Kevin Ward’s Losing Our Religion? (2013) V

Creating niche churches or congregations raises the question: Are there some criteria that must be satisfied before we can consider these experimental faith communities to be churches? This question becomes more acute when a niche congregation is created in a way that places it outside the frame of any prior existing church community; it is likely to be less so when the niche congregation is established under the auspices of an existing church. It is likely that, with the growth of Fresh Expressions and the emerging church movement, this question will be asked more often. It is one thing to assume that things have changed with the end of the Christendom era, but it is quite another to assume that all post-Christendom responses will be equally acceptable.

This raises again the relationship between the historic Christian faith, on the one hand, and the emerging cultural and social environment, the context, on the other. It is a matter of deciding, in any particular context, what a faithful contextualisation of the gospel looks like (see second post for 6 June 2015). Both aspects are important. Faithful contextualisation, says Ward, involves “the process of a deep, sympathetic adaptation to, and appropriation of, a local culture in which the Church finds itself, in a way that does not compromise its faith” (166, quoting William Reiser, quoted in Sweet Aquachurch, 81). It always entails a conversation between the text of faith and the context, and an interplay between the pilgrim principle, which states that faith is never fully at home in any culture, and the indigenizing principle, which asserts that the gospel is at home in every culture.

Ward suggests, as a first step, that these experimental faith communities should at least satisfy the description of the church in the Nicene Creed, i.e., that the church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. (1) In saying that the church is one the focus falls on the unity of the church. It is a unity that has its source in the church’s communion with God who is experienced as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in growing participation in God’s costly love as evidenced in Jesus Christ. The experimental faith community ought in some way to give visible expression to this unity. (2) The holiness of the church is measured against the life of Jesus, a life marked with God’s character and reflecting God’s glory. The focus of the experimental faith community needs to be on incarnating that life in its own social and cultural context. (3) The quality of being catholic refers to the universality and inclusivity of the church, a church that is open to the world. This is expressed in the life of individual congregations through showing a love that reaches out to all and excludes none; in so doing they start to become a concrete expression of God’s new humanity. It runs counter to our tendency to live by choice in particular sub-cultures, and so it means that an experimental niche community must somehow have a larger focus than its own life in community – hence the significance of the quote at the end of the last post. (4) The apostolic quality refers to a continuity in the life and faith of the church with that of the first apostles sent by the risen Christ to give witness to the gospel. This means that there must be a sense of continuity with the faith of the first apostles and the experimental faith community must maintain a conversation with that faith so that it feeds into the life of this community in its particular social and cultural context.

Ward adds to these four indicators a further two drawn from reformed tradition. The first is an emphasis on “word and sacrament,” specifically that the word is preached faithfully and the sacraments are rightly administered (Calvin). The second is an emphasis on church discipline, not in the misunderstood sense of control and regulation, but in the fuller sense of being concerned with the formation of disciples and the life of discipleship. There must be a sense in which the experimental church community is engaged in forming itself and its members in the character of Jesus.

We are still very much coming to terms with the rise and variety of experimental church communities, particularly as many have come into being outside the mainline denominations. Ward suggests that Max Weber’s concept of the routinization of charisma offers a helpful perspective for looking at the rise of the emerging church. Weber “argues that what happens in the evolution of religion is that a new group gathers around a charismatic leader and is a dynamic, free, loose charismatic movement. Over time it rationalizes, routinizes, and systematizes its life and so loses its charisma. Some adherents become frustrated with this and break away around the edges to form a new charismatic group, with new energy and dynamism. It is this that ensures the ongoing renewal of the religion” (182). Ward suggests that this process is at work in the creation of many experimental faith communities. His hope, however, is that, instead of breaking right away from the church, these experimental faith communities would remain in conversation with the church and that, as a result, the church as a whole will grow into “a more faithful and dynamic communion of the triune God in our challenging Western context” (182).

Ward concludes with a plea that both sides of the conversation move beyond issues of definition and continue to talk to each other so that, whatever shortcomings there are on either side, all of us may be helped “to more fully demonstrate the transforming presence of the risen Christ in our life together” (183).

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Kevin Ward’s Losing Our Religion? (2013) IV

We live in an increasingly fragmented society owing to the social and cultural changes that have taken place since the 1960s. How should the church respond to being church in a fragmented world? Kevin Ward addresses this question head-on.

It means for a start that denominations, if they are to survive, will have to adjust to living in a new era, and, to do this, they will have to shed the kind of bureaucratic control that they have routinely wielded in the past. They will need to function differently, forgoing much of the urge to control and regulate, and instead focus on building trust across the regional and local layers of the church and on resourcing local congregations. “In an increasingly postmodern world, whose values include widespread diversity, the rejection of hierarchy, suspicion of institutions, and a strong emphasis on personal choice, it is clear on which side [regulating or resourcing] the balance needs to be weighted for denominations to have a strong, but different future” (Ward, 142). This will be imperative in an era when brand loyalty no longer counts to the same extent.

This fragmented world has also impacted on local congregations. Ease of travel has led many to move from their community of origin, resulting often in falling population numbers in smaller communities and a loss of any sense of local community. Local community churches have sometimes disappeared or else have persisted as only a shadow of their former self. In a networked society like ours, people have formed communities around networks of interest rather than according to geographical location so there is a loss of any sense of community in a comprehensive sense. Shared common interests, and the character of the local congregation, govern people’s choice of church rather than geographical location, and so people shop around for a like-minded church. This has rendered largely unworkable the notion of a ‘parish church’ because it is, by definition, formed on the basis of reaching out to a particular geographical area. It may still have a role in some instances, but it is becoming increasingly clear that “in our diverse, fragmented, networked society we need a diverse, fragmented, networked church that lives within the networks in which people live” (Ward, 149). At the local level, we will have to adjust more and more to doing church in fragments and niches.

To Jim Kitchen’s three context markers for the postmodern parish (post-denominationalism, postmodernity and post-Christendom), Ward adds a fourth, post-traditional, in order to draw out additional aspects of what it means to be the church in our fragmented world. It is about the place of tradition in our society – in this new changing world traditions have value to the extent that people choose to seek their guidance, and people reserve the right to reinterpret and even change traditions. It leads people to live reflexively, i.e. It gives a degree of liberty in relation to what has been handed down, but it also means taking the risk that we will devalue some traditions in a way that, later in a fresh light, will turn out to have been to our impoverishment. It means examining cherished practices in the light of the new realities in which we are living, sitting lightly with their form but always seeking to discover the essence or truth to which they point. It is a situation that will make some people uncomfortable.

It is likely that, in this fragmented, networked world, given the prevalence of communities formed along interest lines, there will be in time a much smaller number of traditional, local congregations organised largely on a geographical basis. It is a way of forming community that is going out of fashion in the wake of the social and cultural changes that have occurred. Instead, to some extent they will be replaced, by regional or mega-churches, or better, multi-congregational churches that allow different interest groups to meet separately as worshipping communities under the umbrella of the larger whole. This is already starting to occur in New Zealand in the Presbyterian Church.

The significant new development will, however, be the growth of smaller niche churches or congregations that will enable particular niche groups to incarnate the gospel within their community of interest. This reflects the growing awareness that a ‘one size fits all church paradigm’ is now increasingly outmoded. Ward lists several possible such groups, including ‘older adults,’ probably from the pre-baby boomer generation, for whom church tradition is significant and whose life journey and identity has been formed largely in a fairly traditional church setting; baby boomers still part of the church; baby boomers who have either left as young people or have left in midlife and are no longer connected with the church; and young families (a mix of Generation X and Generation Y). This last group, says Ward, will likely require a highly active, anticipatory style, with the whole family worshipping together, and worship not restricted to a Sunday. Although these groups are defined for practical purposes in age or generational terms, Ward emphasises that the key is not the age or generation, but the style of worship and community that flows from these groups. It is quite likely that members of one age group or generation will feel more at home with the style of worship or community associated with another group or generation. There are no rigid boundaries between the groups.

