the malaise currently affecting established churches and their leadership.  Few have yet come to terms with how far this process has gone in late modernity.  The Christendom phase of the Church’s history in the Western world is over; we may find ourselves back in the liminal role experienced by the Church in post-Roman Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The world of late modernity is a de-centred world, and for Christians it is no longer our world.  There is no longer a ‘centre-periphery’ dichotomy, rather a flux of ever-shifting and competing forces within the culture.  In complex societies such as ours where there is no longer a coherent ‘centre’, we are all on the margin.

It is futile to attempt re-entry into the lost world of an earlier age; that door is firmly closed. Church leaders feel vulnerable, defensive, and confused about their roles in a de-centred world.  In these uncertain times, clergy bear one of the most difficult roles in contemporary society.  Congregations blame their clergy for the current malaise, failing to grasp that a wider cultural shift has marginalised the church.

The urge for the church to return to the former certainties of ‘Egypt’ clearly has a long history, and remains strong.  Yet ancient Israel’s wilderness experience is a paradigm for the kind of changes that liminal places can bring for the future of the church.  In both Hosea and Exodus the desert is the place where Israel enters her most profound reshaping experiences of God.  There the potential for a new future is forged.  God promises Israel that through the process of wilderness cleansing she will become a new people.

Reflection on where God may be leading and shaping the church for a new future will take new awareness, create new roles, and require exceptional wisdom and leadership competence over the next decade.