Sunday, March 08, 2009

Reflecting (on) What’s Wrong

(Part two of an ongoing series. Starts below this post).

1. Generational Issues

The Church Targets the Baby Boomers:

I quickly latched on to what I thought was “the problem” with the church. It was the early 1990s and much was being written and taught about church growth and church planting, specifically targeting the baby boomer generation. Willow Creek Community Church and Saddleback Church were the icons of this phenomenon. As I studied the success of these ministry models and the numerous attempts to copy that success, I became fascinated with the attempts to target and reach a new generation, the baby boomers. I read all I could about it. I attended conferences and seminars. I was ready to buy into the emerging model except for one glaring problem: all of this was targeting the generation before mine – my parents’ generation. I still felt a longing to see the church understand the needs of my high school friends – the so called “Generation X” or “Baby Busters” – those of us born after 1964.

On the one hand, I was excited and fascinated to see the church finally understanding and reaching out to the baby boomers instead of the generation before. On the other hand, I was frustrated to the core that my own generation still was being ignored.

That's Not Who I Am -- And I'm Not Alone:

The church had in my mind a huge “generational” problem. For awhile, I thought that was the primary problem with the church. In the early 1990s, I stumbled upon a meeting of 200 other people, from across denominational lines, who shared my burden to see the next generation (whatever they may be labeled) be targeted and reached by the church. The 200 of us had gathered for a few days in Colorado Springs to discuss the church planting for “our” generation. I left feeling a sense of purpose and mission. I felt as though I had discovered what was wrong with the church – namely that it did not understand my generation – and I intended to spend the rest of my life addressing the problem. I was committed to planting churches to reach my generation – to figure out what such a church should look like, to plant one, and to help others do the same.

2. Cultural Issues

Only later would I realize that the generational problem was only one twist along the winding road of discovering what was wrong with the church. By that time I had moved to Las Vegas to join a group of my seminary friends who were planting a “GenX” church in the late 1990s. I already realized, though, that generational issues were only one small piece to a larger puzzle. The road had other twists and turns. By the time I started to live out my convictions about solving the church’s generational problems, I had already become fixated on another leg of the journey, another piece of the puzzle, another aspect of the problem of what was wrong with the church.

A Detour Through the Big Apple:

And it came about because of a detour my life took through New York. For five years after seminary and before moving to Las Vegas, I was part of new church planting efforts in and around New York City. It was quite an experience for this Midwestern native. My eyes were opened to new realities. For the first time in my life, I was living in a postmodern / post-Christian culture. Everybody around me was not a white anglo-saxon protestant. I lived and worked in the midst of people from a variety of ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds. It did not take long for me to realize that this was a different culture from the one I grew up in.

The model of ministry I knew from back in the heartland made no sense there. In fact, I had to think of myself more like a missionary to a “foreign” culture than like a pastor in a Christian culture. I was saturated in the culture shift that was coming upon all of North America because I was living right on the cutting edge of it.

Reading About It While Living In It:

Coincidentally, perhaps, I began reading lots of books about the North American culture shift. Looking through the lenses of authors such as Newbigin, Hauweraus, Willard, Bosch, Vanier, and others, I began to understand the interaction between gospel, culture, and church. As I studied theory from those great theologians, I experienced what they were writing about in my daily life. As the pages described the postmodern reality, my neighbors provided living illustrations of the theory I was reading about.

The change we were experiencing in North American culture wasn’t just the typical changes that happen with every new generation. Instead, radical changes were taking place that question the very core of how people see life. Relativism was replacing belief in absolute truth. People were coming to understand life more based on what they experienced instead of by investigating evidence and trying to prove the truth of what they believed. People were learning to able to deal with things being “both/and” instead of “either/or.” People were looking for spiritual guides who were authentic and real, even if that meant they were not morally perfect. It is far beyond the scope of this work to completely analyze the shift from a “modern” culture to a “postmodern” culture. Plenty of other works have given that subject exhaustive treatment.

