It’s a Whole New World

An Online Course on Church and Culture in a New Time by Anthony B. Robinson


Congregations do not exist in a vacuum. Congregations live and serve in cultural settings and historical eras. While the gospel is centered in Jesus Christ who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13: 8), cultural contexts do change.  Such changes call for faithful and creative response on the part of congregations and their leaders.

As we begin to explore what this means for us today, consider this: we would all agree that we do not live in the medieval world.  Today many claim that we no longer live in the modern world or in a culture called “modernity.”  If that is true, what world, what culture, do we live today in North America?  That is the first question we shall explore in this course.  The second question is: so what?  What are the implications of our cultural context, and changes in that context, for the mission and witness of the church today?  I invite you explore these two critical questions with me in, “It’s a Whole New World.”

This course is arranged in four parts.  The first part of our conversation about church and culture I focus on the change in our culture from American Christendom to the secular and pluralistic culture of North America in the twenty-first century.  Part two turns to the hallmarks of the modern era and the characteristics of the emerging post-modern era.  In part three, I look briefly at the dynamics of organizations, of which religious congregations are one form.  In the concluding section, section four, I focus on implications.  What do the changes in culture mean for us in the church?  How are we to respond in ways which are faithful? At the conclusion of each part you will find questions for reflection or discussion. Following the four sections, a bibliography lists printed and on-line resources.

I will be painting with a broad brush. That is to say, there are “fine brush” particulars of your congregation that I will not address, but I hope that you will.  For example, every congregation has its specific community setting as well its own story of how it has related to it.  Moreover, congregations have been influenced by Christendom and modernity in different ways.  The experience of predominantly African-American congregations and predominantly Anglo congregations may, for example, be quite different.  I trust you will illuminate these important variables.  For now, let’s turn to the larger cultural context, beginning with Christendom.

Part One: Christendom

“Christendom” is a word that comes from joining two words, “Christian” and “dominion.”  Christendom began to take shape when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century A. D.  This was a big policy shift on the part of the Empire, which had alternated between persecuting Christians and the church and simply hoping they would go away.  It was, arguably, an even bigger change for the church itself.  Imagine going from being on the “outs” socially to suddenly being at the center of the in-group!  Imagine being a political non-entity for years and waking up one day to find you are a U.S. Senator!

It is not that one is right and the other wrong; it is that they are different, very different.  As Christendom developed, church and state were increasingly allied and Christianity and culture interwoven.  During the reign of a subsequent Emperor, Charlemagne, the now “Holy Roman Empire,” (Western Europe) was divided into parishes, geographical areas within earshot of the church bells.  Each parish had a parish church and a parish priest.  People were members of the church because they were born and lived there.  The parish church and priest provided religious services to the citizenry of their territory.  The role and obligation of Christians was to support and maintain the institution of the church, which in turn served the religious needs of the citizens.  The “mission field” lay far away, beyond the borders of the empire.  Within the empire’s borders western culture was considered a “Christian civilization.”  One result of this is that Christianity and western culture became increasingly identified as two inextricable parts of one whole: Christendom.

In the “new world” of North America, Christendom was both different and similar to its European version.  It was different because the new nation was founded on, among other things, separation of church and state.  Unlike European countries, citizens were not taxed to support the church and the church was not legally established.  But while Christianity in North America was not a legally established religion, it was culturally established.  The new American nation was culturally Christian and the church enjoyed cultural support and sanction.  For example, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century before stores began to be open on Sundays in most North American towns.  This was a subtle but powerful form of support for the Christian churches and their day of worship. Still today, political leaders take their oath of office with their hand on the Bible, another sign of cultural Christendom.

Sometime around the middle of the twentieth century a number of factors combined to stimulate a tremendous change in North American culture.  What had been a culture where Christian religion and churches (especially Protestant mainline churches) enjoyed support and privilege as part of a Christian culture, became increasingly a secular (not officially religious), pluralistic (many religions) and diverse (many cultures and languages) society.

What factors contributed to this change?  Many to be sure, but among the most important were 1) modernity and its emphasis on reason and tolerance, 2) the influx of new immigrants from non-European nations bringing faiths other than Christianity, 3) the shift of authority from external sources to the individual, and 4) the growth of a consumer culture with its emphasis on individual freedom and choice.

