Church as Modernist

Extra effort at Modernist practice will not address the issues of the post-modernising culture beyond our stained glass walls.  It is not lack of effort that is sinking us; it’s the unknown and misunderstood that no-one saw coming.  More so I believe it is the “misunderestimated” in Dubya parlance; that which some had seen coming but those some were shunned and silenced. Culture to people is like water to a fish, it is all around and vital, but it is invisible and take for granted.  The culture of the Church in the West is highly influenced by Modernism, but as Westerners we cannot see that.  What the Church does in the way of common-sense is linked to what the State does in Europe and North America; we don’t know any different nor recognise any need for difference.  Christianity in the West has discovered equilibrium within Modernity.  However, a disturbed equilibrium is a disaster if it cannot be countered in some way.  Like native fauna destroyed by the introduction of foxes and cats, extinction over a very brief time is a very real possibility. When faced with extinction it is not helpful to go back to the drawing-board and recalibrate the common-sense system.  What is killing the fish (and the Church) is most likely something outside the common-sense categories of scientific knowing.  You cannot plan for what you have not seen, and planning for a second time using the same set of variables just makes the dying worse.  When the established categories of observation no longer fit upon the observable world it is time to change the categories; and it is not time to reinforce them by pressing harder.  It is these newly-imagined categories that shape the new mapping.

We have been taught that the world is a Newtonian machine: data-in-data-out, the whole is the sum of the parts.  Such a mindset does not work when the system itself has come into question and there is a transition between world-views rather than stages within the one.  Unlike the Newtonian world the future for us is not predictable, so our theories of futurism must be adapted to think beyond clinical extrapolation.  In a very strong sense we don’t actually know where we are heading, just that it’s “out” and “away from here”. Purpose (teleology) must be aligned to planning and not siphoned off as internal and personal.  The vision statement of a Christian community, its planning and forecasting, and its short- and long-term goals cannot be separated from the purposes of God.  It is not good enough to build a business model and then tack scriptures on to the end of each dot point as proof texts, not good enough at all.  Planning must be driven by interaction with the God of Mission at Mission if it is to be at all relevant to the forward movement of any local church.  Without actively attentive engagement with the story of God any church’s planning becomes purposeless, since engaging with the Mission of God is the Church’s sole purpose.  We can no longer leave engagement with God in the private sphere if we are to engage in mission in the world.

It’s not just the immediate cultural thing of the country being like the 1960s in terms of neighbourliness and pace of life.  It’s that the 1960s were highly modernist and so then is the thinking of country people.  It’s not that they aren’t urbanites it’s that they aren’t Post-Modern.  We reached a Tipping Point: incremental changes in seemingly unconnected facets abruptly and dramatically tipped the balance and now everything is different all of a sudden.  Our problem is this changed reality, our problem is not theology or management or sexuality.  Those are Modernist responses, a means of trying to define the problem in terms of a box.  The box is gone, the whole system is gone, and it is our inability to read the new system and to recognise that there is one at all which is the problem.  With that in mind we don’t actually know what is emerging or what the new Church will look like to need to look like.  This is why we need to be map-makers and leaders in adaptation for our communities of worship and mission.  We can be excited that God is calling us forward to a new thing, a New Creation where all things are different and not just revamped.  We are entering World 2.0, (or even New World 1.0); not World 1.9 with patches.

Church Attendance for Other Reasons

Some people attend Church for reasons other than worship.  This might include the desire to deepen their sense of belonging alongside meeting what Long describes as the need for human community[1].  It is no great surprise to anyone that people go to church to be with each other as well as to be with God, but in the twenty-first century Church are these desires in conflict?  What of those who wish to meet with God in solitude, or those who wish to participate and communicate without religion?  Such expressions have been known in the past, but in which direction is the general flow?  The reasons that people have stopped attending local churches are therefore twofold.  On the one had spirituality has become a personal pursuit and is done in reading or meditating alone, or on spiritual retreats, rather than in the local parish church. Why join the church when I can meditate and listen to worship CDs at home?  (Yet congregations founded on intimacy and small group modes of connection are also booming.)  On the other hand, service clubs provide the needs of those who wish to be helpful and make friends in the local area without the need for religious activities.  Why join the church when Lions Club makes me feel valued?

So how are such people to be lead?

[1] Thomas G. Long. Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2001) 25.

Secular sensitivities

In Church and Countryside Tim Gibson observed that local church must not fall into the trap of trying to define its form of community in secular-sensible terms.  The community of faith is God’s answer to the troubles of the world: strong community should look like what the Church looks like at its best because secular ideas of community are always going to fall short.  The world’s terminology simply cannot tell the full story of what God intends from the Church as the fellowship of the elect typified by the interrelationships of humankind made in God’s image and likeness.  Gibson connects the Church’s story to the life flowing out of Eucharist: what shapes the community of faith within itself and motivates local Christians to volunteer in greater proportion within the village is the worship life of the table.  Mission amongst rural people is about being ‘one of us amongst us’ in the way that Immanuel was, which is to say not uncritically. Jesus challenged the culture he lived in, calling it back to the ideals and practices of the Reign of God even as he participated in the activities of a shared life.  This is the work of the Church in mission, the whole Church, so context and inculturation are important.  This is also the way of Paul (1 Corinthians 9:20-23) who became a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks.  Where a new to the district pastor might ask what it would mean to live more like a Kangaroo Islander and less like an Adelaidean she might choose to give up her preferences and ways of doing things (and showing her expertise).  She might learn to do it ‘their’ way so as to minister more effectively to ‘them’.  This must occur with a necessary critique of bad habits and old ones, but it must be done; however, this is true not only of city ministers moving to the country but of country churches seeking to serve the local lost.  Our projects matter not nearly so much as our being with people; Jesus wants ‘us’, not our ‘programme’, to be the means of evangelism and discipleship.  The church exists for mission and true mission is both incarnational and sacrificial for life because even diminishing, dying churches find vitality when they are active in giving out.  Inculturation is about learning to belong and then living that belonging out in Christ honouring, people-favouring ways.

