Theology in the 21st Century

There is a postmodern theology. Although the term ‘postmodern’ might be overused, it still mean something. Modernity has passed. Not all elements of modernism has left us, just as not all of Medieval left Enlightenment Europe, or tribal/traditional culture left the developed Asian countries of today. Yet, postmodernity has arrived. Whenever the overarching, over-confident meta-narrative of the Enlightenment project is in doubt, modernism fades and postmodernity arises. It is in politics, society and arts. There is a certain ‘postmodern’ culture which defines its own meanings and symbols. The very reactions towards the failed Enlightenment confidence, coupled with a world dominated by free-market capitalism, allows an ultra utilitarianistic and narcissistic culture to emerge. This culture only sees individuals. Blinded to the need to submit to governments and authorities, partly due to market forces and self-interest, this generation of postmoderns are also pragmatic – ”meaning’ means very little to them apart from what meant to be of their own interest. There is no need for a universal truth or value.

How does this affect theology in the 21st century? It is certain that systematic theology will suffer (it has) as it is suited more for a modernist mindset than a postmodern one. Yet the more crucial question is how can we theologise if the modern category is faulty? This is not new. The discovery of various cultures worldwide and the missionary encounter with them have confirmed that the Western categories or methods of theologising is limited. Western Christianity, it was discovered, was modernist, especially when compared to the various contextual theologies in the Third World.

Mission theology, informed by the Liberation Theology and other contextual theologies, should take prominent role in theologising in the 21st century. If the modern project was Western, postmoderns represent a multitude of cultures and peoples. If theology was at a time (from Enlightenment to the 20th century), a Western and systematic exercise, today it shall be a ‘postmodern’ exercise for Global Christianity. Thus, mission theologians equipped with the skills of contextualisation and training in classical theology, history, biblical studies and practical ministries, must set the pace for this age. To the postmodern, a proper exegesis of a biblical text means very little unless it means something to him or her. An all encompassing, structural, and theoretical, and authoritative tone suited to the big meta-narrative claim has given way to the cry for meaning of the particulars and individuals. It will take a missionary of the 21st century whom can decipher cultures to communicate with them. Just as the residues of modernity still linger around, and their values not to be undermined, a postmodern way of doing theology does not deny the classical and modern ways of doing theology. Yet it takes the bull by its horns by asking relevant questions about this age, while reinventing and evolving itself to be relevant to the present era.

p.s. There is no denial of a core – or a constant in context of Christianity. Just how this core can be discovered and discerned is a continuous debate. Suggested readings:

Mission Responses to Postmodernism by John Corrie

MISSION AND CONTEXTUALIZATION by John Corrie

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Church – quit admonishing the world and start engaging!

One of my favourite authors and renowned historian, John Dickson, was interviewed by Marshall Shelley and Drew Dyck recently. The interview, which is titled, ‘The Church in Secular Culture – Moving from a stance of admonition to mission’ is available in the Leadership Journal. Below is the excerpt of a section of interview which I think speaks for itself:

What advice do you have for church leaders in America about how to engage the broader culture effectively?

I think the very first thing is to do is adopt a stance of mission instead of admonition toward the world. Here’s an example. In the Australian context, there are church leaders who remember the glory days when about 20 percent of the nation went to church. They look at how Australia is secularized today, and their stance toward the world is basically admonition, the way you would talk to a backsliding Christian. How dare you slide away? How dare you legislate against Christian morality? I call that the admonition paradigm.

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What’s wrong with this approach?

I reckon that’s how you kill your mission, because if you speak with a sense of entitlement, you won’t be flexible, you won’t be humble, and you won’t take hits and just bear it. You’ll want to strike back. And people will think you’re arrogant. Quite rightly, probably.

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What do you recommend instead?

When you move out of admonition into mission, you realize Australia is no longer Jerusalem; it’s Athens. Then you instantly adopt a humbler approach to non-Christians. You don’t expect them to live Christian lives if they don’t confess Christ. You don’t expect Parliament to pass Christian-specific laws. But as a leader, you try to persuade the nation with winsomeness, with gentleness and respect, as Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15.

