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The Present Church

Below is a rather wordy article for my denomination‘s magazine to help get people thinking outside the box in how we see the local church. Not sure if it worked but people have been saying nice things about it to my face at least :-)

For Lent this year, I decided to give up politics. In the past I had given up caffeine, chocolate, television, and even NHL hockey playoffs but this year I decided to step back from following politics which is something I spend too much time thinking and reading about. Of course this meant trying to ignore the Quebec election of which I had some success in doing. On Monday, March 27th, I was agonizing over the final edits of this article, which was supposed to be about the future of the church. I decided to take a brief television break and was confronted with some really boring choices. While surfing channels, I found myself watching CTV Newsnet and seeing what the talking heads were saying about the Quebec election. Before I caught myself, I heard the panel chortling to themselves over the comment, “Who could have predicted that this result was going to happen to Jean Charest?” I remember the exact same comment being said during former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow‘s final election when he was handed a minority. A couple of hours before that I remember a well known political commentator leading off his networks coverage with, “Is there anything that will stand between the NDP and another strong majority? No there isn’t”. Well the prognosticators were wrong that evening as well.

The phrase made me think about a book I had read a couple of years ago by Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon called The Ingenuity Gap. One of the books recurring themes is that we live in a world with a tremendous amount of variables which are overwhelming and make it very difficult to predict the outcome of our decisions. The book goes to show how complex our inter-connected world is and how poorly we understand how it works despite our proclamations to the opposite. From the food chain in the English Channel, to water planning in Las Vegas, to international markets during the Asian currency crisis; time and time again experts missed something that invalidated all of calculations for the future. Not only is it hard to know all of the variables that will influence our future, we are constantly hit by fads that while seem important, really aren’t (like election news stories over which tie color resonates best with voters)

As I returned to edit my article for Mosaic, I realized that I was probably making the exact same mistake. There are too many variables, too many things that can change. If the all knowing pollsters and Mike Duffy can’t forecast a 40 day election, how do we talk about the future of the church farther than that? All of the variables of culture plus the complexities of denomination and local church dynamics make it hard to predict any future.

So what can we talk about? Instead of talking about the future, it may be helpful to discuss the the factors that are happening now that will impact the future. To often organizations live in the past as it is easier to understand and don’t have the needed conversations on what is happening the present that will shape their future.

Post-Christian Canada and the West

In a couple of books I have read in the last year, they have referenced some recent studies that point out by 2040, under 5% of people in England may be Christian (only 9.4% are attending church now) According to church statistics, the four main UK denominations, the Church of England, the Roman Catholic, the Methodist, and United Reformed Churches, are all suffering from a long-term decline in attendance figures. The good thing is that they realize this and are trying new ideas to reverse the decline. The Anglican and Methodist Churches have started their Fresh Expressions initiative which encourages new expressions of church like alternative worship, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury plans to be broadcasting his sermons on YouTube in an acknowledgment that more and more Anglicans just aren’t in church on Sundays. While some of the initiatives talked about as other Fresh Initiatives seemed a little off the mark, it is encouraging that the Church of England the Methodist Church in England are acknowledging that something has to change.

In Australia, things aren’t that much more encouraging but in a recent book called The Forgotten Ways, missiologist Alan Hirsch sees it this way

A combination of recent research in Australia indicates that about 10-15 percent of that population is attracted to what we call the contemporary church growth model. In other words, this model has significant “market appeal” to about 12 percent of our population. The more successful forms of this model tend to be large, highly professionalized, and overwhelmingly middle class, and express themselves culturally using contemporary, “seeker friendly” language and middle-of-the-road music forms. They structure themselves around “family ministry” and therefore offer multi-generational services. Demographically speaking, they tend to cater largely to what might be called the “family-values-segment”–good, solid, well-educated citizens who don’t abuse their kids, who pay their taxes, and who live largely, what can be called a suburban lifestyle.

