2019.08.06 – Part 5: Voices From the Present

In our last installment, we looked to the ancient church, specifically Revelation, to inform us about how to approach faith in a secular and pluralistic culture. This time we look a little closer to home, at least in time and context…

Where can we turn? Listening to voices from the present

Are post-Boomer Christians really all that different from those who have gone before them? Before making that determination, it is important to have a basic understanding of what makes post-Boomers different from the generations that preceded them. Therefore, we have to ask a couple of questions. Why are so many staying away from the church, and possibly more importantly, why are those who are actively participating in the church still here?

According to researchers Richard Flory & Donald Miller, there are four significant cultural developments that have shaped religious beliefs and commitments of post-Boomers. They are:

  • The influence of the preceding generation(s) [usually not positivly]
  • The change in the world from local focus to the global village,
  • The distrust of corporate, political, and religious institutions that seem to serve their own self-interest at the expense of others,
  • And the influence of “postmodernism” which challenges the existence of any universal truths.

[Richard W. Flory and Donald E. Miller, Finding Faith – The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 7-10.]

Interestingly enough, these influences, especially the last three, are similar to some of Bosch’s causes (see SearchDate 2019.07.23) for the struggles of the western church. The change to a global village is analogous to Bosch’s diminishing geographic dividing lines. The distrust of institutions appears to be related to his “ivory tower” theologies and past exploitations that have caused suspicion, distrust and questions of relevancy. The influences of “postmodernism” that challenge the existence of universal truths is akin to advances in secularism, science and technology that make “faith in God redundant.”

The only one of the developments Flory & Miller cite that appears to have no direct correlation to Bosch is the influences of the preceding generation(s). However, I believe this can be heavily inferred from Bosch’s list as much of it is the legacy of the Baby Boomer generation and the “revolutions of the 60s” as they influence how people live their lives and have raised their children.

We can see that many of these same influences affected not just the church but many community based organizations established by preceding generations in different eras. In every community I have served, organizations such as Rotary International, the Junior Women’s Club, Kiwanis, Masons, Scouting, etc. suffer from significantly declining membership among those born in the mid-1960s and beyond. There seems to be a general aversion by post-Boomers to supporting community/service clubs and organizations that have their origins in the past generations.

So now that we have established why many are likely not to engage, we need to understand those who do engage. In their research, Flory & Miller discovered that not all post-Boomers actually feel this way when it comes to church. They studied a number churches across North America that were successful in engaging and retaining post-Boomers; many with vastly different styles. What they found in their interviews and analysis, regardless of type the religious community, was that the interviewees shared three common dimensions:

  1. Their approach to the visual and experiential dimension of religion;
  2. Their understanding and emphasis on community;
  3. And how they pursue their different outreach, missions, or social action programs.[Flory and Miller, p.164]

Flory & Miller condensed their findings down to a “new, or perhaps renewed, emphasis on an embodied worship and service, and a desire for seeking, creating, and committing to a particular faith community.” They call this new typology “Expressive Communalism.”[Flory and Miller, p165ff.]

With Expressive Communalism defined, Flory & Miller offered guidance for churches seeking to engage post-Boomers going forward:

First, we would suggest that given the emphasis on embodiment…those churches and ministries that are able to capture the “embodied imagination” of young Christians…are more likely to be able to ensure for themselves a vibrant future. Second, we believe that those churches and ministries that are able to engage Post-Boomers at what we constantly heard framed as the “organic” level, that is, where the emphasis is on a participatory approach to church and ministry from the grass roots, or from the members upward into the group…rather than top-down program development mode, will be more successful in the long run.[Flory and Miller, p189-190.]

The heart of my ministry focus is developed around the three characteristics Flory & Miller discovered. The primary foundation is the sense of shared community not just as a church or small group, but also as couples. The building blocks upon this foundation will be the experiential component of relationships, shared spiritual formation and hands-on ministry and service as couples, in a group, and within the church and also in the world.

