I meet regularly with a number of friends involved in some sort of ministry. Some of them are in full-time ministry and some in volunteer places. Everyone of them have a passion to winsomely bring people to a relationship with Jesus Christ and help them grow in their spiritual journey.
One of the challenges is that what reached people a few years ago does not touch them today. Our culture has quickly changed and continues rapidly changing, much of it fueled and fed by technology. Technology has shaped how we receive and process information. While much of the church still depends upon a “talking head” at the front of the auditorium, much of the world has moved on to multi-media entertainment centers.
Influence and information does not just come through technological sources, however. Now, it is taken in through personal encounters in one’s “tribal” or affinity group. The breakdown of the family structures and the displacement of family members across distances has caused people to seek out social groups with which they identify. These play a huge part in filtering information and what is accepted as “truth” among its members. It begins as young as teenagers when they divide into Goths, Emos, Nerds, Jocks, Barbies, Preppies, Punkers, Rockers, Stoners, and Gamers. The list goes on to reflect neighborhoods, ethnic groups and social statuses.
The technolization and tribalization of our culture has created a fractured environment to share the Bible’s message of hope and redemption. This is the “new reality” that American churches face. The question is whether they will be able to quickly adapt to the changing environment or continue to perform old practices that reached bygone eras.
There is a danger in not fighting against the nostalgia of the “good old days.” It is that we miss what opportunities are given to us right now. We can celebrate the past, even grieve its passing, but we cannot be stuck in it if we hope to maintain any missional edge that keeps us relevant and able to relate to the culture we live in today. So, what does this mean – this “new reality” – for American churches?
First, it means we need to rethink our priorities. What is our “kingdom priority”? Is it to preserve our furniture? Is it to maintain our liturgical practices? Is it to shore up programs and ministries? Or, is it to carry a message to spiritually lost people and develop within them hearts and minds that seek after Christ and his kingdom?
As I have talked this dilemma over with ministry friends, one thing has become clear to all of us. The mission is the message of Christ and his lordship or rule. Church history shows us that methods have constantly changed over the centuries. The only difference now is that these are needing to take place at a faster pace than ever before.
For instance, take the structure of church buildings. The church began with no properties – meeting in the homes of believers and seekers. Finally, when buildings were able to be constructed, they were gathering places for many “home churches.” Finally, these buildings became larger Cathedrals and the focus of the faith community.
Initially, the focus of the building’s interior was “The Lord’s Table“. Any pulpit or podium was to the side, not center stage. Sometimes it was intentionally placed high so that the preacher seemed to be ascending Mt. Sinai to deliver God’s Word to the people once more. Everything centered around the Eucharist.
When the Reformation arrived, it invited new models for church buildings. Some had art, some didn’t and some boasted fancy architecture and some simple. The Word of God became central and slowly the pulpit moved to center stage. The Communion Table remained either in front or behind the pulpit depending upon the prominence a church might give to it (Was there real substance in the food or only symbolism?). As scholasticism played a larger role in Christian education, teaching in preaching became more pronounced. The speaker/preacher/teacher became more important.
With the arrival of Evangelicalism and the Revival movements of the 19th century, churches took on the role of being auditoriums – places to hear a speaker. With the ever increasing role of music in the church, choir lofts, organ machines and pipes all played a role in shaping church buildings and affected how the Gospel message was communicated.
Now, today, in most Evangelical churches, the pulpit has given way to a lectern, music stand, or no prop at all. The worship band instruments are as prominently displayed as the pulpit or Lord’s Table once was a few decades ago. Clergy wigs, clerical collars, robes and suits and ties have given way to button-up shirts and slacks or T-shirts and jeans.
Change. The church has faced it for centuries. How the church today faces the changing reality of its culture will determine how effective it will remain. Sadly, like many church movements in the past, there may be a few today that will need to pass from the scene and become a memory of church history. Many individual churches and denominations will not be able to make the transition toward effectiveness in reaching today’s and tomorrow’s culture.
