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Rethinking Church for New Zealand

By Kevin Ward.

Although written with the state of the Church in New Zealand primarily in mind, most of what Kevin says in the article which follows is, in our view, equally applicable to the Church in all countries with a so-called ‘Western’ culture.

The first article in this series (published in the October 2002 edition of this journal) looked at the declining involvement of New Zealanders in church, and at some of the factors that account for this. For some observers this decline is so significant that they wonder if the church in countries like New Zealand has a future at all. The lead article in the last edition of the New Zealand Listener for the twentieth century, entitled Faith in the Future: Searching for Jesus Christ at Christmas, claimed that “the conclusion is inescapable: you can see the end of Christianity from here, 2000 years after the birth of Christ. Not the death of spirituality. but the death of religious institutions, the death of organised religion.”

For others, though, the question of interest has been to try and predict what new forms of church would carry the future of institutional Christianity while those old forms, shaped by a rapidly disappearing historical past, slid slowly out of sight. These predictions have been put forward in a multiplicity of books with such titles as “Church for the Twenty First Century”, “Church for a New Millennium”, “Next Church, Future Church”, “New Century, New Church” and “Reinventing Your Church.”

Most of these books look at churches that are being successful (that is, growing in numbers attending) and try and draw out some principles from them. This is one way of trying to understand what the future is going to be like. Look at what is working now and seek to repeat it. Certainly the vast numbers flocking off to seminars held by pastors of ‘successful’ churches and the even larger numbers who flock to hear them when they come to New Zealand indicate that this is where most of our church leaders are pinning their hopes.

There is certainly some benefit in this. As I have read the vast amount of literature coming out of these sources, as well as my own observations as I talk to church leaders and study church life, it seems to me there are eight important characteristics that we can learn from them.

1. A missionary congregation

This has been the great contribution of Lesslie Newbigin to our understanding of the task we face in the west. Returning to Britain after 40 years in India he realised Britain was now a pagan country and the church was as much in a missionary situation as was the church in India. The trouble is that so much of the structures, energy and concerns of the church are directed inward on maintenance rather than outward on mission. With the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century the church became “the religious department of the Roman Empire”. If the whole empire (or nation) is already Christian, then mission is irrelevant and the task of the church became to provide good pastoral care for its members and ensure they made good citizens. Mission only existed overseas, outside of Europe. This has continued to remain the basic stance of the church in the west. When we talk about mission most people have immediately thought of cross cultural mission overseas, and at home the prime concern of the church is keeping the institution going and meeting the needs of those already in church.

One researcher believes that over 80% of churches still operate on this model. I believe this is the number one issue facing churches and leaders. Until this understanding and the consequent values are changed all attempts at change are relatively pointless. One easy way to find out how we measure on this score is to look at who is likely to be the future constituency of the church. If the church is to have a future it must clearly be the under 35s. How much of your church’s energy, resources and staffing are available to that age group? It is a good measure of how mission oriented it is. How much are they allowed to determine the values, culture and style of what you do?

2. A relational community

We cannot talk about the culture of the under 35s (or what is being increasingly labelled postmodernity) without using the word ‘community’. A large part of the modern era was its focus on the centrality of the individual organised together by the impersonal institution. This value was also embraced by the church in the west. One of the most insightful commentators on contemporary cultural change and its implications for the church is Stanley Grenz, Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College, Vancouver. He notes:

Under the influence of the surrounding modern culture, western evangelicals have tended to understand the gospel in terms of the enlightenment focus on the individual. The contemporary dissatisfaction with and exodus of adherents from the church signals a dissatisfaction with this dimension of modern evangelicalism. Consciously or unconsciously people are seeking to move beyond the crass individualism of the gospel and nature of the church that characterises much of modern church life............. In short a move from radical individualism to community. Hence the current malaise is in effect a post modern cry to the church to be the church.

