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?

An Atheist Church?

An Atheist Church – Atheistic Culture Coming of Age

I heard about this new Atheist Church in Britain a few days ago and wondered how would a Christian feel when attending the assembly. My questions are answered by this post, which is an actual account of a person experiencing it on one Sunday.

There are two things mentioned in the post which strike me. First, the talk by a physicist, which reminds me of how my little venture into science years ago actually brought me closer to God. So if the report of the above blog post is accurate, the talk by the atheist church has strengthened my faith for God! This brings us to further questions. Why is it, that I am not experiencing such awe when listening to an ordinary preaching in an ordinary Christian church? I suspect this is due to the way I am wired. I think I am scientific in my thinking, and I am naturally a skeptic  So the scientific method of inquiry suits me. However this method is normally not employed in the Christian church. This in turns, also shows how narrow a Christian experience can be at this age. A typical evangelical, for example, has been accustomed to only a certain ways of thinking. A book which I reviewed, ‘Pagan Christianity’ has much to say about how this come by. Again a study into how modern evangelicalism come into being will also help. With the understanding that the way we worship can actually be richer than what we have experienced so far, the church will be able to look into various ways to redeem the meaning of a Christian gathering and the various creative ways we could worship the Creator.

The other thing which strikes me is how far a certain atheist culture has formed. The video above specifically mentions the cross – the symbol of Christianity, which in the atheist church can only be observed at the first aid box. (Of course the very reason why the cross ended up at the first aid box will again bring us to its Christian root) But one could only be sensitive (read ‘hostile’) to another symbol when one feels that his culture is under threat. It is common knowledge that atheism has been active in Britain in recent years, and as some atheists imply, the movement has become a religion itself. Apparently an atheist wrote to the leader of the atheist church, relating their assembly in a church is akin to Jews in  the concentration camp! Thus, this is a clear statement, that here we have a meta-narrative, a set of symbols (or lack of it), a certain ritual and worldview – all summing up to form an emerging (or rather, to some, already matured) culture. So when an assembly like this takes place, it shows how a certain philosophy has finally move out of the arena of ‘thinking’, into the arena of ‘being’ and ‘doing’, and ‘doing it together’. The ‘atheistic culture’ has come of age.

Inculturation Explained

The standard explanation for the meaning of inculturation is from the REDEMPTORIS MISSIO:

Incarnating the Gospel in Peoples’ Culture

52. As she carries out missionary activity among the nations, the Church encounters different cultures and becomes involved in the process of inculturation. The need for such involvement has marked the Church’s pilgrimage throughout her history, but today it is particularly urgent.

The process of the Church’s insertion into peoples’ cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation “means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.”85 The process is thus a profound and all-embracing one, which involves the Christian message and also the Church’s reflection and practice. But at the same time it is a difficult process, for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith.

Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.86 She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within.87 Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission.

Thanks to this action within the local churches, the universal Church herself is enriched with forms of expression and values in the various sectors of Christian life, such as evangelization, worship, theology and charitable works. She comes to know and to express better the mystery of Christ, all the while being motivated to continual renewal. During my pastoral visits to the young churches I have repeatedly dealt with these themes, which are present in the Council and the subsequent Magisterium.88

Inculturation is a slow journey which accompanies the whole of missionary life. It involves those working in the Church’s mission ad gentes, the Christian communities as they develop, and the bishops, who have the task of providing discernment and encouragement for its implementation.89

53. Missionaries, who come from other churches and countries, must immerse themselves in the cultural milieu of those to whom they are sent, moving beyond their own cultural limitations. Hence they must learn the language of the place in which they work, become familiar with the most important expressions of the local culture, and discover its values through direct experience. Only if they have this kind of awareness will they be able to bring to people the knowledge of the hidden mystery (cf. Rom 16:25-27; Eph 3:5) in a credible and fruitful way. It is not of course a matter of missionaries renouncing their own cultural identity, but of understanding, appreciating, fostering and evangelizing the culture of the environment in which they are working, and therefore of equipping themselves to communicate effectively with it, adopting a manner of living which is a sign of gospel witness and of solidarity with the people.

