Is it Easier to Plant Churches in the USA compared to Western Europe and Australiasia?

Whilst I was in the US recently I had a number of conversations with Europeans and Australians about the differences between doing mission in the US and in other Western countries. As most of you will know, the US has a high church attendance when compared to other similar Western developed countries. To sum it up in the bluntest of terms, everyone who I spoke to all agreed that it is a lot harder to plant churches and to do mission in Western Europe and Australasia than it is to in the United States.

I have been thinking about this a lot. One of the conclusions that I have come to is that Americans tend to be a lot more excited and passionate as a people when compared to other Westerners. Just look at how Americans do politics, look at the rallies, the crowds, the passion, the excitement. Even those in the United States who resist the Church and/or Christianity do so with a fervour and zeal that seems religious. This is not to say there are large segments of the US population who display a cultural sense of boredom, but in comparison Western Europeans and Australasians seem far more cynical and or apathetic about politics and public discourse.

Perhaps part of this phenomenon comes from the fact that the United States was created as a kind of Utopia. The pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, wanted to start over again, and create a kind of kingdom of God on earth. The founding fathers wanted to create a kind of Utopian, egalitarian state which would mirror the values of the enlightenment. These influences create in the cultural DNA of the United States a kind of inherent enthusiasm and ‘can do attitude’.

In contrast those doing mission in the non – US West face a massive challenge, namely apathy and indifference. People simply don’t seem to care. It is not that they are simply bored by religion, but bored by politics, and public life. Strangely the only place you will seem to see people from Western Europe and Australasia get really passionate publicly about is sport. In comparison to the US, Western Europe and Australasia seems marked by a kind of cultural ennui.

This raises a really important missional question then for those doing mission to the non – US West. What does the good news mean for the bored, the indifferent, the cynical and the weary?

Hyperreal Missional Churches

When I wrote in the Trouble with Paris about how hyperreality has affected contemporary Christianity, people went to town pointing the finger, which many had a right to do. But I did notice that people tended to point the finger at certain types of churches, which tended to be either contemporary Mega Churches or churches with a prosperity based theology. However what I did observed is that a lot of people, particularly those in Missional Churches failed to notice the ways in which Hyperreality influenced their own communities of faith.   

Thus the influence of Missional Churches has been in my opinion damaged by our blindness to our own peculiar forms of cultural captivity. Whilst critics have blasted some contemporary churches for the way in which they confused the gospel with a consumerist aspirational lifestyle. Many have failed to note how unwittingly some missional and emerging churches have made the same error.  Whilst on the whole missional  churches are started and run by fantastic people who are personaly convicted to engage in mission; one of the biggest problems that many of these leaders find, is that the people who join their churches are not that missional. That they may initially have the right edgy style, they may say the right things and be reading the right books. But  three years later, either things have fallen apart or the group has failed to grow or has done very little mission.

What many leaders fail to recognize is that many join Missional churches because they believe that it will culturally enrich their lives, they may think that they are joining because of mission but deep down other motivations are influencing them. The idea of leaving their staid church experience and entering a hyperreal missional world is incredibly enticing. Churches in Cafes, hipster leaders, people with your tastes, a more liberal approach to behaviour, cool urban locales, plus the culturally seductive whiff of ‘radicalness’ all combine to create an intoxicating mix. However the problem is that mission is not sexy, mission operates in the realm of reality, it actually requires hard work. It can carry a significant cost. It can be lonely and difficult, to be honest it can sometimes mess up your life, to be blunt it is anything but hyperreal.

For more on this phenomenon check out

The Trouble with Incarnation and The Emerging church is about culture not theology

RIP Emerging Church. Now can we change the conversation with some help from Al Pacino?

 

A number of people including myself have been writing on the net of the demise of the Emerging Church movement (or at least the terminology) over the last little while see

Out of UR       Dan Kimball     Andrew Jones   Me

I guess that for the first time I feel a sense of hope. My hope is that the conversation will now change. For sometime I have felt like a lone voice, as I have advocated our need to understand that if God is going to change the church, first he wants to change us. Whilst the discussion about church shape, missional movements, cultural relevance, social justice, missional movements and creative worship has been vital and essential, a key element has been ignored.

We need a revolution of the self.

We have failed to address our own souls and our own sense of self. We have pointed the finger – analysed and critiqued church patterns, missional models and Christian culture, but have remained naive to the way in which we ourselves as individuals have co-opted by contemporary culture. For we carry within us viruses. Parasitical organisms which are capable of ruining all of our plans, of wounding, weakening and even destroying our movements, churches, communities, ministries.

I have compiled here from previous writings some of these viruses and the influence they play on our selves that we must address.

