The word modern is thrown around a lot today. Due to the 20th century’s modern influence after the industrial revolution, it just feels natural to call things which are happening today as “modern”.
However, it is more accurate to describe things occurring at the current time in history as “contemporary”. To be precise, when we’re talking about the paradigm under which we are contemporaneously operating, we should say “post-modern”.
For example, when we say, “The modern church is suffering great decline in the younger generations,” what we really mean to say is, “The contemporary church is suffering great decline…”. Another example: we might say, “People have a hard time finding their identity in the modern church,” but we mean, “…in the post-modern church.”
So why does this explanation of terms even matter?
Modernism as a paradigm centered around finding utility for every single component of life. If it wasn’t utilitarian, then it wasn’t worth pouring resources into it. This makes sense, since with a boost in technology during the industrial revolution, it required a ton of new resources. Moreover, with the Great Depression looming over Americans, any fluff was economically unfeasible.
And so when we’re talking about the church, it’s important to understand the impact modernism had on us in the 20th century, and actually still continues to have. We must identify those things (both good and bad), and adjust our methods according to what our goals are in the Scriptures – generally speaking, to obey the Great Commission.
After all, the Scriptures don’t change, but the paradigms thoughtout history certainly do. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that since it’s been done a certain way as long as we can remember, that it should still be done the same way.
No, every generation must find its way of obeying the Scriptures which includes textual integrity, as well as societal relevance.
In 2000, James Engel and William Dyrness wrote a really great book called Changing the Mind of Missions: Where Have We Gone Wrong?. In their chapter, entitled “The Church in Missions,” the authors identify five major aspects of contemporary church life which have been negatively influenced by modernism. The ideas below and their respective implications come from Engel and Dyrness’ ideas.
Those five aspects are:
- Program orientation
- Preoccupation with numbers
- Resistance to change
Individuality out of Modern Thought
I should start by saying that understanding and appreciating individuality has been a good thing in every society. It has given value and rights to peoples who have historically received very little: minorities, women, even criminals.
But it hasn’t all been good. It seems modernism has almost over-corrected.
People, thinking in a very modern way, attend churches for many different reasons. Primarily, it has to do with personal development and meeting personal needs. This has lead to an abundance of church conflict which centers around personal hurts. It has lead to selfish religion. It has lead to our faith being a private thing.
But the New Testament paints a very different picture – instead, the church is a response to a holy God who sacrificed Himself for us. The church is supposed to be a community which functions out of thankfulness and obedience to this God.
Moreover, I think the contemporary church has begun to recognize this problem. There is a global trend which has tried to implement small group meetings or even structure themselves as house churches. First of all, this is how the early church did it. But secondly, it forces conflict resolution and fosters community-life more effectively.
Unfortunately, we have a long way to go until the Western church as a whole sees itself as a community, as a family, rather than just a bunch of individuals who have the same religion.Not just a bunch of individuals who have the same religion. #church Click To Tweet
Program Orientation out of Modern Thought
Engel and Dyrness wrote, “Because of its organizational structure [sic] the institutional church requires a proliferation of leader-initiated programs to justify its existence.”
But the problem, of course, isn’t necessarily with programs, even though we believe a simple church format is more in line with Scriptures.
The problem is that we have developed a top-down style of leadership which produces its own initiatives. What we find is a practice which Engel and Dyrness describe, “effectively inhibits lay initiative and all but emasculates the unique essence of what the body of Christ is intended to be.”
Whoa. They are much more eloquent than I am!
Preoccupation with numbers out of Modern Thought
I can understand why we want to justify it though. If we’re truly doing the Great Commission, and making disciples, then it should follow that there should be more disciples than when we started.
However, there are a few problems with this.
First of all, Christianity Today reports that almost 80% of church growth is transferred from other churches. So that’s not new disciples, just different disciples who are arguably not growing as disciples if they move around from church to church (not saying that everyone who changes churches is immature, but many in that group must be if they are not willing or not able to solve their problems).
This means that numbers do not necessarily equate maturity or even the actual spreading of the gospel.
Secondly, it is a temptation for us to think that if the church isn’t growing numerically, that God is not in it. However, the Apostle Paul himself reported that ministry is harder than it ever is easy. He says that his ministry was full of “conflicts on the outside, fears within.”
If Paul can say that about the church, then we should expect to face many problems, too. Numerical growth notwithstanding.
Thirdly, numerical growth as a meaningful measurement comes out of a business model. If there’s one thing we with the post-modern mentality understand, it is that the church should not be a business. If we had the same priorities as a business, then absolutely, numbers should matter.
Instead, our success should lie in the effective obedience to the Scriptures. Familial love toward one another. Growth in maturity. The establishment of our churches. The collective use of the Spiritual Gifts. Loving relationships with the surrounding community. And so on.
Engel and Dyrness wrote, “Numerical growth, if it occurs at all, is an outcome of the church functioning as a winsome alternative to society under the Lordship of Christ. It is not the primary goal!”The #church 's success should lie in the effective obedience to the #Scriptures. Click To Tweet
Passivity out of Modern Thought
Engel and Dyrness report that on average, 10% or less of every congregation is “active in the Christian life over and above Sunday involvement.”
Simply put, that is embarrassing. And I include my own church leadership in that statement.
With the top-down style leadership we implemented from modern thought (and actually, more like modern business mentality), it is no wonder that the “lay” Christian (I hate the term since we are all in the priesthood, but it most closely conveys my meaning) doesn’t take initiative unless a leader asks him/her to do so.
Engel and Dyrness said, “By its pattern of control and direction from the top, the atmostphere in which they worship asks little or nothing of them. There is little attempt to unleash lay initiative. Is it any wonder that the church is often shallow and without significant influence on the culture around it?”
Resistance to Change out of Modern Thought
You know, I get it. Institutionalization of the church and program orientation originally comes from a desire by leaders true in the faith to protect and preserve Christian practices and teaching. We’ve got a whole culture surrounding us who is hostile to our message, and we gotta do something to stay on track, right?
But what has happened as we rightly fight against certain terrible things in our culture, is that we develop what Engel and Dyrness describe as a “hunker down” mentality.
And so instead of the unleashing of the people to spirit-filled boldness and risk for Christ in both church and missions, we see people enveloping themselves in a holy huddle. And with modernism’s call to a specific set of values (which by the way, are not always biblical), we cling to traditions because it’s comfortable.
With this mindset, there is no room for innovation. No room for a call back to the methods of the Apostles and the early church.
No room for life.
But Modern Thought is Dying
The good news is that modernism as a paradigm is on its way out. Churches that continue to perpetuate these five problems in the church whether on purpose or by accident, will not survive the next few decades. The leaders of those churches will have to pass the baton at some point or by their own continued frustration in the culture, they will shut their doors.
There is a changing paradigm all around us. There is hope that we can be the church Christ called us to be. We can become faith communities which, through our boldness and love, can impact our cities for good.
We can still reclaim The Way of Christ and His Apostles.
Also published on Medium.