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).