Archive for January, 2013

Re-Thinking the Gospel in a Changing Culture

January 27, 2013

On Saturday, January 26, 2013, The Presbyter of San Diego was pleased to have Dr. Ryan Bolger, associate professor from Fuller Seminary for church and culture, as our keynote speaker for our Leadership Connection Day. He began by saying that all the normal rules of church have gone out the window. He described how the era of Christendom, this time period where church and society worked closely together, and which created a certain form of church, is coming to an end. The church used to be at the center of the culture, but now is moving to the margins. Many people in our society no longer even think about going to church. It is not at the center of society for the majority of our people.

Our culture is saying to the church: “we’ve been there, done that, not interested anymore, what else is there?” People are saying “I’m spiritual, but not religious”. They view anything that is organizational as not spiritual. Most European countries are de-establishing the church. The Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) has predicted its own demise in the 2030s. The average age of many congregations is 20 years older than the general population. The good news is that our society remains very interested in spirituality. 60% have said they are interested in spirituality, while only 2% have said they are interested in church. Churches that are forming around spiritual practices are connecting with this longing.

What is interesting is that the church is doing very well in the 2/3 world. The majority of global Christianity is now non-western. There are more missionaries going from the non-west to the west. The majority of the world church is poor. The growing churches in Europe are mostly African, Latin American, and Pentecostal.

So, Ryan Bolger decided to do a research project asking the questions: What are the biggest cultural shifts facing the western church? And how might the church address these issues. He asked 138 people around the world. 76 responded with 273 issues and ideas. The result of these responses is a book that Ryan edited, and which was published in November of 2012 called The Gospel After Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions.

Historically white/anglo churches are aging and declining. This trend started in the 1960s. The Baby Boomers were the first generation that did not follow their parents to church. They left churches to go on a spiritual search and didn’t return to the mainline churches. Those that did return, started going to churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback. Many did not return at all. Religion became a choice, and many were no longer choosing to have it as a part of their lives. Those who returned to church chose churches that were less institutional and more spiritual, forming around spiritual practices. They were choosing churches where the life of the community had left the building and moved into homes, coffee shops, schools, and public spaces. Many people today do not want to put 90% of their energy into the institution. They want to put 90% of their energy into the mission out there. How do we equip our people to be on mission together?

One emerging church in New Zealand started doing art in public places and finding ways to serve their community. They discovered many people had left the church because they had been hurt or judged. They had bad feelings which made it difficult to come back to church. Churches in Europe are discovering that they can connect with their communities by serving the poor. The churches are one of the few groups actually serving the poor, so people who have a heart for this, will connect with the church, so that they can serve the poor.

In Scandanavia, they have learned that church is for spectators and people don’t come because they don’t want to be a spectator. They want to be a participant. They are experimenting with ways to help people participate more in worship, through art, through communion, through community issues, through Bible study discussions, and online connections. They have found that people grow when they start something, so they are encouraging people to start something new.

The Anglican Church in the UK is learning a lot through its Fresh Expressions movement. It has taken 20 years, but it is beginning to turn around a highly traditional church. In a place where only 1% of the population attends traditional worship services, they have looked out at their communities to discover what God is doing there. They have said, wherever you are participating with God in the community, that is a fresh expression of the church. These include mothers of pre-schoolers, connecting with skateboarders at the mall, Bible studies in pubs, etc. They are telling their people: you have gifts, you have abilities, go and dream about where you can be a part of what God is doing. The Church of England has now started 5000 fresh expressions of the church. It is exciting and is re-invigorating the church.

The Christendom church existed to do things for its members and that worked in Christendom. The post-Christendom church needs to shift to equipping its members to go and do ministry in their communities. The missional church is not an outreach program. The missional church is about equipping people for ministry.

Dr. Bolger said that now, at Fuller Seminary, they are telling their students: if you want a church job, you will need to start your own church. There is a good chance you won’t find a job in an existing church. You need to prepare yourself to start your own church, if you want to work in the church. This is a big shift. Paradoxically, many people today are not running away from church traditions, but actually looking for church traditions. Tradition can provide a church with the ability to relate to the contemporary world, and does not have to be an impediment to it.

He said that we didn’t used to have to do missionary stuff in the west, but now we do. We have to learn how to put our church language into our friend language, and put our faith into secular language that our friends and co-workers will understand. This shift in the church causes the church to not look like it used to. It may be messy and we will have to learn by our mistakes. But, it can be exciting and we really can make a difference in the world!

