Monday, 22 February 2010

The Future of the Church

Even though my semester doesn't start till the 1st of March, I decided to get a start on my uni subjects (as I might have bitten off more than I can chew, so any extra time is a help). I read one of the short books for my Intro to Christian Ministry class, titled The Once and Future Church by Loren B Mead. This book was written close to 20 years ago now, so it is interesting to see what Mead thought the future of the church would be like.

Mead argues that there have been three church paradigms in the last two thousand years.

(1) There was the Apostolic Paradigm that involved the church existing within a hostile environment that was also the mission field were they would convert people. There was a clearly defined boundary for who was in the church and who wasn't. This lasted till Constantine who made the know world Christian by decree.

(2) This introduced the Christendom Paradigm with the church existing in an immediately Christian environment and the mission field was moved to some far off land where the empire was furthering its boundaries. Since the nation was Christian, so was everyone who was a citizen. This meant that there was a large oversight committee (eg. bishops) that saw resources (funds) moved from the local scene to the front lines of missions somewhere far off.

And then now, (3) today times are changing and we are undergoing a new paradigm shift. It hasn't fully happened yet, but there are signs. In this new paradigm the the mission front lines have moved back to the local church's door. The environment isn't as hostile as it was in the first paradigm, "the world" is more apathetic. This also means that the large oversight committees need to make sure they are looking after the local areas and not something too far removed from the people; in fact the local congregation may not even see a use for the overseers as they don't see any direct impact they do in their area. There is also a blurring about who is part of the church and who isn't.

For some reason I don't like the sentiment of "now we are in the most important time in history", as if the previous generations before us didn't have this problem. From my (limited) understanding there were bishops in the church set up before Constantine, and I am surprised that the church has used the same paradigm for 1700 years. Did the reformation make any changes? If the mission filed was always in some distant land, how come there were revivals in "Christian" countries like the Great Awakening and in Geneva under Calvin or England with Spurgeon. I guess if your church doesn't really have a clear definition of who is a Christian and who isn't (ie, your country of birth doesn't automatically define your religion) then sure, it won't have many converts!

Despite these remarks, I think Mead was correct in understanding our contemporary society and asking the churches to think about how they are to operate today. He argues that the clergy may need more training after seminary for pastoral care and that they need to let the laity oversee and run more things. The overseers of the church need to reverse the top down approach to the running of the wider church and instead be seen to be using resources (and funds) in the local churches. Mean wanted a system by which there was a cheap (or free) way that the laity could be better trained by some of the best theologians, to help equip them in their own tasks of being on mission; but he was unsure how it could happen. When I read that, I thought of the Internet today.

When he listed examples about what he saw as birth signs of this new paradigm they seemed to be types of social justice and intra faith joint initiatives that are run by the members of the church, but not under the banner of a church name. That is great, but there has never been a rule about members of churches helping people outside of a Sunday service, in fact I think it is encouraged. If these events are to be defined as what a church is, then I can see how there might be a fuzzy definition of who is in the church. Social action is good but it is important that Christianity doesn't forget its main focus, namely the Christ part in. Yes it is good to do both (help people and tell them about Jesus), and perhaps Mead did mean that, but I didn't see much stress on Christ.

If the future church involves lay people helping others outside the church walls who have a focus on the local area being the mission field, then I don't think it is anything really new. I think for the last 2000 years we have had some ancient documents that encourage that type of action, that also focus on Jesus. We might also have some history where we can see what happens when people do that.

This wouldn't have been a book that I would have bought off my own free will, but it was short and had some good points.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if Tim Kellers' new book coming out at the end of this year, Generous Justice, are signs of the new paradigm, or really just telling the church to do what it has been commanded to do...