DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I have an itch; would you mind?

Written by: on February 28, 2019

I was conned, misled and entrapped in the most cunning of ways. Calling a book “To Change the World” when the content of the book argues that such a thing is not possible, is a writer’s sleight-of-hand at its best.[1]

Personally, the book scratched an itch that I have had for a number year. The itch is more like a bad case of eczema that has been almost untreatable without facing the truth: healing means isolating parts of my long history with the church growth movement. It’s entirely possible that much of it was wrong.

The readings of the last few weeks have considered the nature of our social and economic transformation of the last five centuries. The intermingling of the renaissance, reformation theology, enlightenment and scientific categorisation/systematisation and philosophical sociology have all had a voice in the ‘coming to be’ of the modern western world. Moreover, of course, it is all too easy to ignore the cultural formation of the 365 European wars (national and civil) of the last 500 years.[2]

Given all that we have experienced as culturally diverse humans, Hunter’s Basic question is simple, “How is religious faith possible in the late modern world?… Is it possible? How does the encounter of religious faith with modernity change the nature and experience of faith? Alternatively, for that matter, modernity itself?”[3]

At the heart of his three essays is a question of culture. How is it formed? How it is changed? And who are the true change agents in any culture’s history?

Four years earlier, in 2001, Charles Taylor wrote a journal article titled, Two Theories of Modernity.[4] Taylor conceived of two opposed categories of modernity which he called ‘cultural’ and ‘acultural’. The former is a recognition of civilisations with their own unique human culture. For example, medieval Europe was a different culture to our present western society – they are not the same. Acultural modernity is a view of global humanity that emphasises the demise traditional society and the rise of the ‘modern’; a set of transformations that any culture can go through and will be forced to go through because they transcend history. That of course was Vincent Miller’s understanding in his book, Consuming Religion; we extract historic objects from their original context in order to make use of them for current consumption with a different meaning.[5] For mechanisms, acultural modernity uses management, strategic planning, big car parks, comfort and user-friendliness as its primary tools for social development and has thus been the framework on which secularisation expanded. Also, because secularisation is a movement away from religious ideas and institutions as beneficial for human wellbeing, acultural modernism’s social equations, programmes and techniques have become the arbiters of human meaning and purpose.[6]

From the above, it follows that Miller would write, “I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.”[7] Combine this with Os Guinness’s reasonable argument that acultural modernity is anti-intellectual (it prefers empirical data over theory), then society, along with the modernised church, is prone to a mindless ‘development’ pragmatism that never finally succeeds because it is never reflective about its agenda.[8]

So, going back to my uncomfortable itch, I would argue that the unreflective agenda of the Church Growth Movement adopted acultural modernity’s tools of social development to reshape the church. Why? Because in order to achieve this redevelopment, the leadership and management practices of acultural modernity have been incrementally applied. The emphasis on numerical growth through programmatic evangelism, meeting homogenous social needs and the adoption of secular leadership methodology, is ample evidence of this.

In my 30 years of ministry, most of the pastoral ministry talk has been centred on the need for leadership, and that leadership discussion has been about “Changing the Church to Change the World”. Yet the question, ‘what are we changing the world to?’ is rarely considered. In most cases, it appears to be the desire for a certain group of Christians to form the whole world in their leaders’ particular image.[9]  Unfortunately, the images are typically acultral – they can be applied anywhere to anyone without reference to their civilisations culture. That being the case, I agree with Hunter’s assertion that we abandon talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” “reforming the culture,” and “changing the world.” [10] Christians need to discover again who they are in their part of the world, not how they can change it. The latter has been a failed exercise, and a quick look at countries like New Zealand reveal why. In 1993 Elaine Bolitho researched the growth and decline of the Baptists in New Zealand, the largest denomination in the country. She found that church growth was directly linked to church decline. Baptist ‘nicked’ congregants from the Presbyterians, Anglicans, Brethren and burnt-out Pentecostals in the 70’s and 80’s.[11] The developing leadership model was about growth and transforming society. However, by the early 90’s growth had stopped, and decline set in. People were leaving the church altogether; acultural ministry had done its damage. We weren’t changing the world, we were messing up the church. The questions we should have been asking were questions from exile: “Who are ‘we’ and who am ‘I’ in a strange land?”

Hunter makes a good point in his second essay, “Rethinking Power”.[12] The eight-century prophets spoke from within a theocracy, or what the people believed was a theocracy. The aching question is, ‘why need prophets in a theocracy?’ Because Israel was doing deals with the devil (international security arrangements), while still claiming allegiance to Yahweh. They lost any sense of who they truly were.[13] The problem, Hunter rightly claims, is that self-righteous western Christianised countries (especially the United States of America) confuse themselves with Israel. Left and Right wing Christian groups see themselves as prophets to the country when they clearly are not. In a similarly depressing way, New Zealand Christians prophetically announce that the church must ‘recover’ its place in society and reclaim our position as a ‘Christian Country’, which ironically, we have never been. Indeed, I’m not sure there is any such thing. Until we realise that, we will continue to play the acultural game of “How NOT to Change the World”.

 

Notes

[1] James Davidon Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] A basic List of conflicts in Europe https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_conflicts_in_Europe (These exclude America, the Pacific, Africa and China.

[3] Ibid. ix

[4] Charles Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity,” The International Scope Review 3, no. 5 (2001).

[5] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (London: Continuum, 2005).

[6] Taylor, “Two Theories of Modernity”. 7-8

[7] Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 5

[8] Os Guinness, Dining With the Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993). 45

[9] Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 260

[10]  Ibid. 280

[11] Elaine E. Bolitho, Meet the Baptists (Auckland: Christian Research association of New Zealand, 1993). 114

[12] Hunter, The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 97ff

[13]  Ibid. 147f

 

Bibiliography

Bolitho, Elaine E. Meet the Baptists. Auckland: Christian Research association of New Zealand, 1993.

