You Are Now Entering “The Transition Zone.”

The stats are a bit daunting…

In my home-state of Virginia, there are 4.4 million unreached people (people not connected in any fashion to any sort of religious community, much less a Christian community).

My denomination celebrates about 8000 new adherents per year – and we are doing better that most.  Yet as our current pace, it will take us 559 years to reach Virginia with the Gospel.

How did we get here?

Most of our churches have been around for a century or more.  They had their real hey day was in the late 50s and 60’s, when our culture was steeped in a Christian mindset, and the church was largely the only game in town.  Decline started in the 70s and in most cases has continued until this day.  The decline affects all types of churches – rural and urban, conservative, and liberal, traditional and contemporary.  The simple and undeniable reality is that many of our churches are not effectively connecting the gospel to our larger culture.

This raises the question ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), until recently one of the most overlooked theological topics among Christian thinkers.  It is understandable why ecclesiastical reflections were not a hotbed of discussion for so many years.  Indeed, as Thomas Fingers has noted, theologians often seem eager “to defend those structures which paid their salaries” (Thomas N. Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 2 (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1989), 226.).  This being the case, heritage, tradition, denominational identity, and established power structures have usually hindered much reflective thought in the area of ecclesiastical identity.  As a result, throughout most church history, essentially all matters related to the identity of the church have been supplied from the bias of dominant ecclesiastical traditions. 

In a stable and unchanging environment, perhaps ecclesiastical considerations might be considered unnecessary. This is a mute point, however, because we do not live in a stable and unchanging environment.  Nearly everyone agrees that contemporary culture is in a period of upheaval and change.  Put another way, our culture is in a period of TRANSITION – massive transition, in fact.

Massive cultural shifts are occurring in contemporary society—of this there is little doubt.  The reality of these changes is evident in numerous ways: the collapse of communism, the magnitude of technological advancements, the expansion of communication industries, moral decay and decadence, the mistrust of centralized governments, economic instability, and the destruction of the environment.  Of such enormity are these cultural shifts that they have prompted church analyst Leith Anderson to declare them the dawning of the next millennium.  In his book A Church for the 21st Century, Anderson writes:  “The twentieth century is history.  It’s over.  The twenty-first century has already begun—the calendar just hasn’t caught up with the reality” (Leith Anderson, The Church for the 21st Century, (Minneapolis:  Bethany House Publishers, 1992), 16). 

When Anderson alludes to the beginning of the next millennium, he is metaphorically referring to the shifts taking place in contemporary society—shifts that point to the end of the dominance of one cultural paradigm and the birth of another.  He is referring to what some scholars have called the end of modernity and the introduction of the postmodern era.  

The reasons for these cultural quakes are many, but all boil down to one undeniable fact: human reason, which gave birth to fantastic advancements in science, industry, and technology, has failed to keep its promises.  The underlying assumption of the Enlightenment was that human reason, freed from tyrannical forms of government and superstitious religion, could provide humanity with a peaceful and prosperous world.  Such a world has not been born.

Instead of the promised advances from human reason, we see the increasing ravages of…

…world-wide oppression

…racial and ethnic bigotry

…rampant hungr

…international turbulence

…increases in global poverty

…a mistrust of institutions and their leaders (including the church)

…the destruction of the environment

…the fragmentation of communities

…individualism leading to isolationism

…the secularization of society

…and the technological ability to destroy all life on the planet in a matter of minutes

Sadly, we see that the institution of the church seems helpful to address these problems.  In fact, the institution of the church seems much more reflective of its society, than transformational in it mission and ministry.  Still, it is built into our “spiritual DNA” to find a way to effectively communicate the message and life of Jesus Christ.

That is why it is so very important, I suggest, that we explore the questions of the churches nature and identity, divorcing ourselves from outdated and culturally irrelevant models or doing church that are biblically faithful and culturally relevant.  Indeed, this discussion about ecclesiology is absolutely essential because it impinges on every aspect of the church’s mission and ministry.  I do not think it is a stretch to suggest that ecclesiology is the most pressing theological concern facing Christian theology as it lives in “The Transition Zone.”

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