Well, I started out with some prognostication, and then I got distracted, and got back on track regarding my thoughts on The Decade Ahead for the Emerging Church. As I set up my thoughts and predictions (scary word) in that post, I asked three pairs of questions, the last of which was, “where is the world outside the church in all of this? Do they benefit at all, or are they worse off?” And then I pretty much didn’t answer that one, just the other two. This set of questions is fundamentally different because they have to do with the church’s interaction with the world, and are therefore the most important (certainly to the missional crowd, at least). For these reasons, I felt a separate post was warranted.
To consider this question, we need to look a moment at the culture in which we’re immersed. We’ve been talking for the past fifteen years about how our culture has changed, and the past decade has done a good job of explaining some of these implications. And some have felt the implications have been explained to death already. (After all, a ten-year conversation can get tiring, and perhaps a little redundant at times.) Despite the fact that I’ve pegged the conversation mainly in the last decade, the changes have occurred over the past five decades — it has only been more recently that we have put our attention to understanding the cumulative effect of these culture shifts. We can summarize a few significant changes.
The church has lost its central position of respect and credibility. While many in the church have clutched tightly to the notion of a Christian nation in the west, the reality has become something different, causing the clutchers to look decidedly like relics of a bygone era, out of touch with the times. Where at one time the vast majority of citizens were churchgoers, today most have turned their back on the institution. Most people can name not one but several religious scandals over the past few decades that involved money, sex, power, or some combination thereof. And the church has not handled all of these well. Then too, denominational bickering hasn’t helped the reputation of the church, but has instead been one more nail in the coffin of institutional trust.
Society itself has become more humanistic over the past several decades. At the risk of instigating a hail of rocks flying in my direction, not every one of humanism’s influences have been entirely negative. Whether or not Christianity previously held too low a view of humanity, the rise of humanism has influenced it in the direction of greater concern for one’s fellow man. Social justice and gender equality are two of the major debates at the end of the last decade, though the noise they cause is waning as these battles are essentially over. Those not espousing and practicing gender equality are beginning to look positively draconian. A generation from now, the same may well be true with regard to same-sex unions in the majority of the Christian church. In the meantime, those clinging to beliefs and practices now defined as descriminatory or even hateful are unlikely to find a receptive ear in the marketplace of ideas.
We might no longer be speaking about a single “western culture” but about “multiculture.” While the church was busy losing credibility, an increasing number of world religions have become present in our own backyards, so that those who are considered religious are no longer necessarily considered Christian. Many of these are present through immigration rather than conversion, but even as humanistic influences press us (positively) to reject racism, more and more eastern and other world religions are tolerably present in the mixture that has become our culture. In some respect, this means that religious ideals have become more common, but safe assumptions about what they mean are considerably less so.
People haven’t given up on God, just the version with which they’ve been presented. A God who can’t stand gays, thinks less of women, and is always looking to unleash some form of divine retribution just doesn’t jive. This is not to say that people in the main are entirely unspiritual. After evaluating the array of world religions now playing out in front of them, many are choosing to create their own syncretistic version of faith. They believe in some form of divine being, knowable or not. They do know that if this divine being is directing even half of the lunacy that goes on in his name, he’s got more than a few shortcomings as a god. Reason suggests that a divine being, by definition, must be better than the portraits they’ve been painted thus far, but nobody has yet presented them with a compelling character sketch of the believable divine being that they find themselves wanting to know. They still have what Pascal called “a God-shaped vacuum” in them, and they’re even cognizant of this fact on some small level. Stack that longing on top of their religious institutional mistrust, and they’ve got to go searching elsewhere. As Lenny Bruce perceived, “Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” If anything’s changed in the years since he made this observation, it’s only become more true.
In short, we might sum up this way: The church has been steadily moving to the margins of society. While some might receive this statement with foreboding and grief, I would encourage the reserving of such judgement, since the church has always functioned best from the margins. If we look at the birth of the church during its first couple of centuries, we see explosive growth, and we see a non-institutional expression of church gone viral. Indeed, Jesus was on the margins of Judaism, and the early church was on the margins not only of Judaism, but of society generally. Given this setting as the occasion of the writing of the books of the New Testament, we might begin to suggest that the New Testament actually has more to say to us when we find ourselves on the margins than it does when we find ourselves at the center of society. It’s at this point that we cast a glance at the Old Testament and realize that the bulk of it, too, is addressed to a people who finds itself on the margins, not in control of their political situation. We might even look anew at passages concerning the downtrodden, the oppressed, or the outcast and imagine that they might not be talking about someone else, but about us — and without having to spiritualize the message to get there.
China? A church on the margins, with an eventual peek behind the bamboo curtain revealing explosive growth without the influence of a colonializing instituionalizing presence. The concern about church on the margins — especially when coupled with radical decentralization — usually seems to be doctrinal purity in the face of syncretising forces. But historical evidence suggests the concern is overblown. To be sure, some groups will be in error, but this is true no matter the size of the group, for a single charismatic leader has the power to mislead thousands when presented with the tools to gather them. On the other hand, a small group of humble believers always has the Holy Spirit with them, and it seems to me that we ought to have more faith in his ability to lead us. This may be something of a digression, but in a great many cases, church on the margins means church in smaller configurations. But again, the church has historically grown the fastest in this manner.
So what’s ahead for the church in the world during the next decade? I do need to come to the point of the post. I believe that over the next decade, we’ll see an increased move toward the margins for the church in western society. Any legal or societal privilege extended to Christianity must be extended to other world religions, and any such privilege that isn’t extended to major world religions will be clawed back from Christianity as well. Despite the failure of some to recognize it, the special place is already gone. The mistrust of the organized church is extended for many to be a mistrust of “organized religion” in general, once more pressing the major faith movements to the margins. If the church is to grow and thrive, it too, must go to the margins. But like the Jerusalem church in the time immediately following the ascention, we might never actually go to the places we were sent unless we were forced there by external pressures.
As we move in this direction, we will have a lot of adjusting to do in our thinking and our practice, including shifts in our theology. Of course, many find the notion of any theological shift threatening, but I submit that we dare not presume that our theology is 100% correct in every area. The church has always adjusted its theology as it has gained greaer understanding, else faced a descent into greater error. Naturally this calls for wisdom, but again we must trust in God’s abilty to lead his people.
So it is that in the decade ahead, I think the church will move incresingly toward the margins of society, but when we get there we’ll find a ripe harvest of people who have been waiting there for us for some time already. I don’t know if we’ll complete this shift in a decade, but I think we’ll be covering significant distance in that direction. Despite the hardship which many will see in what I have outlined, the close of the next decade will find the church preparing for an ingathering and staring at fields that are ready for it.
May it be so.