The ministry challenge of our time is not congregational decline, it is adapting to a drastically changing culture. To use a biblical metaphor, we are called to be fishers of people. At one time our catch was great, now our boats are not so full. Yet, after spending nearly a generation blaming ourselves and one another, I believe we failed to notice the primary cause: the salinity of the water changed and the fish have moved out to deeper waters.
We are living in a time of immense global change that began to fully impact North American Christianity as the post WWII baby-boomers became youth and young adults. “Paradigm shifts” in human thought forms and culture occur from time to time in human history. We have both the privilege and challenge of being in ministry together during just such a time. To use a philosopher's phrase, what has changed are the "conditions of belief."
1) The rise and end of the “Age of Reason” -- in the premodern era, before the “Age of Reason” (ca. 1650-1950), human world views made it impossible not to believe in God(s). By the conclusion of the modern era in the Western world, it was deemed foolish or irrational to have faith in something one can not see, prove, or comprehend with "scientific" certainty. The important thing to realize is that what changed is the lens through which we view the world, not the reality of the world or the God behind the lens.
2) The end of cultural/civic christianity — after ca. 315 in the Western world, one was born Christian. In the majority middle-class North American culture, before ca. 1960 one was most likely born a protestant Christian. Today, in order to be Christian in the United States one must actively choose to be within a culture that often presumes belief to be foolish and religious institutions to be corrupt and a source of harm.
3) Globalization and the Information Age — in a period of unprecedented speed brought about by new technology, the diversity of the globe has moved next door and its information is available on our cell phones. For most of human history, one’s neighbor was not too different from oneself (Sacks). Today, we are greatly challenged to honor the sacred gift of our diversity while sorting through the vast amount of information available to anyone. This, at the very time our cultural Christian identity has eroded (2) and the distinctions between truth, facts and opinion (1) are confusing for so many of us.
These three paradigm shifts have impacted the very way we think and live as human beings. Coming to terms with them is the challenge of our time. When the pace of change outpaces our ability to adapt: the result is anxiety, fear, hatred, and if not addressed, violence (Sacks). Our call to be of service to the world is urgent. As Christians we are not called to conquer the world in Jesus’ name, we are called in Christ’s image to particpate in God's work to heal it. Or, more simply, in the words of John Wesley "to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, and to walk as Jesus walked."
-- Rev. Mark Sturgess
The above reflection draws upon the work of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (The Dignity of Difference; Not in God’s Name); Dr. William Greenway (a personal mentor and author of A Reasonable Belief), and James Smith (How Not to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor).