Christendom in the Whitewater of Post-Christiandom

Alan J. Roxburgh

A class of seminary students asked me to describe the changes in ministry I had observed in ministry since graduating from seminary more than two decades ago. At first I was silent. Where should I begin? The list I began to enumerate took thirty minutes to summarize. The changes have been dramatic, and are undermining and sweeping away many of the forms and much of the imagination that dominated church leadership and seminary training in the 20th century.

Two images come to mind when describing this sweeping cultural change. One is of the River, Seine, flowing through Paris. The other is Iguaçu Falls in Brazil where the popular movie, the Mission, was filmed. The first image is of a well-ordered world where everything has its place. The Seine is a managed river. As I stood beside it one summer afternoon, huge barges filled with new automobiles wound their way down stream to a port on the coast. People sat along the river banks under shades outside coffee shops surrounded by beautiful architecture and immersed in an amazing history. Wonderful apartment buildings and national monuments stood on either side of the river. Most noticeable was a series of church spires symbolizing what was once the church’s place at the center of a well-ordered culture where everything had its place; indeed, where everything fit. While that image represents a time past, it also represents an imagination that only a short time ago informed a Christendom church that stood at the center of an ordered universe. Its tall steeples invited people into a normal part of that world; its leaders, the pastors and priests, were trained to provide the religious goods and services to the people as they came Sunday by Sunday. It was the world for which I was trained by the denominations and seminaries of the 20th century. They prepared me to take my place as a religious leader in this ordered world where everything made sense and my role as a leader was already clearly laid out for me.

But radical change always comes sooner or latter, and when it does, it is usually quite sudden. It is experienced as being unexpected and unpredictable. This brings me to the second image of Iguaçu Falls. Flying into the center of Brazil to this amazing body of water in the middle of the rain forest, one is unprepared for the awesome beauty of its raw, turbulent waters. A large meandering river suddenly turns a corner in the rain forest and tumbles over a long series of precipices into a range of powerful, white water falls.

In my mind this is what has happened to the church in the Western world. It is as if the church were moving deliberately and predictably down the Seine in the middle of Paris enjoying its place with its prestige and pre-determined roles when suddenly the river turns a corner and it found itself in the deep, turbulent white waters careering over a huge falls. I was trained to navigate the Seine in a well-managed barge that had been on the river for years longer than my life. But no one trained or prepared me to struggle with the white-knuckled turbulent white water that plunges us toward a mighty water falls.

What has happened to leaders in the church is that they find themselves in the white waters—a place not built for barges—without any skill or training in how to survive in these waters. There are no masters who have gone this way before. There are few who can apprentice us. The seminaries are less than helpful because teachers who have never worked in or struggled with this new situation populate them. Their stories and experiences come from life in the barge along the Seine. Their academic credentials come out of a world we have suddenly left behind. In many cases, denominational leadership does not know how to help because they, like the academics, are in their positions because they were good at leading churches in a world that no longer exists. The result is that leaders find themselves right in the midst of the white water, cast on their own resources, in a culture that is moving through massive discontinuous change.

What follows is a brief summary of some important issues that need to be addressed in the formation of leaders for this new context. Space can only allow these to be briefly stated; indeed, each would require a chapter of its own to be fully developed.

Reconsidering Scripture and Culture

Most of the training frameworks in seminaries are largely shaped by an overarching focus on the church. What does this mean? There still resides in the processes of formation a Christendom preoccupation with the church and its inner life to the extent that leaders continue to be shaped by frameworks that cause them to keep asking church questions about themselves, their knowledge base, and the nature of their leadership. We must find ways to stop asking church questions when we come to Scripture. We must discipline ourselves to let go of our functional-rationalist questions and allow Scripture to speak to us out of the narratives of the culture. This is how Scripture was re-entered in a radically new way in the Babylonian captivity. Only after we have so entered the culture and so lived into the biblical imagination should we be permitted to ask church questions again. Our seminaries need to pioneer this kind of local theologizing in the contexts where leaders are working.

Similarly, church leaders know that the culture in which they function is massively pluralist, fragmented, and secularized. But note, again, the focus that shapes their attention to this new cultural environment. They continually ask church questions of the culture. This new cultural context is addressed (via demographics or evangelism programs) only for the purpose of asking church-shaped questions such as: How do we figure out the needs of X-type people in order to get them into the church? How do we analyze our culture in order to effectively market our church into this group of people? These are not questions designed to listen to or care about the culture and its peoples; no, these are designed to make the church work. We have to train leaders in a radically different way. We need leaders who can listen to both culture and Scripture, each for their own terms, in order to hear what God is doing in and among them. And this training needs to begin in the contextual realities of the culture where leaders set aside church questions and begin to learn the art of listening. Through active listening, leaders can grow in their awareness and understanding of the cultural issues forming people’s lives. This kind of focus must be done without a prior need to discover means of evangelization or getting people into church.

Rediscovering the Art of Apprenticeship

Increasingly, among the younger, emerging generation of leaders, there is a growing recognition that the requirements of denominations and seminaries—a person must be uprooted and immersed for three years in an unreal world of training—is one more form of a modernity that cannot address the new realities in which these people live. There is a growing resistance to these expectations, not because younger leaders are lazy or lacking in commitment, but because they refuse to be trained for a world that is irrelevant to their generations.

In addressing this reality, we urgently need to rediscover the ancient practice of apprenticeship. Modernity’s acids were committed to erasing the memory (the lived, communal practices handed down from generation to generation within the materiality, spatiality, and temporality of specific contexts) being formed as an apprentice within a context. Seminaries must create experiments in learning that leave people in their contexts and form them as they live out Christian vacations. This will require a huge shift in imagination. It will require academics to again become servants of the people of God around the missional formation of communities of practice and witness in locale. This will turn around the effective functionality of current schools designed for the primary purpose of academic life rather than the cultivation of social communities of the kingdom.

Raising the Intellectual and Formational Bar

Finally, in a complex, multi-discourse culture, where the Christian story, once the central narrative, has become one among many, a critical focus for leaders is their formation as local theologians. Theology becomes even more critical in this time. This may sound counter-intuitive to what has already been said, but this is not actually the case. We must stop the dumbing-down of theological training. Schools must stop giving in to the lower and lower levels of intellectual ability they are facing. This means we must recruit a different quality of person into church leadership today. For too long have the schools been given over to therapeutic models of leadership, and now they are stampeding to entrepreneurial forms of leadership. The result has been that over the past number of generations the kind of leaders produced for the churches are people with less and less intellectual vigor, men and women who have some ill-formed need to create communities of emotional experience and solipsistic caring. This will not form communities of God’s people who might be the sign, foretaste, and witness of God’s future in our time. The job for the seminaries to is become de-centered and create forms of training with high intellectual demand, focused on formation, and taken to people in their contexts so that they are apprenticed and formed theologically for a new world.

As one travels back and forth across the continent it is becoming clear that new movements of learning, apprenticeship, and formation are beginning to emerge in response to incredible flux of change buffeting the paradigms of the 20th century church in North America. Increasing numbers of young leaders will not be fitted into the forms of training developed over that period. This does not mean they are antagonistic to rigorous intellectual formation, nor are they resistant to being schooled in practices that demand formation and discipline. On the contrary, they are eager to find these wineskins within which to give themselves. But we are approaching a juncture where the schools and denominations which took primary form in the last century and still, for the moment, hold a form of monopoly on education and formation, must address the new realities in which the church finds itself today.

Posted Nov 01, 2004