To be effective in our mission, the church needs to understand the changing world around us. This study describes the ways the world is changing and poses some questions for the future of the church.
“Church is what you did on Sundays before they invented garden centres.” (Victoria Wood)
That simple statement is a brilliantly perceptive analysis of how many people nowadays regard church. Church is something you do, an activity. It is something restricted to one particular day of the week. It is something that has been superseded by garden centres, or car boot sales, or shopping malls or, take your pick really, because that is what people have done in our pick-and-mix, consumerist society. Church is now an option – just one choice among very many.
Post-Modernism and Post-Christendom
The world we live in is changing ever more rapidly. Family used to mean a collection of individuals linked by biology. It became a collection of individuals gathered around a TV set. It developed into a set of bedrooms arranged around a refrigerator. Now family has become a network of computers which share a broadband connection (wirelessly). People are much more mobile – they may move homes and cities many times. Employees of the computer giant IBM call the company “I’ve Been Moved.” Patterns of employment have changed. Women are no longer stay-at-home wives and mothers. Few people expect a job for life. Increasing divorce rates and single parenting by choice are changing family life. Television has transformed leisure time. In the last ten years the internet, text messaging, instant messaging and webcams have transformed communications. As a result of all these twentieth century “advances” society is much more fragmented. Community based on geography is vanishing. People’s lives are becoming increasingly insular, self-centred and individualistic.
We live in a culture dominated by consumerism, where people expect the right to choose and satisfaction guaranteed every time. These expectations extend beyond shopping to morality, relationships and even religion. I’ll explain more about this in a moment.
“Modern” understandings rooted in the Enlightenment are increasingly rejected and a “Post-Modern” culture is emerging. There is a distrust of authority and “the establishment” in education, politics and law and order. Certainty is replaced by questioning – the only thing post-modernists are certain of is that you can’t be certain about anything any more. Many people reject any idea of absolute or objective truth – everything is relative. Everybody is entitled to their own truth. There is no over-arching “grand story” or big picture. Everybody has their own story and their own little picture which are considered equally valid.
Christendom, a culture where everybody shared a common Christian faith and values, is being replaced by a multicultural, multi-faith society where Christianity is only one option amongst many (although of course that is exactly how it was in the beginning of the Early Church). The culture everybody once shared is being replaced by multitudes of diverging emerging cultures.
Nationwide challenges to the gospel
Britain is no longer a Christian country! But so often churches and Christians try to live as if it was! We live in a rapidly changing world. God calls His church to be “the people of the future” but too often we live as “people of the past”. The last 30 or 40 years have seen enormous changes in the world around. Sociologists describe these changes in three major areas.
SECULARISATION – the declining influence of Christianity and Christian values, decreasing importance of the church in the lives and thinking of ordinary people. We live in a “disenchanted” world, where worship of God has been replaced by science and technology. Now if people are looking for spiritual experiences, they no longer look to the church but rather to the occult and the New Age.
PLURALISATION – Christianity is no longer the only, or even the dominant faith. It is now seen only as
one option amongst many on offer in the supermarket of beliefs. Political correctness now forbids Christians from claiming that Christ is the only way to God. Some local authorities are now removing Bibles and Christian symbols like the cross from places like hospitals and schools and prisons, ostensibly for fear of upsetting the other religions.
PRIVATISATION – our lives are becoming more and more isolated, local community and even family life are being replaced by the anonymity of “society” and the individualism which encourages us to communicate with strangers across the globe by phone and text and email, when we don’t even know the names of the people who live across the street. Faith is squeezed into our private lives – as the media portray Christianity as outdated and irrelevant.
Against these international giants of Secularisation and Pluralisation and Privatisation (and also Consumerism) it is very easy for Christians to be discouraged! Against such giants, God calls us to stand up for the historical truths of our faith and to give the world an example of true community, to believe what we preach and preach what we believe! We have GOOD NEWS – how can we keep it to ourselves?
Local Challenges to the gospel in North Springfield
MATERIALISM – very many people in North Springfield have plenty. They don’t just have enough to survive. They don’t just have enough to be content. Most people in North Springfield have more than enough and plenty to spare. Of cash. Of possessions. Of money in the bank to guard them for a rainy day. Very many people never consider whether they need treasures in heaven because they have plenty of treasures on earth. They are not necessarily trapped by greed, which is idolatry. They are simply deceived all the earthly goods they possess into thinking that there isn’t anything more to search for. Instead of possessing their goods, their goods possess them! The God-shaped-gap in their hearts is buried under career and hobbies and holidays and entertainments and “things”.
BUSYNESS – even if people in North Springfield do start thinking about the ultimate questions of life and eternity, those questions get squeezed out by sheer busyness. Commuting. Hobbies. The demands of family life rushing to get the children to three places as once. The pace of life here means that nobody has time to reflect on spiritual things.
“What is this life, so full of care? We have no time to stop and stare!”
COMPLACENCY – the people around us, our neighbours and friends, are not usually people who are struggling to cope with life. They are not usually burdened with guilt looking for somebody to forgive them, because most haven’t ever done anything particularly bad. They are not ground down with poverty. Most aren’t trapped in alcoholism or drug abuse. Most people in Brentwood are living satisfying, contented lives. They don’t worry about what will happen when they die, because life here and now has been generally good to them. Most people are happy non-believers. They never ever ask the really important questions of life – where did I come from, why am I here, who created me, does God really exist? They never see the need to think about questions like that. They are not trapped by obvious sin, but simply by complacency.
Against the giants of materialism and busyness and complacency the church must be BOLD to proclaim the gospel. God is God Almighty, Creator and Sustainer of the universe! God deserves to be worshipped! Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and exalted at God’s right hand! The gospel is not an offer which people can choose to accept or reject. The gospel is an announcement which demands our obedience. Jesus is Lord! And EVERY knee must bow!
I have attempted to summarise the major changes in the Western world over the last 25 to 50 years. This changing culture raises all kinds of questions for churches. The world is changing – how should the church be changing too? The church cannot continue just as it was in the 20th Century if it wants to be effective in mission in the 21st Century. What was entirely right and still worked 50 or even 20 years ago may not work any more because the world has changed.
Here are some of the challenges.
• How do we “preach” to people who have rejected ideas of objective truth or authority?
• How can people worship together when their preferences in music have no overlap?
• What kind of worship and learning will be meaningful to people who have replaced reading with visual images and multimedia?
• How can we reach out to people when their network of relationships has nothing at all to do with geography? In such a world “Who is my neighbour?”
• How can we talk about God as Father and the church as Family when very many people have very different and sometimes very negative experiences of these things?
• In this “entertainment age” only “mega-churches” can compete with the professionals in music and multimedia. Is there any hope for small churches like NSBC?
• In this success-oriented world of “instant everything” how can we share the gospel of a suffering dying Saviour whose triumph only came through failure?