The result, as we begin a new century, is a society which is dramatically different from the one in which many of us, and many of our churches, learned to be and do church.  Ours is no longer so clearly a culturally Christian society.  The mainline Protestant churches, once the religious center or establishment of that Christian society, are no longer so prominent or powerful.  You might even say that religion, like airlines and phone companies, has been “de-regulated.”  Today American is a land of many faiths (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age, Mormon, Catholic and Protestant Christian) as well as no religious faith at all.  Moreover, in a global perspective, the weight of the church has shifted.  Once centered in Western Europe and America, Christianity is today growing most rapidly in non-western societies in Africa and Asia, while it has declined dramatically in the West.

Still, it is important to be clear on this point:  What we are seeing is the end of American Christendom.  This is not the same as the end of Christianity.  Indeed, it may be a new beginning!  Because the culture is no longer nominally Christian, and the church is no longer allied with dominant powers and the cultural status quo, there is not only change, but opportunity.  In many ways, the church in North America today may have more in common with the early church of the first four centuries, the church before Constantine set the Christendom ball rolling.  Once again, the church has the opportunity to be what Jesus called it to be, “salt for the earth” and “leaven (yeast) for the loaf.” Let me summarize some of the key changes that flow from the end of Christendom as we once knew it.
•    We can no longer assume that everyone in America is a Christian simply by virtue of growing up here and being a citizen.  
•    The mission field has moved.  During Christendom the mission field was at the border of the empire.  Today it is at the door or your church (maybe even inside your sanctuary).  
•    The task of the church is not limited to providing for the religious needs of its members and assisting society’s less fortunate, but to witness to the gospel by being and making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ.
•    One way to sum this up is to say that during Christendom the focus was on supporting and maintaining the church as an institution and organization.  “Mission” lay far away in distant lands.  Today it’s different.  Every congregation is, at least potentially, a mission outpost, an instrument of God’s grace and presence in a “mission field” called North America.

This means, as it was expressed in one recent book, “The mission field is right here.  Being missional means being Christians who are ‘getting out into the community, connecting with the people who are there, finding out what the needs are, how the gospel is going to connect and speak to their lives and even having that shape the style of worship . . .'”  (Extraordinary Leaders in Extraordinary Times, Eerdmans, 2006) Contrast this with a Christendom approach that thinks of the church as chiefly offering programs for its members, doing some local charity work, and leaving mission to “missionaries” serving far away.
And now for something really different—thinking of each congregation as a “mission outpost” means that we can no longer think of the church as “for ourselves” and mission as “for others,” as many tended to do during Christendom.  The “for ourselves” and “for others” way of thinking is a false and unhelpful dichotomy.  The church is not “for us” and mission “for others.”  The church belongs to God and is God’s people being and doing God’s mission in every aspect of its life, whether worship or teaching, forming small groups or ministries of service in the community and in the world! If your head and heart are now spinning, that’s good! The end of Christendom’s 1600 year run brings loss and confusion. It also brings new opportunity and promise.
Part One: Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

1.    Besides stores being closed on Sunday, identify other specific ways that American society supported and sanctioned the church during Christendom.
2.    Name some characteristics of church life during Christendom that you loved and the loss of which causes you grief.
3.    Do you find it exciting or distressing that I describe the idea of the church being “for ourselves” and mission as “for others” as a “false and unhelpful dichotomy”?
4.    Name two positives or opportunities you see for the church in the end of American Christendom.
5.    In what specific ways can you imagine your congregational becoming more “missional” in its orientation and style?

Part Two: Modernity

While the change in our culture from the world of American Christendom to an increasingly secular, pluralistic and diverse culture may seem evident, there is another change in our cultural context that is more subtle but equally powerful.  This is the shift from modernity to some weird new thing some people call “post-modernity.”  This shift is especially important for Protestant mainline churches for a simple reason.  Most of the Protestant mainline, sometimes called “liberal churches,” opened their arms to modernity and the values of the modern era.  Theological liberalism was all about making Christianity fit into the modern world. By way of contrast, fundamentalism and much of Catholicism, pretty much circled the wagons against modernity.  Theological conservatism was all about protecting tradition and truth against the modern barbarians.

Today, with modernity being on the wane the church, and especially those churches that hooked their wagon to the once rising star of the modern era, need to examine the relationship between Christianity and modernity and sort out what to take along on the next leg of the journey and what to leave behind.

