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?

The missional context we find ourselves in

We find ourselves as the church in the developed world in a strange position. I have heard others say and have said myself often that the church has returned to the place that it found itself in the book of Acts. We are in a missional situation. With the influence of Christendom fading, we find ourselves confronted with a pluralistic missionfield. We are forced to reconfigure ourselves to reach this new reality.

However there are many ways in which our situation is different to the book of Acts. The church in Acts was energised. It was filled with Jewish beleivers, who were motivated and excited by their discovery of the Messiah. Gentile believers were turning to faith as the Roman world began to collapse. Thus the gospel was moved forward on a fresh wave of excitement. We face a different situation, whilst our missional situation is something akin to the book of Acts. When it comes to the reality within the church we find our situation something more like the book of Hosea. In the time of Hosea, the people of God found themselves compromised by their worship of both God and the gods and Idols of the surrounding nations. So it is the same with us today. When we look inside the church we find the people of God struggling to live holy lives as they encounter a whole gamut of new idols, that is new gods who go by modern names, materialism, consumerism, technology, image and security. Although these gods seem new, the corrosive effect that they have on faith is the same as the ancient idols of Baal and Moloch.

So to position ourselves as the church, we must confront both realities, if we are to be missionaly effective we must also take note of our cultural captivity.

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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?

5 Things We Got Wrong in the Emerging Missional Church

For over a decade here in Australia I have been involved in what some have labelled the Emerging Missional Church. Over the last two years I have been asking a lot of questions and critically reflecting upon this movement. The following points are my reflections on some of the mistakes that we have made. But before I continue I would like to make something absolutely clear.

When I say that I am reflecting upon the Emerging Missional Church (EMC), I am not referring to the newer American Emerging Church movement which I think is a very different creature to what we have here in Australia. What I am reflecting upon is the Emerging Missional Church movement that sprung up here in Australia in the early to mid 90’s  in an attempt to reach secular Australia with a missiological approach. Some of what I may write will be applicable to other contexts but I wanted to make clear what I was referring to.

I am still 100% passionate about reaching Australia with the gospel, and with approaching our context with a missionary mindset, so I write this article to help others become more effective in their outreach. So in the spirit of praxis and constant improvement here is my list of the top five things we did wrong in no particular order.

Read More Here

The Pink Elephant in the Missional Room

There is much discussion at the moment about the missional movement. The realisation that the church is on a back foot in the West continues to push leaders to develop solutions that will ensure that the church has a future. Therefore if you head down to your local Christian book store, you will find volumes of titles on how your church can become more missional. At anytime there is probably a bunch of Christian professionals somewhere running a conference on missional church and engagement with secular culture. At this time all over the world Christian bloggers are pressing publish on hundreds if not thousands of missional blogs, where discussions about how the church can share its good news, occur in a kind of professional dialect that is almost unintelligible to the average person.

But there is a fat, stinky pink elephant sitting in the middle of the missional conversation that everyone is ignoring. The majority of ordinary Christians are suffering a loss of confidence in their faith, this is particularly true of young adults who in the past were at the front of missional movements.

There is a parallel to be made between the missional conversation and the modern architecture movement that grew out of the German Bauhaus design school of the early 20th century . The Bauhaus school attracted fresh, hip and passionate students, who wished to change culture, by creating buildings and designs that did not feature the ornate styles of the rich, they wanted to create a new utilitarian style for the working class. The Bauhaus was the most cutting edge design and architecture movement of its day, and its influence can still be seen in design.

However there was a problem, the building designs for working class people that came out of the Bauhaus, were being designed by middle class intellectuals. Thus many of its buildings were despised by the working class people who had to live in them. Some have been demolished due to their unsuitability for habitation. The modernist architects of the Bauhas presumed that they knew what was going on in the lives of ordinary people, sadly they were only listening to their peers. I can’t help but feeling that the same dynamic is occurring today in the church in the West. Many missionalleaders, experts, authors and pastors, are simply out of touch with the day to day faith experiences of ordinary Christians.

I remember talking about the missional movement to a guy who works in a job full time secular job, after my extolling of incarnational approaches and cutting edge missional strategies he stopped me, he said “I work seventy hours a week, I have to work to pay my mortgage, I don’t even have time to cook myself a meal when I get home, At work I would love to share my faith with my co-workers but we are all so under the pump that we don’t even have time to have lunch, let alone muse on the nature of God and the Universe. When these new missional experts have a plan for how guys like me can that actually works get back to me!” I retreated with my tail between my legs.

As I get around I find that ordinary believers in the West are using most of the little energy that they have to protect their own faiths in the face of the corrosive effects of secularism. Such a crisis of confidence in faith has devastating effects upon our ability to share our faith. If you look at the success of the early church in spreading the gospel, much of this success was borne out of people being so positive and excited about their faith that they told whoever they were in contact with, and also from the transformative effect of faith upon the lives of non-believers. 

For me this is where so much of the missional movement thinking falls down. The average believer living in the MTV West is not running about telling everyone about their faith, often when I speak to groups of young adults and ask them to compile a list of people that they know who’s lives have been transformed by the gospel, they struggle to name more than a couple of names if any. In fact many young adults I meet tell me that they think that their faith erodes their quality of life.

It’s great to have wonderful new missional strategies but if you troops are suffering from low morale you are not going to win many battles.

A denominational leader who has heard me talk about this topic approached me the other day to tell me that their internal research has shown that in the last five years, people in their denomination have become far more involved in social justice projects, and in community activities outside of the Christian faith, yet they are less likely than five years ago to share their faith. The missional movement has inspired people to get outside of the four walls of the church, to get active and involvedin their community and their world, but it has made a fatal error, it has presumed that ordinary beleivers are happy, ready and willing to pass on their faith to others. The missional movement has failed to show people what it is to live a vibrant and relevant faith in the soil of 21st century culture. It has not developed a new apologetic for a hedonistic, hyper-consumerist world.

If we are to inspire a new misisonal movement in the West, we must learn to again inspire people about their faiths. 

In his book The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism  David Klinghoffer notes that there is another creation story in Genesis besides that in chapter 1 and 2. Sure we know the creation story of Adam and Eve, who’s lives and world are filled newness and naivety. But Klinghoffer notes that there is another creation story that occurs in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, those two infertile, old and cynical desert nomads, who laugh at the idea of God giving them a child. Yet God remakes them in the midst of their exhausted cynicism, out of their tired seen-it-all-beforeness God changes history. If we are going to again learn what it is to do mission in the West we must listen again to this story, missional leaders must learn like God, to breath life into tired lungs, to re-educate, re-inspire and rehabilitate. The future of the church in the West depends on it.

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