Believing without Belonging? Reflections on the Consultation
Shenk, Wilbert R., International Review of Mission
I want to begin with an expression of gratitude to those who conceived, organized, and led us through this consultation. Hopefully, this event marks the beginning of a process that will continue. This conversation about the renewal of the church is urgently needed at all levels of the church in contemporary culture, and is one that should take place in a thousand places as rapidly as possible.
These reflections are organized around four points. Each one deserves much greater elaboration than I can give here. My purpose is to identify themes and issues that this process has stimulated, and which are of continuing relevance.
1. Naming our reality
The first task of leadership is to name the place where we are. The various papers, case studies and interventions throughout the past several days have served us well. They have helped define where we are by pointing up critical issues and themes. And yet, as we all recognize, this is only a beginning. To "name our reality" and relate this reality to the position and role of the church in contemporary culture, means we must develop a more comprehensive and thorough description and analysis from a missiological viewpoint. Consider these five dimensions -- of course, by no means the only ones -- that are essential to understanding our reality: historical perspective, social theory, older church members, youth, and the population group that has never affiliated itself with the church.
(a) Historical perspective
The church in contemporary Western society is an aging institution if for no other reason than that it has been present in the West for some 1500 years. Although there have been repeated renewal movements, basic ecclesiastical patterns and structures, together with an accompanying theological framework, have proved to be durable. Much of the energy of the ecclesiastical hierarchy throughout this long history has been devoted to reinforcing and guarding the institutional forms of the church. In the modern period, when innovation rather than stability has been valued and society has experienced continual and far-reaching change, the church has frequently come off looking like a defender of a disappearing past as it reacted to the dynamically changing. cultural norms and forms it confronted. The temptation has been to reify structures and systems that are subject to the law of entropy. The 1960s' study, "Missionary Structures of the Congregation" focused especially on the ecclesial situation in Europe and North America. In a contribution to that study, J. C. Hoekendijk defined "morphological fundamentalism" as indicating "a rigid and inflexible attitude toward the morphe (structure, 'Gestalt') of the congregation similar to the attitude prevalent in 'biblical fundamentalism'." (1) This approach regards forms as fixed for all time, and thus confuses "organizational" arrangements with ecclesiastical "order".
This is not the whole story. Historians characterize the 20th century as the "Pentecostal century" because of the emergence and rapid development of the Pentecostal movement. Other churches kept Pentecostal Christians at arms length for several generations. Nevertheless, by the end of the 20th century the polymorphous Pentecostal movement had spread worldwide. After 1960 the charismatic variety of Pentecostalism mutated, with a wide range of the historical churches, from Roman Catholic to conservative Protestants, stimulating innovations in worship, piety and theology.
We cannot predict the form renewal of the church will take in the future, but the history of the church gives us warrant to believe that the Holy Spirit can renew the church in the 21st century to be God's missionary people.
(b) Social theory
Discussion of contemporary culture is framed today in terms of the transition from the modern to the postmodern, or from modernity to postmodernity. Social theorists have put forward a range of theories to explain modernity. One theme that has been widely discussed is the variety and vitality of religion in contemporary culture. Many, especially among younger people, view religion and spirituality positively.
Modernity and postmodernity remain contested terms. A number of the leading social theorists who began writing about the postmodern. phenomenon a decade ago are today qualifying and modifying their earlier analyses and theories. To take but one example, Zygmunt Bauman addressed the transition to this new cultural stage in such works as Intimations of Postmodernity (1992). Recently, he has written about Liquid Modernity, (2) and signalled a shift in his perspective. As the decade of the 1990s progressed, Bauman observed that the continuities of modernity continued to exert a controlling influence. Consequently, he believes that rather less weight should be given to the discontinuities that set the stage for postmodernity. We must reckon with both modem continuities and postmodern developments. Exactly how these are to be evaluated is a matter of continuing debate.
Until about 1970 social theorists were quite confident in their explanation of the impact of modernity on religion. The empirical data that had been assembled seemed to tell a quite straightforward story of the inevitable displacement of religion by the secular. A new generation of research raises a series of new problems for which the old hypothesis does not have a convincing answer. As noted, religion has certainly not disappeared over the past three decades and, indeed, is now widely regarded as a constituent of culture that must be taken seriously, regardless of one's personal religious commitment. At the same time, the role of religion in Western culture has been redefined and restructured. The structures and ethos of Christendom have steadily disintegrated. This has stimulated new debate around terms and concepts such as secularization and desecularization. New theoretical constructs are needed. We have much to learn from this work that often combines the disciplines of history and sociology to produce illuminating new perspectives on religion and society in contemporary Western culture.