Three Kinds of Scopes:

My favorite illustration of this shift involves a telescope, a microscope, and a kaleidoscope. In the ancient world, people understood the world around them as if they were viewing it through a telescope. People thought of themselves as being small compared to the ultimate realities of the universe. People looked at the world around them as being enormous and beyond understanding. This affected their perceptions of spiritual things as well. God (or, as many ancient religions thought, “the gods”) was thought of as far away and mysterious. If thunder clapped in the sky, then the gods must be angry. If the crops grew, the gods must be blessing. If a disaster came, the gods must not be happy with the people. All people could do is look through a telescope at the far away deity and hope to figure it all out.

But something changed when the “modern” world came into being. The age of science and reason brought about a change. People began believing that anything could be analyzed, examined, explained, and controlled, via the scientific method. As a result of this, we shifted from a “pre-modern” world to a “modern” world. In this modern world, people understood the world around them as if they were viewing it through a microscope. People thought of themselves as being big and powerful, and the world was small and able to be controlled. People could cure disease and invent machines to make life easier. This also affected spiritual understanding. God, too, so people thought, could be figured out and explained. People became so bold as to subject God to the scientific method, to put Him under the microscope, and attempt to explain Him in very concrete and rational terms. I know because I was raised mostly in that world. God was explained in great theological detail, with only a little mystery that spilled over beyond the defined box He was in.

The modern world also applied its microscope mentality to the Bible. In fact, applying the microscope mentality to the Bible led to a great divided understanding between so-called theological conservatives and theological liberals. Some people put the Bible under the microscope and dissected it. Every word, every phrase, every book was put through the scientific method to see if it stood up to scrutiny. People stood in the position of power over the microscope and the Bible became subject to that scrutiny. These people were labeled theological liberals within Christianity.

But other people applied their microscope mentality to the Bible in a different manner. They understood the Bible to be the microscope, and they began using the Bible as the lens through which they scrutinized every other aspect of life. They understood the Bible as an almost magical book that was to be used as the final authority on every area of life, even areas that really were unrelated. These people were still acting out of their modern-world understanding because they were standing in the position of power over the microscope, which was the Bible, and using it to scrutinize every aspect of the world and life. These people were labeled theological conservatives, or fundamentalists, within Christianity.

Both the liberals and conservatives, though bi-polarly divided and focused often on opposing each other, failed to realize that they were both really shaped in their worldview by the age of reason and rationality, by the scientific method, by the microscope image of reality. They failed to see this because they were so focused on opposing the other side, and so focused on using their microscope, as they understood it. I know this because I was doing it myself.

But now the world has changed again. We live mostly in a postmodern world now. In the postmodern world, people understand the world around them as if they are viewing it through a kaleidoscope. Take a minute to stop and think about the last time you looked through a kaleidoscope and exactly what you experienced as you looked through it. There is constant motion and change in a kaleidoscope. Every time one looks at it, it looks different. The postmodern understanding of the world is similar. Every time one looks at the world, it looks a little different, depending on when one happens to look, and what angle one happens to be looking. This is the postmodern world view. And, as before, this worldview influences people’s understanding of spiritual realities and of God. People now believe that every time you look at the world, it is changing, and depending on what angle you happen to look, you may see things in a different light. So too, is people’s understanding of God. He is understood as a moving, acting, flowing God who is always doing something new and creative.

Not a Question of "Right" or "Wrong":

These changes in how we view reality are not necessarily matters of right and wrong. That statement may create some controversy. But my point in all of this is that the modern worldview has caused many Christ-followers to think that their way of seeing God and their way of seeing reality is right, and the postmodern way of seeing God and understanding reality is wrong. It is the microscope, not God, that causes us to think this way.

I could easily find aspects of all three worldviews (the pre-modern telescope view, the modern microscope view, and the post-modern kaleidoscope view) that are theologically, or biblically inaccurate. (I realize that this last sentence is worded in a very modern, microscope manner, but the limits of language force me to write these thoughts somehow). Yet I can also find redeeming aspects of all three views that are theologically, or biblically, right on the money. These are merely human attempts at figuring out life and God and reality. The premodern, modern, and postmodern understanding of the world are all equally flawed, yet equally valuable, in their attempts to understand and live in the world. If you are struggling to accept this, may I be so bold as to suggest that the modern worldview may be acting more as your god than the Creator of the universe is. It’s a natural struggle to go through.

