The Church at History’s Hinge
by Leith Anderson
Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (January-March 1994): pages 3-10
- The year A.D. 2000 has begun to capture the world’s attention as has no other date. The end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century have given common theme and title to magazines, books, television, and radio shows, New Age optimism, and apocalyptic pessimism. In one sense it is just another date. It will come and go like all others. In another sense it symbolizes the end of one era and the beginning of another. It has come to symbolize not only specific changes but also change itself.
As many analysts have stated, the world is at a “hinge of history.” This is a time like the time of Christ, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution. The primary similarity is that each of these hinges swung the world in a new direction. Each left behind the way the culture operated and society was organized. Each introduced a new era unlike the one before. Each was a time of fear and hope, resistance and welcome. There was no going back.
In a sense the 21st century has already begun. Some argue that the 20th century did not begin until around 1917 with World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Also they suggest the 20th century ended around 1989 with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the advent of rapidly accelerating societal change worldwide.
It is not that change is new but that the rate of change is unprecedented. More changes have occurred in the past 94 years than in the previous 2,000 years. Changes in the final six years of this decade (from 1994 through 1999) may match if not exceed the changes of the first 94 years of this century.
This rate of change is like a large truck that has been increasing speed on a level surface. It comes to a downhill stretch that is so long and steep that the bottom cannot be seen. Every mile doubles the speed traveled the mile before. It is a thrilling ride, but will the truck soon be totally out of control or blow apart because it was not designed to travel so fast? This series of articles is a simple attempt to understand how to approach Christian ministry amid rapid changes in culture, particularly North American culture.
Some Christians prefer to ignore these changes. They assume that ignoring them will make them go away. They hope that tomorrow will turn out to be yesterday. Tragically, they continue to minister in the 21st century as if they were in the 19th century. However, pretending no changes exist will not stop change. Ministering with antiquated methods is no virtue.
It is far better to join the modern “sons of Issachar.” In those tumultuous days when the monarchies of Saul and David overlapped, Israel was full of anxiety. They were also at a “hinge of history” and they must have been confused and frightened. King Saul was anointed by God and so they wanted to serve him. But David was also anointed by God to rule the same kingdom. Which one were the Israelites to follow?
First Chronicles 12:32 says that certain of the sons of Issachar “understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do.” Their numbers were small (only 200 of them) compared to the national population. That is often the way it is-a few understand changing culture and know what to do. As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Inventor Charles Kettering says, “We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”
Changes in the World
The changes in the world that impact this historical transition are many. The following are a few of them.
The Collapse of Communism and the End of the Cold War
The Cold War held the world in tension for 40 years. Almost every nation was a client state either of the Communist Bloc led by the Soviet Union or of the Capitalist Bloc led by the United States. When the Cold War ended, a power vacuum resulted in ethnic, religious, and regional rivalries.
The Republic of Yugoslavia is a tragic example. Where once there was peace now there is bloodshed between rival factions with animosities dating back for generations. Somalia switched between loyalty to the East and loyalty to the West. When there was no superpower to dominate and arm this East African nation, it succumbed to clan warfare and mass starvation.
The world’s population has increased from 275 million in A.D. 1000 to 5.5 billion in 1994 and will probably reach 6.3 billion by the turn of the century. Projections estimate that by A.D. 2050 the world population will be 11 billion, double its present numbers.
Changes, however, are taking place in more than a mere increase of population numbers. Europe and the United States are shrinking in percentage of world population and are aging, while Africa, Asia, and Latin America are increasing in percentage of world population and are comparatively young.
Around the world, urbanization is depopulating rural areas, leaving behind the elderly, and overpopulating urban areas with the young. These younger urbanites are separated from family structures and traditions that would otherwise have shaped their lives. Besides the problems of inadequate food supply and unemployment there is the great question of political destabilization. The super cities of the world have high potential for everything from anarchy to totalitarianism. It is a volatile environment.
Growing World Religions
Religion is becoming a more important and powerful factor in world events. For example Islam is playing a major role in the political and social changes of eastern Europe, the Middle East, Indonesia, India, and parts of Africa. Many ancient faiths are growing in numbers and influence. Some call it the rise of fundamentalism-from Islam to animism and from Hinduism to orthodox Christianity.
When it seems as if everything around a person is changing, some intuitively pull back to the roots of old-time ethnic culture and family faith.
World leaders are struggling to understand how to deal with new forces and new rules. Political lessons and procedures of the past often no longer apply. Power is a confusing mix of armies and arsenals along with economics and ethnic traditions.
Nations are redrawing their boundaries and searching for their place in a new world order. The United States has yet to determine its own role in a post-Cold War context. Now that there is no rival to military dominance, is this country supposed to police the world? In short, the forces flowing together are producing worldwide complexity, destabilization, and uncertainty.
Changes in the Church
The Decline of the Church in the West
Many large denominations are shrinking. Also the number of Western missionaries is decreasing and the average age of career missionaries is increasing.
Roman Catholicism is facing a crisis in the shortage of priests. Forty-one percent of Roman Catholic parishes do not have a resident priest. Ministry is switching from the clergy to the laity and from the centrality of the sacraments to the centrality of the Scriptures. It is increasingly difficult for the Roman Catholic Church to maintain control over its one billion members.
Global democratization has lessened the power and influence of traditional Christian institutions including denominations, universities, seminaries, missions, publishing houses, and parachurch ministries.
Disregard for the traditional teachings of churches is seen in the widespread practice of birth control among Catholics and the reduced influence of clergy among Protestants.
The Rise of the Church in the South and East
The center of Christianity worldwide is quickly moving from the West and the North to the East and the South. One evidence of this is that 50,000 new churches are starting every year in South America. Also Christianity has become the dominant religion of Africa south of the Sahara Desert.
Geographic and Demographic Changes of the Church
Many Third World leaders consider Aristotelian, deductive, rationalistic, systematic approaches to theology to be less important. Third World Christians are developing Christian faith and practice around themes of justice, power, poverty, righteousness, and suffering. Millions of non-Western Christians are more interested in experiential expressions of their faith than in propositional expressions of their faith.
The church is now and will be more indigenous. Recently I sat in a Christian worship service in a setting that looked more like a mosque than like our usual idea of church. Worshipers sat on the floor, music was on indigenous instruments played to a non-Western scale with unfamiliar original tunes, prayers were prayed in postures more common to the Middle East than to Middle America. This took place in a Muslim nation with a Muslim culture. As unfamiliar as all this was to my Western ways, the worship was Christian, the prayers were in the name of Jesus Christ, the doctrine was orthodox, and the Bible was read and taught.
When I attended a convention of mission executives in Colorado, we divided into prayer groups of four each. The others with whom I prayed were strangers to me. One of them prayed passionately for the Christians and the church in the People’s Republic of China. He concluded his prayer with equal passion, asking God to “protect the Chinese church from American Christians.”
I realized how much the world had changed. The center of the Spirit’s work is shifting from the West. The center of evangelism, missions, theology, and numbers is rapidly moving from Europe and North America to China, South America, the former Soviet republics, Indonesia, Korea, and other new venues for the New Testament church.
Changes in American Churches
While there are some bright spots of effectiveness and growth in North American churches, these are offset by dark spots of ineffectiveness and decline. This is a time for profound change in the American church.
The Inadequacy of Old Structures
Historically American churches have looked to denominations and seminaries for vision and leadership. The United Methodist Church, for example, had a vision for starting numerous churches and winning many converts. In 1960 that denomination had over 9 million members and 7.8 million in Sunday schools. By 1984, however, Sunday school attendance dropped to 4.15 million and in 1992 there were 8.8 million members.
Historically American churches have been small and rural. A growing number are not making it. Of approximately 350,000 churches in the United States, between 50 and 60 close every week.
Many churches are engaged in a struggle for survival. Typically a church needs an average Sunday morning attendance of 125 to support a full-time pastor. But half of all churches in this nation have fewer than 75 in worship on an average Sunday. Smaller churches are being forced to have part-time clergy, merge, or close.
Many theological seminaries are shrinking in enrollment. The Bible college movement peaked in this country nearly 20 years ago and many have already closed, merged, or downsized.
The Growth of Megachurches
Variously defined, a megachurch averages over 2,000 at worship. There are about 300 megachurches in the United States with another church joining the ranks almost every week.
Megachurches have begun to replace the functions of denominations, schools, and parachurch agencies as centers of vision and leadership. These churches are setting the direction for style of worship, methods of evangelism, and training of clergy, and some are even printing curricular materials.
Some megachurches offer theological degrees, regularly start new congregations, sponsor training conferences, operate publishing houses, sponsor foundations, run radio and television stations, and have their own missionary sending agencies. Where once large churches looked to schools and smaller churches for additional staff members, they now increasingly recruit from their own laity. Where once pastors of larger churches moved “up” to denominational positions, professorships, or leadership of religious organizations, most now prefer to stay in the pastorate.
The distinguishing characteristic of megachurches is not their size; it is their effectiveness and their complexity. These churches have become large because they tend to be effective at what they do. When they cease to be effective, they usually become smaller. When smaller churches are highly effective, they often become larger. As churches become larger they also become complex with a different organizational system and multiplied social relationships among diverse groups of people.
Megachurches are not large versions of small churches. Schaller suggests that a small church of 35 individuals is like a cat.
Have you ever owned a cat? If you answer yes, you do not understand cats. No one owns a cat! You may keep a cat. You may work for a cat. You may have taken care of a wandering cat who came to live with you. You may have a cat in your house as a pet. You may have a cat as a landlord, but you do not own a cat. Cats are very independent creatures. Cats are self-sufficient. Cats take care of themselves. Cats do not like to be dependent on others. Cats have powerful instincts that direct their behavioral patterns. . . . The really small congregation displays many of the characteristics of a cat.
Schaller says a church of 35 to 100 is like a collie. Everyone loves a collie. They sometimes bark at strangers but they are generally very likable pets. He continues his analogies to include a garden (attendance of 100 to 175), a house (175-225), a mansion (225-450), a ranch (450-700), and a nation (more than 700).
A primary point Schaller makes is that a collie is not a big cat and a ranch is not a larger version of a garden or a house. They are different kinds of entities. Similarly megachurches are not small churches with many more people. Megachurches are organized differently, people relate differently, they minister differently. They are much more complex than the hundreds of thousands of smaller churches.
Other Broad Changes
Changes affecting American churches are far broader than numerical plateau, decay of old structures, or emergence of megachurches. The Protestant ethic and rudimentary biblical literacy that characterized this nation for much of the past two hundred years is disappearing.
This phenomenon is not evenly evidenced throughout North America. It is more evident in Canada than in the United States. It is less obvious in the South than in the North and more prevalent in the West than in the East. The people whom churches seek to evangelize are less and less prepared for the gospel message.
All generations do not think alike. Individuals born before World War II are more likely to think deductively and systemically and to have a deferred gratification ethic. “Baby busters” (those born after 1964), however, more typically think inductively and eclectically and have an instant gratification ethic.
The challenge is that most evangelistic and ecclesiastical methodologies are structured for older generations. To be effective with the baby buster generation requires an increase in inductive reasoning and communication, an issue-by-issue customized approach to needs and questions, and an emphasis on the present power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
American Protestantism has long preached the priesthood of all believers and the empowerment of the laity for ministry, but those concepts have rarely been practiced. Clergy peculiarities and perquisites have been perpetuated. Pastors have special training, special titles, and special ordination to ministry.
The current mandate of the culture is confusing, for it simultaneously demands greater leadership from the clergy and greater participation by the laity. Pastoral ministry today is therefore one of the most challenging professions in America.
How will the church swing on this hinge of history? Is all of this bad news? Is there no hope? Is the church headed for a new Dark Age? Of course not. The words of Jesus are eternally true: “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18). Historically the church has often done its best when the circumstances were worst. It seems that the church has never been good at handling prosperity; instead it is more likely to flourish with adversity.
Will Christians rise to the challenge? Will the church take this transition in the world’s history and the country’s culture as an opportunity to be creative and courageous for Christ? Will the church take advantage of the changes in culture as Martin Luther did in the 1500s? Will believers see the opportunity as did William Booth with the Industrial Revolution?
Church leaders must combine revelation and relevance. If the church has relevance without revelation, its message will be contemporary but empty of truth. If the church has revelation without relevance, its message will be true but will not be understood or accepted.