This is a great challenge for those of us socialised in a church developed in a different Most effective churches emphasise community and this is expressed largely through a small group structure cultural era.. However, what I hear from the under 35s is that their understanding of the term community bears little resemblance to how it is used in most church settings. It is much more than an hour or so of bible study and prayer in a small group, supplemented by a cup of coffee or tea after a church service. It is hanging out together, sharing all of life together. Small face to face groups are an important part of the church becoming genuine community, but that must spill out so life is lived communally rather than individually if we are to connect with the search for community currently going on in contemporary culture. Of course if we read the New Testament correctly this is just what we discover there.

3. A Transforming Community

Perhaps the most prolific writer on church life is Lyle Schaller. In making some predictions about the shape of the fastest growing religious traditions in the middle of the 21st century he says: “The central theme of congregational life is the transformation of people’s lives; not simply ‘shepherding the flock’, or ‘taking care of our people’ or even ‘faithfully preaching the word’, but what happens in the lives of people.”

Research continually shows that this is what people are looking for in religion and that it is the emphasis of many growing churches. The gospel is about the personal transformation of the whole person, and is what the church should have been about. Instead we have truncated the gospel into accepting a set of beliefs, a few good ideas to believe in and carry on business as usual. It just has no appeal, which is why the new age movement, therapeutic movement and drug culture has had so much appeal. They all offer personal transformation. We need again to see the gospel, not just as coming to Jesus so he can bless your life and make you feel good, but as a power that transforms the whole of life. It means we will have to have a much stronger emphasis on intentional discipleship.

In Christendom the church didn’t have to worry about this too much as children were socialised in Christian values and behaviour by the family and society and all the church need be concerned about was belief and spiritual matters. That is no longer the case and in our neo-pagan society, people need to be thoroughly socialised and discipled into the faith. The problem is that the pattern of life we have developed has assumed that getting them to make a commitment is all that is needed and so the back door in most churches is as wide as the front door. Os Guinness has commented that “The culture means that mission is much easier today, but discipleship is much, much harder.” This is a major challenge for the church to face.

4. Highly Participatory Church

In the modern era it was believed knowledge came by the impartial objective observation of reality. Hence in church life there was a large emphasis on being spectators while the professionals performed: the preacher, the musicians, the choir, the readers, the liturgists and so on. In the Protestant tradition with its emphasis on reason, the sermon, a rational presentation of gospel truths, was exalted above anything else. People came to faith by listening and coming to a logical decision, aided of course by the Holy Spirit who opened their eyes to the truth. Postmoderns are predisposed to decry this emphasis on impartial observation, and believe in the participation of the knower in his or her understanding of the world. In relation to the church, in worship and in ministry, they are not interested in being spectators at a performance but prefer hands on-ministry that proves the viability of their faith. One way people talk about this is to describe the churches of the modern era as being ‘clergy driven’ and in the postmodern area as ‘laity driven.’ Bill Easum has popularised the phrase ‘permission giving churches’, which, rather than seeking to control how people think and what they do, give them permission to express their faith according to their own giftings and passions. It means a change in role for leaders away from controlling to empowering, so the real energy for the church comes, not from the leaders, but from the people who are the church. This has implications for what happens in every area of church life, starting with the worship services, but spreading to what happens in small groups, to how ministries function, evangelism takes place and decisions are made. This will not happen, however, without much rethinking and hard work. The key need is not just for leaders to give up control, but also for them to put their energies into developing, training and resourcing others so they are genuinely empowered.

5. Team leadership

Participation is not just doing what others want you to be involved in, but participating in the decisions about what will actually be done. One of the key observations made by commentators both in the wider culture and in church life is a move away from ‘teams that are led’ to a ‘team of leaders’. Leadership is now seen not so much that of the heroic individual, but rather of a team (probably with a captain) who collectively share the various dimensions of the leadership task so that the best of everyone’s strengths are utilised. We increasingly see this in the sporting arena with almost everyone in the team being exorted to be a leader and participate in planning and decision making.

Lyle Schaller observes that whereas large churches used to be built around the preaching ministry of a great preacher, they now tend to be built around a team of preachers who share the task. Robert Warren talks about three leadership requirements for the church of the 21st century:

==> leadership modelled on the role of conductor rather than director;

==> leaders who function as facilitators rather than providers;

==> and pastors who function as leaders (inspiring vision) rather than managers (controlling).

Many observers of the current malaise of the church state that what is clearly not functional in the 21st century is a religious organisational form that is pyramidal in structure deriving authority from the top and delivering answers and policies to those below. This may have worked in a feudal society, but is dysfunctional in an information age, yet is still the form of many churches. One of the observations I would make about my own children and their peers is the way in which they instinctively operate in teams. As soon as they have something to do, they begin to consult with others and process decisions and plans as a group rather than having one individual telling the rest what to do. This is one of the things I have learned most from the generation behind me, but for those of us brought up in a different leadership culture, used to coming to decisions on our own and ‘motivating’ others to get in behind, it is a big change to make.

6. Diversity and Options

If people are going to be involved as participants, we have to offer a wide enough spectrum of opportunities for them to be able to be involved in areas that engage their gifts, passions and their personalities. Len Sweet observes that “choice is no longer a choice for postmodern culture. Choice is now a value and virtue in and of itself.” Some use this as a key factor in arguing that the future lies with large churches since only these can offer the range of ministries and choices that people demand today. There is an element of truth in this, but if we look at the demand for choice in the wider culture, choice can be offered by both the shopping mall with its multiplicity of options and the small boutique specialising in the choice of a particular niche.

So most observers of church life see the future as being that of both large churches made up of a plurality of groups and congregations (like the shopping mall) and small niche market churches targeted at a particular sector (like the boutique). Faith Popcorn, a leading futurologist, speaks of the disappearing middle. People today are very discerning and know what they want and it is very difficult for the medium general purpose place to offer the range of options and specialist ministries demanded. So Schaller argues that the “large regional church is here to stay. This is not because most people prefer big institutions. They don’t. People choose, often reluctantly, big institutions, because they want specialised choices.”

This means, of course, they are a very different kind of church than the large church that demands everyone is herded in to one or two services offering basically the same style of music, worship and preaching, and that during the week they meet in small cells modelled on some predetermined parameters of size, study and leadership. They will be ‘umbrella churches’ who offer under their umbrella a wide range of congregations, small groups and ministries. And alongside these large churches will be a network of small congregations offering a specialised style and ministry to one of those niches in the community. As Len Sweet puts it, “The cutting edge of missionary churches is double-edged: more megachurch and more micro/alternative church. Both will grow in the future.”

7. A Sense of Transcendence

Part of post moderrnity is the end of the modern tyranny of reason as the only way of knowing something and the realisation that knowledge gained through experience or intuition is equally valid. Leith Anderson sees one of the biggest shifts impacting the church as “the quest for experience before understanding and the desire for connection to God as expressed in the increasing interest in spirituality and the supernatural.” Today people have rejected the modern viewpoint that this material world is all there is and they want to be connected experientially with something bigger than themselves (which can be defined as a sense of transcendence). Much of popular culture is a quest for this and it can be seen in music, the movies and television as well as in the proliferation of religious cults and new age spirituality. An article in American Demographics on “Choosing My Religion” claims that “in the post-denominational era of religion, spirituality and experience edge out doctrine and dogma”. Sociologist Donald Miller in his book on the growing new churches in the United States puts much stress on this. He claims the main reason for the rapid growth of what he calls ‘new paradigm churches’, as compared to mainline decline, is that “they are successfully mediating the sacred, bringing God to people and conveying the self-transcending and life changing core of all true religion”. This is a real challenge to our worship. We have domesticated God so much, that we have lost any sense of transcendence and encounter in a carefully controlled and planned performance oriented worship. Our corporate life needs to be much more experiential and participatory so that people encounter God in ways that bring people into an authentic spirituality.