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What does this mean for Christians who want to influence legislation?

Don’t say, “This is our right” or “You ought to live this way.” We can say we think God’s way is best for all of us and invite others to follow God’s path. But then we just live as an alternative community that embodies the things we claim to be true. And don’t worry about the loss of power.
I’ve often said to my Christian friends here in America, please do not confuse loss of legislative power with loss of gospel opportunity. The early church, of course, had no legislative power and they did amazing things. In China today, they have no legislative power, and a third of all Bibles are sold in China. This is not to say don’t go into politics, don’t speak up. But do it in mission mode, not admonition.
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For full interview see: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2012/january-online-only/secularculture.html

Useful Resources for Mission at the International Bulletin of Missionary Research

The April version of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research has a number of interesting articles. Articles are available for free at the website after your subscribe to its email newsletter. Among articles which are relevant to faith, culture and mission in the postmodern context are:

1. Emerging Adults and the Future of Missions by Rick Richardson

In his introduction:

Several recent studies have focused on emerging adults in the United States, considering the spiritual and religious lives of high school teens (ages 14–18)[1] or of twenty-somethings (ages 19–29).[2] Two works helpfully draw out the implications of this research for the spiritual formation of high schoolers and of twenty-somethings,[3] but so far little attention has been given to the implications this research holds for mission. It is evident that shifts in the emerging generation (especially twenty-somethings) will have profound consequences for the recruitment, formation, training, deployment, and retention of the next generation of missionaries and thus for the shape and sustainability of mission itself, as this generation will practice it. What do we know about emerging adults, and what are the implications for the future of global mission?

I start by exploring two broad interpretive ideas that enlarge our understanding of the spiritual lives of today’s emerging adults. Then I examine more closely the cultural and social forces that have shaped the spiritual and religious trajectories of teens and twenty-somethings. Finally, I draw out implications for cross-cultural mission in the twenty-first century.

Read the full article

2. “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct”: Thinking Back and Looking Ahead by Indunil J. Kodithuwakku K.

Though it may not be the chief purpose of the author, this article depicts the typical postmodern phenomenon of the increase of sub-cultural groupings manifested in the form of various religious entities struggling to find an identity in the postmodern multi-religious and pluralist context. The author highlights the need for proper Christian witness in the midst of religious tension.

Read the full article

3. Evangelization and the Tenor of Vatican II: A Review Essay by Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder

This is a book review for Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin

Excerpt of the review:

‘The focus of this book is an investigation as to why contemporary Catholics, despite encouragement from Vatican II and from Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, evidence a certain hesitation or lack of enthusiasm for evangelization and ad gentes missionary work. Martin argues that such evangelical lethargy is due to two causes. The first is a lack of attention to the teaching of the Council on the urgent necessity of mission, despite its teaching “about the possibility of salvation outside the visible bounds of the Church, or of Christianity” (6). The second is a “culture of universalism” or “practical universalism” in Catholicism that presumes the salvation of all humanity (196).’

Read the full review

The Pope who Stunned the World

There is a post at the Read the Spirit site entitled ‘Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!‘  Many have thought that the new pope, Francis I, brings a refreshing aura with him into the office. So it would be natural for one to look back curiously for past popes with similar ‘aura of change’. John XXIII was one of them. He was the pope whom brought the Roman Catholic Church and the world a revolutionary change through the initiative of Vatican II.

Excerpt from the above post:

MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICSaround the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations.

Also, a book on John XXIII is also introduced in the post. The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church–The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II (Kindle version) costs only $3.99.

Students of mission studies will no doubt remember documents which are the results of the Council. For example, Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes. Through these documents and other efforts, the council set the pace for inculturation of worship to happen in the global church and contextualisation to take place for evangelisation.