Developing ecclesial communities, inspired by the Gospel, will gradually be able to express their Christian experience in original ways and forms that are consonant with their own cultural traditions, provided that those traditions are in harmony with the objective requirements of the faith itself. To this end, especially in the more delicate areas of inculturation, particular churches of the same region should work in communion with each other90 and with the whole Church, convinced that only through attention both to the universal Church and to the particular churches will they be capable of translating the treasure of faith into a legitimate variety of expressions.91 Groups which have been evangelized will thus provide the elements for a “translation” of the gospel message,92 keeping in mind the positive elements acquired down the centuries from Christianity’s contact with different cultures and not forgetting the dangers of alterations which have sometimes occurred.93

54. In this regard, certain guidelines remain basic. Properly applied, inculturation must be guided by two principles: “compatibility with the gospel and communion with the universal Church.”94 Bishops, as guardians of the “deposit of faith,” will take care to ensure fidelity and, in particular, to provide discernment,95 for which a deeply balanced approach is required. In fact there is a risk of passing uncritically from a form of alienation from culture to an overestimation of culture. Since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be “healed, ennobled and perfected.”96

This kind of process needs to take place gradually, in such a way that it really is an expression of the community’s Christian experience. As Pope Paul VI said in Kampala: “It will require an incubation of the Christian ‘mystery’ in the genius of your people in order that its native voice, more clearly and frankly, may then be raised harmoniously in the chorus of other voices in the universal Church.”97 In effect, inculturation must involve the whole people of God, and not just a few experts, since the people reflect the authentic sensus fidei which must never be lost sight of Inculturation needs to be guided and encouraged, but not forced, lest it give rise to negative reactions among Christians. It must be an expression of the community’s life, one which must mature within the community itself, and not be exclusively the result of erudite research. The safeguarding of traditional values is the work of a mature faith.

Evangelical’s Definition of Inculturation

Statements from the Edinburgh 2010, in general representing worldwide Evangelical voices, also refers to the above definition, while including other Protestant and Evangelical Conferences’ reports. This is summarised in the section titled ‘Contextualization, inculturation and dialogue of worldviews‘ under the Transversal Topics of the Conference.

My own observation informs me that the main difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant’s understanding of inculturation is in the belief of St. Justin Martyr’s theory of spermatic Logos and the Paschal Mystery. Spermatic Logos means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures since creation, and Paschal Mystery means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures after His resurrection through the Holy Spirit. These are the areas where most Protestants disagree with. Apart from that latest Protestant and Evangelical scholarship in general recognises the importance of inculturation.

Why is Modern Church in the Postmodern World Declining

      

Excerpt from my MA dissertation:

[Today,] the culture has changed so much that while the world in general has abandoned or reacted toward over-rationalised ways of thinking and lifestyle, the highly rationalised church, which Drane considers an example of being successfully contextualised to the previously dominant rationalised worldview, is left behind and finds it hard to follow the change.1 The following paragraphs will serve to depict the severely ‘modernised’ church.

By applying the concept of ‘McDonaldization’ on the church, Drane laments the over-rationalisation of the church which makes the church no more than just another modern system that adhere to the industrial standards of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.2 The sense of community, mission, ministry and theology suffer great loss in the midst of this uncritical adaptation, or rather, unconscious assimilation, of rational system,3 resulting in decline in church attendance.