The task of leadership is not about changing worship styles or throwing away the past or hiring staff who have tattoos and nose rings. The task of leadership is to facilitate spaces to dream, to cultivate a new imagination, and raise questions about what God is up to in our neighborhoods. It is not about attracting and entertaining, it is about serving, and equipping our people to serve and be the pastors to their networks of relationships. It is about learning to be the church outside of the church walls. When we do this, we fulfill the aspirations of the Reformation, equipping the priesthood of all believers, to be the church in the community where God is alive and w


Mission in a New Context

January 13, 2013

In The Gospel After Christendom: New Voices, New Cultures, New Expressions edited by Ryan Bolger, he includes a chapter entitled “Mission in a New Spirituality Culture” by Steve Hollinghurst of the UK. Hollinghurst references an interview with the American sociologist of religion Peter Berger in 1997 where he said this,

“I think what I and most other sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization. It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious. So is the United States. The one exception to this is Western Europe. One of the most interesting questions in the sociology of religion today is not, How do you explain fundamentalism in Iran? But, Why is Western Europe different?”

He states that clearly most people are not becoming secular atheists. There has been a small decline in overall belief in God or a life force from 84% to 70% from 1947 to 2000. However, there has been a substantial shift within as to what kind of God is believed in. Belief in a personal God, expressed by 45% of people in 1947, was expressed only by 26% in 2000, whereas belief in a spirit or life force has risen from 39% to 44% over the same period. When people say they believe in God they increasingly imagine something more like the force in Star Wars than the God of the Bible. This shift has been accompanied by an increasing distance first from personal church attendance, then from raising children in church, and lastly from Christian affiliation.

This change pattern of belief represents not only a growing consumerism but also postmodernism. Postmodernity challenges the division between the objective and the subjective that led modern secular thinking to exalt science and reason as objective and dismiss religion as subjective. For the postmodern person everything is subjective and truth is measured at the bar of personal experience. Such a world welcomes the religious back to the public sphere, but any and every form of religion, naturally favoring a multi-faith mix-and-match approach in which all religions are seen as containing truths and useful practices that can be combined to make a package of faith to suit each person. This preference explains why people are still turning away from commitment to traditional religions whilst at the same time turning toward the spiritual as a part of their lives.

Hollingsworth then asks, if this is true for Europe, and indeed Australasia, what of America? The United States is clearly consumer oriented and in many ways postmodern, yet it appears to have a much higher adherence to Christianity. The nature of American religion is, however, more complex than it might appear. Attendance figures are deeply uneven from state to state, as they are between countries in Europe, and many share European levels. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the start of a decline in church attendance by young people may be the first sign of the pattern of decline that began in Europe fifty or so years earlier.

Christian Schwartz has commented that “the more American people and institutions are redefined by mass-consumer capitalism’s moral order, the more American religion is also remade in its image. Religion becomes one product among many others existing to satisfy people’s subjectively defined needs, tastes, and wants. Religious adherents thus become spiritual consumers uniquely authorized as autonomous individuals to pick and choose in the religious market whatever products they may find satisfying or fulfilling at the moment.”

Hollingsworth states that the declining numbers of children being raised in the Christian faith, which has been particularly marked in Europe and is now showing signs of deepening in the United States, has big implications for mission. As David Bosch points out, the distinction between foreign mission to those who have never been Christian and evangelism at home to the no-longer-Christian is breaking down. We are increasingly foreign missionaries in our own countries. We would not expect to be effective missionaries in a foreign culture without learning its language and understanding how that culture worked. Further, research on adults who came to faith in the UK showed that 76% had a church upbringing. The 24% who came to faith as adults but did not have a church upbringing rarely responded to evangelistic events but instead came to faith over a long period through personal relationships with Christians. If we do not change how we do evangelism and mission, we are likely to end up like the foreign tourists who, having failed to learn the language, speak increasingly loudly and slowly in the vain hope of being understood.

Hollingsworth concludes by saying that while church attendance has declined in Western Europe, the United States, and other Western nations, this has not led to a rise in secular atheism but instead to new spiritualities naturally suited to a postmodern consumer society. These new practices challenge the church to discover new approaches to mission, community, leadership, and worship. New missional approaches may appear similar to strategies adopted in foreign mission within pre-Christian societies, and in fact they are also much like approaches adopted by the early church as it moved beyond the familiar territory of Judaism out into the alien Greek pagan culture. Like Paul in Athens or the Celtic church, such an approach will expect to find God already at work in the people’s spiritual journeys and use that as the way for Christ to become fully alive within their culture. The communities formed will need to rediscover much that was valued by the early church. For example, diversity can be celebrated within the body of Christ, just as Paul had to remind the Corinthians. Leadership will need to surrender power and adopt a servant role, and worship will need to reflect local culture and not be imposed in a one-size-fits-all approach. These discoveries will be challenging; they run counter to many cultural pressures and the increasing diversity of globalized cultures. But they are also in the church’s DNA, waiting for the missionary Spirit to bring them to life.

