It seems that at every conference I attend these days we are talking about “The 21st Century Church” and how to be the church that reflects the realities of today’s culture. Some people want to skip the theory to discover the next “five-step program” that will help a church reach that coveted young adult demographic, while others dismiss the practical in search of theoreticcal gymnastics that allow us to ignore some of the concrete changes that must take place. As a local pastor for nearly two decades, this kind of theory/praxis dichotomy is what often holds us back from reaching that common goal of being a church of relevance in today’s culture. We have a difficult time connecting theory to praxis in a way that is not tied to politics, culture or ecclesiastical battles as if we believe that if one decision, one position or one move will somehow save the day . . . and save the church.
What I would suggest is this: regardless of theological or ideological stripe within our Reformed family, we must hold the need to understand larger cultural shifts and the practical and diverse ways we are the church in light of those changes in tension and without judgment.
What I offer below are six cultural shifts that have taken place over the past 10 years that can and should impact the ways in which we live, as people of faith, in the world. None of these are huge surprises, but rather widely experienced realities for many of our churches and communities. What I then offer are concrete ways in which these changes can be reflected in the church.
Authority and truth. As society searches for “truth” and definition about many things, we have moved from valuing a single-source, top-down authority-driven process to embracing a more equalized discernment process and flattened decision making. Often referred to as “open source,” we are moving into a world that trusts its community interaction more than it trusts credentialed authority.
One example. Worship has traditionally been a unidirectional, one-voice driven experience. Yes, there are ways that the congregation is involved and connected to the preacher, but the level of interaction that happens during the worship experience in most Presbyterian churches could be increased, if not during the sermon time, then during prayers, offering, etc. Creating moments of genuine interaction would resonate with those who value this kind of exploration and discernment.
Mobility and commitment. In a day and age when many, if not most, people will not stay in one place for long, society is moving from including people based solely on longevity to inclusion based on gifts that the person has. Yes, history and experience are important, but too often we exclude people because of how long they will be around the community and we miss out on some powerful chances to engage with people in our communities.
One example. We must stop asking people to be involved solely because they have been around a long time or exclude people because they may not stay around for all that long. Serving on significant decision-making processes in the church can be a valuable way for a church to begin to get a better handle on this transient pattern and rhythm of life. We should ask people to be part of programs and planning absent of any subtle shaming should time need to be cut short. We then will slowly begin to adapt our structure to ways that honor these patterns of movement that will soon be the norm.
Structure and adaptability. One gift that the Presbyterian Church offers the larger Christian world is our deep commitment to structure. Unfortunately, despite our best of intentions, our structural imagination has been calcified and we are unable to move away from being rigid, method-based organizations and move toward flexible, adaptive and spirit-unleashing structures.
One example. If our structures are going to become a little more pliable, one thing that can be done is to begin meeting in a different way, not only to get concrete business items accomplished, but to meet in a way that values the ways in which people make decisions, use their time and engage in decision-making.
Spirituality and public engagement. Because of our historic influence on American culture, many church folks have allowed faith to be solely personal and have withheld their faith from the public discourse. What we have seen recently in many movements around the world is a resurgence of “liberal” and “conservative,” where one’s faith is an outward aspect of the movement, both in foundation and tactic.
One example. Because diverse expressions of faith in the public square are often in conflict with one another, we must in worship, education and service be more purposeful and passionate in helping folks to see and embrace the complex web of faith, public policy and action that exists in American Christianity. Folks must not shy away from the conflict that may occur because of their faith, but see that through open and honest discourse, we can collectively find resolution and reconciliation. This can happen in a sermon series that challenges people to think about specific political issues, not to give answers, but to challenge people to see their public life through the lens of faith.
Technology and community. Technology has obviously changed the ways in which people communicate and interact in the world. Some changes are healthy and inspiring and others not so much. Our exposure to the breath of the human condition has expanded beyond recognition compared to a generation ago with people trumpeting technology as both the savior and scourge of the church. If the church responds in any way, the best thing we can do is simply to see technology as a medium of communication and nothing else. Technology should not be idolized, but integrated in healthy and appropriate ways.
One example. If I could just pick one, I would say use Facebook to set up a list of “friends” from the church and then commit 15 minutes, twice a day, to scrolling through the status updates of that list. As you do so, try to connect with those who are often only seen on Sunday. By “liking,” commenting and healthy sharing, we exhibit another important aspect of being community in the world, only it will happen online.
Influence and social capital. At one time in American culture, the Presbyterian Church, as a denomination, had social and political influence. This was due to many reasons, our size, the culture of the day and our history. As we know, that influence has drastically changed over the past 30 years. Whatever the reason for the shift, and there is plenty of blame to go around, the reality is clear—we no longer occupy the same social location and place of influence that we once did. Central to this was that society embraced a one-size-fits-all model of community. Most Presbyterian churches looked very similar and one could move from town to town and never skip a congregational beat. With a growing “niche” culture that is evident in the growth of micro-breweries, boutique restaurants and local food movements, churches must also find ways to be the church in multiple manifestations.
One example. One of the most difficult aspects of being the church is acknowledging the validity of other faith expressions. Difference in style, theology, geography, etc. can create feelings of separation rather than an awareness of diverse expressions of faith. To fight this, have the session—or even the whole church—attend worship in a few other places and then gather to reflect on the experience. This is not to be a “How are we better?” or “What can we copy?” but what draws people and deepens their spiritual life out of this experience. This then leads to a deeper reflection on one’s own current spiritual life.
As you read these, an inevitable question must arise, “Should the church be so concerned with being relevant?” This is a valid and important question. I would simply say that should any of these ideas be lifted up to the point of idolatry then we have drifted into that dangerous place of “church being of the world” rather than being “in the world” in a way that positively impacts the world.
Again, these are only suggestions and some ideas. There is much more that is and will happen out of these six areas as well as the many more cultural shifts that have and are taking place. I hope, however, that you will find one or two that will compel you to seek out new and refreshing ways to help the church be the church in the world.
Bruce Reyes-Chow is a native Northern Californian and third generation Chinese/Filipino who has been living in San Francisco since 1998. He was the founding pastor of Mission Bay Community Church, a church of 20/30-somethings in San Francisco, CA, where he served until 2011. In 2008-2010 he was Moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently described himself as “one of those consultant types who makes his way, writing, speaking, teaching and drinking coffee.” He is an avid social networker and blogger.