Not only is this type of church largely made up of Christian people who fit this profile, the research indicates that these churches can also be very effective in reaching non-Christian people fitting the same demographic description–the people within their cultural reach. That is, the church does not have to cross any significant cultural barriers in order to communicate the gospel to that cultural context. (pg 35)

In the United States, the number attracted to the idea of church may be as high as 35%. Canadian polls suggest that about 20 – 30% of Canadians may share values that would be open to going to church (approximately 20% of people say they attending church regularly but that number is often inflated by people exaggerating how often they attend church). That number is a both a blessing and a curse. It shows that at least about six to seven million Canadians are open to the values articulated by the church which do provide a large pool of Canadians for the church to draw from but even that is difficult as pollster George Barna sees the family values segment of the population to fall by half in approximately fifteen years.

While nothing is wrong with those within that segment, most of us as Free Methodists would be there and by in large, they are not that offensive of a people group. Six million Canadians is nothing to sneeze at and does provide a significant opportunity for the church but that is only part of the story.

Of course what is to make of the people outside of that family values segment? Depending on how one looks at the numbers, anywhere from 65% to 85% of Canadians are removed by various degrees from that category and from those values. They make up the vast bulk of Canadians that have to overcome some obstacles to come to our churches as the church is not even on their radar. According to what Alan Hirsch writes in The Forgotten Ways, in addition to not being on the radar for most people, a large percentage are at some level alienated by the church. From bad experiences, to strong preconceived ideas about Christianity or from a cultural context that is hostile to Christianity, it would be as hard for them to be a part of a church as it would be many Free Methodists to join a non-Christian religion. Doing “church” better; PowerPoint, better music, wittier or more theologically astute sermons probably won’t make any impact on those that are outside the church because they are unlikely to bother entering the doors in the first place.

The other factor in society is that there has been a breakdown in the mass markets. Where at one point a church used to pick a neighborhood and then put down it’s roots and if church was “done right”, it had a good chance to reach their area for Christ. Depending on the church, property values actually rose if you were closer to a church. A middle class neighborhood would have middle class people in it with middle class values. Today that is changing where traditional people groups have segmented and segmented again. The mass market is shrinking and those neighborhoods are made up of a variety of sub-groups.

What does that mean for the future of the church?

While it is popular to lament the loss of the Christian fabric in Canadian culture and condemn those that don’t share our values, that probably won’t do anything to reverse the change. Complaining that people don’t go to church anymore won’t change anything.

When Anglican Bishop nd missionary, Leslie Newbiggin came back to England at the age of 65 after spending most of his career in India, this is what he found.

Ministry in England, he discovered, “is much harder than anything I met in India. There is a cold contempt for the Gospel which is harder to face than opposition. . . . England is a pagan society and the development of a truly missionary encounter with this very tough form of paganism is the greatest intellectual and practical task facing the Church” (Unfinished Agenda).

It is hard, Newbigin knew, for a Hindu or a Muslim to come to worship Christ. For an Englishman, it would seem, it had become even harder.

Whats life for the church going to be like in a post-Christian Canada. A world in which we are seen more and more irrelevant? There isn’t a definite roadmap or program to follow and I think the mass segmentation will force the church for the first time in a long time to chart their own paths as we enter into new territory. That being said, there are some that have been at this for a little longer and have adjusted to their own contexts.

The Freeway in downtown Hamilton is both a church community and coffee shop serving both those looking for coffee and a place to connect online as well as the urban poor.

Three Nails in Pittsburgh is an Episcopal church plant that has embedded itself into the community by meeting a need that I never would have thought of and that is making really good New York City style hot dogs. They helped open a restaurant that used to be called Hot Dogma but was sued over the name so now they are called Franktuary. Their motto in case you are wondering is And the meat shall inherit the earth.

