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WILL WE EVEN CALL IT "CHURCH"?

How much can we take? Changes in today’s church are happening so frequently, so profoundly, that we can’t tell for certain where we’re going. In fact, if we finally get there, will we even call it "church"?

We’re heading headlong into an "Essential Strangeness," and this very real reality defines what I call the "Singularity Church." In recent posts, I’ve described many of the forces that are shaking the traditional church. And today, we continue with another "Christendom earthquake."

First, however, a brief summary of the forces we’ve described in previous articles:

Today, "The Word" remains "The Word," but the "proofs" of old dogmas are fading—the apologetics of old "experts" are failing—and the arguments of old beliefs are falling.

The future no longer belongs entirely to cold and calculating brains—those who know only "sequence," "literalness," and "analysis." It belongs, increasingly, to creativity, artistry, and empathy—metaphor, meaning, and emotion—pattern, synthesis, and the big picture.

Believers are no longer limited to the "integrity of the mind." They also seek an "integrity of the spirit" where "felt-knowing" is discovered rather than mediated, received rather than instructed, and interpreted rather than taught.

In other words, we are no longer "thinking," in the old sense of the word. We are projecting a new world.

EXAMPLES:

"Spiritual" leaders are welcoming a Sovereign Spirit in their "spirit-filled" spirits. What was once a subculture has now become mainstream.

We are seeing the end of "religiosity" and the beginning of a new "spirituality"—a sudden shift toward personal meaning and unmapped mysticism.

We even see these changes in the "magic" of technology and the "miracles"of modern physics. Science and the supernatural, it seems, are increasingly in cahoots.

This new way of "thinking" also demands new spiritual leadership—not simply "certified" or self-appointed. Without such leadership, we risk the reemergence of a pagan world and the threat of a demonic demography.

The church can no longer solve its problems by simply "improving" itself. History demands a far more profound metamorphosis.

Again, the above forces are shaking today’s church. And now, we continue with another "Christendom earthquake":

An Unsubtle Story

After seventeen hundred years of "Christendom," the very structure of the church is also changing—its anatomy of power, pastors, and programs. And this cataclysmic shift proves yet another sobering reality of the "singularity church."

Seemingly "in-our-face," the Lord of History has moved beyond history. Right before our eyes, the Lord of the Church (big "C") has moved beyond the church (small "c"). This unsubtle story confirms a "complete shift away from Christendom thinking,"1 and it’s being written with indelible ink.

Yet, strangely enough, we still can’t tell the difference between "Christendom" and "Christianity." Christendom, after all, was born of political necessity—Christianity was born of spiritual necessity. Christendom gave birth to the institutional church—Christianity gave birth to the Eternal Church. Christendom is the authorized heir of the Kingdom of Man—Christianity is the only heir of the Kingdom of God.

We’re fooling ourselves if we think the time-bound church can "borrow" its legitimacy from the timeless Church. We’re missing it if we believe spiritual tourists in a future age can be fooled with the faddish veneer of the present age. We’re mistaken if we trust doing the same old mission in the same old way, but simply doing it slicker, faster, fleshier. . . .

. . . for the dark earth never did own its own "Light."

The "Baby of Rome"

Let’s admit it. Our cherished church is more the "baby of Rome" than the "baby of Bethlehem." For Christianity was "born again"—after 325 years—as the "official" religion of the Roman Empire. And, in this epic event, the pagan world and endless bureaucracies joined forces with the "Kingdom of God."

Thank goodness for an end to persecution, but was this deal done in Heaven?

Suddenly Roman leadership usurped Christian leadership. (Actually, the Romans stole their leadership model from the Babylonians and Egyptians, then brought it to their own "perfection.") This model was hierarchical—a top-down, descending order of authority. It was driven by position and power—polities of alliances, liaisons, and influences.

People of power, in fact, entered the priesthood to get more power.

The church, in other words, became a vast "command-and-control" Empire. So it’s no surprise that "religious manipulation and coercion" turned into a "long and tedious" story.2 And it’s no surprise the church became a "closed system," with lockstep programs, fixed agendas, and authorized leaders.

Rigid and inflexible—obsessed with the status quo—addicted to preventive maintenance. . . . All these traits, of course, meant zero tolerance for any mistake, bottlenecked responses to the real world, and great emphasis on what was "not allowed."

Pride was rampant, yet—paradoxically—laced also with fear. Those in power feared anything new, alien, or transformative. And those fears included anything improvised, spontaneous, or "spirit-led." Creative "self-starters," for example, were brutally excluded.

It was a world of cautious stakeholders and personal survival—a prideful and fearful Empire.

Of course, none of these characteristics had anything to do with Christianity. After all, something "official" is not necessarily "spiritual." Being led by a governing body is not the same as being led by the Spirit. And "uploading" earth to heaven is not the same as "downloading" heaven to earth. . . .

. . . for legalism is not love, and control is not grace.

Amazingly, the "firstborn" church had already made these decisions! Yet, the Christendom virus was passed on and on and on. . . . And today’s church, in its many forms, continues endless epidemics of the same old infections.

We’ve suffered much from these maladies.

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men hold them in subjection [tyrannizing over them]. Not so shall it be among you.3

Illusory "Kingdoms"

Yet, it was so. And it is so—but for only a while.

I honor the sincerity of all believers. Indeed, I admire them. Nevertheless, most churches resemble little "kingdoms." And some churches look like gathered ghettos where members worship their "sacred cows" at the expense of everything else.

But such gatherings are illusory. They are alternative realities, existing apart from the real world. They are private estates, restricting the time and place of all things "religious." They are personal properties, fencing in our "sacred pews, sacred practice, sacred personalities, sacred privileges. . . ."

These "kingdoms," in other words, have become their believer’s "first love." And these lovers, in turn, have become the "keepers of the ‘kingdom’." Their church is their only "community," their "community" is their only "kingdom," and their "kingdom" is their only "calling."

Here, the "body of Christ" is a "good-old-boy club," though we prefer to call it a "family" church. We forget, though, that Jesus restricts His "family" to those who follow Him—especially those "nobodies" who follow from the fringes of society.

There are few "fringes" in these clubs, however. For these are churches "of the right people, by the right people, and for the right people." And when control is handed down from one ego to several egos, it becomes a "democratic" church. Then, of course, Robert’s Rules of Order supersedes Scriptural rules for the "Other." Procedural correctness replaces pastoral callings. And a "spirit of control" substitutes for the Spirit of Christ.

Of course, representative democracy is found nowhere in Scripture. It’s great for nations, but awful for churches.

The longer a church is in decline or plateau, the more it magnetically attracts both dysfunctional members and dysfunctional clergy. Guess what happens when they take a vote!4

"Y’all Come See Us"

Any church, then, that operates in its own "Universe" must depend on its own gravity. It must "attract" people. It must pull people in and never let them go. It must become the essential resource, the ultimate supplier, the only franchise in its local market. And, it must persuade that market with an attractive "product."

So "attractional" churches are preoccupied with attracting people, then "selling" them on staying once they get them there. Slick presentations and entertainment media become the primary strategies. Worship, for example, usually resembles watching television without the remote. Or, it resembles today’s "theme" restaurants where they no longer sell food—they sell "experience" instead.

Then, too often, the "promotion" of the ministry replaces the ministry. And the visible program takes the place of the invisible Mystery.

Obviously, "attractional" churches invest more in programs than people. And, when necessary, they sacrifice people on behalf of their "first love." "Put your dreams on hold," they say, "and come support our cause." After all, "We are your ministry." "Missions R Us."

What a tragedy! Someone’s calling is removed from the "outside" and forced "inside." Someone’s uniqueness is given a number in someone else’s program. And, someone’s fervor dies imprisoned in someone else’s narrow agenda.

These churches create the illusion of mission. For any outside mission is mostly an abstract "idea." And, if these "attractional" churches do reach out, it’s for people "like them." So one of the great lies of our time is the notion that these little in-grown "kingdoms" are just what the Lord wants. Our term "outreach," for example, reveals the stark truth—"mission" is something other than what we’re doing now.

Cyberspace and Loving Grace

It is little wonder that people who have only known religion on such terms experience release or escape from it as freedom.5

The world is refusing the decaying flowers of Christendom. Church attendance, for example, is declining rapidly. "Today, 70% of Christians attend traditional churches, but this will sink to 30--35% in 20 years."6

In the meantime, an increasingly alienated public has no interest in "turned-in" churches—navel-gazing ghettos that pridefully celebrate and obsessively protect their tradition, their "family," their race, their culture, their style, their God. . . . And, an increasingly unfettered faithful are turned off by the hierarchical and bureaucratic "religious" types who betray endless corruptions of misused "spiritual power."

