The Post-Church Context

11 09 2012

The title of this post was a sub-title in an article by CHN District President Bob Newton in The Lutheran Witness from January 2010.  In the article President Newton talks about the nature of the change that has been taking place across our country in the culture.  Granting the the impact of these changes and the depth to which they have permeated the various regions of our country do vary, sometimes greatly.  However the impact is and can be seen to some degree nearly everywhere.  So what should we be looking for in assessing the impact of what Newton calls a post-church context?

The larger community around the Church has become increasingly unchurched, more and more reflecting a Pre-Church context of ministry.  At the same time, the Church continues to operate with the assumptions of the Churches society.

Now I want to avoid creating an argument from silence.  This does not mean that one can prove the change in culture by the absence of its perception in the church.  Not seeing a change cannot prove that change has happened, naturally.  The danger is however that we might not note these societal changes if our churches have not maintained a solid connection with the communities in which we have our ministries. Different parts of the country are confronted with varying degrees of un or de-churching.

Barna research finds that:

The most prolific change in religious behavior among those measured has been the increase in the percentage of adults categorized as unchurched. The Barna Group definition includes all adults who have not attended any religious events at a church, other than special ceremonies such as a wedding or funeral, during the prior six month period. In 1991, just one-quarter of adults (24%) were unchurched. That figure has ballooned by more than 50%, to 37% today.

While it is tragic to see larger numbers of adults being categorized as unchurched, the long term impact that some of us are beginning to see is the lack of fluency in their children to the culture of the church.  Increasingly I was seeing students brought to church for confirmation (translated as basic moral training or a promise to Grandma) without even a basic understanding of the faith. They simply lacked the intellectual structures needed to make sense out of the Christian story.

This may actually be the positive side of the current state of our culture.  Kinnaman points out that

Our research shows that many of those outside of Christianity, especially younger adults, have little trust in the Christian faith, and esteem for the lifestyle of Christ followers is quickly fading among outsiders.  They admit their emotional and intellectual barriers go up when they are around Christians, and they reject Jesus because they feel rejected by Christians.

And what then in the response of the church?  Going back to Newton he suggests two ways in which the church struggles to respond:

First, they are caught off balance.  Having for so long held the position of cultural insiders, they still build their outreach ministry on the assumption and practices that worked in the Churches era – basically that the unchurched will be attracted to their church or ministries.  They cannot understand why individuals and families find the soccer field, Starbucks, or just sleeping in more appealing than going to church on Sunday morning.  Or why people challenge the traditional Christmas tree in the town square, or the Ten Commandments in a court of law.  These cultural changes make no sense.

Second, and more important, Christians and churches struggle to find ways to connect meaningfully with the unchurched.  The struggle centers in large measure on the Church’s inability to take up the position of cultural outsider, that is, to become permeable in regard to its own boundaries in order to penetrate the boundaries surrounding the unchurched world.

Thus our struggle is that we either cannot see or cannot conceptualize a response with any level of understanding.  We too often maintain for ourselves a world within the church that colors our perception of the world outside of the church.  Think about how many relationships that we have with people in our church or other churches as compared to those from a differing cultural perspective.  If we have not spent adequate time drinking in (in a learning not assimilating manner) the culture of our changing communities, is it really any wonder that we in the church have begun to fail to connect.

Now I continually say we, to first off include myself and to imply that this is an “us” problem not a “they” problem.  There are churches and church leaders who see this and like President Newton, are attempting to formulate a more culturally contextually relevant response.  The emphasis on being “missional” is one attempt to address the need to minister out of contextual relevance not irrelevance.  The missional movement can get itself into trouble when they blur the line between missions and service, subsuming all under the banner head of missional living.  However the impulse is at least attempting to address the fundamental issue.

So where does that leave us, DCE’s in the LCMS?  Well, depending on the nature of your local community, you would need to do a little cultural exegesis to determine just how post-Christian or post-Church your town is. An appropriate response in Manhattan, NY might not be appropriate in Manhattan, KS and vice versa.

Future posts will begin to unpack how my own thinking is taking shape as it relates to the unique challenges of ministry in the Pacific Southwest District.  Your interaction to reflect upon ministry in your own community is invited to enrich this exploration.

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