So, the question every minister, ministry and church organization must carefully assess is what is the main priority? What is “mission critical”? Something that is “mission critical” is absolutely necessary for the success of the mission. Without it the mission would fail. (This is assuming, of course, the centrality of Christ and a deep dependence upon the powerful working of the Holy Spirit.)
I don’t think there is one easy answer to that question. I strongly believe it will depend upon each congregation and each church leader to answer it depending upon their sense of God-given purpose and ministry context.
- Where are they placed in their community?
- Who has God given them to reach?
- What resources has the Lord supplied them to accomplish it?
- What “gifts and talents” are in its core leadership?
Finally, it means we will also need to re-examine our message delivery system. The message cannot change. Across every culture and every human age, the Gospel remains relevant and unchangeable. However, how it is communicated can change and must.
The new reality in our American churches is that we are facing an ever-increasing biblically illiterate audience despite the preponderance of biblical, theological and spiritual devotional resources available in our society. Many identify this as one of the signs that America has entered a “post-Christian” cultural phase. That may be true. However, that does not give us permission to throw-up our hands in defeat.
I believe that our culture is reverting to a story telling culture. Listeners are less linear in their thinking and how they relate to information. So, handing out and delivering an outline will not effectively reach them. However, story telling will communicate to them. This is a great advantage to the church since our source material, the Bible, is full of stories. Our lead-teacher, Jesus, used story to communicate important kingdom truths.
The danger becomes when our story telling only concludes with moralisms and pop-psychology. Too many of our pulpits and churches have already reverted to this diluted version of the Gospel. The Bible’s stories were given to us for more than to just teach us moral tales or to help us become better humans through positive living and thinking. They are pictures of the cosmic clash between divine righteous wisdom and human moral depravity.
The question remains, how do we most effectively tell this story of human failure and loving divine redemption? I believe that long educational sermons full to pretentious vocabulary is not going to cut it. We are going to need to simplify it – shoot for a 5th or 6th grade vocabulary. When it is necessary to use “big theological words”, then carefully define them. Scholasticism is out. Tribal narratives are the way in. Engage the individuals in the group as well as the whole group in telling the story of God’s glory.
I also believe that we have to begin our message delivery system with the assumption that people do not know anything about the Bible, its stories or is truths for living in God’s world God’s way. At least, whatever they have heard up to this time is false and misleading. From that starting point, we can begin to shape our message to shape the hearts and minds of our audience.
The delivery system will need to have much more variety. A lone “talking head” delivering information will not capture the attention or the heart of today’s seekers. Contemporary audiences are used to sound bites, short episodic delivery, and a chance to interact. This changes completely how we view our audience and our message.
Without changing our message, it will require harder work to include a variety of methods to deliver it. This could be everything from video clips, to personal stories, personal response times, discussion time, Q & A’s, as well as team speaker/teachers/preachers. What may seem like a chaotic and disjointed delivery system will make much more sense and have much more meaning to today’s audience.
The new reality in American churches offers an opportunity for the church to stretch out of its old wineskins and see what God is doing in his world and how he is at work. None of this has caught him by surprise. He is not overcome with questions and doubts about the future. He already saw this moment in time and had a “new wineskin” strategy for it. It is our job to discover it, embrace it and go with it.
©Ron Almberg/Weatherstone March, 12 2012
- Obituary For The American Church (kimlouvin.wordpress.com)
- -Taking Jesus into the Marketplace (charismatica.com)
- Are Christians Pathetically Pagan? (emdog.wordpress.com)
- American church: Not dead yet (tallskinnykiwi.typepad.com)
- The Church Is About Intimacy Not Entertainment (pastorpaulvbsblog.blogspot.com)
- “How do you reach out to non-Christian friends without sounding pushy?” (soimarriedayouthpastor.wordpress.com)