The Challenges of a Changing World

A giant wave of cultural change is crashing in on nearly every aspect and institution in human society.  The challenges these changes are brining to the attention of the church must be addressed in order to bring the good news of the gospel to all the nations and peoples of the world.

The thesis of this series of blogs is that the contemporary church can develop a meaningful theology of evangelism in a postmodern world by recovering the Anabaptist vision of the church.  The first several posts provided a definition of postmodernism.  Additionally it examined some of the major contemporary responses to the phenomena of postmodernity (what I am calling “the transition zone”.  The next several blogs provided a historical survey of the Anabaptist tradition and introduced its major ecclesiological distinctions.  This week we will offer a more detailed description of the Anabaptist doctrine of the church.  These posts will serve as the foundation for developing an Anabaptist approach to evangelism that is both faithful to its ecclesiological tradition and responsive to the postmodern world. 

The Challenges of a Changing World

Contemporary society finds itself in the midst of change and transition.  Of this there can be little doubt.  The reality of these changes has been made 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. In his book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler summarizes the tremendous changes taking place in human society as it experiences a transition from the philosophical tenets of the Enlightenment to what we have previously defined as—for lack of a better term—postmodernity.  Toffler writes:

A new civilization is emerging in our lives…This new civilization brings with it new family styles; changed ways of working, loving, and living…Millions are already attuning their lives to the rhythms of tomorrow…The dawn of this new civilization is the single most explosive fact of our lifetimes.[1]

 Toffler is describing a period of transition from modernity to postmodernity.  Social scientists call this period of transition a paradigm shift.     I am calling it “the transition zone.”

Like postmodernism, the term paradigm is a much used (and perhaps overused) word—particularly in academic circles.  Unlike postmodernism, however, this term is a much easier word to define.  For our purpose paradigm is best understood as an archetype—as the overarching perspective from which most people interpret the world.   It is the worldview—the collection of beliefs about life and the universe— held by an individual or a group by which they make sense out of their existence.  This being the case, a paradigm shift is a dramatic alteration in those commonly held beliefs and assumptions.  In other words, a paradigm shift is the demise of one worldview and the birth of another. 

Human society is currently experiencing such a paradigm shift.  We are calling this time of shifting “the transition in zone.”  The turmoil of this transitional time period has caused tremors in nearly every corner of human life—including the church.  This time of change and shift is proving to be a tremendous challenge to contemporary church as it seeks to fulfill it missional mandate.  The death of modernity and rise of the postmodern era have severely called into question the traditional philosophical and sociological supports of the Christian religion. In many ways, contemporary Christians feel like foreign missionaries in their own land.  In his book Congregational Megatrends, Jeff Woods addresses this feeling of confusion within the church, saying:

Futurists have predicted it.  Philosophers have pondered it.  Pastors have reacted to it.  Church members have experienced it.  “I am talking about the SHIFT.  The CHANGE.  The dramatic movements that are taking place in our churches. 

 Things don’t work like they used to.  The church is changing.  Evangelism is different.  Discipleship is different.  Ministry is different.  People don’t come to church for the same reasons they once did.  People don’t worship like they use to.  People don’t have the same loyalties, the same devotion, or the same sense of spirituality.  At times, everything in the church appears to be different.[2]

Why are things so different now for the church?  The reason is simple.  For good or for ill the church—its structures, missions, ministries, and doctrines—have been greatly influenced by the worldview of modernity.  As such, with the collapse of this paradigm, the church now finds itself in the throes of chaos.  For this reason the church sees itself as largely irrelevant and ill-prepared to fulfill its mandate in the budding postmodern era. Providing direction to the church in the midst of this turmoil is the primary goal of these blogs. 

The Church in a Changing World

The first step is providing the direction for the church in the midst of this changing world is to address the issue of ecclesiology.  What is the nature and mission of the church in the world?  What is its identity, purpose, and mandates?  For those who operate from an Anabaptist perspective, these questions of ecclesiology are of utmost importance. 

It ought to be made clear that when we discuss the topic of ecclesiology we are not simply talking about issues of church polity and structure.  We are probing something far most basic. We are in agreement with Anabaptist theologian Thomas Fingers who has written:

While the Bible says little about the church structure, it speaks often about the activities, attitudes, and relationships which characterize the church.[3]

Our primary purpose in exploring the issue ecclesiology, therefore, will not be to develop new congregational structures, programs, or policies.  Our purpose will be instead to examine the activities, attitudes, and relationships that should mark a congregation as the community of God.   When this foundation is firmly in place, the church will be equipped to develop the structures, programs, and policies that will be responsive to postmodern era.

The Identity of the Church

What is the nature of the church? 

Without a doubt, the word church finds common usage in our society—especially among those who made claim to be adherents of the Christian religion.  Yet despite its common usage, there is still widespread disagreement over what the word means.  The most widespread misconception about the church in contemporary Western society is the notion that it is primarily a building—a structure in which believer’s meet to worship God. In addition, others also misinterpret the church to simply be one human institution among many, all competing for the loyalty and allegiance of the contemporary individual.  Though such ideas are prevalent, they simply do not reflect the essence of the church’s identity either from a biblical standpoint or from the traditional understanding of the church articulated by theologians throughout church history. 

If the church, then, is not a place to gather nor a human institution, what is it?  What is the nature of the church’s identity?  Stanley Grenz, writing from an Anabaptist perspective, explores this foundational question of ecclesiology in his book Theology for the Community of God.  He sets forth his understanding of the church by appealing to three concepts that describe the church’s fundamental nature: covenant, kingdom sign, and community. 

The church, we assert, is a people standing in covenant, who are a sign of the divine reign and constitute a special community.  In short, the church is the eschatological covenant community.[4]

We will continue along these lines in our next posting.

[1] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, (New York:  Bantam, 1980), 9.

[2] C. Jeff Woods, Congregational Megatrends, (Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute, 1996), 5.

[3] Thomas N. Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 2 (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1989), 226.

[4] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Nashville, Tennessee:  Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994), 604.

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