Saturday, August 09, 2008

This Is Not Your Father’s World

The hymn "This Is My Father's World" uses an antiquated view of the universe as a poetic device:

This is my Father's world,

And to my listening ears,

All nature sings and round me rings

The music of the spheres.

"The music of the spheres" comes from the idea that the earth was surrounded by rotating, transparent spheres upon which were fixed the sun, moon, stars and planets. And these spheres operated according to ratios similar to those found in reflected in the harmonic scale. No one still believes that the earth is the center of the universe or that the sun rises and sets every day, but we still use that language metaphorically.

The key is that we know this is figurative language. It doesn't shape our actual perception of the world.

Every fifth-grader knows that the geocentric view of the universe was replaced by a heliocentric view. Johannes Kepler then refined the sun-centered model by discovering that the orbits of the planets were ellipses rather than pure circles.

A similar transition has happened in the world of communication.

Marshall McLuhan popularized the phrase, "The medium is the message." The point is that the method we use to communicate is at least as important as the message we think we are transmitting. As new communication media appear, they also shape the culture.

M. Rex Miller has written an analysis of these changes from the perspective of the church. The Millennium Matrix suggests that the way we store and distribute information changes our worldviews.

At the time of Jesus, the culture was oral. This prevailed until the advent of the printing press which gave birth to a print culture. Television ushered in the broadcast culture. Finally, computers and the Internet produced a digital culture.

The book contains a detailed matrix of the various cultures and their characteristics. (A brief PDF version can be found here.) For example, in the oral culture truth is relational. The credibility of a message is based on the credibility of the messenger. In the print culture truth is based on principle. Logic and other tools of deduction are used to verify the message. In the broadcast culture truth becomes existential. The message is validated through experience. In the digital culture truth is contextual. Community tests and validates reality.

We'll return to some other aspects of The Millennium Matrix, but first I want to make clear that this is not a generational analysis.

In 1990, I attended a seminar sponsored by The Church Growth Institute called "How to Reach the Baby Boomer." It was based upon research described in the book Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, by Landon Y. Jones. This seminar had a profound impact on the North American church.

The idea was that Baby Boomers had similar experiences and expectations. Formulas could be devised to reach them with the gospel and to get them involved in attending church. Demographics became an essential tool in church growth. The seeker-driven model was canonized. Consumerism became the focus of church programs and ministries.

This approach was so "successful" that church leaders tried to adapt it to the following generations. Various names were suggested (gen-x, busters, MTV generation, millennials) but none of these really caught on. Furthermore, those who followed the boomers were not as monolithic in their attitudes and experiences. Many of their characteristics were seen as reactions to the values of the boomers.

The church growth industry produced strategies, methods and programs to reach these generations. But something just didn't click. These approaches were not as effective.

Into this milieu came the emerging and missional movements. The resulting confusion has left pastors and denominational officials baffled to this day.

First, they tend to see these movements as identical. Even though there is considerable overlap between the emerging and missional movements, they are significantly different.

Second, they tend to view them as a generational phenomenon. While many of the people who make up these movements are younger, they are not simply expressions of age and shared experiences. In fact, many of the key figures in these movements are boomers.

We now live in a world where generational analyses are less and less useful.

It is important that The Millennium Matrix not be understood as a description of younger generations. It is rather a description of the world in which we all live. Yes, some older people still try to live in the print and broadcast cultures. But we all live in a digital age.

Let's look at the way the oral, print, broadcast and digital ages view leadership.

In the oral culture the leader is a steward. The steward acts as a caretaker for the entire household as a representative of the owner, fulfilling his intentions.

In the print culture the leader is a manager. The manager uses command and control, division of labor, and vertical integration to maximize efficiency and production. The assumption is that people need to be structured and tightly supervised to be productive.

In the broadcast culture the leader becomes the inspirational leader. The focus becomes releasing the potential of individuals.

In the digital culture the leader becomes a facilitator. Management takes on a less definable structure and acts more like a web of collaboration.

The church still seems to be enamored by the larger-than-life leader. (See Joel Osteen.) Yet the digital culture requires something very different:

Congregants in the emerging digital culture are hungry for leaders who are approachable, touchable, accessible, transparent, and real. They want to connect with someone who is unscripted, unrehearsed, and not "on." They want a real person who walks among them, not someone who periodically comes down from the mountain to deliver a prescription for life or platitudes of hype.

M. Rex Miller, The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church, pp. 154–155

The values of these cultures are also different. The oral culture valued reliability. The print culture valued productivity. The dominant value of the broadcast culture is quality. The highest value of the digital culture is creativity.

In the print and broadcast cultures, community is a technique.

Community becomes a strategy, a means to retain the numbers, instead of the end or the purpose from the very outset. That inversion seems to be an inherent trap that many churches focused on numerical growth succumb to.

M. Rex Miller, The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church, p. 260

But in the digital culture, community is the goal.

If what we offer is a weekly experience or presentation that does not raise the urge or provide the opportunity for connection resulting in community, then we might as well take down our label as church and proclaim our facility a house of religious entertainment.

M. Rex Miller, The Millennium Matrix: Reclaiming the Past, Reframing the Future of the Church, p. 182

Miller suggests that the church needs to embody eight values in the digital age:

  • Agility
  • Authenticity
  • Cohesion and balance
  • Resiliency and forgiveness
  • Sustainability
  • Open-endedness
  • Accessibility
  • Collaboration

This book does not provide the final word on the factors that shape our world and the context in which the North American church finds itself. But it does provide important insights and raises significant questions.

But remember, this is not our Church or our mission. It is God's. We are not charged with saving the world. It is not our job to devise the ideal strategy.

Our responsibility is to be aware of the world in which we live, to be open to the various ways in which God is working in that world, and to be willing to assume the role that God calls us to.

While this is not your father's world, it is your Father's world:

O let me ne'er forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong,

God is the ruler yet.

Pastor Rod

"Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be"

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