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BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

Today’s church struggles between modernism and postmodernism . . . between a retreating theology and a hopeless philosophy . . . between a passing past and a futureless future. And this struggle is not an abstract idea. Nor is it just one more cog in the slow turn of history. Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that this century alone will bring 20,000 years of change (at today’s rate of change).1

Typically, church leaders have decided to "manage" their way through this dilemma . . . to "design" practical strategies and tactics . . . to "improve" what they are already doing. But these modern tools won’t work. The church can’t get there from here. We can’t move with the Lord of history by merely "improving" ourselves.

We must, instead, think a new way . . . see a new reality . . . speak a new language.

Still, what’s going on today—even in so-called "postmodern" churches—could mostly be called "hypermodern," simply squeezing the last drop of blood out of modern skills and modern methods.

Fighting a Vanished Foe

The vast number of "believers" outside the church attests to another major disconnect between the church and present history. Though these believers explode from a long-awaited spirituality, it’s a spirituality that differs from any religion we’ve known before.

While the church dogmatically digs in, this new spirituality moves beyond the old split between faith and life. While the church "manages" the residue of the mystery, unchurched seekers move beyond "officially" mediated experiences. And, while a "sacred" church continues its fight with a "secular" world, a new "lived theology" replaces both the secular and the sacred:

I can’t for the life of me fathom why so many Christian leaders are still setting their armies against secular humanism, a foe that has vanished from the field. No one is secular anymore; everyone believes in God or gods or Spirit or spirits or ‘the sacred’ or ‘the divine’.2

Obviously, these "spirits" are untraditional—even deviant! Still, they represent serious spiritualities . . . "unmediated" experiences . . . "heightened states of private feeling."3 Deviant or not, this hunger for the mystery is often more intuitive, yet more intense . . . more subtle, yet more summoning . . . more supersensible, yet more sensory. The alarming chasm between this new spirituality and an old, "official" religion may prove the church’s greatest challenge.

Have we mistaken our enemy? Have we mistaken the command to be "set apart"—to be in the world but not of the world? Or should we remember our call to be "living sacrifices,"4 making all things sacred, not just some things? Should we, perhaps, follow the black church where sacred style and popular culture form almost a continuum?

The old notion of a split between sacred and secular ignores the fact that the significance of life has always been spiritual though not necessarily "religious." Whenever and wherever the "Word becomes flesh," something turns the familiar into fire and fire into the familiar. Indeed, can we ever say anything is neutral?

(We find) God’s presence and action where we least expect it, catching us when we are up to our elbows in the soiled ordinariness of our lives and God is the furthest thing from our minds.5

Born of Spirit

Grace is neither abstract, impersonal, nor externally objective. While old theologies traveled from doctrine to decision, a new theology journeys from personal encounters to faith. While old beliefs reasoned from head to heart, a new belief moves from heart to head. While abstract "spirits" survived as good "ideas," a new spirit thrives autonomous and unmediated by ideas.

Can we say this is wrong? After all, the gospel of John insists whatever is born of the Spirit is Spirit.6 And this Spirit is more than an idea near or present to us. It is, instead, a miraculous reality present in us and in all things. This means wonder and sacred power are found not in another place, but in this place . . . not in another moment, but in this moment.

After all, God doesn’t speak to us when it’s convenient.

So is the church the sole source of Truth? No. Are the artifacts and symbols we’ve constructed the only mediators to His Presence? No. All Truth is God’s Truth . . . wherever it’s found. It shouldn’t surprise us that unchurched believers want the church that you have when you’re not having church?

We must recall, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."7 This fact forever affirms the truth that spiritual reality may be known through earthly form. We must also remember that the Hebrew God always remains active in history, revealed in history. Whatever form this revelation assumes, it should not be scorned.

Yes, the future requires being fully Christian, and a new, out-of-church spirituality certainly requires scriptural integrity. But the future also requires breaking the boundaries of what we familiarly call Christian.

The kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed or with visible display, Nor will people say, Look! Here [it is]! or, See, [it is] there!8 For behold, the kingdom of God is within you [in your hearts] and among you [surrounding you].9

Real Science Fiction

The church suffers another major disconnect with the massive shift in technology. Changes more profound than the Industrial Revolution, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons—all rolled into one—will certainly "freak us out." Today’s computers already explore global networks, endless data, and virtual realities unheard of before. But these breakthroughs reveal only the tip of the iceberg.

First, the computer will certainly exceed the human mind. Biotechnology will undoubtedly clone humans, manipulate genes, and extend life. Nanotechnology will surely invent new matter at the molecular level. And robotics will soon birthe sentient robots flaunting "feelings," "emotions," and "consciousness."10

These discoveries are alarming enough. But they are nothing compared to their most frightening feature: All of these technologies are "autocatalytic," that is, they are self-accelerating and self-replicating. They can’t be stopped! In other words, "We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no brakes."11

If it weren’t so real, we would call it science fiction.