So this is not a discussion about which view is right and which view is wrong. Instead, this is a discussion about understanding the new way in which our culture views the world so that we understand our role in being followers of Christ, and being on Christ’s mission, in the midst of such a world. It is imperative that we understand the culture we live in and hope to see the Gospel penetrate.

All of this, I began to see, was a problem that the church had.

Missionary to the Postmodern World:

Going to my church office and running the church each day made less and less sense in a culture that was post-modern. The hours I spent chatting with my landlord about life felt more like ministry than my paid hours running the church. And it wasn’t just that our church was not relevant enough to capture the culture’s attention. I am pretty sure that there was no gimmick the church could have could try that was clever enough to get people to come. I mean, if we had served beer and showed movies at our venue and called it “church”, there were lots of people who still were not coming, just because it was called “church.” The only way Jesus was crossing into their world was if we left our comfort zone and went to them, on their turf and on their terms. This things we called “church,” which was really in the form of a non-profit organization where certain leaders put on programs at a certain place at a certain time at a certain time for certain followers, was something that was created partially from an understanding of the modern worldview, and it didn’t really make sense in the postmodern world. That is what made me begin to understand myself as a “missionary” (literally, one who is sent) instead of as a pastor. But before I could understand myself as a missionary, I had to understand that North America had become a mission field – a post-modern culture.

In 1999, I moved to Las Vegas. Three college friends of mine had already moved there and had launched a GenX church, meeting on the campus of a relatively new Willow Creek model church. Yet even upon my arrival, with the new church barely a year old, we realized that the problem with church has more than a generational issue. Though our church was largely made up of GenXers, we noticed that it was much more about an attitude than it was about an age group. For example, one 75 year-old man totally resonated with our ministry approach even though he wasn’t “born after 1964.” And, by contrast, one couple in their early twenties (squarely within our supposed target group) visited a church service with us and hated it. And they hated it specifically because of all the things we were doing differently in order to reach twenty-somethings – their generation! This difference between that 75-year-old man and that twenty-something couple was a mindset, an attitude, more than an age. He was from a different land than they were, so to speak. He was from a postmodern culture, and was “found” by our attempts to go to his place. The couple was from a modern culture, and they were looking for a church like the one they had grown up in.

Learning the Language:

We, as church leaders, were learning that the problem with the church was more complex than mere generational issues. We had discovered that the church had a huge cultural problem as well. That problem would only be resolved as we understood ourselves as missionaries to a postmodern world. Just as missionaries to third world countries, we had to learn the “language” of the culture before we could communicate the Gospel to it. And like many third world missionaries have learned, the only way to really learn a language is by immersing oneself into that culture, not by studying it in a book.

I learned that lesson first hand during my short-term missionary trip to Honduras, described in myprevious post. Because I had taken a couple of years of Spanish language in high school, everyone in the group looked to me to translate whenever our host missionary was not around. I was lost. One day at a restaurant, I ordered in Spanish for everyone n our group. I am fairly certain that half of the group did not get what they wanted for lunch that day as a result of my poor book-learned Spanish. But by the end of our trip though, after living in the midst of the culture day in and day out, I was becoming rather conversant in Spanish, really for the first time. Immersion in the culture really is the best way to learn its language.

Likewise with the postmodern culture of today’s North America. We learn to “speak the culture’s language” by immersing ourselves in the culture – by living in and around its people each day. We don’t learn the language of the culture by locking ourselves away and studying it. For many Christ followers, this is a harsh reality because we’ve been taught that to become holy we must isolate ourselves from the popular culture and be with other Christians. And there is some truth to that, of course. Yet there comes a time when we have to be mature enough to go out on our mission, immerse ourselves in the “dirty, rotten” culture, learn its language, become conversant, and engage in meaningful dialogue.

The church has a problem – a cultural issue – that is only resolved when we understand ourselves as missionaries to a postmodern North America.

But once again, by the time I had begun to re-organize my life to be consistent with the realization, I had discovered that the cultural problem was not the whole problem with the church, but merely one stretch of the journey home. The road was twisting and turning again. And the next stretch of journey, one I had not anticipated at all, would be larger than anything I could have ever imagined. Let’s just say the road had a blind, hairpin turn that shocked me. I didn’t see it coming. And it rocked my little world.

I'll explain that in my next post.