Secular society is embarrassed, as well, by a God who supposedly never shows up in the "real" world—a Divinity restricted to certain times, certain places, certain buildings, certain people. . . . And those who’ve already left the church—yet still love God "unofficially"—are sorrowed by the patronizing way anonymous congregations are "kept in their place" and forged into a silent consensus for self-serving ministries.

And we wonder why today’s church is ineffective?

This universal disenchantment is further empowered by the digital age which rapidly decentralizes society. The World Wide Web, for example, provides resources that can upset myopic institutions and reapportion power on a massive scale. This means believers can now bypass the church and join far-reaching communities in search of fresh ideas for serving the Lord.

With clear-eyed honesty, Cyberspace and loving grace have joined forces that are challenging the church at the deepest levels.

Reaching Out

So it’s no surprise that a new "Body of Christ" quickly emerges in this epic moment. Yet, this "Body" is not an organization, it’s an organism. It’s not an institution, it’s a living system. It’s not a structure, it’s a spontaneous response to the hastening of history.

This new Voice goes unnoticed, though, for it’s a minority group, an underground movement, a countercultural grievance. When religious leaders finally see what’s happening, they’ll call it "scandalous." But when they call it scandalous, they’ll risk becoming the very scandal Jesus criticized.

Noticed or not, these new believers are quietly taking over. They form the fastest growing Christian movement and will, undoubtedly, form the strongest prevailing Christian convictions in a few short years.

They are the "gentiles" of our time. They are spiritually yearning, open to authenticity, willing to risk, and creative in chaos. They share a repentant rationality, a chastened logic, and a refreshing humility for how-we-know-what-we-know. Yet, they also embrace with "faithful uncertainty" a functioning, credible, and transcendent Universal Story.

Their leaders—certified only by spirit-led lives—focus out, reach out, and go out. In other words, they’ve left those who only "turn-in," "come-in," and "stay-in." Then, like the early Apostles, they form far-reaching, spiritual "networks," bubbling cauldrons of external missions that coalesce around creative, interactive, and supportive partnerships.

Yet, tied only to the urgency of the mission, these partnerships are voluntary, fluid, and constantly shifting. For they cross forbidden borders, restricted areas, previously excluded paths. They break the boundaries between religious and nonreligious, pious and profane, clergy and laity, "us" and "them."

This means they reach anyone, anywhere, anytime, and anyway. It also means they reach "different" people, in "different" places, at "different" times, and in "different" ways. These partnerships are concerned for all of God’s will to be done in all of God’s world—a heart for one "Big Kingdom" in place of endless "tiny kingdoms."

Obviously, this new "body of Christ" is shifting from programs to people, from ministries to missions, from anonymous congregations to individual callings. For it focuses mostly on mentoring and empowering new leaders through multiple stages of growth. It finds strength in the diversity within its unity and hope in the creativity within its diversity.

It has no interest in building buildings or growing congregations. For it knows the illusions of "size." "We don’t need economies of scale like . . . (in) the past."7 After all, there is no correlation between size and faithful missions. There is no connection between large resources and authentic leaders.

In fact, the only way a church can get "bigger" is by getting "smaller."

<<<>>>

Even those of us who love the word "church" must admit that the current meanings and manifestations of the term create impossible burdens—especially when the Lord of History is moving faster than we can move and more profoundly than we can comprehend.

So if we finally get to where He is going, will we even call it "church"?

I don’t know.

Thank God, Jesus is still respected . . . still has the answers.

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt

ENDNOTES

1. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003) p. 12.

2. Eugene Peterson, The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2003) p. 2109.

3. Matthew 20:25, 26; AMP.

4. Tom Bandy, in an email from www.EasumBandy.com

5. Peterson, p. 2109.

6. George Barna, quoted in the Internet newsletter, Friday Fax, 2005/35 (the comment comes from Barna’s book, Revolution).

7. Esther Dyson, author of Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, from an interview with David Gergen on the PBS News Hour.



Future Church Administrator