Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Church in the 21st Century

I think there's a cross on that necklace.

Question 1)  What is your vision for the church in the 21st century?
Answer:  Jesus.   Why?
There's a strong propensity on the part of folks who like think a great deal about things (read: Presbyterians) to focus intensely on the particularities of a given time or era.  They then assume that because there are differences between that point in human history and other points in human history, there is a significant difference in how Christians need to articulate their faith.
There's some truth in that.  Our culture is radically different now than it was even when I was being confirmed into the church way back in the early nineteen eighties.  Industry and entertainment are now essentially globalized.  The flow of information has increased exponentially, as our ability to communicate through new and interactive media has shifted the dynamics of culture.  With the ascendence of global capitalism, our interactions are increasingly defined by our positions in consumer culture.
As those trends continue and accelerate, it's easy to project out a vision for the character of the church that is radically defined by the changing culture into which it speaks itself.  If you want to succeed and to "grow churches," then you need to be able to articulate yourself into the context of the culture.  The question, though, is whether in seeking contextual relevance we are changing the world, or the world is changing us.
We see this strongly in the rise of the megachurch, as Christian communities structure themselves as corporations.  Like corporations, they seek to appeal to particular demographics, with ministries and worships that, like products, are crafted and packaged to appeal to the self-image every market segment, unified by and marketed as a carefully protected brand.  
We also see this in the intense success of scriptural interpretations that focus on material prosperity.  Self-help, name-it-and-claim-it abundance, getting ahead, and doing well are the goals of the self-made entrepreneur, and that seven-bullet-points-for-highly-successful-whatever approach to faith increasingly define the faith-life and language of Christian communities.
This is where the church is going, and will continue to go as the ethos of the marketplace presses more deeply into the character of our fellowship.  This, if we are to know our vision by the fruit, is clearly the "vision" of the church.
But it is not a vision of Jesus.  The vision of Market Jesus has as little to do with the Gospel as one of those fat prosperity Buddhas you'll find in Chinese restaurants has to with the Noble Eightfold Path.
For those who find the incursion of contemporary market culture into the faith troubling, there is another path.  There is the path that uses new media to communicate, not just with those who fit neatly into our market niche echo chamber.  Instead, that communication is vigorously intentional about boundary crossing and shattering.   This is the path that articulates the identity and person of the Nazarene, who refused to allow gender or socioeconomic status or race to get in the way of his message of the Kingdom of God.
If we are the Way, then it's important to recognize that the Way is not changed by the ever churning ephemera of our culture.  The specific moral and spiritual requirements of being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth articulate themselves in radically similar ways no matter what the cultural context may be.  Kindness and patience and mercy and grace are discernably cut from the same cloth, whether they be blogged or vlogged or tweeted or shown on that treacherous, dusty road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  
That's the particular vision we pursue, and it stands in defining and transformative dialectic with culture, no matter what the century.