2012 in review

January 1, 2013

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,200 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Ministry in a Changing Culture

January 1, 2013

The book of Daniel describes some of the challenges of doing ministry within a changing cultural context. In 586 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies invaded the nation of Judah, destroying the city of Jerusalem, its temple, and its way of life. They carried off all of the leaders of their nation and deported these refugees to Babylon. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were brought into the king’s leadership development program because they were young, strong, good looking, intelligent, and politically savvy. They had grown up in a world where their faith was the dominant, accepted religion in their country. Now, all of that had changed. Their belief system was now in the minority, simply one among many, with no special support from the culture.

This is similar to where we find ourselves in the west as we begin 2013. Since the Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 333 AD, most western European and American cultures have functioned with a Christendom church and culture support system. But, the separation of church and state is taking hold in much deeper and stronger ways, as society becomes more secular and no longer looks to the church for its moral or spiritual direction. There is no moral or theological consensus within our culture or our denomination today, and many churches are wondering how to do ministry in this kind of “sideline” context.

In the first three chapters of the book of Daniel, we see how Daniel and his friends tried to figure out how to remain faithful to God in a very different culture. For the most part, they participated in the culture and went along with its practices as much as they could. But, there were significant points where they had to differ. When King Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden statue, and commanded everyone to bow down and worship it, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could not bow their knees. It didn’t take long for others to “tattle” on them and bring them up on charges before the king. The king gave them one more opportunity to worship the statue or be thrown into the fiery furnace. They knew they would lose everything, and create a heavy burden for their families, but this was one aspect of the new culture they could not go along with. They had no way to save themselves. No amount of knowledge, skill, or political ability could save them now. The only way they could be saved in the furnace was for God to step in and work a miracle. And God did exactly that.

We can expect to encounter these kinds of situations within our own culture and denomination today. There will come a point when we can no longer go along with what everybody else is doing. We will have to stop and say – I can’t go there with you. There won’t be any way we can save ourselves. We will be completely dependent upon God to step in and either rescue us or let us perish. The good news is that when God did miraculously step in to rescue the three young men in the furnace, it caused more people to believe in the God of the Hebrews than ever before. God is constantly at work to lead more people to believe in His Son Jesus Christ. In today’s culture, it may be that seeming disaster, and God’s rescue of us, is what the Holy Spirit will use to lead people to Christ.

In the first chapter of Daniel, he and his friends are presented with a moral dilemma. In being given all of the best that the king had to offer, they were provided food and wine that their faith would not allow them to eat. Daniel requested permission for them not to have to eat this food. Their server did not want to grant their request, for it would put his life in jeopardy, if they were not in top physical condition. Daniel requested that they be allowed to try an experiment. The experiment was that they would be allowed to only eat their vegetarian and water diet for ten days. If they did not appear better than they counterparts, then they would return to the regular cultural diet. The servant agreed. Sure enough, at the end of the ten day experiment, Daniel and his friends appeared better and stronger than their contemporaries.

In today’s cynical, secular world, many people view the church as being no different than any other organization. If we have the same problems as the world, if we are no better at resolving our differences, if we don’t serve the community any better, than why pay any attention to the church? In today’s world, the church, like Daniel, must prove that our way of life is better than their way of life. Unless others see that we love each other more, are healthier, are less selfish, are more sacrificial, are more trustworthy, and are more believable, they won’t stop to listen to our message.

In the second chapter of Daniel, Daniel gains special attention from the king because he was able to know what his dream was and provide an interpretation for the dream that nobody else could. In today’s world, some people are moved by visions and dreams. They are moved by those who have the gift of interpreting visions and dreams. They will listen to those who can put spiritual realities into words that they can understand.

Daniel and his friends did not carry around picket signs protesting the sins of Babylon. They didn’t tell people they were going to hell. They weren’t obnoxious. They weren’t disrespectful. They wanted to be good citizens of the new country that were now refugees in. They wanted to cooperate. But, they also knew that they could not affirm or bless everything going on in the culture. They knew that there were some key points where they would have to be different. They knew that these could be very costly. These could cost them their jobs, their income, their homes, and their very lives. They would lose the respect and the reputation they had worked hard to build. In their former Jerusalem world, they would never have had to make these choices. But in their present Babylon world, they did have to make these choices.

As we begin a new year in 2013, I believe we find ourselves in a similar situation today. We will increasingly find ourselves being faced with choices that our culture wants us to make, that we cannot go along with. These could be potentially costly choices. They could be painful, agonizing, and discouraging choices. But, they could also be choices that cause more people to believe in Jesus Christ. What are the contemporary furnaces, foods, and visions that we are encountering today that are testing our faith, that we would not have encountered just fifty short years ago?

The good news is that God will be glorified, He will build His Church, and His Spirit has already been sent into our world to make a difference. We have always been called to participate in the mission of God. Now, we are being called to participate in it in a different culture, even though we haven’t moved. Our culture has moved. Our culture is moving. The better we understand our shifting cultural realities, the better we can anticipate the challenges coming our way, and the more we will be prepared to do what Christ wants us to do.