The posts I will write over the next year related to Church and Society will be the most important writing I’ve ever done. I have an overwhelming sense that the church needs to do some creative reflection on how it thinks about its place in the world today and the ways in which it conducts its mission. My concern is that the world has dramatically changed over the last fifty years, but for many churches and ministries it seems to be business as usual. Something big has happened in the world outside of our Christian sub-culture, and we need to adjust to a new context. The message remains the same of course, but the methods need to be updated.
The purpose of this entire blog is to help Canadian ministry leaders, of both churches and agencies, lead their ministries effectively. In this particular series, my purpose is to encourage you to creatively rethink how you pursue your mission. It’s time to check our assumptions and challenge our paradigms. Is what we are doing working? Is it effectively moving us forward for mission success?
When I look at survey information about religion in Canada (which seems stalled at best) and hear arguments being made about the place of religion in society (which want to relegate religion to the personal sphere only), it is clear that we have a lot of work to do. God said he would bless Abraham, that in turn Abraham would be a blessing to the world, and that all people on earth would be blessed through Abraham. As Abraham’s heirs, we want to see everyone, every human being, experience God’s blessing.
To play our part, many of us need to hit the reset button to adjust to the world that exists today. Many ministries have already done this and are thriving. Others have yet to seriously address the changes in society that have occurred over the last 50 years.
I regularly hear remarkable success stories from ministries all across Canada. These welcome stories inspire me and greatly encourage me, because they show what can be done when we do ministry well and in a way that fits with where the non-Christian world is at today.
Now is the time we need more than ever to hold on to our historic faith and stay true to our mission, but also to adjust to a changed relationship with the world around us that is new to our generation, and almost unprecedented in the history of the church.
So, let’s get started on developing a fresh way forward. Each post will contribute a small but important part to the overall project of helping the church be successful in our times.
Time to call it as it is
Almost three years ago, in what is now the first post of this series, I reviewed Mark Noll’s turning points in Christian history, and gave my opinion that the church is either at a new turning point or is at least experiencing a significant new trend:
Not since [before] 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.
I now believe we are experiencing more than just another major trend. We are indeed at a turning point, and if we do not do something about it now, we leaders will later be found derelict in our duty by the generations that follow us.
The turning point
Christianity enjoyed a favoured status in Western society for almost 1,700 years. Both the state and culture reflected, however imperfectly, a generally Christian worldview.
But Christianity has been gradually losing its favoured status for several hundred years, and in the last thirty years it feels like there has been an unprecedented, aggressive, all-out, sustained assault on the Christian faith and its place in the public sphere. In the Western world, faith is being squeezed into a small box of private belief which is not to be opened except in the privacy of one’s home or place of worship. The result is that society is far down a trajectory based on secular values, and orthodox Christianity today is as counter-cultural as it ever was.
What makes this a turning point worthy of historical note is that, unlike the sometimes severe persecution the church has suffered in specific countries in every century, the change in status is not localized but is affecting the faith throughout the Western world. However well or poorly the church deals with it, the ramifications will be felt throughout the Western world for centuries to come.
We’ve been here before
Today, Christianity in the West is in very much the same place as it was in its first two centuries in the Roman empire: it is a minority religion in a society which is a free-for-all for religious thought, competing against an overwhelming state ideology that stands against it. The Roman state ideology was the cult of the emperor; the Western world’s state ideology is the cult of the individual.
Movements have their ups and downs, but our beleaguered situation today is outside the normal fluctuations of fortune. Only once before, in the 700s to 900s when Christianity was reduced to a rump in western Europe and its future was in doubt (from a human perspective), was our faith in as difficult a spot as it is today in terms of its relationship with the world.
Finding ourselves once more in such a defensive posture is a significant turn of events that warrants serious reflection on how the church thinks of itself and does its work. If the church does deep soul-searching, I believe it will emerge stronger than ever. In three or four hundred years, the 20th and 21st centuries may well be seen as another low point, just like the 700s to 900s, from which Christianity emerged as a healthy and effective world-changing agent.
