The Collapse of the Church Culture
by Reggie McNeal
We are entering a new epoch of human history called the postmodern age. The postmodern world will demand a new church expression, just as did the rise of the modern world.
The modern world assaulted God, shoving him further and further into the corner with its determination to drain all the mystery out of life and the universe. Everything that could be explained scientifically further diminished the realm of the spiritual.
Having retreated into a diminishing corner for several hundreds of years, the North American church culture unfortunately now reflects the materialism and secularism of the modern era. Not only do we not need God to explain the universe, we don’t need God to operate the church. Many operate like giant machines, with church leaders serving as mechanics. God doesn’t have to show up to get done what’s being done. The culture does not want the powerless God of the modern church.
We need to take courage. Though secularism and nihilism have taken their best shot to kill God, they have lost. The postmodern world, governed by quantum physics and it’s emphasis on relationships, is God’s end run round the modern world. A quantum world stands ready to accept divine design and divine interaction. God himself is stirring the pot. If we can pay attention we will eventually discover that not only will we not lose God in this emerging postmodern world, we will find him again!
Although the next church’s shape is not yet obvious, the forces that will give it shape are. They are futures that are already present. The first of these present futures is shocking and dramatic, because it declares that much of what we call church is not going to survive.
Wrong Question: How Do We Do Church Better?
Faced with diminishing returns on investment of money, time, and energy, church leaders have spent much of the last five decades trying to figure out how to do church better. Emphases have come and gone in rapid succession. Church and lay renewal has given way to church growth, which has given way to church health. The results beg the question.
An entire industry has been spawned to help churches do whatever it is they decide to do. Consultants, parachurch ministries, denominational headquarters, and publishing houses prod and push the church toward whatever the current fad is. A spate of program fixes have consistently over promised and under delivered. The suggestions are plentiful: offer small groups, contemporize your worship, market your services, focus on the customer service, create a spiritual experience, become seeker-friendly, create a high-expectation member culture, purify the church from bad doctrine, return the church to the basics. After decades of this kind of environment no wonder church leaders are a little skeptical about the “next thing” and why many feel that just about the time they catch up they fall further behind. But the mailings keep coming, the seminars keep filling up, and the conference notebooks keep stacking up on the shelves.
All of this activity anesthetizes the pain of loss. It offers a way to stay busy and preoccupied with methodological pursuits while not facing the hard truth: none of this seems to be making much of a difference. Church activity is a poor substitute for genuine spiritual vitality.
Many congregations and church leaders, faced with collapse of the church culture, have responded by adopting a refuge mentality. Those with a refuge mentality view the world outside the church as the enemy. Their answer is to live inside the bubble of a Christian subculture complete with its own entertainment industry. Evangelism in this worldview is about churching the unchurched, not connecting people to Jesus. It focuses on cleaning people up, changing their behavior so Christians, (translation: church people), can be more comfortable around them.
The point is, all the effort to fix the church misses the point. You can build the perfect church-and they still won’t come. People are not looking for a great church. They do not wake up every day wondering what church they can make successful. The age in which institutional religion holds appeal is passing away-and in a hurry.
Church leaders seem unable to grasp this simple implication of the new world-people outside the church think church is for church people, not for them. We may have saturated the market of people who want to be part of the church culture, who want church the way we do it in North America.
Tough Question: How do we Deconvert from Churchianity to Christianity?
North American Christians think in terms of its institutional expression, the church, as opposed to thinking about Christianity in terms of a movement. Deconversion will require a disentangling, an intentional self-differentiation from church in order to gain perspective, a willingness to abandon church club member mentality for the sake of following Jesus.
In North America the invitation to become a Christian has become largely an invitation to convert to the church. The assumption is that anyone serious about being a Christian will order their lives around the church, shift their life and work rhythms around the church schedule, channel their charitable giving through the church, and serve in some church ministry; in other words, serve the church and become a fervent marketer to bring others in to the church to do the same.
Many church leaders confuse the downward statistics on church participation with a loss of spiritual interest in Americans. That’s because these leaders can’t think of Christianity outside of institutional terms. The truth is, although intrigue with institutional religion is down, interest in spirituality is up. Many have observed that there is a spiritual awakening occurring in America. However, it is not informed by the Christian theology, and it’s not happening in the church.
People may be turned off to the church, but they are not turned off to Jesus. Jesus is popular. He still makes the cover of Time and Newsweek every year. Church people sometimes get excited by this, but fail to understand that people in the nonchurch culture don’t associate Jesus with the church.
The pursuit of the wrong question will continue to turn the wheel of the church industry, but it will do little to expand the kingdom of God. The need of the North American church is not a methodological fix. It is much more profound. The church needs a mission fix.
The North American church is suffering from severe mission amnesia. It has forgotten why it exists. The church was created to be the people of God to join him in his redemptive mission in the world. The church was never intended to exist for itself. It was and is the chosen instrument of God to expand his kingdom. The church is the bride of Christ. Its union with him is designed for reproduction, the growth of the kingdom. Jesus does not teach his disciples to pray, “Thy Church come”. The kingdom is the destination. In its institutional preoccupation the church has abandoned its real identity and reason for existence.
God did not give up on his mission in the Old Testament when Israel refused to partner with him. God is a reckless lover. He decided to go on the mission himself. We do not need to be mistaken about this: if the church refuses its missional assignment, God will do it another way. The church has, and he is. God is pulling end runs around the institutional North American church to get to people in the streets. God is still inviting us to join him on mission, but it is the invitation to be part of a movement, not a religious club.
The Beginning of a Movement
When Jesus came on the scene he entered a world very similar to our own in terms of its spiritual landscape. The collapse of institutional religion in the first century was accompanied by an upsurge in personal spiritual search for God and salvation. Jesus tapped into this widespread sentiment of disillusionment with religion but hunger for God with his teaching about the kingdom of God and how people could become a part of it. His emphasis was on universal accessibility as opposed to the exclusivity of the Pharisees. His teaching was a radical departure from the legalistic behavioral approach of Judaism. He taught and practiced grace in terms of how God deals with people. At the same time he elevated standards for personal behavior by looking past mere externals to internal heart motivations. He preached that God was for people, not against them.
The movement Jesus initiated had power because it had at its core a personal life-transforming experience. People undergoing this conversion could not keep quiet about it. They had discovered meaning for their life and wanted other people to experience the same thing. This is the dynamic of genuine Christianity. This is what turned the world upside down at the beginning of the Christian era. The time is ripe again for recapturing this initial appeal of the gospel.
The current spiritual awakening in North America lacks Christian content and file systems. This is the scary part of it. Left to their own imagination people will devise all sorts of crazy stuff about God, from New Age crystals to self-enlightenment. But this is also the opportunity of the current spiritual landscape. People are open to revealed truth of God if they can get it. Unfortunately, the North American church has lost its influence at this critical juncture. It has lost its influence because it has lost its identity. It has lost its identity because it has lost is mission.
The correct response, then, to the collapse of the church culture is not to try to become better at doing church. The need is not for a methodological fix. The need is for a missional fix.
The appropriate response to the emerging world is a rebooting of the mission, a radical obedience to an ancient command, a loss of self rather than self preoccupation, concern about service and sacrifice rather than concern about style.
The collapse of the church culture is God’s gracious invitation to the church to rediscover itself. It will do this by dying to itself and coming alive to God’s mission.
(Excerpts from The Present Future © 2003 by Reggie McNeal. Published by John Wiley & Sons Inc.; 111 River Street; Hoboken, NJ 07030. Used with permission.)
REGGIE MCNEAL is the Director of Leadership Development for South Carolina Baptist Convention. Drawing on twenty years of leadership roles in local congregations, and his work over the last decade with thousands of church leaders, McNeal counsels local churches, denominational groups, seminaries and colleges, and parachurch organizations in their leadership-development needs. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina with his wife and two daughters.
So, What Does Renewal Look Like?
by Paul Anderson
I was recently on a retreat with a group of pastors in Montana. One of them, who knew nothing about Lutheran Renewal, asked me, “What is renewal?” I’ll give you the expanded form of what I gave him. The three ingredients I offered are non-negotiable issues, without which renewal cannot, and will not, happen. Other aspects are certainly a part of spiritual renewal (and will follow in a subsequent article on practical steps to transforming a church), but these three are central. A week before, a pastor from Arizona, in responding to my article on Why Renewal Doesn’t Happen, wondered what a “renewed congregation” looked like. Addressing the first question should answer the second, but that next article will paint the picture more clearly.
The Lordship of Christ
On Pentecost, Peter did not preach his experience; he preached the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The purpose of Pentecost is to personalize the life of the crucified, risen, and exalted Christ. Pentecost and Passion are one inseparable whole. Renewal is as much a Jesus movement as a Holy Spirit movement. This may sound too obvious to state, but, in fact, the Lordship of Christ is often ignored. If Jesus is Lord, there’s only one vote. The purpose of a church council or board is to find out what the King wants, not to see what we’re going to try next to prop up our young adult ministry. Opinions don’t matter in a monarchy, because only one opinion counts. Churches that take this reality seriously are on the way to renewal. When Terry Fullam, an Episcopal priest, introduced this principle to the leaders of his church in Darien, Connecticut, it transformed first the leadership, then the whole church. This outlook trumps good ideas, the latest fad, and the best programs. The Lord may lead us to a program, but the bottom line is the Lord, not a new program. To say that Jesus is Lord is to give up control. The pastor doesn’t have the final word, and neither does the church council-Jesus does. That means that no one pushes an “agenda” at the board meetings. They may come with concerns or even convictions. But they are confident that through prayer and sharing together, they will come into the Lord’s will. They go beyond the question, “What would Jesus do?” to “What is Jesus doing?” They believe that the living Lord has an opinion about the building program, the Sunday school class, and the young adult ministry. And no one can truly say that Jesus is Lord apart from the activity of the Spirit. We must be convinced that if the Lord has His program for us, we can hear Him, individually as well as corporately. That means that we put ourselves in a stance of receiving before doing, praying before planning, asking God before asking people, and waiting before working. It’s not always easy to hear from God, but people (and boards and congregations) who make it a priority testify that there is no alternative to being guided by the Spirit of God, regardless of the governmental system in place.
- Can we say that the truth of Christ’s Lordship is operating in our church?
- Does it find expression in our council and congregational meetings? Is our church council willing to let Jesus be Lord in practical ways, like stopping a meeting and listening for His will?
- What would need to change for us to be more under the Lordship of Christ?
- Why is the Lordship of Christ often resisted in churches?
- How are decisions made in our congregation? Is Jesus consulted?
The Authority of Scripture
I sometimes hear people ask, “Is this Lutheran?” A better question would be, “Is it Biblical?” Like a pastor friend of mine said to his bishop, “If it’s in the Bible, we want it.” The reason renewal-minded people affirm the gifts of the Spirit is that the Word of God affirms them. The reason we pray for the sick is that the Bible encourages us to do so. We do it more out of obedience than out of a desire to see people healed. My batting average in praying for healing is not good, and that creates a discrepancy. The Word of God is clear that God is a healing God, that Jesus is a healing Savior, and that the Church is called to be a healing community. But it doesn’t usually work. So how do we deal with the disconnect between what we experience and what the Scriptures teach? One option is to pull the Word of God down to the level of our experience. Frankly, I would rather tamper with electricity. The other option is to continue praying for the sick and to believe that our experience will slowly rise to meet the level of God’s Word.
