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The church is heading into a “perfect storm” of cultural forces. Will you sink beneath the waves, or ride the winds of the Spirit?
An array of cultural forces is coming together to present the church with unprecedented challenge and unequaled opportunity. Such “category 5" realities as postmodernism, postChristendom attacks on belief in God, and the threat of global warming have coalesced to make a “perfect storm” that will leave people uncertain of their place in the world, and...
The church is heading into a “perfect storm” of cultural forces. Will you sink beneath the waves, or ride the winds of the Spirit?
An array of cultural forces is coming together to present the church with unprecedented challenge and unequaled opportunity. Such “category 5" realities as postmodernism, postChristendom attacks on belief in God, and the threat of global warming have coalesced to make a “perfect storm” that will leave people uncertain of their place in the world, and all they have previously believed in. Like the disciples when Jesus calmed the storm, the church can cower and cry out for relief. Or, when everything is spinning and whirling in the wind, the church can go out to meet the storm, embrace the gale, . . . and pass out kites.
From the Circuit Rider review: "Like other books Sweet has written and compiled, The Church of the Perfect Storm is thought-provoking and compelling. The material flows in such a way that allows readers to grasp the gravity of the situation. However, as with most futuristic material, there is also a sense in which readers may want to know: 'Okay, now what? Where do we need to steer this ship? Are mainline and evangelical churches so off-course as to fail to weather the rising tides that are here and soon coming?' Readers of this volume may enjoy the description of a post-Christendom world, but they may also want to know more about the prescription for the days ahead. (Click here to read the entire review.)
For I am the Lord your God, who churns up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD Almighty is his name. Isaiah 51:15 NIV
There is a reason you are so tired.
There is a reason your church is woozy from the worship wars.
There is a reason society is pining for simpler, safer times.
There is a reason people are cranky, dispirited, and suffering from an acute case of holy halitosis or unholy hypothermia.
There is a reason theologians seem to be commentators on a game that no one is playing.
There is a reason the Christian church has lost pride in itself or in what it does.
There is a reason for the cultural dooms and glooms, all the vertigo and violence.
There is a reason that every time you read the newspaper, you want to pray a prayer seemingly written just for this world of ours: "Lord, have mercy."
There is a reason Armageddon is in the air.
There is a reason hysteria, meanness, and boredom seem to be the prevailing Christian temper.
There is a reason there are now 2,088 country music stations in the United States, more than any other single radio format.
There is a reason that two recent number one country-and-western hits were Rascal Flatts's "Mayberry" and Tim McGraw's "Back When":
I miss Mayberry ... Where everything is black and white
I like the old and outdated Way of life.
The reason is more than the fact that the world seems out of control. Or that in my lifetime we have gone from Pride and Prejudice to The Princess Diaries, from Leave It to Beaver to Beavis and Butt-Head, from Queen for a Day to Desperate Housewives, from doo-wop to bebop to hip-hop. Or that in these dawning days of the twenty-first century the biblical story is now so unfamiliar that the leading interfaith journal can identify the phrase "be in the world but not of it," not as a quote from Jesus but as an old "Sufi saying."
The reason is this: we're entering the perfect storm.
His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. Nahum 1:3 NIV
Past storms: To be sure, this is not the first time Christians have had to pass through culturestorms that have been more than ripples on the surface of Christianity. To paraphrase Job, there is no end of storms. The church is born to storms, surely as waves crash the shore. Saint Basil once compared the church after the Council of Nicea with a naval battle in the darkness of a storm. Clipper ships like the Cutty Sark were once known as "Gothic cathedrals" at sail. Here are some examples of when and where the clipper ship of Christianity has found itself between the devil and the deep blue sea:
1. Jesus was born in the midst of a storm, a time of state-sponsored terror (the terrorist's name was Herod).
2. In the second century, Christians transitioned from thinking of themselves as a branch of Judaism and began viewing themselves as a unique movement, to the horror of the Judaizers.
3. When the church was in the midst of the last days of Roman North Africa as Rome fell in A.D. 410 to the barbarian Visigoths, Augustine of Hippo spent ten years writing a manual on how to get through this storm. This manual was called The City of God.
4. When the church was facing an alien philosophical system called Aristotelianism, a brilliant intellect named Thomas Aquinas studied this amazing body of knowledge for an entire lifetime. He wrote a book, Summa Theologiae, that both integrated and critiqued this vast body of pagan insight.
5. When the church confronted a new technology called the printing press that proposed new delivery systems for learning and faith formation, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others led a Protestant Reformation that embraced the new technology and, in so doing, shook the very foundations of Christian tradition.
