I recently read a great book entitled Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity by Mark Noll that begged the question, “Are we at a decisive turning point in church history now?” If we are, how should that affect our strategic plans? Do we go this way or that way?
Turning points are significant events that affect the very long term. They cause fundamental changes to the way things are. Trends do the same, but only over the course of a generation or so. Because a turning point is defined in terms of its future impact, they can only really be seen in hindsight.
For example, someone in the 1950s would likely have pointed to the development of Communist states as a critical turning point, but after less than a century we see it for what it was – an experiment that failed, a blip (albeit a significant blip) in the history of our world.
So history will be the best judge of whether a turning point actually occurred and how decisive it was, but it does appear that some current conditions could be turning points. Either way, they are important enough that if you are not yet thinking strategically about them, you should start factoring them into your mission-related strategies.
Noll’s turning points
Noll acknowledges that his choice of thirteen turning points for inclusion in his book is subjective and based on what he thinks is most important in church history. (He lists a number of others that he could have written about.)
Some of the turning points were imposed by external forces:
- the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the loss of the church’s Jewish roots
- the French revolution and the first complete secularization of a society in 1789
Other turning points bubbled up from within the church in response to situations that had been developing for centuries:
- Benedict’s recovery of personal piety through his “Rules” in 530
- the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches in 1054
- Luther’s rediscovery of salvation by faith in 1521
Some of the turning points came about from conferences, such as the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 and the Council of Nicaea in 325, both of which deliberated weighty issues. At Nicaea, for example, they tackled two very heady questions:
- How was Jesus both man and God at the same time?
- How is one who is ‘begotten’ also eternal?
Each of these turning points shaped Christianity, for better or worse, for centuries (and even millennia) to come.
Noll ends the book by identifying five current developments that may be turning points (get the book to see what he has to say about each of these):
- the rise and spread of Pentecostalism;
- the emergence of women into greater public visibility;
- the massive production of new Bible translations as an aspect, more generally, of the globalization of Christianity;
- the survival of Christianity under Communist regimes; and
- the recent flourishing of Christianity in Communist China.
Our turning points?
I have three other possible turning points (or at least significant trends) that will almost certainly affect our strategic plans.
The church is becoming counter-cultural again
Not since Christianity became the Roman state religion in 313 has Christianity been so counter-cultural. In a world that worships ‘me’, ‘my rights’, and ‘my convenience’, the church stands out for holding perspectives and values that are most emphatically not shared by general society.
We are in a society very similar to that in which the ancient church found itself:
- In the pre-Constantine era, Christianity was just one of many religions competing for attention. Today the mission field has come to us (a positive interpretation of events), but that means that Christianity in Canada is once again just part of the mix.
- While their society had some trappings of a state-based religion (emperor worship), the prevailing mindset was quite secular, the same as in Canadian society today.
- Christians back then were a marginalized part of society without political power. Today, faith (especially the Christian faith) has been privatized and stifled, seen as having little, if any, legitimate role in public discussions. Secular Canadians have morphed the American constitutional freedom of religion into freedom from religion.
Yet, as history shows, this counter-cultural status is not a bad place for the church to be! Sociologists are amazed at the explosive growth of the early church. To go from zero to the state religion of an empire in 300 years is just shy of a miracle. Although women undoubtedly evangelized too, the following quote eloquently summarizes evangelism in the first few centuries of Christianity using the term man to refer to the laity.
The little man, the unknown ordinary man, the man who left no literary remains, was the prime agent in mission.1
The gospel advanced at an outrageous pace because ordinary Christians like you and me, who had experienced the life-changing power of God, simply shared their stories wherever they went.
People working in frontline Christian ministries may already be doing everything I’m about to suggest. I am simply providing some thoughts as an armchair generalist that might stimulate strategic reflection by your leadership team, which has the specialist knowledge in your field that I don’t.
- The strategic implications are most obvious for churches and evangelism ministries. You can no longer assume any biblical literacy among the people you are trying to reach, and you may have to close two ‘sales’ for most people: first, that there is a spiritual reality and a ‘higher being’; and then second, that the Christian faith is the true reality. And you also have to convince people that there is indeed absolute truth and not just one truth that works for me and one that works for you!
- All proposals related to the public realm, particularly legislation, must be made using only secular arguments. This is fairly easily done for social justice issues, but much more difficult in the highly sensitive issues of public morals (most notably in issues related to the beginning and ending of life, and of sexuality). We need to be much more creative and thoughtful in addressing these issues, and far more intentional about long term strategy in the public realm as opposed to short term responsive campaigns. On these latter issues, if good laws can be passed, well and good. But given today’s reality, we might fare better by working at the individual level so that even if the law permits something, people will choose the better way.
