In my recent article The Chasm the Church is Facing, I argued that we are caught in an uncommon moment in church history: we are the church in the midst of the staccato revolutions that society grows through over the arc of history. Society doesn't change over slow, incremental change so much as it does through a punctuated equilibrium: periods of time without dramatic change interspersed with bursts of rapid overhaul. When those revolutions come the change is thorough and fast - exactly what is happening today. As a result the church is facing a chasm: most of what we do has been designed for a world that has been, but a new world is emerging. The gap between those two results in a church that feels irrelevant and out of touch.
In this article we pick up the conversation and try and dive a bit deeper. What does it look like to cross the chasm? What is the bridge made of? What stays the same and what changes in the church through this societal revolution?
I believe the chasm has four interlocking dimensions the church needs to navigate. In each of these challenges we are facing not incremental changes (like tweaking our ministry philosophy or introducing alternate programming), but a total overhaul. Revolutionary change is disruptive change that doesn't interface with what has come before: now that many families use media streaming services we don't sit around in the evening and listen to the radio as entertainment much anymore.
This disruptive change is acting like a barrier, blocking the church from missional effectiveness. Meanwhile societal and cultural is pressure is building up from the other side. The result is the church feels hemmed in right now - and we will until the pressure motivates us strongly enough to attempt to leap across the chasm into the unknown on the other side. We don't know what will be there other than it will be different than it is now.
What does the disruptive change we need to navigate look like? Here's what I'm seeing:
The Theological Dimension
It might be surprising that I would suggest there is a theological chasm that needs crossing, but I believe there is one––and in fact that it has two layers to it. It's easy to think that theology has been unchanged since the closing of the Biblical canon, that the church's job is to protect the already received body of teaching and defend it against attacks from an increasingly hostile culture. I don't dispute the need to defend theological orthodoxy, but I don't believe the most helpful picture of that is one that puts us in the mode of assuming we already understand all that is relevant or important for us to know. Yes, the biblical canon has closed and the documents from which we draw theology are fixed, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't expect ongoing growth and development in theology. To expect otherwise ignores some important effects:
Theology is always worked out in a context and that context is always shifting. As a result the analogies and mental models we use are always morphing and changing. Some that were previously useful erode away and we are left with ideas that don't have hooks to hang on: these need to be recontextualized. Some new mental models emerge or become more relevant and have the capacity to be more powerful containers than they were before. Theology is expressed truth which always happens in a cultural context. Even if the truth doesn't change over time, the theology we use to articulate it will.
Church History bears witness to the fact that theological developments regularly happen over the church's 20-century story and as they do they are important moments of renewal or revival. I think of Martin Luther and salvation by grace through faith, William Carey articulating the need for missions societies, or Charles Parham & William Seymour and the baptism of the Spirit. There are moments when a particular truth is freshly breathed upon by the Spirit and the church is transformed as a result.
So what is the theological dimension of the chasm? As I mentioned before there are two layers. The first is an ongoing theological revolution that has been happening over the last fifty years or so: it is a shift to understanding Christianity as a story of an inaugurated eschatology rather than a story (first) about saving souls. As Derek Morphew lays out in The Kingdom Reformation, this is no small change - the long arc of history may well bear witness to our lifetime being as much a reformation as Luther and company led in the 1500s.
Inaugurated eschatology is not just a teaching: it is a reframing of the entire faith, and as a result everything needs to be reworked - including what we believe the church is and how it functions. There is much work ahead in this area, to say nothing of the fact that a large segment of the church isn't even engaging the conversation at all yet.
The second layer to the theological dimension is an outworking of this theological revolution and it has specifically been highlighted during the COVID rollercoaster. From what I can tell, we do not have a robust theological understanding of what the church is. Talk with anyone who pastored through this past season and I'm sure they can tell stories of people who now attend pajama church (that's insider lingo for streamed church) on Sunday mornings and see no reason to do otherwise. Most of the pastors I've talked with don't have a meaningful reply because we don't actually know what church is. I've written much more on this in my article Why Should I Go Back to Church?, but there are richer and more helpful definitions that go beyond the much-incomplete "the church is the people of God" that most protestants reach for.
To cross the chasm we need to be willing to seriously engage these layers. God is going to make the church something different than anything we currently experience and we need a clear and theologically robust target to be aiming for.
The Technological Dimension
Technologist and investor guru Benedict Evans tweeted this fascinating observation:
The first step is that electronics makes a legacy product better, and the second step is that software changes the whole premise of the industry.
Evans is likely not thinking first about the church as his writes this, but rather observing the disruptive patterns that tech has had on so many fields. First electronics enabled just-in-time inventory in retail, then it changed the premise by allowing platforms to connect buyers and sellers to one another directly (Amazon, eBay, etc). The same is true in the accommodation industry (the rise of Airbnb, VRBO), the transportation industry (Uber, Lyft), etc. One wonders what is ahead in finance and government.
Our conversation, however, is focused not on those sectors but on the Church, and I would suggest the same will be true of the church, because the decentralized nature of the internet is what is enabling these disruptions and reshaping society in its decentralized pattern.
Up until this point I've seen much that I believe I could label as making "a legacy product better". Technology is used to make more compelling church experiences than ever before and to scale them more broadly than before––think multisite and streaming online. What hasn't been happening so far as I can see at this point is changing the premise of the industry. That doesn't look like using technology to push what we are already doing into a new space (like zoom small groups), that looks like using technology to facilitate something altogether different.
To be sure there are many ways this could go sideways and there are many potential false starts, but I find myself excited about this prospect. What if we could figure out how to use technology to keep the best of the organic, relational, empowered feel of small churches but carry it to scales far beyond what we can do without technological tools? That's what the best of these other companies do. Somehow Uber found a way to take the experience of "have my friend give me a ride" and scale it to reach millions - and in my opinion it's a better experience than taxi companies ever were. What would it look like to facilitate these types of dynamics in church somehow?
The Structural Dimension
Empowered by the technological dimension is a structural dimension. I already mentioned the decentralized pattern that tech is impressing upon the world: I believe the church is headed in that direction as well. We have a long history of churches-structured-as-organizations in the west, but I'm not sure that mentality can take us forward across the chasm we face. (Of course we always say "the church isn't an organization", but the fact is the senior pastor's job is running an organization so despite what we profess organizations are how we tend to run church in the west.)
Across the broad scope of the historical global church this is far from universally the case. There are numerous places in the world right now in which the church cannot function as an organizational structure, and often the church is thriving in those cases, despite persecution. Church-as-an-organization has a worse track record than the alternative in terms of growth and effectiveness.
I believe this to be a good thing, because I believe the structural shape of the church is one of the key points of incongruence with the younger generations. As an early millennial I remember the time I had a friend who got an email address (junior high). I remember not having an internet connection and later getting one. I remember before social media and smart phones, and I can observe the way those transition points affect the way I perceive and expect to interact with the world. I saw the decentralized shape of interaction set in layer by layer and I saw the way it changed the way I expect to interface with the world. A generation below me never had those transitions - they were born with most of it in place. A generation older than me had most of their formative experiences before these technologies were developed. As a result they became a tool to them, but they didn't shape their understanding of the world as powerfully.
What all this means is this: the millennial generation and generations afterwards went through their formative years interacting with technologies and tools built on a decentralized shape. It is nearly impossible for us not to believe that shape is normal and expect that to be the way the world works. When we intersect church-as-an-organization then, we feel a cultural dissonance. We aren't used to this shape and in general find it to be more confining than empowering. It feels impersonal, non-participatory, antiquated, out-of-touch. The leaders may be wearing contemporary dress and speaking in contemporary slang, but the structure isn't contemporary.
I think it's worth reposting one chart from the previous article:
Look at that drop off in Gen X and the Millennials. The highest these generations ever get is about the lowest the Boomers and Elders have ever been. Maybe we're not being culturally relevant after all.
The Cultural Dimension
The final dimension of the chasm is cultural. Yes, understanding our place culture is important. Specifically I think we need to get honest with ourselves and own the fact that Biblical Christianity is no longer a subculture, it is a counterculture. We in the US are no longer in an environment where cultural concepts are based on the Judeo-Christian worldview, in fact our culture is working to deconstruct anything that smells of that worldview as quickly and violently as possible. We are in culturally hostile territory. (This change is presently underway in the US, in much of the rest of the west the process is further along the same trajectory.)
This matters because it deeply affects the way we approach discipleship and how we expect to intersect the world around us. We pivot from playing the "fit in" game to the "stand out" game and we challenge those we disciple with a different set of expectations and training tools. I've not yet seen churches in the west do significant teaching on how to handle persecution or what to do when being faithful to Jesus costs you your job - these are topics we probably should begin to get serious about. They'll make for better disciples anyways.
It's not an easy shift to move from subculture to counterculture. It involves reworking a lot of our expectations: we indeed count the cost before building the tower (Luke 14:28-30) in a way we're not yet accustomed to. When we do however, we will find freedom on the far side of the process. Determining that we expect to be hated for following Jesus and choosing to love those around us in his name anyways is an incredibly freeing position. The worst that happens is we get the rejection we expect and we are faithful to what we believe despite opposition. Anything better than that is icing on the cake! It feels to me like this whole reality is one the church in the west is reluctant to face. I think we need to.
These four dimensions aren't wholly separate from each other; rather they form an interdependent system:
We need a theologically robust definition of church to be able to journey into a new structure and know we are being faithful to the Scriptures.
We need technological structures to facilitate a more decentralized structure.
We need a more decentralized structure to convey a higher degree of empowerment to each person so we can mobilize in our counter cultural reality more effectively.
Being a counterculture positions us to receive more of the kingdom (Matthew 5:10-11) which we understand more effectively through new theological lenses.
It will probably be hard to deal with one layer and not the others–the come as a package deal.
What does it look like to do that? Nobody knows! It's is the glorious unknown that Jesus invites us into. All I know is that I believe this picture enough that it is what I'm going to be trying to aim at with the adventure in Phoenix ahead.
Alright, I think that's probably enough for this article. Sorry if this article comes across as a bit depressing–I do realize that it is all problem oriented. I'm aware the Church isn't short on critics at this point; the articles ahead will be more solution-oriented, but to get to a helpful solution we need an accurate diagnosis of the problem first. The articles ahead ought to breathe a bit more hope into this present moment.
Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.
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