A salient theme in American social and political theory since the 19th century has been the individual and individualism. In 1985, Robert Bellah and a team of associates wrote an illuminating study of how the "autonomous individual" has persisted in American culture over some two centuries, and the way this has powerfully shaped American society. (3) These authors' main conclusion was that a lopsided emphasis on the individual in American culture has undermined and destroyed the very notion of society. Except for communitarian groups and certain renewal movements, the church has faithfully reflected society in this regard. Theologically and practically the church has mirrored the cultural pattern that gives priority to the individual over the community in the shaping of sensibilities and values.
Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, in his recent study of "social capital" uses the game of bowling as a metaphor to explain the profound changes that have taken place in American culture. (4) In the US, bowling has long been regarded as a team activity. Bowling clubs could be found in most communities and millions of people participated. But, bowling has been declining, and those who do bowl increasingly play the game alone. This change has not occurred in isolation from wider societal change. The decline in bowling is a mirror image of the decline in many forms of social interaction, ranging from political activism to the involvement of parents in their children's education. In effect, over the past three decades the "social capital" that society depends on, and that was accumulated over many generations, has been used up without a corresponding effort to generate its replacement.
The role of religion in society is an important theme in the books by Bellah and Putnam to which I have referred, and that have contributed to the debate about social theory. Equally important is the role of culture in the church. The church cannot depend on modern culture to produce conditions conducive to authentic koinonia. The question is whether the church is sufficiently alert to the issues to be able to enter into these concerns constructively.
(c) Church members above age fifty
Reference to this age group serves to highlight the importance of generational perspectives. Our purpose is not to criticize one generation while praising another. On the contrary, what is essential is that we recognize that some of the tensions present in our churches today stem from these inevitable differences. This calls for understanding, a new degree of flexibility, patience and good will.
In North America, it is those over fifty years of age who control most local congregations. Younger people boycott local churches that refuse to include them as active participants in the life of the congregation. They are not willing to submit to being mere spectators at services controlled by the tastes and preferences of their parents and grandparents. At the same time, one frequently hears older adults lament that "our congregation is greying", for they recognize that the future rests with the next generation. Congregations that do not work deliberately, to include all the generations in all phases of the life of the church increasingly find themselves limited to one particular age group, viz. the group that maintains control. If we are committed to becoming aware of our reality, we shall need to face honestly the inter-generational issues present in our society and in the church.
(d) Youth (under age 21)
While I have already emphasized the importance of sensitivity to each age group, I believe that, like other social prejudices, those who hold power are prone not to take these concerns with the seriousness required to work toward fundamental change. This was driven home for me several years ago when a student -- a woman with a 19-year old daughter -- reported in class the conversation she had just had. Her daughter had said, "Mother, I love God but I hate the church!" This was not an isolated case. Many parents and church leaders have been confronted with this response from young people who find present church patterns and practices alienating. Until we face the situation and work constructively to turn our congregations into places where our own children and youth are convinced they truly belong, we will not know what it means to extend hospitality to the world.
(e) People who have never been affiliated with the church
In the West, a surprising number of people continue to assume that Western societies are at least nominally Christian. One implication of this is that those who hold this view have not come to terms with the fact that substantial numbers of families in the West have had no personal relationship with a Christian church for many generations. Historical studies of the emerging industrial working class in Europe and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries show how profoundly alienated from the church many of these people were. Church culture was not congenial to them. (5) The church insisted on holding worship services at set times, thus ignoring what it meant for factory workers, who were on the job 12-14-hours per day for six days a week, to turn out on Sunday morning for nine o'clock services. Moreover, the services followed liturgies that did not connect with these uprooted and exploited people. One of the most disquieting observations I continue to make is how pervasive is the essentially negative attit ude toward "the church" in American society among those with no firsthand knowledge or experience of a Christian congregation.
One of my students has reported on his experiences since 1990 of seeking to develop churches among his own age group (those born between 1964 and 1981) who come from families with no church connections. This age group is open to the spiritual but allergic to the institutional. Because this group of people associate "church" with "institution", the only way forward is to adapt to this "culture". This has involved accepting three requirements: (1) no special "church" building; (2) no paid professional staff; and (3) no big programmes. What these young people deeply desire is face-to-face fellowship where members hold each other accountable. When it is recalled that the generation of parents who have had the highest rate of divorce of any generation in American history gave birth to and raised this age group, often called Generation X, one begins to realize how powerfully their context has shaped them. Tom Beaudoin, himself born in 1969, has described and analysed the spirituality of this age group as being defi ned by four characteristics: institutions are suspect, experience is key, suffering has a religious dimension, and ambiguity is central to faith. (6)
Suggestion: Since an event such as this consultation can be only a starting point, a continuing process is needed to work at naming our present reality.
2. The statistics trap
We all have come to rely on statistical data in pursuing the kind of study we have been doing. We are concerned to establish a firm empirical basis for analysis and, ultimately, to set a new course of action. But I must register a growing concern. We listen to one report after another that presents in stark terms a bleak and discouraging picture of widespread decline. Certainly, we must not shrink from these facts. I am not decrying all such studies. For example, studies that probe attitudes, values, and preferences that expand our understanding and redefine what is problematic are indispensable.
What I call here the "statistics trap" is the observable paralysis that too readily results from focusing narrowly on this one variety of empirical data. Membership and church attendance tell us something, but not everything Empirical data need to be used with discernment and with an eye to fostering constructive action.
Suggestion: At future consultations an effort should be made to employ statistics for describing our present reality, as the first step toward the formulation of a constructive response.
3. Missional ecclesiology
Either implicitly or explicitly, we have repeatedly noted the need for a new kind of ecclesiology. I am reminded of the comment by Hendrikus Berkhof that ecclesiology has been largely neglected since the 19th century, and that when it is finally taken up seriously, it will be a missionary ecclesiology. (7) For me, two important works in this regard have been Hans Kung, The Church, and Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit. (8) The former, in seeking to challenge the entrenched hierarchialism of the Roman Catholic Church, worked out the pneumatic structure of the church. The latter showed the church interacting as the messianic people of God with the world. We must press on. Fresh work is needed on two levels:
(a) Foundational biblical and theological studies
What is needed are studies done in dialogue with scholars from Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the ecclesial and missional have tended to be kept together simply because in these continents the churches are minorities with a still-vivid awareness of the meaning of the gospel in their particular contexts. (9) David Bosch reported that when he set out to analyse the relationship between theology and mission in Africa he discovered all theology in Africa was missionary theology. 10 The virtually inviolable dichotomy in the West between theology and the theology of mission continues to sabotage theological vitality.
(b) Contextually situated missional ecclesiologies
The recent volume, Missional Church, is an effort to rethink ecciesiology from a missional viewpoint that engages the North American context. (11) Although it may be studied as a model of one attempt to develop a contextual ecciesiology, it will have relatively little relevance for churches in other cultures. Instead, we should encourage the church in each cultural context to think through what it will mean to be a missional church.
It must also be emphasized that we should continually hold together the call to mission and the call to renewal. Mission that does not lead to renewal is incomplete; renewal that does not bear fruit in renewed missionary vitality is superficial.
Suggestion: That a work group be established to lead the process of stimulating the development of missionary theology that will, in turn, encourage the working out of missional ecclesiologies in particular contexts.
4. Encourage and celebrate experimentation
As noted above, the church may face a special resistance in overcoming the burden of history simply because it is in the nature of tradition to do this. We must approach this matter with careful discernment because tradition easily becomes traditionalism. Many of the tensions felt in our churches today revolve around debates as to what of the past must be preserved and what ought to be discarded. Of course, one can hope and pray for renewal which will soften and change patterns that are no longer useful, but it is also possible to cultivate a climate in which experimentation and innovation are welcomed and encouraged. Jesus himself spoke directly to this issue when he pointedly noted that "new wine" requires "new wineskins".
(a) Traditionalism versus tradition
Over the past two decades, certain scholars have argued that a society can survive only if it maintains a healthy sense of the virtues by which it lives.
Alasdair MacIntyre holds that, "A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods." (12) Cultivating particular practices forms a tradition.