Those who say, “He’s into a deliverance ministry,” in a tone that is hardly complimentary might want to check the Gospel record again and see how prominent this ministry was in the life of Jesus. Renewal-minded people take deliverance or healing or the guidance of the Spirit seriously for one reason-Scripture does. The Word of God settles all issues. It is the norm for our theology as well as our experience. We don’t have one set of beliefs and another set of behaviors. Our conduct flows out of our creed. Because Jesus is Lord and the Scriptures are authoritative, we say like the young Chinese
Christian, “I am now believing the Bible and behaving it.” When we pray for people to be filled with the Spirit as they did in the book of Acts, we also invite them to speak in tongues, not because we are into a “tongues movement,” but because that is what happened when the Apostles laid hands on people and because the Scriptures encourage it. And the Giver only gives good gifts.
Truth is truth, not because I discover it to be so, but because God establishes it and the Scriptures attest to it. It is not up for grabs, nor is it complicated, like a sexuality study requiring years of discussion and input from the experts in the social sciences. Truth is truth in every culture and for every age. It is not to be debated but to be recognized and received.
- Are there any areas in our church where we are more shaped by tradition than by
the Word of God?
- To what degree do our congregation’s values conform to Scripture?
- If it is in the Scriptures, is that convincing enough for us?
- Are we sufficiently humble to let the Word of God prove us wrong-when we are?
The Empowering Presence of the Spirit
Renewal changes everything. It is not an add-on to what we are already doing in the church. The Spirit is God’s answer to the Church’s need for God’s presence and power. Spiritual gifts are central to the life of the church because it is through them that the ministry of Christ is made visible in the world. A church can have some signs of renewal-inspiring worship, an active small groups ministry, and a sense of joy-but if the leadership is not radically dependent upon the Lord who is the Spirit, it is not a renewed congregation. We cannot reduce renewal to certain activities, only to the activity of the Spirit Himself. Dry bones don’t live by activities, only by the wind of the Spirit blowing upon them. Activities can help to prepare the way for a visitation, but they are not the same as God’s presence. We prepare the way by pulling down the mountains and raising up the valleys, but how and when the Spirit comes is a divine work, not a human one. Renewal is not a formula, like “Five easy steps to a transformed church.” Earth cannot dictate to heaven. Renewal, ultimately, is “not by might nor by power (and we could add “nor by ingenuity or by administration or by staffing”) but by my Spirit,” says the Lord.
- Is the Holy Spirit welcome at our church?
- What would change if we were radically dependent upon the Spirit?
- Why are some churches afraid of the Spirit? Are we?
- How does walking by the Spirit militate against the fleshly wisdom often relied upon with church boards? Are the leaders of our church people of the Spirit who are able to hear and receive the guidance of the Spirit.
- Is there any dissonance between what we say about the Word or the Spirit and what we actually practice?
These three principles – the Lordship of Christ, the Authority of Scripture, and the Empowering Presence of the Spirit – are essential. They cannot be sidestepped and still call the congregation a renewed church. A council or board that does not recognize the Lordship of Christ is in a place of serious resistance, not reception. Nor is a congregation a renewed church if it does not listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Renewal is not about any program, activity, or style. Jesus did not teach the disciples to be men of technique but men of the Spirit. The bottom line is the work of the Spirit under the Lordship of Christ to which we joyfully surrender. A charismatic church that has a message in tongues and two prophesies every Sunday may be farther from renewal than a rural church that looks far more traditional but has the sweet presence of the Spirit. That Pentecostal church may need to temporarily shelve the gifts and to focus on a new identity as a people loved by the Father. They may need to back off from doing to discover that receiving is closer to the heart of God. One of the greatest hindrances to spiritual renewal is religion, thinking that “we have it,” that we can do it, that we know (the sin of presumption). The Pharisees who said to the revivalist John, “We have Abraham as our father,” were as far as they could be from spiritual renewal. They thought that they were doing so well and, in fact, were paralyzed in their dead religious routines. And by contrast, that rural church may need to simply pray, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and be open to whatever the Spirit of grace does in coming.
Paul Anderson is the Director of Lutheran Renewal, founder of The Master’s Institute, and founder of The Alliance of Renewal Churches.