Harambee in Pasadena, California Back in 1982, Navarro Avenue in Pasadena, California had the highest daytime crime rate in Southern California. Believing that the only way they could make a difference was to move into the neighborhood, Dr. John Perkins started a ministry on “blood corner” (named because of the drive by shootings). Twenty five years later it had largely changed the neighborhood and curbed the violence. Not only that but it has prepared two generations of church leaders as well on a campus that is essentially several small houses with a common backyard. It doesn’t take much to change the world.

The same can be said about emerging congregations and church plants in the Free Methodist Church. Ecclesiax and ThirdSpace reach artists and creative types in different ways because their local contexts are different.

Some Anglican churches in London, England empowered and nurtured new faith communities who met in their own buildings. Most often with no staff or clergy, these communities formed what is now called alternative worship and is engaging a portion of England’s population that would never enter into a traditional worship context. At the same time they give new life to traditional congregations.

Some churches in urban areas saw what a place called Paragraph NY did, which is create a place that is essentially a gym but instead is a place for writers and creative types to work. They looked at a lot of unused space, got a good coffee maker, and wireless Internet and opened up the doors… and people came in.

At the end of the day, the church is going to have to learn to reconnect with their community as opposed to rely on the community to come to them. Whether or not churches can do that will largely determine how long of a future they have.

The Future of Theological Education

I remember being a conference years ago when the comparison was made between the average income of baby boomers measured against things like education, mortgage, and transportation. Then they compared my generation. Everything was more expensive but especially education and at that moment I realized that the Freedom 55 commercials were not targeted at me. The presenter put it into what it meant for the church. To go to seminaries like Wheaton or Fuller, it meant that you either had to be older and saved up some money, come from a wealthy family, or willing to take on a large amount of student loan debt. This has affected even smaller Bible Colleges who are faced with an aging donor base and less contributions which has meant higher tuitions.

The costs associated with education keep many interested learners at arms length. A building costs money; faculty need to be paid and they expect certain privileges associated with their position. Beyond that, the physical space of education limits the number of students who can participate (those who can get to the location, those who can fit into the facilities). After a while the school’s priorities shift toward the necessities of taking care of the building and faculty, and these begin to displace the original educational goals.

This starts to impact the wider church in a couple of ways as it also influences students. As I heard one seminary faculty member say it, whether the student or his family is footing the expensive cost of seminary education, it makes students less inclined or less able to enter the mission field or enter into a ministry context that does not pay a certain amount of money or safety.

The long term consequences of that happening to more church leaders is easy to see. Only wealthy churches have access to quality theological thinkers and the church may have to withdraw from areas that can not afford a certain level of compensation.

There has been others who have seen this happening and are working to create an alternative future. City Seminary of New York is a collaborative project of churches across New York City who brings in theologians and speakers to help church leaders in their local contexts. Fees are as low as $10 (to cover meals). The Alternative Seminary in Philadelphia is developing training materials and offering classes for those that can not afford it. Closer to home, in Kingston there is the Invisible College which tackles big issues from a Christian worldview. Topics like globalization and how technology impacts our lives have been past topics. Resonate has hosted several local discussions with theologians and thinkers over the last three years in Toronto and Hamilton all for free.

While seminaries and many local churches have been slower to adopt this model in favor of selling content, more and more universities are giving away their lectures, course work, and even tests for free over the Internet. M.I.T.’s OpenCourseWare allows you to tap into M.I.T.’s vast teaching resources as a teacher or self-learner for free. It doesn’t grant you a degree or credits but it does share the wisdom. TED, a world leading conference of big thinkers has recently used Google Video to make their entire conference available for free online. While I questioned the Archbishop of Canterbury’s use of YouTube when the idea was floated, almost 8000 people have watched his latest video in three weeks, far more than what would have heard him speaking in a church and that number will keep climbing.

While the Free Methodist Church in Canada’s Foundational Courses and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s efforts come from a denomination, many of the other alternative forms of theological education are coming from the grassroots of the church. Motivated local church leaders striving to make a difference in their communities. Whether that will be online or offline in churches and third spaces, in partnership with existing educational institutions or creating new ones, how it shapes up and we decide to view new forms of education will go a long way in shaping how we see church.

