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Church in the Inventive Age
By Doug Pagitt
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Doug Pagitt
All rights reserved.
DEFINING OUR RELATIONSHIP
THE FUTURE IS THE SAME AS THE PAST, RIGHT UP UNTIL THE POINT WHEN IT ISN'T.
Authors are often told that a book should build a relationship between the writer and the reader. So here we are, starting a relationship.
It's a rather strange relationship to be sure. I'm going to do all of the talking. I don't know you but I'm going to take my best guess so I can talk about the work you do. I'm assuming you are a church leader of some kind—a pastor, a ministry leader, or one of the saints among us who puts energy into your church without pay. Maybe you're reading this book for a class or because you are on an elder board and someone told you to read it. Maybe you've just picked it up because it's short and you need something to read on your flight. Maybe you've read other things I've written or maybe you've never heard of me.
There are enough variables in this relationship that I think we should start it with some straight talk about what this book is and what it isn't, what I'm up to as I write and what I hope you'll do as you read.
I am making one point in this book: The United States is in its fourth cultural age, the Inventive Age. Every cultural age has four components: how people think, what they value, a collection of aesthetic preferences, and a set of tools by which people do what they need to do. Today's churches need to decide how they want to fit into the Inventive Age and develop the components needed to live well.
I am going to throw out big ideas and move fast. This isn't a book in which I tell you what to think. It's a book in which I raise issues in order to make you think about the future of the church. I want this book to leave you with questions, to get your head spinning a bit. I want it to lead you into new conversations with the people in your church. I want to give you the language and categories to move into the future with a clear sense of who you are and where you're going.
It won't take you long to read this book. The average person reads between 200 and 250 words per minute. That means the average person could get through this book in about two hours. But I hope you spend far more time talking about the suggestions in the book than you do reading about them. I hope you'll spend more time putting your ideas into play than you do learning about my ideas.
I'M GOING TO THROW OUT BIG IDEAS AND MOVE FAST.
As you'll see in a moment, the Inventive Age is all about collaboration and creativity. This book is my way of collaborating with you, of inspiring you to create a faith community that can thrive in our changing culture.
I can't wait to see where this relationship takes us.CHAPTER 2
WE DON'T KNOW WHERE WE'RE GOING, BUT WE SURE KNOW WHERE WE'VE BEEN
THE FUTURE IS ALREADY HERE, IT IS JUST UNEVENLY DISTRIBUTED.
We live in the midst of inescapable change. Maybe this thrills you. Maybe this scares you. Regardless, the changes happening right now in American society mean every cultural institution, every community, every individual has a choice to make: We can either be in on the change or we can be left behind.
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that everything in our lives, everything we depend on for our basic survival, was created in the last 200 years. Think about your typical day. You wake up in a bed made of materials—internal springs, polymers, anti-microbial fabrics—that didn't exist 200 years ago. You are awakened by an alarm clock that was invented in 1876 (or maybe to an iPod that was invented in 2001). You take a shower (indoor plumbing arrived in the mid-19th century); eat eggs shipped by trucks from a different part of the country, purchased at a grocery store with a credit card, and cooked over an electric stove. You drive a car to work and maybe make a few calls on your cell phone on the way.
You might live in a state that was open frontier in 1860 or in a town that was nothing but grassland in 1922. You might send your kids to a school where they read digitally printed books and use computers and watch DVDs. You might go to church on Sunday morning at 11:00 where you speak into a microphone and sing along with words projected on a screen.
The basic frameworks for communication, transportation, education, religious life, even plumbing, have been around for centuries, but the actual resources we use every day are relatively recent additions to the social landscape.
For most of human history, changes in broad social structures came occasionally and were limited in geographic scope. But in the last two centuries, cultural change has become far-reaching, constant, and increasingly rapid.
Why and how societies change is a fascinating subject, but I'm more interested in what change brings with it.
In the last 200 years, American culture has moved through three distinct ages—the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and the Information Age—and is heavily engaged in a fourth—an era I have dubbed the Inventive Age. With each of these ages has come a shift in what we think, what we value, what we do, and how we do it.
Living in the Inventive Age is not optional. It's here. It is changing us. It will keep changing our culture at a breakneck speed, whether we are on board with those changes or not. If the church is going to survive, we have to do what the church has always done: figure out how to live and thrive in our culture.
CHANGE IS THE NORM, NOT THE POINT
I'm an ideas guy. I love big ideas. I get a vision for something and I'm obsessed with making it a reality.
Because of that, people think that I am always advocating for change. They hear about the church I pastor—Solomon's Porch—where we sit on couches and write our own music and create sermons as a group. They get hung up on the ways we've changed what church looks like. They hear me speak at an event and come away thinking they have to change everything they're doing—get rid of the pews, light some candles, grow facial hair—to become something other than who they are.