Drane believes the church has lost its members not only to secularity, but also other new spiritualities.4 So the loss is not due to a lack of faith or spiritual interest by the general population but due to the postmoderns’ rejection of dogmatism and rationalisation.5 The modern church’s tendency of teaching and conveying faith through the abstract and rational propositions has become a hindrance to proper communication in the postmodern era, which advocates a holistic approach.6 Dialogue/point of contact can become increasingly hard because of differences in communication mode – rational vs. holistic.7 In other words, a typical modernist evangelism may not work as well as evangelisation where word is supported by witness and worship. (I argue, elsewhere in my paper that ‘evangelisation’ as understood by the Roman Catholics in general emphasises word, witness and worship, while ‘evangelism’ – a popular term used primarily within the Protestant circle emphasises only ‘proclamation’ of the gospel, i.e., only ‘word’) The ‘objective, analytic, and reductionist virus’, according to McLaren, has reduced the Bible either to superstition or mere doctrinal propositions.8 Thus serious spiritual searchers find that the ways in which the church worships and witness fall short of their ideal of holistic understanding of life and in addressing their deep spiritual needs.9 Furthermore, the very meaning of or reason for attending church has become redundant. Since other parts of their life are also rationalised and mechanical, there is no reason to allow this to be repeated in church, where one is asked to perform a limited number of tasks repeatedly, with their humanness abandoned.10 This, when combined with the ‘secular and scientific viruses’ which focus more on facts than value, causes the church to be seen as lacking in values, purpose, meaning, mission, passion, wisdom, faith and spirit.11 As such, the ‘witness’ and ‘worship’ are thus left out. Furthermore, the church’s focus on efficiency in manufacturing spiritual products to serve the need of the consumerist believers12 implies that faith can be objectified and packaged into various pedagogical units in fast-food manner. Thus spiritual growth is often portrayed as how much ‘spiritual knowledge’ one consumes. As a result spiritual growth can be rationally controlled and predicted, ‘manufactured’ by the church – the ‘purveyor of religious goods and services’.13 So eventually, this results in churning out selfish followers with little emphasis on ethics, albeit having ‘consumed’ much knowledge and facts.14 So the modern, rationalised church has lost its witness and quality. All these distance the church from the postmoderns as it is perceived that the church is so closely associated with the modern enterprise that when people are increasingly sceptical towards modernism, they find it necessary to reject, at the same time, the ‘modernist’ church.15 This presents the church with two problems. On the one hand the church has failed to engage the postmoderns, and on the other hand, people who are becoming more sympathetic towards postmodernity will gradually leave the church; hence the need to look into inculturating the modern church with postmodern culture.

p.s. You may find a short article here helpful for an understanding of mission in a postmodern North America here.


1 Drane 2008, 5-7.
2 Drane 2000a, 28ff, referring to Ritzer, G (1993) The McDonaldization of Society (Thousands Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press).
3 Drane 2000a, 18-33.
4 Gibbs & Coffey 2001, 171, 173.
5 Drane 2008, 5; McLaren 2006, 174, 179-180; Newbigin 1989, 213.
6 Drane 2000, 113-114.
7 McLaren 2006, 166ff, 177ff; on the church becomes unintelligible since modernity see Hunter 1992, 21-35.
8 McLaren 2006, 201-202.
9 Drane 2000, 12.
10 Drane 2000a, 31-32; McLaren & Campolo 2003, 118.
11 McLaren 2006, 202-203.
12 The Consumerist Virus – citing Guder, D.L. (1998) (ed.) The Missional Church: The People of God Sent on a Mission (Grand Rapids: Eedrmans), McLaren 2006, 204; McLaren & Campolo 2003, 11-12; Gibbs & Bolger 2006, 92.
13 McLaren 2006, 204.
14 Ibid., 202-203.
15 Ibid., 27-29.

Drane, J.W. (2000) Cultural Change and Biblical Faith: The Future of the Church – Biblical and Missiological Essays for the New Century (Carlisle: Paternoster Press).
Cultural Change & Biblical Faith

Drane, J.W. (2000a) The McDonaldization of the Church (Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd).
The McDonaldization of the Church: Consumer Culture and the Church’s Future

Drane, J.W. (2008) After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian discipleship in an age of uncertainty (Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd).
After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian Discipleship in an Age of Uncertainty

Gibbs, E. and I. Coffey(2001) Church Next: Quantum Changes in Christian Ministry (Leicester: IVP).
ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry

Gibbs, E. and R. Bolger (2006) Emerging Churches (London: SPCK).

McLaren B.D. and Campolo, T. (2003) Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Zondervan).
Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel

McLaren, B.D. (2006) Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
The Church on the Other Side

China and the Christian Impact

China and the Christian Impact

Excerpt from ‘A Conflict of Cultures’, the Review of: China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures
Jacques Gernet – Cambridge University Press, 1985, by J.S. Cummins:

Translating and closely analysing contemporary Chinese material, Gernet show that it was not merely clerical squabbles, doctrines, rituals or customs which separated missionary and potential convert. The twain were unable to meet because their respective world-pictures differed radically: the Chinese mind-set, for instance, rooted in concepts from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, found literally inconceivable Christian ideas evolved from the Graeco-Roman- Judaic-Scholastic mental world. And vice versa. The literati, by and large untroubled by metaphysical anxieties, showed keen interest in Ricci’s technology, moral tracts and memory exercises (see History Today, December, 1985) but laid aside with contumely his religion and his Tridentine ‘Ptolemaic’ theology.