Being and Doing Church

George Hunter’s research on the role the spiritual disciplines within the Celtic Christian communities of St. Patrick of Ireland in the 5th Century may also serve as part of the foundation for this work toward expressive communalism. His focus on “being and doing church” always points to groups of people praying and inspiring one another, studying and learning together, practicing hospitality and visiting one another, opening themselves up to the surrounding Celtic community, supporting one another in life, and being prepared to share their faith with others when asked.[Hunter, p47-55]

Another strong influence that Hunter highlights is a heavy emphasis that context matters. These settlements of Christians practicing their faith together in the midst of a pagan Celtic culture allowed a church to emerge that was “astonishingly indigenous.”[p22] As a result, these indigenized Christians had a profound effect on engaging the non-Christian culture around them. “Patrick and his people launched a movement.”[p23]

I believe that it is important to help the church members from post-Boomer generations to understand that they are living in the midst of a post-Christendom culture, and to be aware of how this influences their approach to every aspect of their lives. This is not for the sake of an institutional evangelism program or church growth model, but rather for the purpose of living out their common Christian identity amidst a backdrop of secularism, pluralism, and indigenous traditionalism that is an integral part of today’s western culture.

Community…community…community!!!

Rodney Stark’s research on the factors that heavily influenced the early church community and its understanding of setting will all provide additional resources for this work.[Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996).] Stark speaks of the profound role community had in developing the early church, specifically as it carried out Christ’s mission in the family, within social networks, and across socio-economic classes. This sense of unity and commitment to Christ and one another, even during times of crisis and persecution, caused a “tiny obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire” to dislodge classical paganism and become a dominant faith.[p3] According to Stark’s work, this little band of 120 followers of Christ in the upper room swelled to an estimated 6.3 million believers (over 10% of the population of the Roman Empire) by the time Constantine took the emperor’s throne in the early part of the 4th Century.[p7]

So what characteristics did these 120 exhibit that would draw so many people to the church of Jesus Christ? Stark’s research points to many factors, all having to do with a strong sense of identity and community.

The first aspect is the role of living among others openly in the social networks surrounding them[p55] and expressing authentic love and charity even to the people outside their faith community.[p74] This is very similar to outreach to those outside the community posited by Hunter.

Secondly, the early church cared for one another and displayed intimate bonds of community before the outside world that offered little, if any, of this type of communal comfort, especially in, but not necessarily tied to, a time of crisis.[p75] People who are disenfranchised by their culture and struggling as individuals are often attracted to communities of people who are open, honest, and loving toward one another; those who demonstrate integrity and authenticity.

Lastly, Stark speaks to the counter-cultural way of life of the Christian community as compared to the secular and pluralistic Roman culture. He points to factors such as the empowerment and increased role of women in a culture where women did not have the same social status as men, offering a hopeful alternative for people in distress and made vulnerable by the secular and pagan culture, and even martyrdom for the sake of belief.[p99ff] Although some of these issues may not be as prominent in our western society today, there is a strong sense of identity that permeates all of the categories mentioned that provides an alternative to the culture.

Regardless of what characteristic or influence Stark points out, the sense of community is the foundation of his research. This makes his material invaluable when turning to a group of people such as post-Boomer parents who are living in an ever increasing secular and pluralistic post-Christendom culture. Establishing their identity as an intimate Christian community that has integrity and authenticity at its core rather than simply another organization, will be paramount to this work.

Once more glance back at Scripture…as it points to Community

Because community was integral to the early church, there are many words and voices on the topic in scripture. We again turn to John’s open letter to the seven churches (and us). What is clear is that there is strength in a community of believers who dwell together in Christ. The sheer openness of the letter allows one church to hear what the other churches are experiencing and struggling with; this emphasizes communalism, not individualism. We find this in Revelation after all seven churches are addressed specifically, the overarching story of the victory of the Lamb for all of the redeemed provokes us all to make our thunderous chorus before his throne singing a new song. (Rev. 14:3). This would be the complete opposite of the lament.

Other scriptures also speak to the absolute essentialness of community for Christian believers. The letter to the Hebrews calls us “to provoke one another to love and good deeds,not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching (Heb 10:24-25). The habits of meeting together regularly, inspiring one another, and love and good deeds are core to the message. All of these are characteristics that readily line up with those that speak to post-Boomer spirituality.

Finally, we look to the words of the witnesses about the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels. John records Jesus’ command to “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12). Obviously this is a call to live in community with the grace and mercy and respect for one another that Christ had for his disciples. When this happens, Christ will dwell in our midst as a Living Lord of the Body of Christ. When a community of believers “…two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:20)

Next time, we look to the Great Shepherd…

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