Saturday, August 30, 2008

Church for the 21st Century

Early in his new book, "The American Church in Crisis", author and consultant David T. Olson quotes from the poem "The Rock," by T.S. Eliot, who wrote incisively about the church's challenges and potential:

And the Church must be forever building,
And always decaying,
And always being restored.

Consider those three phrases to capture the ebb and flow of the life of Christ's church, writes Olson as he examines T.S. Eliot's poem.

  • "Always decaying" indicates that every organic entity diminishes and decays over time. Call it the law of entropy. Things wind down. Then, Olson reminds us that, in the biological world, decay is often necessary for new growth to appear.
  • "Forever building" depicts the pattern of creative initiatives that promote life and vitality. Building may be unplanned or strategic, and that choice will usually determine the level of its influence and its longevity.
  • "Always being restored" describes a spiritual and miraculous act of God's grace in the life of faith. Restoration takes place when God acts through the power of the gospel story and the movement of the Spirit, breathing new life into the church. The combined process of building and restoration unite human and divine efforts to fashion the household of God, argues Olson. "For we are God's co-workers; you are God's field, God's building." (I Cor. 3: 9)
Despite Gallup polling that reports that more than 40% of Americans say they attended church in the last week, Olson argues that "In reality the church in America is not booming." It is in crisis. On any given Sunday, the vast majority of Amerians are absent from church."

As many now observe, the fastest growing group in America is "spiritual, but not religious."

Delving deeper into actual church attendance patterns, and citing Gallup's own reservations about the accuracy of self-reported church attendance, David Olson offers some different perspectives. A simple definition by the American Church Research Project defines a "regular participant" in church life as someone who attends church at least 3 out of every 8 Sundays- or more than once a month. By using statistical modeling to calculate frequency of attendance, the results show that 23% of Americans are "regular participants."

The converse truth is that 77% of Americans do not meet the above definition.

The question is then raised: Is an authentic connection to the life of a church an integral part of Christianity?"

By way of response, Henri Nouwen is quoted:

"Listen to the Church. I know that isn't a popular bit of advice at a time and in a country where the Church is frequently seen more as an 'obstacle' in the way rather than as the 'way' to Jesus.
Nevertheless, I'm profoundly convinced that the greatest spiritual danger for our times is the separation of Jesus from the Church. The Church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus, there can be no Church; and without the Church, we cannot stay united with Jesus. I"ve yet to meet anyone who has come closer to Jesus by forsaking the Church. To listen to the Church is to listen to the Lord of the Church."

I recommend David Olson's book for its challenge to church leaders and members alike who love their church, but also remain unwilling to examine the cultural and spiritual changes and challenges to the healthy life of congregations. Too often, we refuse to ask: "What will the church in the 21st century look like and demand of us to live out an authentic and missional faith and discipleship?"

Here, Olson points the way: The Church Needs to Discover Which Century It is Living In. Too many of our churches act as if they are still operating in the 1950s; others act as if they are still living in the 1980s or 1990s.

The American church, argues Olson, must engage with these 3 critical transitions:
  1. Our world used to be Christian, but it is now becoming post-Christian. How does this call us to a more faithful practice of discipleship?
  2. Our world used to be modern, but it is now becoming postmodern. People are not asking so much if our faith is true, but is it relevant and can it actually be practiced.
  3. Our world used to be mono-ethnic, but it is now becoming multiethnic. How will this new reality shape the homogeneous worshipping communities most of us grew up in?
These are huge transitions and the church can respond with anxiety, paralysis and fear, or embrace with confidence that the gospel and our faith is ultimately "translateable' into any new culture and time.


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