Re-Thinking the Gospel in a Changing Culture

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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: