Mission in a New Context

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.

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