A dynamic tradition is essential to the identity, integrity and vitality of the church; but frequently traditionalism has subverted tradition. Biblical faith is based on remembering and recounting the acts of God. Yet the role of memory is not to lead us into the past. Rather, tradition as living faith will help us to separate what is essential from the nonessential as the first step in equipping us to move forward on our faith journey. Jaroslav Pelikan forcefully draws the distinction between the two when he asserts that, "Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, tradition is the living faith of the dead." (13)
It is urgent that a clear sense of tradition be handed on to the next generation. Unfortunately, too often what is being offered is traditionalism.
Traditionalism effectively blocks change. The traditionalist instinctively attempts to turn the "old wineskins" into an impregnable fortress. Traditionalism clings to the past by saying "no" to the future. Tradition, by contrast, always engages the future.
(b)The necessity of tradition
Grace Davie has pointed out that the role of the faith community is to provide a mode of believing that binds the individual to a community composed of past, present and future members, who have been, are or will be sustained by a collective memory that is the foundation of the community's existence. (14) What is observable the world over is that traditional societies are losing their capacity to cultivate and sustain this collective memory, for it is in the nature of modernity to erode tradition. The church is no exception; it has not been immune to the "acids of modernity" that attack tradition. But biblical faith is tradition-based. The healthy church holds together the memory of the acts of God in the past, the commitment to discipleship in the present, and the eschatological hope that God's will be actualized in the realization of the kingdom of God. Many contemporary churches are bogged down and need help in regaining a tradition-based perspective.
(c) Cultivating innovation within our polities
Some of our ecclesiastical polities have provisions for innovative initiatives within the life of the church, but they have gotten lost over time. In the United States, both the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Methodist Church in the 1980s rediscovered and retrieved church laws that allowed for new groups committed to renewal to be formed with full recognition of the denominational body. In recent months a similar "rediscovery" has been made in the Anglican Church to accommodate a situation where the bishop is convinced that the new wine will only be conserved for the church if a new wineskin is provided.
Suggestion: That we find ways of identifying cases where new "wine skins" are being fashioned in order to encourage a culture of openness to innovation in our ecclesiastical bodies. Surprises of the Holy Spirit ought to be expected and welcomed. Patterns and structures ought always be the servants of ministry.
(1.) Hoekendijk, J. C., "Morphological Fundamentalism", in Wieser, Thomas ed., Planning for Mission, New York, US Conference of the World Council of Churches, 1996, p. 134.
(2.) Bauman, Zygmunt, Intimations of Postmodernity, London, Routledge, 1992; and Liquid Modernity, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2000.
(3.) Bellah, Robert N., et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism in American Culture, Berkeley, Calif., University of California Press, 1985; rev. ed., 1996.
(4.) Putnam, Robert D., Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2000.
(5.) McLeod, Hugh, "Protestantism and the Working Class in Imperial Germany", European Studies Review, 12:3 (1982): pp. 323-44; and Religion and the People of Western Europe, 1789-1989, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997 , especially chapt. 7.
(6.) Beaudoin, Tom, Virtual Faith, San Francisco, Calif., Jossey-Bass, 1998. These are the themes of chapters 4-7 of his book.
(7.) Berkhof, Hendrikus, Christian Faith, Grand Rapids, Mich., Win. B. Eerdmans Co., 1979, p. 411.
(8.) Kung, Hans, The Church, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1967; Moltmann, Jurgen, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, London, SCM Press, 1977, German edition, 1975.
(9.) Cf. Shenk, Wilbert R., "Recasting Theology of Mission", International Bulletin of Missionary Research 28:3, July 2001, pp. 98-107.
(10.) Bosch, David J., "Missionary Theology in Africa", Indian Missiological Review 6:2, 1984, pp. 105-39.
(11.) Guder, Darrell L., ed., Missional Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., Win. B. Eerdmans Co., 1998.
(12.) MacIntyre, Alasdair, AfterWrtue, Notre Dame, Ind., University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, rev. ed., p. 191.
(13.) Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Vindication of Tradition, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984, p. 65.
(14.) Davie, Grace, "Europe: The Exception That Proves the Rule?", in Berger, Peter L., ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids, Mich. Win. B. Eerdmans Co., 1999, pp. 65-83.
WILBERT R. SHENK *
* Wilbert R. Shenk is Paul E. Pierson Professor of Mission History and Contemporary Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, USA.…
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Publication information: Article title: Believing without Belonging? Reflections on the Consultation. Contributors: Shenk, Wilbert R. - Author. Journal title: International Review of Mission. Volume: 92. Issue: 365 Publication date: April 2003. Page number: 231+. © 1998 World Council of Churches. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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