8. Cultural relevance. Tom Wolfe, pastor of the well known multicultural Church on Brady in Los Angeles and lecturer in Missiology at Golden Gate Seminary, commented on a recent visit to New Zealand that, as far as the mission of the local church is concerned, “You do it here like any other mission field in the world. Indigenous Christianity engages the population you want to reach. That means using the language they understand and adapting to their cultural style in all the ways you can”.

Many observers of what is happening in the church in the western world have a similar perspective. Like all groups that are serious about mission, churches that are being effective take the local culture seriously. They all adapt the target culture. Many emphasise the culture barrier as a major factor stopping people coming to faith. Martin Robinson, a British church consultant commenting on the character of most churches says: “Visitors to such churches can see too easily the yawning chasm between what takes place in the culture of church life and the culture of those who live in the neighbourhood. It is as if the church folk are silently saying to the community, “To become a Christian you not only have to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that he died on a cross and was raised from the dead on the third day; you also have to find a way of living in a culture that no longer exists in everyday life”.

The rapid change in the surrounding culture in the past few decades means the church has to constantly change to remain relevant to the society in which it is placed. Some churches are still living as if we had never left the 1950s. Many other churches grew because they became more relevant to New Zealand baby boom culture of the 70s and early 80s through charismatic renewal. However, the changes of the 90s have brought a whole lot of other changes and few churches have adapted to these, which is why youth are such a rare commodity in so many. Many are controlled by the over 40s who are reluctant to give to the under 30s the kind of control over what happens which they took for themselves at a similar age back in the 70s. The result is a church culture often stuck in the 70s, which is still strangely labelled contemporary, but which to those who are truly contemporary is as anachronistic as “That Seventies Show”.

These then are eight important characteristics of church life that can be discerned by looking at those churches which are currently being effective in creating communities of faith that are likely to continue well into the twenty first century. When I began my research for my PhD I believed that these kind of churches would provide a model for the kind of church we needed for the future in New Zealand. In large part that was my motivation. However, as I gathered data, interviewed people and observed how the patterns in these particular churches fitted into the wider patterns of religious and cultural change, I became less sure. While these churches have played an incredibly important role in helping to maintain and conserve a vital and living Christian faith within an increasingly post-Christian New Zealand, I have become increasingly less certain that they will provide the models for effective mission to the growing percentage of New Zealanders who are genuinely unchurched. I was first put on to this line of thought by North American research, particularly in Canada, which indicated that the vast majority of those who were in growing evangelical, pentecostal and charismatic churches actually came from other churches or were the children of church members (around 90% - 70% and 20% respectively).

As a result I have begun doing similar research in growing New Zealand churches. The results are similar - in fact closer to 95% than 90%. Generally only about 5% of those in these churches come from a totally unchurched background. Those who have come into the churches by coming to faith as adults have in almost all cases had experience of church as a child or young person. Very few seem to come to faith as an adult and come into our churches from a totally unchurched background. It seems that how we communicate the gospel and how we do church only makes sense to those who have ‘church’ somewhere in their history. Since this is an increasingly smaller percentage of New Zealanders (in 1960, 40% of New Zealand children were in Sunday School, but by 1985 it was 11%), it appears the challenges facing the church, if we are to become effective in mission, are even greater than what we can learn from looking at those churches which are currently being successful. Important though their role has been in sustaining healthy forms of church life I am not sure they are the most important long term sign posts to the future. In the final article I want to examine some of what I believe are the most significant challenges we face in rethinking church in New Zealand.

The Revd Kevin Ward is currently a lecturer in practical theology for the Bible College of New Zealand in Christchurch, having been previously a Baptist Minister in two churches and a High School teacher. He has a Masters degree in history and is currently in the final stages of a PhD examining the impact of social and cultural changes on the church in New Zealand 1960-2000. He has a special interest in the relationship of the church and wider social patterns.

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You are reading Rethinking Church for New Zealand by Kevin Ward, part of Issue 27 of Ministry Today, published in February 2003.

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