Differentiation in the Rural Church

Differentiation in the rural Church is necessary.  We cannot be ‘The Church of Everyone’s a Hand’, but we also need to have more than one hand in every body.  The Church’s unity in Christ is found also in the unity of God as we worship.  At the same time hangers-on and the legalising mentality of some people at times of conflict and stress can be unhelpful[1].  Must we really all conform so forcefully to survive this moment?  How compelling the party line is usually associated with how great the outside influence towards anxiety.  This is where dictatorships win the day, in the fall of the Weimar Republic just as much as in the “circled wagons” of the Evangelical Right.  However, as in the case of the fall of (once triumphant) Sovietism, the imposition of dictatorships based on hard conformity sows the seeds for rebellion and revolution.  Togetherness based on diversity and selfhood is life-affirming and inclusive, seeking to explore difference through curiosity and discussion of each other’s uniqueness rather than proscription of sameness and angst of difference.  More blessed are the confident and flexible who are less likely to label and judge others for being their other selves for they shall see cooperation and completion of the task at hand.  Where mutual respect is weak and others are seen to be wrong the path to change is much more difficult.  Such a community is reactive and anxious rather than collaborative and effective.  Communication and trust are lacking in such a people. A siege mentality can only foster closed mindedness, which is dangerous when innovation and creativity to face difficult situations is what is actually required. A differentiated leader can take a well-defined stand while remaining connected in a meaningful way with others.  Poorly differentiated people act like viruses, not healthy cells; such people are infectious and parasitic.  DON’T get caught in the “emotional triangles” of gossipy anxiety and getting stuck in other people’s problems.  A well differentiated leader is like a blastocyst, a non-anxious presence, who can tolerate other people’s discomfort to remain confident in self.  Bad leaders try to sabotage good leaders, the good leader’s non anxious response is the sign that he/she is succeeding.  A good leader is a skilled observer of individual differences, e.g. Jesus’ dealing with each of Mary and Martha.

[1] Ronald W. Richardson. Creating A Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 58.


Recently I was invited into a discussion about walls.  I like walls and find them particularly useful:  Walls hold things up, and they hold things in.  A church with which I once belonged locally met in a building where the roof was holding up the walls, perhaps a theological metaphor for something best explored in another place.

We like to think that the Church is better without walls.  We like to think that beyond the confines of our chapels, auditoria and sanctuaries that the People of God should diffuse throughout the world as leaven or perfume amidst (amongst) the People of Flesh.  I am prompted to remember another church with which I once belonged locally who met in a building that did not have walls, just windows of floor-to-ceiling louvers.  Light and sound moved in and out freely, although happily the fly-wire kept most of the bugs out.  Fly-wire in a window is a useful wall.

But I wonder whether the church/Church has thought about the merits of its walls?  After all if walls are such a bad thing why do we not meet on Sundays on the lawn out the front, rather than in our century-old duckpond-stone hotbox/deep freezer?

Walls keep us safe.

Safe from the elements.  Walls hold yup the roof which itself holds off the rain, sun, and otherwise bothersome effects of local climate known as weather.  Walls do a similar job for those effects which are somewhat horizontal, as well as the aforementioned bugs.  Walls keep us dry and safe, or cool and safe, and reliably unbitten.

Safe from interruption.  Church services engage with the senses, so it’s nice when we are having a time of quiet or attentiveness that the traffic does not intrude with its sound or its smog.

Safe from embarrassment.  Some people don’t like to be seen in church, perhaps their faith is a secret and they wouldn’t want to be seen in public with Christians.  Fair point.

When I worked in a prison I liked our walls, although most of them were “fences” if you want to get technical.  The walls and fences, and the gates and doors therein, were for security and safety.  Inmates were kept safe from vendetta-filling vigilantes, the community was kept safe from men with reputations for violence, and prison staff were kept safe to go about their work in defined and secure locations wherever they were employed.

But this leads me to the story of Jesus the gate; in other words Jesus the hinged-wall.  I wonder what we have considered the alternative to be.

Is Jesus a gate, and therefore a wall (since a gate on its own is a bit pointless) where once there was free passage?

Has our right of access to God been denied by the Christ who fenced off the Father and then said “over my dead-yet-powerfully-resurrected body, mate, you need to get by me first”.  Is Jesus some hulking bouncer who stands with crossed arms before the eye of a needle keeping us scummy earthlings out of heaven? Whose safety is preserved by Jesus the gate?

Or is Jesus a gate where once there was only a wall?

What was once a blanket denial of access is now a right of way with a door in place:  Where once our sin was a wall to keep God out of our lives has Christ provided a way through to the Father once more?  Here Jesus says to the world “over here, over here is a way in.  Don’t look anywhere else, everywhere else is wall and more wall, but here is the door and you are welcomed through.”  In this way Jesus may well be a hulking bouncer, but he’s there to keep the entering saved safe upon approach and to keep the scum of sin and hell out of heaven.  “This doorway cost me six dying hours on a Roman cross with my back torn to the bone, take me on at your peril oh Powers of Darkness because these people are mine…”

Jesus, the gate, keeps us safe.