Would love to read this book. The above shows that there is an area which students of inculturation should look into – the definition of ‘mind-set’, its relation with language (and vice versa) and how these affect evangelism. If China is having a revival today – how are the barriers of ‘mind-set’ and language overcome? Perhaps inculturation doesn’t work at all if worldview (mind set and language included, philosophy) is to be separated from culture (behaviour)?

Traditionally people ‘blame this first ‘Failure in the Far East’ upon the Jesuits’ ‘narrow-minded’ co-workers, the friars, whose machinations, we read, misled nine successive popes into denouncing, and finally prohibiting the Jesuits’ ‘China Strategy’, thereby destroying the plan to convert Asia.’ But the review highlighted how the author of this book opined that the mistake was Ricci’s as he failed to notice that the key barrier is not cultural (hence Confucianism) but philosophical (Taoism). A more scholarly review from The Journal of Asian Studies summarises the author’s view succinctly: ‘He doubts that many of the early seventeenth-century literati-converts were “really” Christians, because they were so insistent on reconciling Christianity with Neo-Confucian notions; they were attracted to the Jesuits’ behavior and moral rigor, not to Christian doctrine.’ (China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. by Jacques Gernet; Janet Lloyd, Review by: Daniel H. Bays, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 114-116)

I will try to find a copy of this book!

Christmas Traditions

I have always wondered how some of the Christmas traditions came into being. Hence I was pleasantly surprise to find a good piece of article in the in-flight magazine of AirAsia which explains the origin of some of the Christmas practices. The following is a selected list of answers I get from the article:

The Christmas Wreath:

Christmas or Advent wreath appeared only in the 16th century – being circular shape to represent God who has no beginning and no end, and the evergreen used to decorate signifies the everlasting life which Jesus brought to His believers.

 

The Nativity Scene:

Introduced by St Francis of Asisi nearly 800 years ago to combat commercialism of Christmas at his time.

 

The Christmas Tree:

Introduced by Martin Luther in 1510 as he decorated a tree with candles ‘to recapture the beautiful sparkling stars amidst the evergeens’. It would have remained a German tradition had it not because of the marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Germany, which saw the tradition setting its foot in the British Isle. By then the Americans still consider decorating a fir tree to celebrate Christmas a pagan practice.

 

The Christmas Carols:

Songs written to celebrate the birth of Christ emerged in the 4th and 5th century in Latin. It was only in the 13th century that carolling became a common practice. In those days, in the context of feudal rules, the poor would sing to the wealthy for supper.

 

Santa Claus:

We can trace the origin of Santa to St. Nicolas, who was a kind monk who cared for the needy and poor.

 

My Observation:

I have not done any research on the above but I believe the article has got the facts right. If the above are true, it intrigues me in a number of ways. Firstly, if I imagine myself as 2th century Christian, not only that there is no wreath, no Santa, no carols, no Christmas tree, no Nativity Scene, there was actually not Christmas (Christmas day as the day to commemorate Christ’s birth came after 2th century)! Secondly, in the course of history, various cultural elements have been added into the celebration of Christmas, and it seems to me that this process has enriched the festival and in each case above, had a good Christian intention. However as times go by their meanings were lost and people tend to adopt the tradition without knowing the meaning behind it. More alarmingly, is that the Christians often find it unnecessary to unveil the true meaning of these traditions. Worse,some would shunned these practices and condemn them as pagan practices. As a Chinese believer I do not think that I need to follow some of the practices of the Western church. However, I would have no problem celebrating the joy of Christmas with the Westerners as they express their celebration via their own cultural elements – be it fir tree, wreath or carols. If possible I would also seek relevant expression from my culture which I could relate to the Christmas meaning, so I could also use them to celebrate Christmas meaningfully.