What do I mean by “modernity?”  When did modernity begin, and how do we know it has ended or is ending?  In such matters dates are guesswork, but the modern era may be dated to 1500 and the beginnings of the Renaissance and Reformation.  Some peg it later, to the end of the Thirty Years War (a “religious war”) in Europe in 1648.  Marking an ending is even harder.  Some say it began with the philosopher Nietzsche in the late 19th century, but most would peg it later, in the last half of the twentieth century, or even for those who like big, round numbers the year 2000.

More important than dates are characteristics and values.  I describe modernity in terms of a “Big Five” of hallmark values: reason, optimism, universality, objectivity, and “the grand story.”  Modernity held that reason and rational thought are the primary human faculties and the keys to gaining control over life and ridding the world of pernicious superstitions (which is the way many moderns saw religion).  By contrast, post-moderns tend to think we’ve drunk too heavily at the wells of reason.  They are open to intuition, emotional intelligence, embodied knowledge and mystery.  Where moderns wanted their preachers to explain mystery, post-moderns want to experience mystery.

Because moderns thought reason was the key, and that reason in the form of science and technology, promised a great new world moderns tended to be quite optimistic.  The vexing and intractable problems of humanity (poverty, racism, ignorance) would be solved, and nature too would be subjected to human control.  Post-moderns point out that, yes, we’ve controlled nature, sort of, by building big dams and producing cheap and plentiful power, but we’ve also destroyed native cultures and fish stocks.  Yes, we’ve got two or three cars per family and can travel fast and freely at least when we’re not stuck in traffic, but we’re heating the planet, melting the icecap and raising the seas.  Post-moderns are not so sure that salvation is around the corner or that science and technology are our saviors.

For moderns, America was the great melting pot and the United Nations a symbol of our universal humanity.  We were to shed our particularities and regional peculiarities, and become modern, universal people.  Post-moderns revel in the local and the particular.  For them America is less a melting pot than a tapestry or a mosaic.  Moderns also were very big on objectivity and the idea that we observers could step outside our own time, social conditioning, and biases to see things “objectively.”  On this count too, post-moderns are doubters.  “Everybody is coming from somewhere,” say post-moderns.  “What you call ‘objective truth,’ we call the interests of the powerful and privileged.”

Finally, modernity was powered by a big story, a “meta-narrative.”  Sometimes it was the story of the coming age of prosperity and plenty, other times manifest destiny or the march of democracy.  The big story was that through reason, science and technology a new world of progress and prosperity was just around the corner.  We were captains of the world, masters of our destiny.  Post-moderns tend, again, to be skeptics about this big story
  Small stories, particular stories, and different versions of reality appeal to the post-modern mind.

Theologian Stanley Grenz captured the contrast between eras by paying attention to the popular television show Star Trek.  Think about it.  In the original mid-twentieth century version of Star Trek the hero was Spock, the ideal modern man, completely rational and without emotion.  The crew included people of various nationalities working together for the good of humankind.  The mission was objective knowledge of space which loomed as “the final frontier.”

Fast forward to the late twentieth century and Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Spock is gone, his place taken by Data, still perfectly rational but longing to be human, to experience emotion.  New to the crew is Counselor Troi, a woman gifted with the ability to perceive the hidden feelings of others.  The crew is more diverse than last time around, including species from other parts of the universe.  The mission does not rely on human intelligence alone and the mission statement has changed.  Once it was “to go where no man has gone before,” but now it is “to go where no one has gone before.”

And why does this all matter?  On one level the answer is easy, there’s a huge change in cultural sensibility from modern to post-modern.  Many of our churches worked well for moderns, but do not work as well for post-moderns.  But it’s deeper than that.  While modernity was liberating and powerful in many ways, it was also and especially for Christianity, reductive.  Modernity’s version of Christianity tended to be highly moral, but not especially spiritual.  That is, modern Christianity explained miracle and mystery (away) and proposed moral values and lessons as universal truth.  What was missing was spiritual connection and experience, the experience of a sacred, numinous, transcendent Other.  No accident then that in the last thirty years, interest in “spirituality” has been huge, and that often and ironically people felt yet church was not the best place to pursue their “spiritual” interests.