Discipleship

This is related to the discussion on theological education but we can’t ignore the issue of discipleship or lack of it in local churches.

In his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Ron Sider points out that evangelicals do a rather poor job of living out what we preach. In fact in some areas that evangelicals profess to care about, we tend to live worse then those we profess to want to “save”. Robert Webber writes on this topic in his book, Ancient Future Evangelism where he suggests that discipleship is a forgotten practice in many churches, a theme which is echoed in Dallas Willard’s book which is aptly named, The Great Omission. Duke University’s, Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we have confused North American values with Christianity and reduced being a Christian to being a good neighbor and good American [or Canadian]. Eugene Peterson simply asks that how can we know so much and live so badly. Both Eugene Peterson and Dallas Willard talk about the church services.

Eugene Peterson says this,

The operating biblical metaphor regarding worship is sacrifice. We bring ourselves to the altar and let God do to us what God will. We bring ourselves to the eucharistic table, entering into that grand fourfold shape of the liturgy that shapes us: taking, blessing, breaking, giving—the life of Jesus taken and blessed, broken and distributed; and that eucharistic life now shapes our lives as we give ourselves, Christ in us, to be taken, blessed, broken and distributed in lives of witness and service, justice and healing.

But this is not the American way. The major American innovation in the congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise. Americans have developed a culture of acquisition, an economy that is dependent on wanting and requiring more. We have a huge advertising industry designed to stir up appetites we didn’t even know we had. We are insatiable. It didn’t take long for some of our colleagues to develop consumer congregations. If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our churches is to identify what they want and offer it to them. Satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel into consumer terms—entertainment, satisfaction, excitement and adventure, problem-solving, whatever. We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches?

Dallas Willard says something similar but in just three sentences,

We must flatly say that one of the greatest contemporary barriers to meaningful spiritual formation in Christlikeness is overconfidence in the spiritual efficacy of ‘regular church services,’ of whatever kind they may be. Though they are vital, they are not enough. It is that simple.

Even if we get every other aspect of church right and people do engage with us again. What do they get when they get here. An entire “discipleship industry” has formed within the church trying to sell me an answer to that question and there are a lot of different opinions.

As technology and culture change, it changes the world in which we learn in. What would have been considered deviant behaviour a generation ago isn’t questioned today as being abnormal. I remember reading a book on how young Christians needed to act and it concentrated on issues like how long should your hair be and if sideburns are okay. It was as funny to read then as it is today but it does go a long ways in determining what we saw were important things back then. Today, things have changed. A friend showed me his high school son’s instant messenger buddy list. Every single one of them was a sexual reference. While we were talking about that, a song came over by an underage artist talking about sex acts with her boyfriend. What does the church look like in a culture that is changing, materialistic, confused, and intolerant of how it sees the church being intolerant? While the much of the discussion centers on the forms we use for discipling, statements from many theologians suggest that we may have to rethink what a Christian is in today’s world.

If there is good news in all of this, it is that many Free Methodists are having these kinds of discussions all over the place, both formally (like at last years Ecclesiology Study Commission) and informally. Many of those voices will go into papers and ideas to presented at the next General Conference and of course are being discussed in local churches. As I told a colleague not that long ago, some of us are too young to have experienced the “good old days” of the church but this is the time that God wanted us to be here for and there is something exciting about that.

6 Comments

  1. alan hirsch says:

    Phew! that’s a long but really valuable article Jordon. Good summary of the issues we face.

  2. Pernell says:

    Jordon – great article… and not just because you mention us.

  3. AMGallegos says:

    Thanks Jordon. This is a good article, very interesting and helpful.

  4. Jordon says:

    Thanks for your kind comments. It was a pain to write but I enjoyed the final result.

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