The Lure of the Hyperreal World. Our culture offers us a vision of the future that is air brushed perfect. Just over the horizon there seems a perfect world, all you have to do is make that purchase, book that vacation, or pay for the right experience. This mirage like future is presented to us thousands of times in day in our media and advertising drenched world. If you really listen to people you will find that this perfect future is a very real competitor to the Christian gospel, it is one of the most virulent implicit religions of our day. For more see my book The Trouble With Paris

Commitment Phobia One of the flow on effects of the worldview of consumerism is that it has a caustic, corrosive effect upon our ability to commit. I remember as a kid seeing a shirt that I wanted to buy, I had my money, and was ready to head to the cash register, when my mother taught me a key tactic known to every shopper, that is shopping around for a better bargain. We headed off to the others stores to see if the same shirt was on sale for a cheaper price. Hyper-Consumerism has taught us all to be good shoppers in almost every arena of life, we have learnt to not commit and hang on for the better bargain. For consumerism to operate effectively as a system, it needs a low commitment environment.

We only have to look at the arena of human sexuality to see how the world view of consumerism has shaped our behaviour. Consumerism shapes our civic life, and our community habits. In all areas we are taught to hold off, and not commit. In my book The Trouble With Paris I write,

“We run from those promises and covenants that humans have made to each other for thousands of years because they frighten us to death. Many today fear such commitment-based social institutions because self now takes precedence over commitment. As the worldview of hyperconsumerism has taken hold of our imaginations, everything has become shopping. We must not become entangled in commitments, because they could limit our options on finding something better. This constant search for something better means that the supershoppers of hyperconsumerism are still waiting for a better deal after the mall has closed and then are forced to return home empty-handed. Or we find ourselves always on the move, searching for a home that shifts and shimmies over the horizon. We keep up this restlessness as our fears of not being stimulated take over.

The key to life, we are told, is to keep holding out for that perfect bargain. But the less we commit, the more we become passive. We never make a move; instead, we simply stand and watch life go by. Our fear of commitment has turned us into passive consumers.”

Of course this deeply effects how we view church. In my experience most young adults would view staying in a church for three years as a long term commitment. Most seem to re-examine their commitment to communities of faith on a rolling 12 month basis, this contractual view of church attendance is based on a fear of ‘missing out’ on something better.

Therapeutic Faith. We have taken on what some label as a therapeutic faith, that is a faith in which feelings rule over facts, in which the heart beats the head. A faith that is built only upon feelings can truck along nicely until the rough weather comes along. Our culture values pleasure and feelings over almost everything else, we need faith’s in which our hearts and our heads work in tandem. A faith that is only heart driven has no discernment. The word warned of false prophets, we must take everything we feel and experience back to scripture to be weighed.

Life as acting. Young adults today emerge into a world in which we act all the time. You can pretend to be someone online that you are not, you can make your life look more awesome on your myspace or facebook than it really is. There is tremendous pressure to live as though we are acting. Media theorist Neal Gabler in his book Life the Movie notes that today many live their lives like they are acting all the time. Young people live in a perpetual spotlight, they are their own media channels, their own brands, and their own public relations firms. In such a world who you are on the inside is irrelevant, instead we act out a life script our audience is our peers.

Double Lives. A number of recent surveys have found that large segments of Evangelicals privately do not hold to evangelical beliefs. Ron Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience points out that Evangelicals behaviour is no different to that of those who do not hold to faith and in many cases worse. One of the traits of contemporary culture is what Danel Gergen in his book The Saturated Self calls multiphrenia, that is the ability to hold contradictory beliefs at the same time without a sense of guilt or cognitive dissonance. Sadly Christians have begun to mirror this phenomenon. Many young Christians pick and choose what parts of the gospel they want to adhere to and seem to not feel the guilt that past generations did about doing so.

Choice Anxiety. If you live in the West you are rich, not just financially, but you enjoy an affluence of options and choices. On one hand this is fantastic, we have access to millions of opportunities and experiences that our forebears could never dream of. But the flipside of this abundance of choice means that we become paralysed in the face of a million possibilities, choices and variables. Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice notes that the more choices we are given, the more our well -being and happiness deteriorates. Why? Because whatever choice we make we are always comparing our decisions to the myriad of other possible choices. Thus we can never be at peace with the paths that we take, we are always comparing and fretting, we are stuck with a constant gut level anxiety or angst over our choices. Add to this the fact that daily we are confronted with thousands of advertising messages all of which are designed by experts and marketing psychologists, and each has the purpose to make us feel discontent with our lives in order to make new purchases, and you can see why we are stuck in choice anxiety. 