In the West, we have been travelling for almost two millennia along a pretty straight road through a society that affirms Christianity, a road which is now taking us from one period of history to another. As we cross the bridge between the old and the new, the road ahead travels through a society that does not give any special place to Christianity. The other end of the bridge disappears into the fog of uncertainty, a shroud of mystery. It’s our job now to discern what God has for us in this new place in which we find ourselves. That’s what this series will explore.
The problem that has us stuck is that many Christians still cling to the privileges they once had, grabbing hold of them, trying to reclaim them. They are fighting to go back to something that doesn’t exist anymore. The cat’s out of the bag. The horses have bolted from the barn. Even if we wanted to go back, it is too late.
Instead, we need to have the attitude of Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” (Phil 2:6). Jesus Christ gave up his rights and privileges in order to serve humanity, and by making that sacrifice he put himself on a road that inevitably led to suffering and death. We must likewise give up our privileges in order to better serve humanity knowing that God will vindicate us just as he vindicated his Son.
We need some paradigm shifts, three to be exact.
The three beneficial paradigm shifts we should make are:
- In the paradigm held by most Christians, the loss of favoured status can only be regarded as bad, as a setback, as a loss. A better, new paradigm is that the loss of status is the start of God doing something new and good. Such a loss could be very good if it forces us to think afresh about the church, how we live out our faith, and how we take our place in society. And if you can’t see the loss of status as a good thing, then be assured that God will redeem our loss in some way for our good (Rom 8:28). Either way, rather than cling to the old, we must let go to grasp the new.
- Another shift relates to how the church conducts its mission. Instead of expecting institutions of the church to do Christian work for us, we should see Christian work as the collective responsibility of both institutions and individuals. Historians and sociologists agree that in the first few centuries of the church, evangelism was mostly done by individuals in their neighbourhoods and on their travels as they shared their faith. There were evangelists and apostles to be sure, but the driving force behind the spread of Christian faith were the individuals who remain nameless in history. Charitable works were also done by individuals. Lecky, in his History of European Morals1, wrote that “The active, habitual, and detailed charity of private persons, which is such a conspicuous feature in all Christian societies, was scarcely known in antiquity.” It’s time to reawaken individual Christians to their responsibility and their potential for Christian mission wherever God has put them. Churches and Christian agencies can do a lot of great work, but individual Christians can add significantly to what they can do, because individuals are everywhere.
- The loss of status could lead to a third beneficial paradigm shift – a redefinition of mission success. There is a tendency to think of success in terms of win/lose, of advance or retreat, We think of success in terms of public life – especially in terms of politics. In later posts I will be exploring what success looks like and therefore what the indicators of success could be in our new world.
Consequences of a bad paradigm
As I wrote up above, I travel the country and hear great testimonies of the good things God is doing everywhere in our land, and I rejoice. But then, when I read the stats about what Canadians believe or don’t believe, and even what Christians believe and don’t believe, I have to wonder “Have we really accomplished all that much in the last fifty years?” It sometimes feels as though all the good news reports I hear might be all the good news reports there are.
James Davison Hunter wrote in To Change the World about several spectacular success stories of Christian ministries, but then concludes, “The problem is that these initiatives represent just a fraction of the potential within the church to bear witness to the love, grace, mercy, and truth of Christ.” Why would he think that? Maybe we are distracted from the good work we could be doing, individually and collectively, by fighting too much to preserve what we believe is rightfully ours.
I feel like Dorothy when she first stepped into the land of Oz and said, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
We are at a point in time where we must stop and reflect on where the church is at in relation to our society. We can’t go forward if we keep imagining that somehow we will restore the church to its former privileged position.
I’ve just been asked to join a small group tasked by a ministry that is more than a century old to take its mission and, starting with a green field, redesign everything about the ministry from the ground up. If it assumed it had no history but were starting fresh today with its mission, what would the ministry look like and how would it do its work? This is exactly the bold, radical fresh thinking I’m talking about. This readiness to reinvent ourselves and to allow the Holy Spirit to do something fresh in our generation gives us confidence that we can thrive in our new environment.
The way forward is to reflect on Christ’s Incarnation. When he entered human experience, he relied on no earthly power and did not cling to divine power, yet he changed the world by being obedient to his Father. How, then, should the church go forward? Stay tuned.
Key Point: Our world has changed in a very fundamental and historically significant way
- Cited in Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, p. 128 ↩