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SHOULD WE CHANGE Our GAME PLAN?
From Traditional or Contemporary to Missional and Strategic
By George G. Hunter III
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
HOW THE GAME CHANGED
The introduction featured a basketball analogy to suggest that the game has really changed for American and European churches. Churches once vital and growing did not flex with changing communities, changing populations, and new opportunities, and are now stagnant or declining and facing an undesirable future. Already, many churches that once thrived, like Pan Am or Oldsmobile, are now spent forces; others, like Sears or Kodak, are diminished.
This first chapter provides an overview of how the game changed over time. The changes usually came along slowly—for five hundred years. Not much usually happened from one month to the next or from one year to the next; the changes were usually from one decade, or one generation, or one century to the next. The changes were (and are) enormous, but they usually happened slowly enough to explain how, like Rip Van Winkle, most church leaders slept through a revolution.
While I used the game of basketball to suggest that the game has changed, let's turn to the game of football to explain how it has changed. Alas, the explanation involves more history than many people are salivating to read. But one cannot really understand where we are today without an overview of how we got here. What follows is more of a briefing than a history, more of a watercolor painting of the main features in bold strokes, rather than the details of an oil painting.
Home Field Advantage ... for a Thousand Years
For about one thousand years, the Western church was like a football team that played every game at home. Christianity enjoyed a perennial "home-field advantage." Indeed, the church wrote the rules, the church briefed the referees, the crowd was always behind the church. To vary the analogy, the church enjoyed a worldview "monopoly" for many centuries. People viewed reality through a Christianized lens. Christianity was Western society's official and privileged religion. Virtually everyone in Western society was a baptized and catechized Christian.
Historians have named this period "Christendom." It began some time after Constantine adopted Christianity in the Christian movement's fourth century. It essentially lasted, with many shifts, until the events of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries launched the process of the West's secularization.
The Christendom period was, of course, a mixed achievement. Some populations were never reached. Many populations were under-reached; they had been baptized, and probably "catechized," and were members of a geographic parish. But many became Christians because the local prince or baron did, and he expected his subjects to convert. Many conversions were superficial, and nominal Christianity was often epidemic; many people were never able to follow the Mass in Latin, and they never understood the doctrines. The old folk-religion was driven underground, but it still lived in many people's homes and assumptions. The Christianity of many people was "Christo-pagan;" the old pagan meanings were now attached to the newer Christian words, symbols, and saints.
Many people were only episodically involved in the church's life; in addition to Christmas and Easter, they attended baptisms, weddings, and funerals. (They came to be "hatched, matched, and dispatched!") In time, the parish had thousands of people, or tens of thousands, so the priest's job description was largely confined to the sacraments, leading the mass, and hearing confessions. The faith was domesticated. Søren Kierkegaard was to observe that when everyone is a Christian (in this diluted sense), then probably nobody is the kind of Christian that the early apostles would recognize.
And yet, as the English economic historian R. H. Tawney reminded us, Christendom was a serious attempt to establish a Christian society, in which the will of God might be done on earth "as in Heaven." A serious Christian ethic informed and influenced the society. Vocational guilds were established to ensure that young craftsmen were mentored, and that products and services met standards and were sold at a fair price. In economics, bankers could not charge people excessive interest; usury was a mortal sin. (In Dante's hell, usurers were consigned to one of hell's lowest realms.) Christianity influenced the political realm and achieved a period of relative peace compared to the warfare that followed Christendom's later collapse. The era inspired unspeakably great art, architecture, music, and literature. The era liberated people from much of the evil and magic that had prevailed. The era produced saints.
Locally, in virtually every town and village in Christendom, the parish church served as the center of the people's community. Family members were baptized, married, and buried there. The local parish church likely housed the only books in town and provided some literacy and education. The parish church belonged to people of all classes; alms for the poor were available in hard times. The church was the community's refuge in times of famine or epidemic. The community experienced its social life in the church, from weekly entertainment to holidays and festivals and markets set up in the churchyard.
At every level, from local villages to centers of government, the society at least worked at marching to Christianity's drum; the church influenced every area of life and influenced most of the people of the society. The Christendom experience gave many people a taste of what a good order might be like. But Christendom is now gone with the proverbial wind, and no one has since attempted anything like it on a large scale.
The Game Changers
How did the church lose its home-field advantage in Western society? In general, it happened as secularizing events moved the church from the society's center and toward its margins. Often this move occurred more or less unintentionally, but sometimes intentionally. Consider one example: people, for generations, left land to the church in their wills. In time, the church had acquired extensive land—perhaps as much as a fourth of the land of (what is now) Germany, France, and Britain, with extensive land holdings across much of Western Europe. In one generation or two, regional princes saw the land, organized armies, sacked the monasteries, and seized the land. They said at the time that the land was being "secularized," i.e., removed from the control or influence of the church.
While the secularization of church lands happened consciously and intentionally, the secularization of other areas of Western humanity's life often occurred more or less unconsciously and unintentionally, largely as a result of six sustained events:
I. The European Renaissance, led by Erasmus and others, was catalyzed by the rediscovery of ancient Greek philosophy and science. For centuries, Christianity provided the only sophisticated worldview available to the West's peoples; a recovered Greek worldview now introduced pluralism, which became an increasing, more recently a stampeding, feature of Western thought and life. Furthermore, Western humanity's attention substantially shifted from theological and ecclesiastical concerns to humanity's freedom and progress. The line of the Greek sophist Protagoras, "Man is the measure of all things," pointed in a new direction.
II. The Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation, led by Luther and others, essentially completed the new beginning. People said while they both lived, "Erasmus laid the egg and Luther hatched it." The church was now split. The attention of both churches turned inward—upon renewal and theological clarity, and away from the de facto management of society.
III. The rise of the Modern Nation-State, and the Spirit of Nationalism, undermined the sense of a common humanity that Christendom had instilled. Europe fragmented big time. Secular nations arose that, by design, would no longer act out the script of a church. While Europe had never been innocent of cultural chauvinism and intercultural conflict, the ideology of nationalism magnified this sin by the power of ten. Many peoples now regarded only their own people as fully human and other peoples as something less; this led to unprecedented warfare. Europe and its cultural outposts (like the United States, especially the United States) have never sufficiently recovered.
IV. The significance of the rise of Secular Cities cannot be overstated. The very early Christian movement was more contagious in the Roman Empire's cities than in the villages and hinterlands, but in modern times the Christian faith has experienced a more robust challenge in the cities. As many people moved from the countryside to the cities during the Industrial Revolution, they were removed from God's natural revelation. William Blake observed, "Great things are done when men and mountains meet / This is not done by jostling in the street."
V. Most church leaders know at one level that Empirical Science has contributed to the West's secularization, but this is such a commonplace insight that church leaders no longer seem to be sensitive to the fact that many of the assumptions of pre-Christian people have been shaped by the influence of science. If empathy is a prerequisite to effective ministry, it might be useful to reintroduce what secularization looks and feels like from referring to just five thinkers:
Galileo, in using his telescope to demonstrate the validity of Copernicus' theory, undermined the traditional view of the cosmos and the earth's place in the cosmos. The sun did not, despite common sense perceptions, revolve around the earth—giving us our days and nights. The earth revolves around the sun, and as the earth rotates on an axis, it gives us our days and nights. And contrary to Western humanity's inherited worldview, neither the earth nor our solar system are even close to being the center of God's universe.
Although Isaac Newton, like Galileo, was a devoted Christian, his discovery of the force of gravity undermined the traditional understanding of Providence in the minds of many people. People long believed that the hand of God kept the stars and planets in their orbits, but Newton's Principia Mathematica demonstrated that gravity could account for the universe's cohesion.
Charles Darwin started out as a Christian (or at least a Deist) and even considered the Anglican priesthood. His discoveries of the principle of natural selection in nature induced doubts, in his own mind, about William Paley's argument for the existence of God from the complexity in creation; for Darwin, natural selection might account for complex life forms. Furthermore, his theory that advanced creatures, including humans, had evolved from more primitive forbears raised questions about people being God's special creatures, created in God's image, just a little lower than the angels. Today, a majority of people in the Western world do not know they are created in God's image, for God's purpose, for lives of worth and dignity, to be stewards of creation, and so on. In the history of Christian evangelism, our predecessors could assume that pre-Christian people already knew that; today, most people do not already assume that they even matter to God.
Karl Marx somehow passed off his thought as scientific. His theories changed many people's view of the goal of human history. The goal was no longer the promised kingdom of God—in which people would beat their swords into plowshares, and the will of God would be done on earth as in heaven. The goal of history was now a secular (atheistic) utopia: the "dictatorship of the proletariat" would arise, following the "withering away of the state." Until the crumbling of the U.S.S.R. in 1989, more people probably assumed a Marxist view of history's direction than a Christian view.
Sigmund Freud raised questions about religious beliefs and even religious experiences. He was raised a Jew, but became emotionally estranged from the faith of his people. In time, he contended that God is an "illusion"—rooted in the child's need for an omnipotent father, that religion is "wish fulfillment" and an "obsessional neurosis." In his last book, Moses and Monotheism, he came to a greater appreciation of the faith of his people, but the overall body of his work contributed to a secular worldview.
VI. The sixth major secularizing event was the European Enlightenment, often called "The Age of Reason." The Enlightenment produced the culture of modernity in the Western world and beyond. The Enlightenment was an astonishingly complex ideological and social movement. We cannot do it justice here except to say that the movement propagated eight claims that became widely believed (or assumed), with significant secularizing effects. The Enlightenment generally taught that:
a. Human beings are rational. It is our capacity for rational thinking that separates us from the beasts of the forests, fields, and jungles.
b. Human beings are intrinsically good. The Enlightenment challenged the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. Its thinkers acknowledged that often people do not live and behave like good people, but the cause is the unjust conditions in which people live; establish more just conditions and people will live good lives.
c. The Universe functions with the clockwork precision of a machine. For many people, this confidence made God's providential care unnecessary, and made belief in any kind of spiritual realm optional.
d. Humans can construct morality on reason alone; they do not need the church, or God, to tell them what is right and wrong.
e. Humans can construct societies on reason alone. Some leaders were even confident that people could build societies that functioned with the clockwork precision of the physical universe.
f. Science and Education will liberate the human race from its longstanding problems.
g. Deep down, all religions are the same (or are equal). The Enlightenment's philosophy of Natural Religion reached this major conclusion before most of the world's religions had been studied!
In addition to those six sustained events, there were other distinct forces dismantling Christendom. (The Industrial Revolution and the rise of universities come to mind.) However, a renewed awareness of the impact of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the influence of Nationalism and Urbanization, and the cognitive shaping of Science and the Enlightenment can help us understand some of the important ways that the game has changed, how the church lost the home-field advantage, and why the world that God entrusts to the Christian movement today is very different from the world in which (say) Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley, Kierkegaard, Spurgeon, and even C. S. Lewis, Fulton J. Sheen, and Billy Graham once communicated the faith. As Christianity has lost the pervasive influence it once enjoyed, the western world has become increasingly "secular."
The Secular Mission Fields
Secularization has not been a singular monolithic force in Western history; other major events have impacted regional histories, so secularity is not the same everywhere. As secularization engaged a range of cultures, different forms of secularity emerged. Decades ago, Martin Marty profiled three basic forms that Western secularity has taken:
1. Much of Western Europe was experiencing "Utter Secularity." God and the church were attacked for decades by movements seeking to replace Christianity with something else.
2. Great Britain was experiencing "Mere Secularity." God and the Church were ignored as Britain's people became preoccupied with their daily concerns. The Church of England retained a shell of Christendom, but most British people do not think of Christianity as something to which one might be committed.
3. The United States was experiencing "Controlled Secularity." Church attendance remained popular, but many people (and churches) quietly attached American values to Christianity's symbols, and Christianity was made subservient to American culture's agendas.
Professor Marty's typology is still useful after more than forty years, though some things have changed. You can find people who embody any of the three forms anywhere in Western Europe, the United States, or Great Britain—or its cultural outposts like New Zealand, Australia, or Canada. The more aggressive expression of secularity, once more or less quarantined in Western Europe, now has more of a presence in Great Britain and the U.S.A.
Theories of Secularity
Secularization has had its fair share of academic interpreters—historians, sociologists, philosophers, theologians, and the like. Generally, three theories have gained rather wide support.
1. The first theory has largely dominated this chapter so far: as institutional Christianity has lost its once-central role and influence in Western society, Western society has become increasingly secular, and the people have been less influenced by Christianity. Although some churches are in denial and assume that the game has not changed, this theory is the nearest thing to an informed consensus as you are likely to find for any theory, in any field. As Hendrik Kraemer surveyed Western Europe in the 1950s, he wrote, "The modern world, by its victorious secularism, has domesticated the Church into a 'reservation' for people with religious needs, and the Church has largely accepted this domestication."
Excerpted from SHOULD WE CHANGE Our GAME PLAN? by George G. Hunter III. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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