Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Culture shift

I recently ran across this quote on the 3dm website. I bolded one sentence to make sure you see it:

In our travels we’ve spoken to hundreds, if not thousands of pastors. And time and time again they tell us these are the questions that keep them up at night:
  • What does the church of the future look like?
  • How do we disciple people?
  • How do we reach the unchurched/dechurched?
What 3DM does is take 30 years of learning from a very post-Christian England context, as well as penetrating Biblical insights, and come alongside churches and organizations who are finding the North American mission field more post-Christian with each passing day.

In his book The Bridger Generation, Thomas Rainer has these statistics on weekly church attendance in the United States:
-Builder Generation: 65% will be in church this Sunday -Boomer Generation: 35% -Gen X: 15% -Gen Y: 4%

For 3DM, these are very prophetic statistics as much of what we have learned comes from a country where only 8% of the entire country is in church on Sunday. The three questions every pastor asks are the questions the European church was asking 30 years ago. What we do is take all of the things we’ve learned in those 30 years and work with churches and individuals facing similar challenges
I was struck by this train of thought (sounds painful, I know, and often it is). Let me tell you a story.

When I first graduated college and went into the world of professional ministry, I spent seven years doing youth ministry near Seattle. The culture in the Pacific Northwest is as unchurched as anywhere in the U.S. I got used to seeing my Christian identity as a minority thing in that culture, got used to going to parties where it was a rarity to meet another Christian, got used to Christian kids every day having to live out their faith in a non-Christian -- and often anti-Christian -- environment. At first it was a shock for me, because I grew up in a community where the church was the center of the community in social, spiritual, physical, and emotional terms. Now in the Northwest, I was confronted by the fact that the church was very much out on the margins.

Then I noticed something. I noticed that there were really two kinds of churches. Some churches were refugee churches, really trying to hold onto their power and the way things used to be while the culture went to hell around them. Others were engaged churches, churches that got involved in the community, churches that delighted in the fact that they were rubbing shoulders all the time with those who didn't know Jesus. The two kinds of churches really boiled down to churches that retreated and churches that advanced. The advancing churches were vibrant, strong, and healthy.

When we moved back to the Twin Cities in 1995, I was overwhelmed by a few trivial experiences that reminded me that my cultural context had changed. I remember vividly standing in the checkout at a local grocery store listening to two teenage girls talk about their plans to go to Confirmation that evening. In seven years of youth ministry in Seattle, I'd never had that experience. I was back in a place where the church was much more integrated with daily life for a large portion of the population.

I also noticed, though, that the churches in the midwest were full of complacent people. They valued their churches, but they didn't get too excited about faith. It was just part of life. This attitude permeated the churches, from the preschools to the pastors. Church was just one of those institutions. The church held a privileged position, and everyone -- more or less -- recognized its importance.

But change was coming. Having recently lived in an environment where the church was losing the culture wars in a big way, I recognized the symptoms. Right here in the Twin Cities, community soccer teams practiced on Sunday mornings. Cable television provided more and better entertainment than any church. Social networks revolved more and more around shared activities (bike clubs, rock climbing groups, dance classes, athletic teams, gyms, neighborhood block parties) rather than around church activities. The church was slowly, almost imperceptibly, drifting to the margins of the culture.

In the last fifteen years, I've watched that process continue. Churches struggle to compete with travel basketball and Facebook and the lake cabin, and most of the time churches are losing that battle. Complacent members see less and less need to attend worship regularly, or they attend when there's nothing else going on. Confirmations and baptisms and weddings happen in the church more often as a nod toward a previous generation's tradition rather than as the outgrowth of a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

So I think these guys at 3dm are onto something. They're looking at what works in Europe, recognizing that the same trends are at work in the United States.

The church will not hold back the tide of cultural drift. We've lost that battle already. It's time to change tactics, to adopt a new strategy. Churches need to become subversive groups within a non-Christian culture. We need to worry more about passionate faith in ourselves rather than trying to lobby for policies within the wider culture. Disciples will be made through individual and small group relationships rather than through legislative action.

The way we do church has to change. In fact, it has changed. Those who gather on Sunday mornings as a nod to the church of the 1950's have missed Jesus as he goes out to seek and save the lost. They may be wonderful social clubs, even Christian social clubs, but they are not churches. The church that is led and enlivened by the Holy Spirit is a church that is struggling every day to keep up with Jesus, to figure out how to leave behind more and more of our baggage and travel light with him.

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