Christian young adults are stuck with a constant splinter in the mind, the never ending nagging feeling that they might have made the wrong decision. Did they even make right choice in following Christ? Maybe they should move Cities, States, Countries? Should they change partners, careers, lifestyles, ethics? All of these factors create a constant and nagging feeling that young adults must leave their churches in order to find fulfillment. However as soon as you move and set your tent down, that nagging feeling returns. Sadly more and more young adult believers are experiencing a harried, exhausting and restless spiritual homelessness.  

Get these on the Talking Points

There are influences on the contemporary self that we as Christians must turn our attentions to. My prayer is that these issues can find their way onto the list of contemporary Christian talking points. If we do not, whatever vision you have the church’s future is in serious jeopardy.  

I can’t help but wonder if these issues have not really been on the agenda because they require us to turn the spotlight upon ourselves, that all come with a price tag. They require of us that oh so unhip concept, repentance.

How Al Pacino can help us

Two things struck me when I first watched Al Pacino’s classic 70’s film Serpico. Firstly Al trotted out in the freshest thread I have ever seen (see top pic). But secondly I was struck by the story. The movie is based on the true story of an honest yet avante garde cop Joe Serpico, who blew the whistle on rampant corruption within the police force. In the film Serpico faces tremendous pressure to conform to the wider culture of corruption, at first it is just peer pressure, but as the film progresses, he faces violence even death. The point of the movie, is that one honest person who sticks to their values and sense of self, can bring down and reform a culture which has gone toxic.

If we are to reform our culture it is not just enough to pioneer new forms of church and mission, we must evangelise ourselves, our primary post modern mission-field is our own hearts. Change our hearts, rid them of the aforementioned toxins, and we could have a genuine revolution on our hands.

Are you game?

Mission in the Age of Facebook

One of the amazing stats of Church history is that in the year 100 AD there was approximately 25,000 Christians in the Roman world. Only a couple of centuries late in the year 310 AD there was approximately 20,000,000 Christians. This statistic is often used today by all kinds of organizations and churches as an inspiration for how the church can grow.

However there are a few crucial differences between the early church and the context that we find ourselves in today. I want to explore just one of these. That is the concept of Relational Depth and Relational Breadth.

Relational Breadth is basically the amount of people that you know. In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell notes that if you want to spread an idea or create a movement, it is essential to have a wide group of acquaintances to whom you can share you ideas with. One of the key factors in allowing people to have relational breadth is technology and security. The early church existed in a time of great technological advance, the Roman road and system of governance made travel relatively safe and quick, the common languages of Latin and Greek made communications across ethnic groups possible. Once Rome began to wain and the Dark ages set in, the gospel not only slowed down in its movement, but it actually retreated with many former Roman subjects returning to paganism.

Today globalization and technology offers us tremendous opportunities for relational breadth. You can become facebook friends with someone you have never met in Iran and begin chatting to them online, exchanging photos and stories. Soon the biggest speaking English country in the world will be India, Chinese and Spanish are spoken across the globe in all kinds of environments. Jet travel acts like a modern day Roman road, allowing people to quickly traverse the globe.

However what the early church had that we don’t have is relational depth. Being one of the great trading races, many cities in the Roman Empire had a Jewish minority, complete with Synagogues and neighbourhoods. After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD Jewish refugees poured out of Israel and into the Roman world. If you were a Jewish Christian and you wanted to share the gospel, you could pretty much point to a Mediterranean city on a map and be able to find an uncle, cousin or someone from your old neighbourhood to go and stay with.

You would be able to rock up at your third cousins house and thanks to middle eastern hospitality traditions be taken in as a long lost son, be fed, and live with your Jewish kinfolk. You had deep coventantal commitments to your relatives and fellow Jews. The kind of social commitment that is rarely seen today.

Now the thing to remember was that most city dwellers lived in Roman apartments which were extremely cramped, the rooms had little or no ventilation and were dark and dank. So most people in apartments hung out in the courtyard, you literally lived in your family and neighbours pockets. So you could not hide your behaviour. People saw how you were at your best and your worst, they saw how you treated to business partners, your spouse and your kids, if you were a spiritual fraud you would be spotted in seconds. This was relational depth, you lived in deep community with people even if you were just passing through town. Thus when Christians arrived their witness was on display for everyone to see. Their example shone out.

However today with our tremendous relational breadth, we have little relational depth. Sure you might be able become friends with someone in Iran, and talk chat online with them about your favourite album; but you have no idea what they get up to in their real life. They could sell crack cocaine from a school bus for all you know. We move jobs today often, we move homes, we even move cities, many rarely see family, we don’t even know the names of the people in our street. This creates tough turf for the growth of the gospel.

In order for the gospel to grow again, we need to match the breadth of our relationship, with depth of relationships. In our facebook world where it is possible to have a thousand friends on your page, but still sit at home lonely. Part of our kingdom mandate is to go deeper with people, to again create depth of relationship, the growth of the gospel depends on it.

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