But that's not the kind of change to which I'm calling us.
LIVING IN THE INVENTIVE AGE IS NOT OPTIONAL.
I'm calling us to find our place in a swiftly shifting culture, to consider how we need to change what we think, what we value, what we do and how we do it. I'm calling us to be the church in the Inventive Age.
We are not called to change for change's sake. We are called to live faithfully in the time and place in which we live. Living faithfully may require us to make changes in what we do, but changing our practices is not the point. Change only matters if it's based in an understanding of why that change is needed. If it's not, the only change you'll make is to trade one set of problems for another.
When a culture changes, everything in the culture changes. Not all at once, but over time. The tensions we are seeing in American Christianity—declining membership in mainline churches, fractious relationships between evangelicals and mainliners, an untapped spiritual hunger among young adults—point to the discomfort change brings with it.
Your level of willingness to live with some of that discomfort will determine if this is a dangerous book or a hopeful book.
We can't pretend cultural change doesn't impact the church. It does. It always has. Every church exists in the context of a culture. Every church has inherited a culture.
Most churches meet on Sunday mornings, not because there is something sacred about 11:00 a.m. but because that was the best time for farmers to head into town for an hour. They could do their morning chores, go to church, and get home in time to eat and head back to the fields for the afternoon. Those churches that still meet at 11 a.m. on Sundays, despite having not a single farmer in the congregation, are living out an inherited cultural norm.
We can't pretend churches don't bring about cultural change. They do. They always have. Again, even the most innocuous parts of our lives point to the interplay between the culture and its various institutions. Would restaurants all over the country set up Sunday brunch buffets if not for the Sunday church crowd?
Thankfully, the discomfort and the need to push through it are not new phenomena. This has been the call of the church since its birth.
YOUR CHURCH IS MORE MULTICULTURAL THAN YOU THINK
The narrative of our faith is strung together by change. We should be used to it by now.
THE REFORMERS CHANGED THE CHURCH BY REWRITING THE RULES OF AUTHORITY.
THE 1ST-CENTURY CHRISTIANS CHANGED THE CHURCH BY INCLUDING THE GENTILES IN THE JEWISH STORY.
THE APOSTLES CHANGED THE CHURCH BY BELIEVING IN A RESURRECTED MESSIAH.
THE PROPHETS CHANGED THE FAITH BY TURNING THE STORY OF CAPTIVITY INTO A STORY OF REDEMPTION.
MOSES CHANGED THE FAITH BY CHASING A PROMISE.
ABRAHAM CHANGED THE FAITH BY MAKING A COVENANT WITH GOD.
The Gospel of Mark gives us a rather strange introduction to Jesus. Jesus is walking alongside a lake in Galilee and says, "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15). For a Jewish teacher and Messiah to be introduced walking, not in Jerusalem, but in Galilee, meant something was changing. It's as if Mark wanted to point out that the center of the faith was no longer the Temple but Jesus.
The New Testament tells story after story of the shift from a faith based on the Temple and synagogue model to one that included apostles, Gentiles, and home churches. The Bible is clear that this process was more than-a-little uncomfortable for the religious leaders of the day.
Still, these people understood that change comes and that the faith compels us to move forward, not back. They faced upheaval, doubt, even death. They faced the wondrous task of proclaiming the kingdom of God in their day. And that will never change.
Too often, churches stay stuck in the past and end up dying off as their lifeblood is sucked away in the name of tradition. Just as often, churches ignore the past and move forward with no regard for the strengths of our history. Both approaches are a mistake.
The past is not our standard. It is not the test of whether something is right or good. But it's also not an albatross we need to shuck off as quickly as possible. The past is our constant companion. It is always with us. The question is what do we do with it—return to it, let it rule, or take its best efforts with us into the future?
To answer that question, we'll start with a look at the three ages through which we have already moved and the age in which we find ourselves today.CHAPTER 3
CHANGE ISN'T JUST SOMETHING YOU GET FROM A VENDING MACHINE
HISTORY CANNOT GIVE US A PROGRAM FOR THE FUTURE, BUT IT CAN GIVE US A FULLER UNDERSTANDING OF OURSELVES, AND OF OUR COMMON HUMANITY, SO THAT WE CAN BETTER FACE THE FUTURE.
—ROBERT PENN WARREN
I was once in a small group meeting with famed organizational expert Peter Drucker. Out of everything he said, one thought has stuck with me more than the others. He said, "The world my parents were born into was essentially the same as the world of Abraham and Sarah from the Bible." He was, of course, right.