And, in his own words,

In these days, which mark the beginning of this Second Vatican Council, it is more obvious than ever before that the Lord’s truth is indeed eternal. Human ideologies change. Successive generations give rise to varying errors, and these often vanish as quickly as they came, like mist before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors, and often condemned them with the utmost severity. Today, however, Christ’s Bride prefers the balm of mercy to the arm of severity. She believes that, present needs are best served by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.  Pope John XXIII: Opening Speech at the Council, October 11, 1962

Engaging yet not compromising. A mission-minded pope indeed.


The Difference between Contextualization and Inculturation

From my MA Dissertation:

Inculturation is centred on culture. This marks the primary difference between inculturation and contextualisation. Most Protestants consider inculturation as a subset of contextualisation. Bosch for example, placed inculturation under contextualisation together with liberation theology; with inculturation the primary concern is the relationship between faith and culture, while liberation theology includes the larger context, namely the socio-political situation.[1] So although there remains close ties between culture and the socio-political context, when inculturation is in question, the focus should always be ‘culture’.

Understand the Context to Better Understand the Message

In the end, most of us would agree that life is not all that easy to understand, that the messages we receive from within and from others and from God are not always clear. As the Apostle Paul famously said; ‘Now we see in a mirror dimly (one translation has ‘in a riddle’)’, always remembering that mirrors in the ancient world gave a very distorted image. It is partly that all our messages are filtered through to us by our language and culture, but even more because we are fallible and sinful creatures. This last compounds the situation. Our proneness to error means that our cultures are also fallen. We cannot appeal to them as some sort of infallible divine appointment. In truth we are fallible human beings living in equally ‘broken’ cultures and yet depending on those cultures for the ‘translation’ of the messages about life that we receive. No wonder we are in a mess. If this is true there are at least two important consequences. Those who claim they have absolute certainty should be treated with caution. It is right that we should be suspicious. When it comes to divine messages, for example, the Apostle Paul has a distinctly ‘suspicious’ approach. ‘Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said’, he says to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:29) or again, writing to the Thessalonians, he encourages them to listen to ‘prophetic utterances’ but he also asks them to ‘test everything’ (1 Thessalonians 5:20,21). The second consequence, and the more important one for this book, is that it follows that the more we study and understand the context, the better we shall understand the message. If messages are mediated to us through our cultures, a process that colours and even distorts the message, we need to examine the culture in order, so to speak, to undo the damage, and ‘straighten out’ the communication.

Ingleby, Jonathan (2011-12-12). Naming the Frame (Kindle Locations 49-64). Wide Margin. Kindle Edition.

The above are an excerpt from the book Naming the Frame which explains the need for us all to seriously consider the context of where we do our mission or ministry. We should neither think we know it all, nor do we relegate the importance of contextualisation to simply a matter of methodology. Contextualisation is more than that, for a better understanding of the context should result in a better understanding of the message of the gospel.

Seldom do we have books which focus solely on defining the context in mission studies. We often hear of contextualisation, but Ingleby expertly clarify the contemporary context in which contextualisation of our theology and ministry would take place and urge us to be honest with the reality we are in, while taking pain to contextualise our faith to the context of the present culture.

I am still reading the book so a full review of the book is not possible at the moment but I will share the brief content of the book below:

The first part of the book includes some definitions on ‘Living in Context’: Living, Reality, ‘World’ as context, Contextualisation, The Context of Contemporary Culture, Globalisation, Postmodernism, Postcolonialism,  Migration/Movement, Place, Environment: the ‘green’ context, and ‘Community and government’.

The second part of the book deals with the ‘Context of Faithful Improvisation’, touching the topics of: Bible and theology, History and tradition, The context of other faiths, The Context of Personal Growth, Understanding ourselves, Relationships, Career choices and guidance.

The Third section of the book looks into the ‘Context of Christian Ministry’: The Church’s Identity, Church Growth, Christian education,  ‘Witness, dialogue and translation’, Mission, Miracles and the ‘supernatural’,  The Context of Injustice, Prisons, The Workplace, Racial and Ethnic Tension, War,  and Families.