In the midst of all this fragmentation, Ward emphasises that it will be important to retain a sense of the church as being larger than the individual worshipping congregation. We will need to cultivate a sense of ‘doing it together.’ Ward says, “Cross-fertilisation and contributions from those who are different from us – in age, ethnicity, lifestyle, family situation, and so on – are important. Larger churches need to work on ways in which the different congregations can come together at times, and smaller niche churches need to see themselves as part of a bigger whole (‘the church’) and do things from time to time with other churches” (160).

Kevin Ward’s Losing Our Religion? (2013) IIIB

To deny that the future will be churchless, then, obviously this doesn’t mean that the church can continue as it has in the past – if it is to survive it must do so by adapting to the vastly changed social and cultural conditions that help to shape life now. Ward lists three priorities for the church if it is not to succumb to a “churchless’ future (first introduced by Ward in his earlier book The Church in Post-Sixties New Zealand). These have already been introduced in an earlier post (10 June 2015), so the notes here extend the discussion.

Reforming the church, the first of the priorities, is still worth doing according to Ward, particularly if heed is paid to the lessons from churches such as Spreydon Baptist. It’s probably not something that will appeal to most of the under 50s with an interest in spirituality and religion, though, on account of the mismatch of values and forms of belonging between them and the institutional church. This is the reason that the second priority is about developing revolutionary new forms of church or community for transmitting and maintaining faith.

To create these new forms of community, the church will need to display a high level of social and cultural awareness, quite apart from the matter of the content of faith. The church will need to offer a spiritual map (rather than a blueprint) and give freedom for people to select their route, and the resulting community will need to have space for personal concerns to be taken account of. These communities will need to be at home in a networked society if they are to survive, which means they will need to have a certain flexibility and be open to change. They will need to prioritise equality over hierarchy, emphasise participation over submission, value experience over abstract ideas, be open to multiple rather than single meanings, and have a structure that is open to being moulded and reshaped rather than set in concrete (Harvey Cox). These communities will also need to take on board the insights of the missional church movement; they need to give a license to experiment in faith just because the way ahead is uncertain and uncharted. (See next two posts for more on these new forms of church.)

The third priority for the church is resourcing the wider community, which shifts the church’s concerns away from a narrow focus on belonging. It’s about the church fulfilling its kingdom role as light, leaven and salt, and connecting with the wider society to shape beliefs and values. There are now many opportunities for this since the concerns of faith, and the focus on the religious or spiritual journey, are leaking into ‘ordinary life’ through vehicles such as films. This is a good opportunity for the church to treat its resources as a wider cultural resource, encouraging discussion. Opportunities can arise through public rituals, such as at funerals, or through the celebration of Easter and Christmas, and especially now on Anzac Day. These opportunities let the Church tap into the latent religion beneath the surface of society at times of national crisis or celebration and during significant communal events. There are also opportunities for the Church to participate in important occasions associated with a life journey, and the church needs to be open and ready to participate on these occasions beyond the boundaries of institutional religion. The church needs to have a discerning eye, but it also needs to be able to use the popular culture as an ally in getting across its message and values when the opportunity arises. In some instances it will mean the recovery of the church’s prophetic voice to speak against injustice.

Kevin Ward’s Losing Our Religion? (2013) IIIA

Kevin Ward poses the question, “Is the future churchless?” as secularisation, understood as a metanarrative of religious decline, would have it. Consistent with the position developed in his earlier book, he answers, “No!” Secularisation in this sense, like other metanarratives, has now been largely discredited. The focus is now on the changing nature of religion and religious belief, and the picture is multi-dimensional and often contradictory.

The error of religious decline narratives, such as secularisation, is that they have reduced religion to church attendance, which statistics show is declining, but institutional decline does not necessarily mean that religion is ‘going out of fashion’ – there is data to show that ‘believing’ persists even in the face of a decline in ‘belonging.’ It is, moreover, open to question whether people who tick “No Religion” in census returns, as increasing numbers do in New Zealand, are all secular atheists, as some interpretations of the data assume. This assumption is open to question now, since it is just as likely that it reflects the cultural experience of a coming of age, and alienation from institutionalised religion, rather than religious scepticism in itself. A decline in belonging doesn’t necessarily equate with loss of belief, and it is just as likely that many who are in this category would consider themselves spiritual rather than necessarily religious. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age takes the view that faith or religion has diversified rather than declined. There are good grounds for thinking that the decline of institutionalised religion has created space for people to wander on their own faith journey. We need alternative, better narratives to the secularisation narrative of decline, therefore, to describe the current religious landscape.

One of the ways Ward describes this landscape is by pointing to a shift in the current context from religion, particularly the institutional kind, to spirituality. In the late 20th and early 21st-centuries there has been renewed interest in the concept of a spiritual journey, and in spirituality as being engaged on a search or quest. The concept of mysticism, with its emphasis on individual experience, can help to illuminate what is happening (see earlier post on 10 June 2015). Another useful concept, as noted earlier, is the sociological concept of detraditionalisation (see same earlier post), which helps to account for the shift of authority away from the traditional religious institutions and the increasing importance of personal convictions and beliefs and accepting only what “rings true” to the inner self.

On a more positive note, alongside this, Ward points to the development of secondary institutions (communities of interest) among more recent generations than the baby boomers as a sign that we are entering a “new communitarian age.” This gives some cause for hope because, in these new communities, ‘believing’ (the quest for the sacred) is once again reunited with ‘belonging’ (the quest for community). These new secondary institutions are, of course, not simply the rebirth of the institutional church in another guise, but instead they take on their own forms and patterns more suited to the current social and cultural climate. These secondary institutions give priority to face-to-face interaction, they are usually open and tolerant of others, and they are inclusive and non-judgemental. They have a looser structure and they are democratic rather than hierarchical. They are many of the things that the institutional church mostly is not.

To be continued.

Kevin Ward’s Losing Our Religion? (2013) II

The experience of decline, as evidenced in the mainline denominations, is not shared by all churches. Ward’s own research has highlighted the example of Spreydon Baptist Church as one church that has demonstrated vitality and growth during the social and cultural changes beginning in the 1960s. Do churches such as these, which have usually combined an orthodox evangelical faith with an ability to adapt to the social and cultural changes taking place, offer a way forward for the church as a whole, including the mainline denominations? Is it simply a matter of embracing wholeheartedly a robust evangelicalism?

Ward doesn’t think so! He warns that we shouldn’t confuse the growth of some churches, even one as close to his heart as Spreydon Baptist Church, in a shrinking market of ‘churched’ people with growth of the church as a whole. To do so would ignore the impact of the larger patterns of social and cultural change. It would ignore as well as the clear evidence that much of the growth of these churches has occurred through transfer from one church to another and from the reawakening of faith in those with some contact with the church in their earlier years. Only a small proportion of the growth, usually 5% or less, comes from attracting people with no prior church background. This is borne out by Ward’s own New all the Zealand research, and it is backed up by studies overseas. For example, Canadian research suggests that, rather than being models of effective mission, these churches tend to grow through members having higher than average birth-rates, the ability of these churches to retain their children, and their ability to attract people switching from other churches. It calls seriously into question any suggestion that such churches can be models for reaching the growing percentage of ‘unchurched’ New Zealanders, even if we can learn from them in some other respects.

We can’t avoid the conclusion that to reach the genuinely ‘unchurched’ and engage with them so that they are attracted to becoming followers of Jesus means entering a whole new mission field. The church needs to come out from under the shadow of Christendom if it is to have any chance of engaging with this mission field. Earlier posts have already touched on some of the challenges the church faces if it is do this effectively, and Ward adds to these now two more related challenges: (1) gaining a better understanding of ‘conversion’ and (2) nurturing new forms of church life capable of instilling and sustaining faith in a post-Christendom era.