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. Abraham Lincoln
In these first decades of the twenty-first century, there are storm clouds not just on the horizon, but overhead. This is more than simply making heavy weather about the weather. An unblinking conversation with history reveals that the transformations taking place during the current culturestorms are without precedent in Christian history. Three storm-makers, all global storms, all Category 5 storms, all overlapping, mutually reinforcing, multiple storms, have created collectively what might be called the perfect storm.
First is the tsunami known as postmodernity. Second is the big hurricane, or more precisely an epidemic of related hurricanes, called post-Christendom. The third is a global warming I am calling post-scale. Any one of these storms could smash the clipper ship of Christianity to pieces. Each one of these storms requires huge adjustments. All three together constitute what can perhaps best be described as the perfect storm. No compass has ever been invented for the perfect storm.
The Day After the Day After: Is this the end of Christianity as we know it? The storm is taking Christianity where no Christian has gone before. History hangs too heavily at this point in time for the church not to feel a new, accelerated urgency as it faces its terrible moment in history. If the church is not watchful and wakeful, it will find itself pirated by the cultural moment, just as it was by fascism, just as it was by Nazism.
We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems. John Gardner
The perfect storm does not set this time of history in a minor key. That is why every place today seems to be in the process of both being born and dying. The Perfect Storm is much more than a historical marker (chronos time). It is a historical opportunity (kairos time). These are some of the most exciting, extraordinary, kairotic days the church has ever experienced. Kairos time summons leaders who will leave the comfortable and conventional. Kairos time summons leaders who will not try to reverse history or make time flow backwards. The best you cheat the clock is only one hour, which we do each spring and fall. Kairos time summons men and women of faith, in Søren Kierkegaard's magnificent phrase, who will "remain out upon the deep, over seventy thousand fathoms of water, still preserving my faith."
The call is greater than ever before, but it is not for the faint of heart. But then, whoever said it was supposed to be easy? Jesus warned us to sit down and "consider the cost" before we decide to follow him.
In both the book and the movie The Perfect Storm, there was one reason to go out into the storm and risk being lost at sea: to make the ultimate catch. I would argue that the perfect storm offers the church its greatest chance to become the "Ultimate Church" and make the ultimate catch for the gospel. Navigate this sea change, cross this raging "Red Sea," and we will find a promised land of new beginnings and a new church on the other side. What is certain is that the future will be far better for the church than the past. What is also certain is that many churches will be left behind, smash on the shoals of status-quoism, or sink into oblivion.
Storms prune and purify. They tear down all that is not tied down and lasting. They enforce the rule of persevere or perish. It behooves us to make the most of our storms, especially this perfect storm. For in the words of British Methodist Colin Morris, "God wills a new creation which may be a gift from beyond history, the kingdom of heaven, but which is made up of elements from every era in history that have withstood the shaking, gone through the refiner's fire and had the dross burned off them."
When everyone and everything is spinning and whirling in the wind, Christians go out to meet the storm. Christians embrace the wind.
And pass out kites.
The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope. Samuel Johnson
Category 5 Cultural Storm: The Tsunami of Postmodernity
We have learned a new word—tsunami— which you already knew, Lord, for you created this world in all its beauty and terror. Hallowed be your name. .... And may we all resolve to revere this fragile earth rather than abuse it, to enable developing nations rather than indebt them, and to claim your presence rather than fear your absence at the heart of every storm. A Prayer written by John Bell of the Iona Community for the BBC special "Songs of Praise Vigil" after the 2005 tsunami
Nobody woke up one morning and said:
I've got a wonderful feeling; tsunami is coming my way.
But that is exactly what has happened in many of our lifetimes. A tsunami called postmodernity has inundated planet Earth, not just one privileged part of the planet, the whole planet. The notion that postmodernity is limited to Western, Anglo cultures is belied by two stories:
1. In February of 2006, seventy-four people died in the Philippines. They were in a waiting crowd of over thirty thousand people that stampeded to get inside the PhilSports Arena (in the Pasig suburb outside Manila) for a reality TV game show Wowowee where the grand prize was one million pesos ($19,300).
2. In early 2007 I received an e-mail from a friend in Slovakia. His grandmother lives in a ramshackle house that has no indoor plumbing but does have broadband access to the Internet.
For pomo-phobes, postmodernity means just about anything you want it to mean, as long as it is objectionable. But no one can escape the fact that the twenty-first century is operating off of very different assumptions and energies than characterized the previous couple of centuries. Anyone want to argue that our kids are living in an entirely different thought world than the one we grew up in, and that these two worlds often do not speak to each other? Anyone born after 1964 want to argue that our kids have brains wired differently from ours? Any educator want to defend the big jug/little mug learning plan, memorialized in a bit of adolescent doggerel:
Cram it in, jam it in; People's heads are hollow. Take it in, pour it in; There is more to follow.
The human brain works differently now than it used to.
The people of Peoria, Illinois, proved it over a century ago. It was the afternoon of 16 October 1854. An obscure former one-term congressman named Abraham Lincoln debated the well-known Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas. The issue was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was passed a couple of months earlier and whose primary author was Senator Douglas. Lincoln made public his bill of complaints against this bill and outlined his opposition to the extension of slavery into Kansas made possible by this bill.
This debate was a trial run for the more famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.
Douglas kicked things off at 2:00 P.M. He mesmerized the Peoria crowd for three straight hours.
When Lincoln rose to speak, he surprised his audience by dismissing them. "I'm hungry," he told his listeners. "Take a break, get something to eat, and come back in an hour." Since he promised not to take any less time than his esteemed colleague, and assured Douglas that he would have sufficient time for rebuttal, Lincoln warned everyone that at least another four hours of listening awaited them.
At 7:00 P.M. sharp, a miracle took place. The Peorians came back. They went home, but most amazing of all, they came back for another four hours. The only person in recent memory who could command the attention of a crowd for seven hours is Fidel Castro, and even then it wasn't exactly a voluntary attention.
It is almost as if the church willfully will not hear the news: the world has moved on.
We may not know what this new world is, but we know what it isn't. In the words of the late philosopher Stanley Grenz, "postmodernism refers to an intellectual mood and an array of cultural expressions that call into question the ideals, principles, and values that lay at the heart of the modern mind-set." The modern project has ended. "Postmodernity" is the name given to this fragmentary, digital, dizzying world of kaleidoscopic changes, a world where everything often comes to nothing. Or in the words of one theological dictionary, postmodern is the void between the lost and the not yet comprehended: "Postmodern is the name given to this space between what was and what is yet to be."
Some mourn modernity's passing (modernists). Others never liked modernism in the first place (premoderns/traditionalists). Some celebrate modernism's demise, but still define themselves in terms of modernity (call these the neo-avant-garde who still pursue the new but a different and often recycled new from the modern). The relation between premodern, modern, and postmodern is not sequential, but simultaneous. The tsunami of postmodernity did not wash away all outcroppings of premodern or modern. If it had, we would need to rebuild them. There are premodern parts of me, and modern parts of me, and postmodern parts of me. But the primary cultural formation out of which we must operate is now postmodern.
The premodern period was characterized by faith in God and knowledge based on authoritative tradition.... In the modern paradigm, the emphasis was changed from faith in God to human reasoning.... In the postmodern period ... we are moving away from reason by the autonomous self and moving toward relationship in community. Jimmy Long
Premoderns: Premodern people trusted authoritative texts that were mediated by trusted authority figures (king, bishop, Roman hierarchy). Critical reasoning or empirical experimentation were foreign concepts, as was the ideal of freedom, whether freedom to choose your spouse, your career, your location, not to mention freedom of speech, press, assembly, or freedom of conscience. Notions of the self revolved around an innate and inherited human nature, which remained the same for everyone.
In premodern worship, the high point was the Eucharist, when God meets humans in the wine and bread. A lot else happened in worship, but this was the moment everyone waited for, the moment so powerful that some people fainted, the hoc est corpus meum (hocus pocus) moment.
Moderns: The modern makeover was accomplished by Descartes, Locke, Galileo, and Guttenberg. They made the world over and birthed a new kind of reality by using certain drivers: doubt, the rhetoric of reason, and natural rights theory. The word cogito was not original to Descartes (Augustine was very high on cogito centuries before). But Descartes's cogito ergo sum is seen as the starting point of Enlightenment culture, where people trusted in individual or collective reason as the ultimate authority and denigrated emotion and intuition.
With trust in the power of reason came the doctrine of progress. Where do you think we get the notion that democracy and free markets are preordained to spread around the globe? The doctrine of progress and modernism go hand in hand. Notions of reason replaced premodern notions of human nature when it came to understandings of the self, and it was assumed that human nature is rational. Premodern bowing before God gave way to modern bowing before Me.
Modernity was when religion and art took leave of one another.
Modernity was when religion and the apocalyptic took leave of one another.
Modernity was when organized religion and the nation-state took to bed with one another, and civil religion was born.
Excerpted from The Church of the Perfect Storm by Leonard Sweet Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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