Should Christians do the ‘Harlem Shake’?

I suppose we all heard of ‘Harlem Shake’. Now that some Christians are doing it, people start to wonder if it is wrong for Christians to follow suit. They are especially concerned with the fact that Christians seem to copy the meme without thinking much about the origin of the dance and why they are doing it. Shellnutt points out that this a phenomenon called ‘the Commodification of Culture’:

The “Harlem Shake,” like most memes, has become a commodity, so easily replicated that we use it for our own ends and move on. We happily hijack the setup, then post our versions on YouTube for views, laughs, and “relevancy.” We have no real engagement with the phenomenon outside of copying and clicking.

She continues,

This commodification of culture—an impulse discussed by Vincent Miller in his book Consuming Religion—allows us to ignore the context where things originally gained meaning. As we dance the “Harlem Shake,” we don’t need to know how to do the hip-hop dance move of the same name. We don’t need to know anything about Baauer, the musician who created this song-heard-round-the-Internet. We don’t need to understand this underground genre of music called “trap.” We don’t even need to think about the lyrics of the short song, which proclaim “Con los terroristas!” (With the terrorists!) through the skittish beats.

I would add, that the ‘Commodification of Culture’ is the hallmark of postmodernity. If there is any (possible) definition of postmodern culture, ‘Commodification of Culture’ has to be a part of it. I have posted earlier on Arbuckle’s definition of postmodern culture:

…a pattern of meanings encased in a network of symbols, myths, narratives and rituals, created by individuals and subdivisions, as they struggle to respond to the competitive pressures of power and limited resources in a rapidly globalizing and fragmented world, and instructing its adherents about what is considered to be the correct way to feel, think and behave.[1]

Imagine in a perfectly ‘modern’ world, where everything needs to be done with a reason, which in turn is nested within a system of beliefs. People will think twice before mimicking the act. Everything must go through the scrutiny of reasoning and strict rationalisation. Questions like, ‘Why should I do it?’ ‘What is it?’ ‘How to do it properly?’ must be answered and the whole logic must adhere to the system of beliefs (meta narrative) before the idea was allowed to be translated into action.

However, that age has passed. Now people pick and choose any cultural elements which make sense to them and incorporate them into their lives and actions. One of the postmodern characteristics is the tendency to ask ‘what use is it?’ instead of ‘what is it?’ or ‘why is it so?’. For this reason, as long as ‘Harlem Shake’ serves a certain needs – be it the need to be relevant or the need to have fun, people will embrace it without much consideration.

Thus, Shellnutt calls for Christian to be careful:

Regardless of what the ramifications are for this particular song, Christians—whose faith relies on the context of its own teachings and symbols—generally need to take interest in where cultural phenomena come from and what they mean.

The same impulse that has us thoughtlessly clicking and sharing viral videos trains us to disconnect the thing in front of us with the story behind it. Our lives as Christians are all about the story of the Gospel, and we don’t want our traditions distanced from that story…by us or anyone else.

I think she brings out a very important point – that there is now a danger of Christians unknowingly detaching their acts with the Gospel story. If we consider why some of the Christians are following this trend, we might find that most of them will tell us that they ‘didn’t think too much’, or even respond by asking, ‘wasn’t it fun?’ They just do it because they are postmoderns – not that they know it. In a modern world everything that we do is linked to a set of belief or meta-narrative. In the postmodern world we mix what we like to do and form our own stories. That means, although they are Christians, they are from ‘planet postmodern’. They are susceptible to distancing their acts from the Gospel story, and subsequently having the tendency to form their own story. One of my earlier post explored this issue, which manifests itself in an increase of eclectic taste for spirituality.