What is touted as ‘conversion’ is often strictly speaking not conversion, says Ward, and he draws on some sociological insights to add depth to our concept of conversion from a religious perspective. For an experience to count as a ‘conversion,’ it must bring about a radical shift in perspective, a new identity, as, e.g., in the Apostle Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. It is not a cumulative experience, neither is it merely a stage on the one journey. From a human perspective, then, to bring about someone’s conversion is very difficult and a real challenge (even allowing for the work of the Spirit). (It is unlikely to occur without a period of ‘belonging’ to lay the foundation for the necessary social ties to be formed – socialisation into the faith comes before ‘believing,’ before conversion.) What is often claimed as a ‘conversion’ is, more often than not, merely alternation, sociologically speaking. It is, in other words, a milestone on a journey, which, particularly if it’s a journey of faith, is likely to consist of many milestones. It is better viewed as part of a process, which is continuing, and this contrasts with ‘conversion,’ which is a totally new beginning.

To come out from under the shadow of Christendom, Ward says, the church needs to rethink the forms of church life that it has grown accustomed to and, now, often inhabits unthinkingly. We are living in a time when both our culture and our values have changed to such an extent that, for many, the forms, patterns, values and rituals inherited by the church from an earlier time and culture are meaningless. The church cannot overcome this without making a concerted effort to engage in a genuine encounter between gospel and culture while, at the same time, loosening the “stranglehold of clericalism.” It will necessitate new forms of ministry, relating to one another in non-hierarchical ways, nurturing an inclusive community that is open to the world. The focus must change from preserving the church as an institution (the idolatry of the church) to creating authentic followers of Jesus, and mission needs to become the church’s reason for existing. New forms of church will need to give priority to open discussion, to the sharing of experiences and to people’s spiritual development (Wade Clark Roof). The boundaries of this kind of church will be porous and shifting, rather than rigid and unyielding (an open set mentality not a closed set mentality).

The task for mainline denominations, in particular, is to grasp the challenge posed by the lingering hold of Christendom and to come out from under its shadow, ready to engage the new social and cultural reality, ready to incarnate the gospel in the new mission setting we now inhabit.

Kevin Ward’s Losing Our Religion? (2013) I

The full name of Kevin Ward’s second book is Losing Our Religion? Changing Patterns of Believing and Belonging in Secular Western Society. It develops further some of the themes in his first book, The Church in Post-Sixties New Zealand. In this set of posts, I will focus on those insights from Losing Our Religion? that build on his insights from his first book into the challenges facing mainline churches and the options for going forward.

Ward has already clearly established that the decline of the mainline churches began in the 1960s with the exodus of the baby boomer generation from these churches, and he has shown that the impact of this has flowed down through their children and grandchildren, who are also absent in large numbers from these churches. It’s not just a New Zealand phenomenon but is mirrored in the mainline churches in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

As noted already, the factor most responsible for this state of affairs is now widely recognised as being the social and cultural changes that have taken place during and since the 1960s in these countries (see earlier posts for 6 June 2015). For example, the impact of the loss of any sense of belonging to a local community makes itself felt in the fact that the further baby boomers moved from their local community of origin the less likely they were to become part of a mainline church in their new location. For many the changing nature of work meant that they now looked to their work to give them meaning and purpose, rather than to the church. Also the mainline churches had often had an uneasy relationship with evangelism, but the growing pluralism only compounded this situation. This was not a passing phase – social and cultural change was here to stay, and if anything it was heightened in the 1990s with the emergence of a culture that was both post-modern and post-Christian.

This leads Ward to ask whether the mainline denominations have a future, given their accelerated ageing as current members grow older and their shortage of younger generations owing to the small numbers of children ‘born into’ these denominations and their increasing inability to recruit younger members. There are many signs suggesting that the answer to this question should be “No!” For example, the longer-term viability of many of their local congregations is already being called into question, and church closures are a present reality. In addition financial restructuring, at both the local and national level, has been necessary in many mainline denominations to cope with this unfolding reality.

It seems many mainline denominations have been ill-prepared by their recent history for coping with the changes that have come about since the 1960s, and Ward discusses some of the reasons for this. For instance, these denominations have over-relied on the ‘repetitive cycle of reproduction,’ i.e., the birth of the children to existing members, to keep attendance figures up, and this worked more or less up until the end of the 1950s. It broke down, however, with the baby boomer generation, so that from the social and cultural changes of the 1960s onwards the process of socialisation into the church failed to yield the necessary numbers. This breakdown left many mainline denominations in something of a vacuum because in most of them there hadn’t been a strong emphasis on evangelism, which might have served to help fill this gap left by the strong drop-off in new babies born to members. It wasn’t just a matter of numbers, for the absence of many of the baby boomer generation left mainline denominations without the necessary social networks to connect with people of that generation – this was significant because faith is usually both socially transmitted and maintained, and this wasn’t working very well for the mainline denominations from the 1960s onwards. Add to this the fact of an aged and ageing ordained ministry in mainline denominations and the task of making connections with younger generations, now largely absent from the mainline denominations, becomes even harder.

Does this mean, then, that mainline denominations no longer have the knowledge and resources to respond effectively to the challenge of reconnecting ‘believing’ and ‘belonging’? It would be easy to answer “Yes!” to this question, since the obstacles ahead are very real, but Ward is not yet ready to side-line mainline denominations, and he sees signs of hope. There are local churches which do have a healthy age profile, and younger people are still identifying with the mainline denominations. It is too early to write them off! He offers some pointers to mainline denominations for rising to the challenge: support forward-looking churches with healthy age profiles; encourage the birth of new faith communities with appealing forms of belonging, with a focus on people who still have vestiges of faith; and change the mind-set to a missional understanding of church, which sees its task as connecting with the God who is present in the wider community. In this way it might yet be possible for mainline denominations to emerge from the shadow of Christendom!

Sunday 14 June 2015

I attended St. Aidan’s again last Sunday. This time it was “A Service of Quiet Reflection,” so the worship followed a different pattern to the café service but was similar in style to the more traditional communion and baptism service of last time. As in other services, an elder took the role of worship leader. The atmosphere was ‘peaceful’ and the pace of the service was ‘measured,’ as befits a quiet, reflective service.

The service commenced after the welcome with the lighting of the community’s Christ candle to put darkness to flight. There were also individual prayer candles available at the front and people were invited to come forward and light a candle, placing it in the sandbox, during the hymns, the sharing of the peace or the offering. Several people came forward and lit candles during the service.

The opening responses and the first hymn invited us to give thanks for life, for life born of faithfulness, of courage and of God. In the opening prayer we prayed that God’s light might help us to see things more clearly and that God’s enabling Spirit might show us how to cherish one another. It was followed by a second responsive prayer, a “Reflective Confession,” which included a time for personal reflection. This cycle of prayers concluded with a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer spoken by the congregation.

The next section of the service was concerned with hearing and responding to God’s word. It began with a Scripture reading, on this occasion Mark 4:26-29, followed by a short hymn, “God be in my head” and then the message. There were echoes of the theme of “Who do you think you are?” from the café service on 17 May in the message; we were reminded that ‘change’ is now the ‘new constant,’ more so than the greater stability of former years – there were illustrations of this from technology; and we were invited to discern God’s presence in both the growth of the seeds in the Markan parable and in the realm of God (God’s kingdom) taking shape through the movement of God’s Spirit in our midst. After the message there was a musical interlude on the piano – “music for the soul” – that gave us a chance to sit and reflect. We then responded together by reciting a statement of faith from the United Church of Canada (the one we use in our services of baptism).

In the closing section of the service, we shared the peace – people moved about freely to do this – the offering was taken up, and we prayed for others and ourselves before giving the week’s notices. The service finished with another New Zealand hymn, “We are an Easter people” and the blessing.

Quote re technological change: “A vinyl record is not a large CD!”