Guinness, Os. Dining With the Devil. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993.

Hunter, James Davidon. The Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Miller, Vincent J. Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture. London: Continuum, 2005.

Taylor, Charles. “Two Theories of Modernity.” The International Scope Review 3, no. 5 (2001): 1–9.

 

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

12 responses to “I have an itch; would you mind?”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    I will never scratch your itch so please don’t ask again! As for your post, I couldn’t agree more. In my tribe people have solid out to this idea that Trump is God’s prophet to America which will user in the change that the country has been longing for. He is for all measure MORE important then Jesus, which is what the church growth culture created as in a heavy focus on growth by all means (while adding Jesus stuff on to it). It has become all to easy to read the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom of (insert your country) but 2 Kingsdom never become one without the loss of one. A faithful reading of the text tells us God’s Kingdom doesn’t “take over” until the end of time and therefore is not the dominant kingdom now and never plans to be. In your context what does practicing faithful presence look like?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Mario, deeply disappointed in your less than humble response to my need. Weeping quietly on my pillow. Btw, see my response to Jacobs post. I think it’s the beginning of the answer, the beginning only.

      • mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

        Digby – if you and Hunter are correct . . . that we are raising our “flocks’ only to look and act in a similar fashion as the leaders of these ‘flocks’ then we are poorly mistaken.

        I am grateful for not only you pointing this out, but also for the humility it takes to post it.

  2. Good stuff Digby. I think I share the same itch. Hunter was helpful to point out historically what worked and what didn’t. One of the things missing, according to Hunter is leadership in the church — which you already know. On page 225 he says:

    “What has been missing is a leadership that comprehends the nature of these challenges and offers a vision of formation adequate to the task of discipling the church and its members for a time such as ours.”

    Good thing to know since we’re in a program that’ll help us get the church to realize the potential of positive culture change we’re missing.

    It’s truly sad what the Baptists have done to contribute to culture decay in New Zealand. I know the church history there but that is regrettable. Again, our Lord prayed that we be one as he is one in perfect unison within the intimate fellowship of the Trinity. How in the world will the “world” take our message seriously if we can’t even get along. Shame on us.

  3. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Digby,

    You’re correct – our posts this week do resonate similarly. Maybe that is a result of my time in NZ that led me astray. 🙂

    I think that the non-denom and other conservative churches (with ‘cool’ worship bands) are also ‘nicking’ US christians. The results will be the same yet it doesn’t seem like Christian leaders in the US are willing to learn from the church in the UK, NZ and OZ. I am trying to at least get my own cohort to consider the possibilities but mostly I just make them mad and they think I need prayer (which is true but not for the reasons they think).

    Thanks for the post and pointing me to yours. (BTW – reading and responding to posts outside our cohorts is only making more work for us. lol)

  4. mm Sean Dean says:

    Digby every bone in my body knows you’re correct here, I am simply lacking in ways to express it. I mostly love your questions “Who are ‘we’ and who am ‘I’ in a strange land?” Perhaps as ministers of all stripes, we should be continually asking those questions.

  5. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Digby, I couldn’t agree more. Thirty-eight years of pastoral ministry this year and I find myself pondering what all the leadership training, church growth programs and conferences have accomplished? The church has not grown overall. And, is the next generation repeating the same cycle only with different songs, lights, and celebrities?

  6. Digby,

    Ok, you started it. Now the LGP8s are blog-bombing your post. 😉

    Great thinking here. I share your pain in Canada.

    Interesting you stated, “The unreflective agenda of the Church Growth Movement adopted acultural modernity’s tools of social development to reshape the church.”

    I also am a product of 30 years in ministry being shaped by this thinking, and rejected it several years ago. Never quite knew why. But I wonder if it is partially because all this was based on an acultural model, which unfortunately is the opposite of Jesus’ way. He contextualized into a culture, and so does the gospel. This idea of enfleshment and embeddedness of the imago Dei into real dirt and sweat – into the reality of each of our own unique experiences – will allow us to learn faithful presence going forward.

  7. mm Mary Mims says:

    Digby, I had a brilliant response prepared but the 8’s beat me to it! LOL. However, I do not think it is all for naught because I got saved through one of these movements as well as other members of my family. So at least for me and my household, the Christian movement is still having an impact.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      No quarrel from me Mary. I was converted the same way. Went the whole Ned Flanders. So evangelism is still cool. I don’t think Hunter disagrees either. It’s the motivation for the mission that’s in question. Is it changing lives or changing the culture? We might claim that one ntuarally leads to the other, however we cannot claim what the transformed culture might look like. When we do, we start playing politics and utilising the tools of power. There’s a fine line between those motivations. In leadership has to know what it’s about, and what it’s not. Hunter is rather clear that that clarity is not always reflected upon. All that being said, tomorrow I preach Jesus till he comes and endeavour to live each day in Him!

  8. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby, You are obviously the celebrity blogger as you are able to draw interest from across the cosmos of cohorts! Very well presented and cited. You are an inspiration to us all of your unique combination of passionate thought and scholarly presentation. My itch bears witness with your itch, and I found Hunter extremely helpful. He shall have a proper place of honor within my research. Many thanks for your thoughts and your processes.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Harry. No celebrity here. Truth is, I’ve been on the 8’s blog site making mischief. Nothing like a little inter-cohort rivalry! I’ve taken a leaf out of Bayard’s book that we read early on. I’ve been waxing eloquent about stuff I haven’t read! So much fun.

Leave a Reply to Sean Dean Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *