A couple of months back, I posted an article reviewing a new book entitled Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. I claimed it was one of the best books I had read in my nearly 18-years of following Jesus. I believe it offers much for the church to consider on how to be the local church in our western, 21st century world today.
Postmodern has been emerging for the past few decades – but we’re not there quite yet in America. We are still driven my a more modernist approach, especially within the church.
What’s the modernist approach? I think it’s embedded in a post-Enlightenment perspective, catering to things like rationalism and individualism. We could talk about what that means, but I believe it has mainly worked itself out in such ways as these over the past decades:
- Lack of historical setting – Most churches we’ve been a part of have been around for a few decades at the most. That is fine, no doubt. But there is a great disconnect from the historic nature of our family, which has been walking the path of Christian faith for a couple millennia.
- Big church centers – The mega-church became the popular church setting, with possible multiple satellites. Oddly enough, the average church in America is still under 100 people.
- Homogenous churches – Our churches have been made up mainly of people who are very alike. We enjoy the same things across the board, from spiritual to normal life.
- Program-oriented – Massive efforts have been poured into making a [special] product so that it might be given (or, perhaps, sold) to a consumer-driven audience. The programs have called for a lot of entertainment, rather than participation.
- Individualistic settings – We have emphasized personal evangelism and salvation at the expense of any real engagement with building true communal, collective local churches.
There are others we could discuss, no doubt, and not all churches entered into all of these practices. And I’m certain these practices came out of noble hearts looking to accomplish mission within the given setting of western modernity. But that’s just it – the mission was within a 20th century, modernist context. I think we are beginning to see the holes in such practices as we’ve moved fully into the 21st century and are slowly watching the death of modernity. Postmodernism is on the rise.
To counter such practices, I believe the church of the postmodern setting will consist of these characteristics:
- Ancient – The church of today is starting to realize the importance of those who have gone before us, embracing the creeds of old, celebration of the table of the Lord on a weekly basis, studying the fathers of ancient times, etc. We have a story, a narrative that’s been playing out for centuries. We need to embrace it, even when it’s ugly, and continue that one narrative.
- Earthiness – The church of today will embrace the neighborhood, or parish, once again. People will come together to be the faithful body of Christ within a particular local, “earthy” context. We’ll love the land where we live and not dream of a place in another part of the land. The days of driving 30+ miles to get to the big center will fall more and more to the way side.
- Heterogeneous – Because we are neighborhood-oriented, we’ll consist of a church community made of all types of peoples, rather than those so similar to us. A little taste of heaven. Easy? No. But something that displays what it means to be local, earthy and authentic in a given community and neighborhood.
- Relational – Of course, the church believes we are a relational community (or they should). But we’ll not just merely love the idea of community, we will be a community in our earthy, local context as we share meals together in each other’s homes, serve the community in various ways, etc. “Church” will happen in the most unique and relational ways – 8 folk will share a meal, pull out a guitar, sing, pray, listen, share, prophesy, etc. Our goal won’t be to have a smashing youth ministry or worship team rockin’ on Sundays. We’ll be excited for the faithful, authentic relationships above programs.
- Collective – The greatest challenge I see in our sermons and songs are the “me-ness” to them, over and above their collective nature. Every message is about how you and I can apply the information individually. The most used pronouns in our worship songs are me, my and I. What if we proclaimed messages that called the community to enact something – not just how I can serve my next door neighbor, but how we can serve our neighborhood or local school? What if we sang songs not filled with singular pronouns, but plural pronouns, because we see ourselves declaring something together? I believe those of the Bible times started from the communal context and flowed to the personal, rather than the other way around like we do (if we ever truly make it to the collective and communal). I don’t negate the personal reality of our faith. But I’d posit it’s 90-10 in the percentage rates of how much is individualistically driven and how much is collectively and communally driven.
In all, I think Slow Church gets at this. And I would also recommend as a good companion book The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community.
I believe the authors of these two books get at some important matters of what it means to be the church in a 21st century world headed towards a fuller postmodern setting. Postmodern concepts aren’t bad in the more moderate sense. If you don’t agree but would like to explore more, check out Jamie Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism. He’s a Christian philosopher professor at Calvin College. I think he’s done well to show how the church can utilize a postmodern perspective for accomplishing God’s mission today.
But do check out both Slow Church and The New Parish if you’d like to dig in a little more around being the church in our western world today. Some things need to change. It will take some time. We’ll need to patiently cultivate some new lifestyles and paradigms. But we’ll get there by God’s grace.