Every year, Beloit College in Wisconsin releases a list describing those who are entering college and university this year. Here is what's true for those who have just entered college this past month:
- The Soviet Union has never existed and therefore is about as scary as the student union.
- They have never heard anyone actually "ring it up" on a cash register.
- Smoking has never been permitted on airlines.
- "Google" has always been a verb.
- Text messaging is their email.
- Bar codes have always been on everything, from library cards and snail mail to retail items.
- Non-denominational mega-churches have always been the fastest growing religious organizations in the U.S.
- Reality shows have always been on television.
- Brides have always worn white for a first, second, or third wedding.
- They have always been able to watch wars and revolutions live on television.
- Green tea has always been marketed for health purposes.
- They have always been searching for "Waldo."
- Michael Moore has always been showing up uninvited.
- They have always had access to their own credit cards.
- Bad behavior has always been getting captured on amateur videos.
- Beach volleyball has always been a recognized sport.
- Disposable contact lenses have always been available.
- Ringo Starr has always been clean and sober.
Times have changed. These are some examples of historical and cultural changes that have taken place, but this is nothing compared to the vast changes that are taking place between eras that we are facing today.
James Emery White, the new president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, argues that the there have been six identifiable ages in relation to the Christian church. Based on his research on the writings of Christopher Dawson, each of these ages has lasted between three and four centuries. Each one began and ended in crisis: a fresh new attack by forces outside and within the church, and to which the church had to respond with fresh determination. According to White, we are now living at the start of the seventh, the end of one age and the beginning of another. And we are facing a crisis: a fresh new attack to which the church must respond.
Western society has been going through a dramatic change for the past fifty years, and the process is accelerating. We are now living in a period of radical and discontinuous change, and we are feeling the stress. Someone has described continuous change as being hit in the head hard with an acorn. Discontinuous change is when you face an all-acorn assault. What we are facing is not the pain of getting hit on the head with one acorn; we are facing an all-acorn assault, and we need to learn how to respond.
Let me talk a bit about some of the changes we are facing.
- Many of us grew up within a generally Christian culture; not everyone was Christian, but the church was generally respected and was the only viable religious option in town.
- The church was stable. Most people went to some kind of church.
- Christians had privileges that we could impose on society at large. You might not be Christian, but you will say the Lord's Prayer at school. You would get a Gideon Bible in grade school. And Ontario's education system would reflect Judeo-Christian values.
Slowly, things have changed.
- Somewhere, society decided there would be no free pass for the church.
- The church is no longer the only show in town – religious or otherwise.
- Only two out of ten people attend church in Canada. That number is even lower in other countries – this Sunday, only 2% of New Zealand will go to church.
- Between 1991 and 2001, the number of non-Christians in Canada increased by 72%.
- Christianity is dying in the West just as it is exploding in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, leaving behind empty churches and cathedrals.
- You can deny this in parts of North America. We have a Prime Minister in Canada who is a professing Christian, and there are churches that are growing (although they are usually homogeneous, suburban, and middle class). But this misses the big picture: it is not so much that we have rejected the idea of God, but that our culture ignores him.
- We in the church are doing the same things with decreasing effectiveness.
- It feels like an all-acorn assault.
The big picture:
- Christendom has ended. It's been dying for 250 years, but it's now pretty much breathed its last. We live in a post-Christendom world.
- Christendom is the religious culture that has dominated Western society since the fourth century.
- With the Emperor Constantine, Christianity moved from being a marginalized, subversive, and persecuted movement to being the official imperial religion, the only official religion of the State.
- The church that was once viewed with at least grudging respect is now suspected. Popular novels depict the church as being involved in cover-ups, trying to protect its status and beliefs by any means possible.
- Religion is now seen as a private matter with no bearing on public life.
- Someone has said that our culture has received a mild dose of Christianity and is now inoculated against the real thing.
- We are dealing with a demographic of 80% of people who are at best blase and at worst hostile to us. We are in deep trouble in the next twenty years, because we only have 20% of the market and many of them are elderly.
- We now face a new question: how to live as Christians in a post-Christendom world.
Walter Brueggemann writes:
I believe we are in a season of transition, when we are watching the collapse of the world as we have known it…One can paint the picture in very large scope, but the issues do not present themselves to pastors as global issues. They appear as local, even personal, issues, but they are nonetheless pieces of a very large picture.
Brueggemann suggests that what we are encountering at the local level, at a church like Richview, is part of the bigger transition that is taking place.
So how to respond?
- We are tempted to look for a stable past that no longer exists – especially since pastors like me were trained for a world that no longer exists, and the church seemed to have an easier time.
- We are tempted to redouble our efforts, to work harder. But to work harder at what is not working will not get us there.
- Pragmatic responses are not the answer. If the answer was a new technique or program, we would have solved this already. Strategic plans will not get us where we need to go.
- The answer is more sophisticated, and more theological. It involves relearning who we are, and everything else that flows from it.
Learning Who We Are
So who are we?
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God's elect, exiles scattered throughout… (1 Peter 1:1)
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
Peter writes to a group who were strangers in a strange land. They were a colony, an island of one culture in the middle of another. Although they lived in Asia Minor, there citizenship was elsewhere – ultimately in heaven.
The answer to the situation we are facing is not a new program or technique, but to rediscover our identity as exiles, as a colony of heaven in an alien society.
- God's people have been here before.
- What's more, they have thrived as exiles in the margins of society.
- But it involves some relearning. The Jewish people, exiled to Babylon, had to relearn their stories and traditions, because they had lost many of them without even knowing it through acclimation with the surrounding cultures.
- We can't go back there, because back there no longer exists.
- We need to learn from others, such as the recipients of 1 Peter, what it means to live as exiles – a marginalized, subversive, and persecuted movement
- We don't need a new discovery, but to rediscover Jesus and the practices of Christians who lived in pagan times just like us.
So what if:
- We stopped saying, "Don't just sit there, do something," to "Don't just do something, sit there – and learn who you are." In other words, what if we took seriously that our first job isn't to go out there and do something, but to really learn who we are in Jesus Christ?
- We stopped coming to the Bible expecting it to tell us how to have a better life – a better marriage, a better job, dieting advice, our best lives now – and instead we came to the Bible expecting it to tell us how to participate in the adventure of what God is doing which is bigger than any of our lives?
- We stopped seeing Christianity as a consumer product to meet the needs of self?
- We said no to a church in which our biggest danger comes from dying of boredom, to a church in which our greatest danger is to live dangerously as representatives of Christ in a hostile world?
- We stopped inviting people to church – vacuum cleaning them out of the community, as Al Roxburgh said, and instead we took the Gospel to them?
- We lived in such a way that we couldn't afford for church to be a service in which we sit in an audience, and in which we were forced to live as a colony of heaven right here in Etobicoke?
- We really believed that God was alive and powerful and we lived in such a way that we show that we really believe it?
- We really lived as exiles, believing that we face not just a crisis, but an opportunity to relearn who we are in Jesus, and how we should live in the world?
I invite you to do a couple of things today.
First: let go of the past. This includes the core stories, values, and habits learned under Christendom. There is no going back because the days of Christendom are over.
Second: let's commit to relearn the stories of Jesus and of the early Christians, who lived as exiles and turned the world upside down. Let's not just do something, let's sit there first, and learn who we really are.
Because when we do, we will be ready to bless the community because of the Gospel, individually and with the support of the church. We will, as Peter says, be able to " Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Peter 2:12).