The Church at the End of Modernity
My latest column for Christian Week is out, although it’s not yet on their website. No matter, it’s now on mine:
Modernism is breaking down, and many Christians are now churchless. But there is hope for the Church as it responds to these trends, according to David Fitch, pastor of Life on the Vine Community near Chicago, and author of The Great Giveaway.
Fitch recently spoke in Hamilton, Ontario at an event hosted by Resonate.ca, a “network of Canadians striving to love God and our neighbors in a changing culture.” Fitch calls himself a Canadian at heart, having grown up in Hamilton.
According to Fitch, we can no longer depend on approaches that once worked, such as evidentiary apologetics, seeker services, CEO style leadership, huge hall pep-rally worship, lecture-hall type sermons, and paying someone else to do justice for us. Canada is well ahead of the States in these trends. The answer is not to redouble our efforts, but to revisit the practices of the church in an effort to be more faithful. Fitch spoke on four areas of practice: evangelism, justice, worship, and preaching.
First, we must move from a focus on decisions to evangelism through re-invigorated hospitality. “A decision doesn’t make sense apart from a context,” explained Fitch. In Thailand, a mission agency counted 80,000 decisions for Christ after showing the Jesus film. Returning a few years later, the same missions agency could not find a single convert. A focus solely on decisions in a non-Christian or post-Christian culture is not effective. A better approach, according to Fitch, is to practice evangelism by hospitality: to invite neighbors into our homes. Hospitality is tough, especially in the suburbs, but it is central to biblical evangelism.
Second, churches must become communities of justice and mercy. According to Fitch, we often pay outside agencies to do justice for us. The alternative is to embrace justice as one of God’s priorities, begin by developing a reconciled community within the church, and to meet needs and work for justice from within that community. “Justice becomes who we are first, not a way to an outcome,” said Fitch. Poverty is everywhere, even in the suburbs, although it is often hidden. Churches can work to break the culture of hiddenness. Around the Lord’s Table, we can talk about how we are committed to each other, meet needs, and invite people further into the church community for more.
Third, Fitch challenged us to introduce mystery into worship. He warned of the danger of making a worship a commodity, which leads to narcissism. “We’ve turned Christians into shoppers at Wal-Mart,” looking for the worship experience that will fulfill them the most. He described the production of “Disney experiences” in worship services, which let people remain in their own stories, rather than inviting them into a Story that is greater than their own through liturgical practices like confessions and affirmations of truth in creeds.
Finally, Fitch argued that the way that we preach is wrong. “We treat it as information to exegete.” Instead, Fitch described preaching as describing an alternate and true reality, a “theodrama”. Instead of giving more information and then applying it, we need to unfurl the reality of God’s world and invite people to live in it. Instead of giving more lectures, we describe how the Gospel sees the world.
“North American evangelicals learned to do church in relation to modernity,” Fitch writes. “It is our own modernism that has allowed us to individualize, commodify, and package Christianity so much that the evangelical church is often barely distinguishable from other goods and services providers, self-help groups, and social organizations that make up the landscape of modern American life.” Now that modernity is collapsing, we have an opportunity to reinvigorate our ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), and rediscover more biblical practices of being the church.
Fitch warned of the dangers of trying to change churches that embrace a modern approach. He suggested that we look out for those who are dissatisfied with the modern church, especially those who are in their twenties and thirties, and slowly develop a community that explores these biblical approaches. This could take the form of a second service within a traditional church.
Fitch promises to what he calls his “beloved Canada” to continue exploring what it means to be the church at the end of modernity.