Drucker, born in Vienna in 1909, was pointing out that the world into which his parents were born—specifically Austria in the 19th century—operated under a social structure that had been in place in rural areas for a millennium. He contrasted that with the world into which he was born—Austria at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Just one generation earlier, the majority of human beings lived like their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had. They worked the land, rarely lived more than one hundred miles from where they were born, and knew they'd be lucky to see their 50th birthdays. Mid-19th century culture was, as Druker said, nearly identical to the culture of the ancient Israelites. Both were part of the Agrarian Age.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s brought about dramatic cultural upheaval in Europe and the United States. Certainly earlier inventions like the printing press had a broad impact on society. But the printing press didn't directly change the way people fed themselves or moved from place to place or earned a living. The Industrial Revolution did.
People moved from farms to cities. Men and women who had once worked alongside each other in the fields left their families at home to work in factories. Manufactured goods became the currency of the culture.
The next cultural shift began while the Industrial Age was still booming. During the 1920s and '30s, the Information Age began to take hold, thanks in no small part to the growth of the manufacturing and shipping industries that had taken place during the Industrial Age. As people had access to books, newspapers, radios, and eventually televisions, knowledge and information became the most valuable assets of the culture.
In the same way, the Inventive Age is being born out of the Information Age. Knowledge is no longer the goal, but the means by which we accomplish new—even unimagined—goals.
THE ROLE OF THE CHURCH IS TO LIVE AS A PARTICIPANT IN THE CULTURE
Few cultural institutions have been able to move through all of these shifts with their central identity intact. The church has been a steady—though not unchanged—presence in each age. It has remained when so many other cultural institutions have either fallen away completely or morphed so cleanly that they no longer resemble their former selves. I believe that's because the church has been both shaped by and a shaper of culture.
There are people who hate the idea that the culture impacts the church. They like to think of the church as a bastion of stability in a sea of turmoil. They want to believe that the church has somehow maintained a pristine, untouched essence even as the muck of society has swirled around it.
That's simply not the case.
This isn't an insult to the church. The church ought to place itself squarely in the midst of a culture. Everything from the kinds of buildings we call churches to the way we expect our pastors to preach, our theology to be laid out, and our furniture to be arranged is meant to communicate something to the culture in which a church functions. I think that's good news.
As American society has moved from the Agrarian Age through the Industrial Age into the Information Age and now on to the Inventive Age, the church has moved right along with it. These four ages serve not only as an overview of American history, they are a map of the landscape of American Christianity.
The Agrarian Age: Little Church on the Prairie
It might be more accurate to call the Agrarian Age the Everything-Before-the-War-of-1812 Age. As Peter Drucker pointed out, in the time between the dawn of humanity and the mid-1800s, very little changed.
Here in the United States, we have a bit of a love affair with our agrarian past. We are an eager audience for stories about the Wild West and the frontier. Our national identity is built on the notion that we are rugged individualists, pioneers who can conquer nature herself. On any given day, you can still find reruns of Little House on the Prairie on TV. Many parents consider it part of their civic duty to read the Laura Ingalls books to their children.
Actually, Little House on the Prairie isn't a bad way to think about the face of American culture in the Agrarian Age. Most people lived like the Ingalls family. They built their homes by hand. They lived in or near small towns that were made up of a general store, a mill or grain exchange, maybe a blacksmith or tannery, and a central building that served as a school, a church, and a town hall. They made a living either by working the land or by providing goods and services to those who did.
Most people spent their entire lives surrounded by essentially the same families. They ate food grown on their land and the land of people they knew. They made clothing out of fabric they bought from their neighbors. They slept under blankets quilted by friends. They were present for the births of their neighbors' children and built caskets to hold their neighbors' dead. People were tightly tied to the land and to each other.
While there were certainly cities in the Agrarian Age, they were nothing like the cities Americans would see by the end of the 19th century: In 1800, New York City had a population of 80,000. By 1900, the population had jumped to 3,000,000.
Life in the Agrarian Age was also shrouded in fear. Death was an ever-present threat. If you and your mother survived pregnancy and childbirth, you had to worry about pneumonia, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and snakebites.
Once you were old enough to work the land, there were countless accidents that could rob you of your livelihood, not to mention your life. Then there was the weather. Too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry and a year's worth of crops were gone. Tornados, fires, blizzards, floods, drought—there was no end to the ways nature could crush you.
That looming sense of fear meant that the Agrarian Age wasn't just about location. It was a mindset. There was a sense of dependence on other people, on the land, on God, on nature. This dependence was necessary for survival, yes, but it also framed the way people thought about themselves and the world around them.
You stayed close to home because you needed to trust the people around you to help you survive. You learned everything you knew from watching and listening to other people because if they'd managed to stay alive maybe you would too. There was the world you knew and the world you didn't—and would likely never—know. The fear of what lay beyond the borders of your community, the otherness of the people and places you didn't know or understand, kept you from venturing too far.
Excerpted from Church in the Inventive Age by Doug Pagitt. Copyright © 2014 Doug Pagitt. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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