While Christendom meant that churches often forgot how to do transformation and formation, that is how to make (or let God make) Christians because we assumed everyone was already Christian, modernity meant that churches actually grew suspicious of spirituality and tended to so emphasize “rational religion” and morality (religion drained of spiritual experience).  In these ways, the church responded to and adapted to the cultural context of American Christendom and to the modern world. The point is not so much that this was bad or good. In many ways, I at least think that the Protestant mainline churches did a pretty good job in the modern era and Christendom culture. But the point is this: we don’t live there any more. It’s a whole new world.

Part Two: Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1.    In what ways do you personally fit and identity with “modernity” and in what ways are you “post-modern?”
2.    How about your congregation?  How would you assess the balance of head and heart, reason and revelation, morality and spirituality, in your church?
3.    Name one or two implications of post-modernity for how you do church?
4.    “Modernity tends to be masculine in its orientation, post-modernity more feminine, or inclusive of the feminine aspect of human experience.”  Does that make sense to you?  What does it mean for church and faith in your view?

Part Three: Human Organizations, Some Quick Thoughts

This section will be shorter than the two previous ones.  There’s really just one point. As time goes on organizations or institutions (the church is one kind of organization), like human beings, tend to run down and get a little stiff (even rigid). I’ll bet you know what I mean. We grow accustomed to doing things in a particular way and assume that this is the only way to do it.

The apostle Paul called the way we do things, and even our institutions, “clay pots.” The clay pots might be interesting, even beautiful, but they don’t matter ultimately. What matters ultimately, said Paul, “is the extraordinary power” that “belongs to God and does not come from us.” (II Corinthians 4: 7) Organizations, their structures, rules and ways, are important and can be attractive and inspiring. They deserve our respect and care. But they are clay pots. If they aren’t good for holding or carrying the extraordinary power of the gospel, then we may need to mend our pots or get new ones.  Our Protestant mainline churches are beautiful clay pots that were designed for a different time, the period of American Christendom and modernity. Now we need to add some new pots or maybe use the ones we have differently.
John Gardner, who was once the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, and who founded “Common Cause,” put what I’m trying to say quite brilliantly.  In organizations, wrote Gardner, “Motivation tends to run down.  Values decay.  The problems of today go unsolved while people mumble the slogans of yesterday.  Group loyalties block self-examination.  One sees organizations whose structure and processes were designed to solve problems that no longer exist.  If regenerative forces are not at work, the end is predictable.” The good news for the church is that there is a “regenerative force.” We call it “the Holy Spirit.” The bad news is that sometimes we get so rigid or so scared that we, as Paul cautioned churches not to do, “quench the Spirit.” Churches, like individuals, can grow rigid or they can be resilient.

There are two related challenges that come to us because of the huge changes in culture we have so far discussed.  One challenge is to re-connect with the “extraordinary power that belongs to God and does not come from us.”  Organizations are renewed when they rediscover or discover again as if for the first time that primal source of power and energy that comes from God, from the gospel, and from the Scriptures. Unless that happens, we can create and try out all the new strategies and structures you want and none will make any real difference.  If, however, we reconnect with our basic energy source in God, the gospel and the Scriptures, then we face the second challenge, which is to use our old clay pots in new ways and maybe to create some completely new ones.

Let me give an example or two of using our clay pots in new ways for a new time. During Christendom we worshiped on Sunday mornings at 11:00 a.m..  We worshiped on Sunday because the early church saw Sunday as “the Lord’s Day,” and the first day of the new creation.  We worshiped at 11:00 because that’s when the Emperor said to worship. So on Sunday at 11:00 all good Christians, living in a Christian society, went to worship. Personally, I love that. I was raised with it. It is how things are supposed to be. But since we don’t live in Christendom any longer, not everyone sees things like I do. For “missional” purposes, however, I could see worship on Wednesday night. Or, we might recall that the biblical day goes from evening to evening (not morning to night) and have a service on Saturday evening. I am not recommending any of these changes in strategy (new or different clay pots). I am recommending that congregations ask themselves, “In a new world what strategies and structures best serve our mission or purpose?”

Here’s another example: advertising. During Christendom, advertising by churches not only made no sense, it seemed gauche, tasteless. We assumed that everyone knew who we were and what we did. Advertising seemed like “spending money on ourselves,” when our money could be better used for charity. In Christendom, that may all have been true, but we don’t live there anymore. Advertising can be a way of getting the word out, extending an invitation and practicing hospitality. So the U.C.C. “Still Speaking Initiative and its message, “Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here,” may seem strange to some who, like me, were formed by Christendom. But to the majority of the population who are post-Christendom, it may be a real help and a loving word.