The world, of course, will be totally changed—for better or worse. Disease could be wiped out, life extended, even destructive personalities changed. New products could "be manufactured at a cost close to zero."12 And, the machine could be our most trusted adviser and closest friend.

Yet, the ethical, moral, and spiritual risks are enormous.

These epochal shifts will force the church to reexamine our most deeply held beliefs. They will cut to the core of what it means to be human, let alone Christian. In short, the decisions demanded in this age will put the church on a collision course with the world and its leaders.

At the same time, the very structure of "knowing" will also change—not only "what" we know, but "how" we know. Church leaders and theologians will be called upon to rethink "thinking" . . . to prove a new proof of Truth.

Is the church ready?

It’s hard enough to just keep head above water when it comes to information these days. How do we spiritually process this constant stream of information and change? (Anonymous clergy comment)

A New Kind of Conversion?

These changes in spirituality and technology, alone, would be enough to drown most church leaders. Regrettably, church leaders also carry the burden of their institutions. "All institutions are inherently degenerative" says sociologist Robert Merton, and today’s sharp suspicion of church authority tends to confirm his claim.13 Indeed, institutions and godliness often oppose each other. At times, the evil in an institution seems greater than the sum of the evil in persons within the institution.

It’s no surprise, then, the church unwittingly creates labels that the world, in turn, uses to silence those who wear those labels.

Other burdens include trying to reconcile two separate congregations—the youth and everyone else. Churches have yet to discover how to make both groups dance the same music. So they either ignore the youth or obsessively chase youthful trends. Turning youthful style, however, into a religion repeats the same mistake the Boomers made. Remember, being different doesn’t automatically manifest God’s presence.

After all, the latest fads can become overnight clichés.

Still, today’s dilemma drives many churches to endless experiment, resulting in a deluge of "alternative" churches. The one-model-fits-all church no longer exists. And, like the Internet, believers "surf" from one church to the next—from "celebratory" churches to "satellite" churches, from "liturgical" churches to "life-related" churches, from "house" churches to "histrionic" churches. . . .

No matter the style, bigger is getting bigger and smaller is getting smaller. Some varieties for the right reasons, some for the wrong reasons.

And, finally, most mainline churches have ceased fighting charismatic worship. Why? Churches that worship like our elders are disappearing! Yet, within this new celebratory worship, the same old routine has returned—even in charismatic churches.

Three models of "doing church," though, are thriving: (1) Large regional churches (pooling economic power), (2) Boutique-type groups (catering to a particular clientele), and (3) Franchises (selling similar products).14 Note the obvious parallels with marketing. And, no doubt, seminaries will soon add classes in marketing! Yet, faith was never the fruit of profit . . . and never will be.

Nor is faith quantifiable . . . like counting "heads" in a herd of cattle.

With all the ambiguity and confusion of these experiments, the church is still "looking for a new story to live out of."15 The "apocalyptic factor" in the "9/11" tragedy brought a bump upwards in church attendance, yet even that hope has returned to where it was before.

Is the world less inclined toward fear-induced salvation? Has the old propositional truth lost its allure? Perhaps, postmodern believers simply want a sense of wonder restored. Maybe they are asking for a new kind of altar call. If we can say "conversion" or being "born again" includes a changed relation within a different existence, then maybe we are talking about the conversion or rebirth of civilization itself.

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How do we get there from here? How do we get to where the Lord of History is going? Continue reading in FutureChurch.net—it’s an exciting journey.

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt

ENDNOTES

1. Ray Kurzweil, "Accelerated Living," PC Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 15, September 4, 2001, pp. 151-153, http://www.pcmag.com/article/0,2997,s%253D1754%2526a%253D10163,00.asp.

2. Eric Standford http://www.next-wave.org/feb00/Ministry_to_rehumans.htm

3. Mary C. Grey, Prophecy and Mysticism: The Heart of the Postmodern Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997) p 44.

4. Romans 12:1.

5. Eugene H. Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1995) p. 9 (my parentheses).

6. John 3:6.

7. John 1:14, New American Bible.

8. Luke 17:20, EXP; Luke 17:21, AMP.

9. Luke 17:20, 21; AMP.

10. PC Magazine, September 4, 2001, p. 142, 144, 146, 148.

11. Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, Wired Magazine, April, 2000, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html

12. PC Magazine, September 4, 2001, p. 142, 144, 146, 148.

13. Rowland Croucher, "Essence of Christianity," John Marks Ministry, http://bit.ly/bF7Gj9 

14. Rowland Croucher, in an email.

15. An anonymous clergy comment.



Future Church Administrator