So should Christians do the ‘Harlem Shake’? I think that’s a wrong question to ask and fall short of tackling the heart of the matter. Instead, we should be asking, ‘how do we help Christians today to hold on to the Gospel story, since they are, as Newbigin put it, the hermeneutic of the Gospel?’ Judging the phenomenon is pointless because the interpretation of the phenomenon has been made difficult amidst the cultural chaos of the day. In the past people are settled within a certain cultural tradition. The world as we knew it was a cultural mosaic. Today we are increasingly facing a force which tends to take various cultural elements of others to form a new self-made subculture, crossing geographical and traditional cultural  boundaries. Meanwhile, the under-threat traditional cultures are reacting against the tide, resulting in a cultural landscape which is often hostile but certainly fluid, fragmented and mixed. As a result we are now living in a cultural kaleidoscope. So it is hard to pin a phenomenon down and properly classify it today, let alone criticise it.

Furthermore, soon there will be another meme around the corner – will people go on examining every little bit of its origin before they adopt it? The postmodern Christians will not care nor they have the aptitude to do so. It is against their nature. They will just go for it. So instead of criticising them or the phenomena, should we not consider how to engage them and help them to live for Christ even under such influence? The real danger, as Shellnutt points out, is not with the phenomena nor is  with the threat of the present cultural norm which has the subtlety to detach our acts from our faith. It is with Christians leaders and thinkers who disregard the need to contextulise their approach of teaching or ways to engage with the postmodern generation, thinking that the modernist approach would make sense to the postmoderns. Perhaps we should refer to Paul’s Areopagus experience, where he expertly contextualise his approach as he persuaded the pluralistic Athenians, while holding on to the Gospel story. Some may listen while others not, but contextualisation is no more an option for Christian mission in today’s world.


[1] Arbuckle, G.A. (2010) Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press), 1-16, 17; ritual – the ‘stylized or repetitive symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture within a social context, to express and articulate meaning’, Arbuckle, G.A. (1990) Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (London: Geofrey Chapman), 96, citing Bocock, R. (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England (London: George Allen & Unwin), 35-59.

Discipleship as the Means to counter the Culture of Consumerism

‘If we don’t disciple, the culture sure will, and it’s doing a good job of it.’
Jesus took twelve and that seems to work quite well!

I have referred to books by Alan Hirsch during my research and they have been very helpful and easy to read. Below are two of them:

Missiology and Homiletics – Preaching and Context

Much has been said about contextualisation and the contribution of anthropology and social studies to the work and theology of mission. In this post, Dr. Priest argued that these disciplines should be incorporated into the art of preaching. According to him, such contextual preaching has been around for a while, in the example of Billy Graham:

People around the world are human in variable ways, shaped by variable cultural discourses, confronting diverse realities. Billy Graham, like John Stott, recognizes late in life that effective preaching requires both an understanding of the world of scripture AND an understanding of the human worlds of those to whom we speak. And this is precisely what missiology works towards.

And, John Stott was the inspiration:

According to Stott, only preachers who ground their sermons in deep and profound understandings of Scripture and also deep and profound understandings of the life-worlds of their audience, are able adequately to fulfill their calling. He suggested that many theological liberals ground their sermons in understandings of the contemporary world, but fail to ground their sermons faithfully in a biblical God-given message. Their bridges connect, he argued, with only one side of the chasm. But, Stott continued, evangelical preachers typically preach sermons grounded in Scripture, but which go “up in the air on a straight trajectory and never land on the other side. For our preaching is seldom if ever earthed. It fails to build a bridge into the contemporary world.”

The challenge:

And yet, despite such powerful homiletical exemplars, homiletics has not had a sustained conversation with the human sciences and with human settings in quite the same way that missiology has. Both disciplines would benefit, in my view, from a sustained engagement with each other.

Do check out the post, which is worth reading.

Spiritual but not Religious?

People today often identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Of course much can be said of the actual definitions of being ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’, but in general, people take that by being spiritual but not religious means they do not need to associate themselves with an organised religious body. My reading of various sources seem to cause me to conclude that this is a necessary reaction towards the religious institution or organised religion in the postmodern age, by people who reject the institution due to their ‘modern’ outlook and modus operandi.

Like many others, I have become convicted that people who are having a low view on the institution which we call the church are blinded by their postmodern sentiment. This is due to a lot of factors apart from the ‘Mcdonaldisation‘ of the church. One of them is a diminished ecclesiology.

Schmidt helpfully wrote about this in his post, ‘Spiritual AND Religious? Yes! – Reason #1 why we can be both spiritual and religious: Church is not just a gathering of like-minded people.’ An excerpt from the post:

If churches were simply a matter of sitting alongside like-minded people who share similar spiritual commitments, I can think of easier ways to get that done. One way that religious people try to do it is by handpicking the like-minded people with whom they spend their time and practice their religion.

That option isn’t open to us and, if it was clearer to the world around us that we can’t do that, it might be easier to connect the spiritual and religious dots.

I think Schmidt has a point. Coming from a purely enlightenment point of view, where humanity takes the centre stage, church is nothing more but a gathering of men and women. However not only this view is relatively new, it fails to capture the essence of what a church is. Schmidt mentioned Paul and his teaching about church being the body of Christ, and he summarised it into three points:

  • The church is the instrument of salvation.
  • It is part and parcel of the spiritual destiny of its members.
  • And it is an inseparable part of the individual’s experience of God.

Combine the above with Newbigin’s missional ecclesiology where he argued that the church’s existence is for mission, I think we have a much better definition of what the church is. In other words, no Christian can be spiritual but not religious if he or she is definitely a part of Christ’s body, saved to belong to it and is destined to live in love with the other parts of the body.

Yet the question remains, that how many of us do experience such church? Or all we see is an institution which, as my earlier post suggested, is seriously flawed in its ability to make spiritual seekers feel at home? As much as people wants to be considered as both spiritual and religious, I think they will find it hard – not because of the absence of the kind of church which is depicted in the Bible and mentioned by Schmidt, but because it might not be easy for them to find one which they can connect to meaningfully!

Could the Increase of Interest in Spirituality erode the Church?

I wrote about the challenge of the church in the postmodern age. One of the key changes in the postmodern age is the increase of interest in spirituality and the reluctance to be limited by organised religion.

Other reports have confirmed this:

Over one-third of churchgoers attend services in more than one church. One in four attends services in different faiths, according to another Pew survey. More than one in five Christians believe in astrology, reincarnation, and spiritual energy in trees and nature. Seventeen percent believe in in the “evil eye” (casting curses on others). Over the last twenty years, rising numbers of Americans say they have felt like they were in touch with someone who was dead, according to Gallup data discussed in the Pew report. A rising number also say that they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost.

From: U.S. Churches: Where will our eclectic tastes carry us?

By referring the phenomena above as the Americans’ eclectic taste for spirituality, it is asked if ‘rising eclecticism’ could ‘erode the religious foundation of the church’. This is especially pressing considering the context of the U.S., where there is a ‘mix of peoples and beliefs’. The bottom line, is whether organized religion able to ‘co-exist with the mix-and-match tendencies of the American people.’

I believe the reason people are going to more than one churches is due to their consumerist habit. They are used to exercise their right to choose. Their move is also often utilitarian in nature, picking whatever that suits their needs at various places. They downside of this is the lack of commitment and discipleship. The quality of fellowship and sense of belonging in a community will then be eroded. So to a certain extent, the assembly – the gathering or the church – is eroded.

Of course the church, as an organisation, needs to take a hard look at herself. Again I believe the church, especially the evangelical churches are still largely too ‘modern’, hence losing touch with the postmodern people of today.

So further questions remain – ‘how can the church reach out to those who are eclectic?’ In what way can we engage with them? Can we still expect them to find their answers in the ‘modern’ church? We may think that our churches do have the answers but can we expect them to be responsive to the ‘modern’ way of doing church or ‘teaching’? How would the church deal with a member who believes in astrology? Do we attend to her needs, form a genuine relationship and dialogue with her or do we just teach her and command her to stop? There is no clear answer as each case is unique, but the question remains – as the church, how do we surf and soar in this wave of increased interest of spirituality?