Part Three: Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1.    Name one long-standing structure or strategy that you think is still effective for your church?
2.    Name one long-standing structure or strategy that you think may no longer be as effective as it once was?
3.    How do you feel about advertising by the church or denomination? What makes an advertisement more or less effective in your judgment?
4.    Can you think of an instance in your congregation where, in John Gardner’s words, “Group loyalties block self-examination.”  What would help make honest self-examination possible?

Part Four: Summing Up and Implications  

We have focused on three themes: First, Christendom, its decline, and the challenges and opportunities that come with that change; second, modernity and the emerging post-modern era and the challenges and opportunities that come with this cultural shift; and third, the dynamics and nature of organizations, their resilience and rigidity.  While I’ve noted some implications of these changes as we’ve gone along, I want to summarize them in this concluding section of our course.

We no longer live in American Christendom, in which the culture, Christian faith, and the church were all woven together in mutually supportive ways.  We live in an officially secular, religiously pluralistic, and diverse North American society. I can think of the following implications of this shift, and you may think of others:

•    During Christendom we kind of forgot how to change lives in a deep, Jesus-centered way, because we assumed that everyone was already Christian.  Implication: we need to rediscover the meaning of transformation, for ourselves, for others, and as central to the church’s life and purpose. The church exists to change lives and to heal people.

•    During Christendom we focused the church’s teaching ministry on children and called it “Christian education,” because we figured everyone was already Christian and simply needed information.  Implication: it’s time to re-learn Christian formation for all ages, especially adults and to rediscover the joy of faith as a life-long and ever deepening journey.

•    During Christendom we came to think a lot of our focus should be on maintaining and supporting the church as an institution, while “mission” was thought of as mostly far away or charity at home.  Implication: Today the mission field is all around us and everything the church does is mission. We are called to connect to the community and witness to the gospel in word and deed right there.

•    As moderns, we tended to make Christianity rational and reasonable and we particularly emphasized the moral aspect of Christianity.  Implication: Spirituality, the experience of God and God’s grace, is the basis of Christian life and morality, and needs to be rediscovered in powerful worship, preaching and sacraments, in prayer, in small groups, and in spiritual practices.

•    As moderns, we tried to make Christianity universal, something that all rational people would find useful and acceptable.  Implication: we are free in this new time to enjoy the oddity of Christianity, the way Jesus doesn’t fit in, the way Jesus and his followers are different people who know a different story and a different Lord.

•    As people negotiating a new world, we value our churches, their history and ways, but we are not captives to the past or to the ways things have always been done.  Implication: the present is a time for trying new things, some of which will work and some of which may fail, but even if the latter does happen we can learn from flops.  Instead of being “the frozen chosen” a new time invites us to become risk-takers and innovators.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1.    Of the six implications I have listed, which excites you most and why?
2.    Of the six which concerns you most and why?
3.    What questions do you have about any of these implications?
4.    Name a seventh implication you see in the new world in which God has placed us.

For Further Reading

Anthony B. Robinson, Transforming Congregational Culture, (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 20003) and What’s Theology Got to Do With It: Convictions, Vitality and the Church, (Alban, 2006).   These books by the author of this course, who is a U.C.C. pastor, further develop these ideas and their implications for congregations. Website of author, with weekly on-line newsletter, “What’s Tony Thinking?” and weekly text study, “Common Reading.”

Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2001) and The Story We Find Ourselves In (Jossey-Bass, 2003).  McLaren is especially helpful in understanding the post-modern world and sensibility.

C. Kirk Hadaway, Behold I Do a New Thing: Transforming Communities of Faith, (Pilgrim Press, 2001).  Hadaway provides a great overall view with special attention to the purpose of the church. This is the website for William Easum and Tom Bandy, well known church consultants.  By clicking on “FAQ” you can access a wealth of resources.

Michael W. Foss, Powersurge: Six Marks of Discipleship for a Changing Church, (Abingdon/Fortress, 2000).  Foss, a Lutheran pastor, frames the change from a membership to a discipleship culture.

Anthony (“Tony”) B. Robinson is a United Church of Christ pastor who has served four congregations, most recently as Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational Church (UCC) in Seattle, Washington from 1990-2004. He is a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City.