- We need to make life in the kingdom of God far more attractive to the secular public than we do. I’m thinking particularly of governance, leadership, and human resource matters among all ministries, and congregational life in churches. Church splits are never a good witness to the unity we have in Christ! Acrimonious divisions between directors, or between board and staff, are not good witnesses to the reconciled relationships we are supposed to have in Christ. Caustic work environments don’t model God’s character at all. We must model internally the unity, love, and care that God has commanded of us. In other words, get along with each other and really show God’s love for everyone. That’s what attracted the attention of the Roman world. Emperor Julian complained:
“Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [by atheism, Julian means unbelief in the pagan gods!]? For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”
The church is beginning to be the church rather than just attend ‘church’
Christians have the bad habit of saying they attend church. This is a horrible mistake because it misidentifies what the church is (and yet I say it all the time myself!). The church is the people whom God has called and the good news is that they are starting to act like the church. I like what F.C. Mather wrote some time ago in The Layman in Christian History:
“We have come to see that the task of Christians, whether clerical or lay, is not to do something for the Church but to be the Church. The peculiar privilege of lay Christians is to be the Church in diaspora, the Church [dispersed] throughout the world in every social class and every just vocation.”
Pastors are more and more seeing their role as it is described in Ephesians 4:11-12: equipping God’s people for works of service and then sending them out to serve. This trend has been developing for several centuries, but it gained fresh traction in this generation as several important books were written, including:
- Unleashing the Church by Frank Tillapaugh in 1985
- Unfinished Business by Greg Ogden in 2003, and
- Great Giveaway, The: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies by David Fitch in 2005. ( I do take issue with David in my book, The Church at Work, regarding his view on ‘parachurch’ ministries, although I understand his point and his heart in this provocative book.)
Christians want to be more actively engaged in front-line ministry than ever before. They are frustrated with organizational bureaucracies and are willing to ‘just do it.’ They certainly are not content to simply give their money and sit back to watch what others do with it.
- The demand for accountability for results and transparency in operations has never been higher than it now is. For most of Christian history, individual Christians have been relegated to the role of “pray, pay and obey” and they no longer accept that. A ministry that isn’t thinking about its accountability reporting to donors and the public is missing the boat and is likely to see its donor base shrink as older donors (who were willing to pay and trust) die off and are not replaced by younger donors (who want to inspect, pay, do, and inspect again).
- All ministries should be reviewing their operations to see how they might incorporate volunteers into their work. They should be making use of the professional and personal expertise of their volunteers and not just using them to stuff envelopes. Volunteers today want to gain experience from volunteering that they otherwise might not get. Many see volunteering as a form of professional development. They often want to (temporarily) be part of your team on the field and they all certainly want to make a real difference by contributing their time. A good many want to de-professionalize Christian ministry. How can you take advantage of this?
I just saw an interview with a script writer for Star Trek: The Next Generation who said that they were the only show in Hollywood that encouraged unsolicited scripts from its fans. The basic script for one of the most touching episodes of the series, The Offspring, was written by René Echevarria, a waiter in New York City aspiring to show biz. He was later hired by the show as a story editor and ultimately became its Executive Story Editor! What possibilities might your ministry have if you opened up more to outside contributions?
The church is focusing on lasting, significant change
This is already a well-established principle in many overseas mission organizations, particularly those in the relief and development sector. There are several aspects to this trend:
- Don’t do for others what they could be doing for themselves.
- Move beyond immediate needs to long term solutions.
- First World ministries are willing to be equal partners with Third World organizations.
- There is an eagerness to work with other ministries to accomplish common goals, rather than trying to do everything independently.
People are tired of just putting another plate of food on the table. They want the underlying issues solved.
- Churches should shift from thinking about events as a series of one-offs, to events as a part of an intentional strategy to effect change in people’s lives. In other words, design a larger program that makes use of events but that otherwise has the potential for continuing contact. Perhaps this means training your congregation so they can develop the relationship instead of relying on church programs to do that for them.
- Shift from thinking annually or programmatically to thinking strategically. Develop your team’s strategic thinking skills. You’ll be thinking larger thoughts!
- Review all your programs with the intent of finding ways of empowering others. What could you do to leave other ministries and people stronger and better off than they were before they worked with you? How could you introduce true, equal, collaboration with others into your programs?
- Which Canadian ministries might you partner with?
Please add any other trends or strategic implications that you see. What are the key trends affecting your ministry?
“Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.”
- Green, Michael. 1970. Evangelism in the early church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p.172 ↩