Christendom is in transition. It is changing rapidly. The rise of the mega-church is an example of this abundance. However, for many of them, they are the continuation of an economic mindset that was more indicative of our grandparents youth than ours. That mindset is one that views all things through the lens of scarcity and prospertiy.
One of the ways the scarcity mindset permeated the church was in "the pie-in-the-sky," "I'll get my riches when I get to heaven" paradigm. It is embedded in the traditionalism and organizational conservatism of post-Depression era suburban churches.
Brink Lindsey argues that mass prosperity (by historical standards) fundamentally altered American political and cultural debates, shifting them from arguments over wealth distribution to more cultural/spiritual concerns. The "culture wars" are, in this view, a result of prosperity. I think he's basically right.
I see these same culture wars at work in the various battle-lines that divide the church in America. One of the battlelines Michael Spencer identifies in his post about Ron Martoia's book Static. In the post, he makes this comment:
At times, I wondered if Martoia understood what a fundamental upheaval it causes when you begin de-emphasizing a gospel about going to heaven, and emphasizing a gospel with social and political meaning alongside its personal eschatology.
A heaven-centric theology of the age of scarcity, rather than a this-world-centric theology, provided a way for people who knew they would never be wealthy to have hope in a better life beyond the grave. While this hope is Gospel, it is also a narrowing of the Gospel message. A social/political eschatology is equally narrowing.
What I'm saying is that wealth and poverty, and the prospects of escaping the latter and achieving the former, has fundamentally affected the church in different ways over the past century or more. It's effect is to either provide hope for a better life where there are no prospects or hope for a better life because there are prospects. The shift from a theology of scarcity to the health and wealth Gospel has come as our culture has become more prosperous.
I link the beginning of this trend to the return of the Greatest Generation following World War II and the benefits they received for a G.I.Bill funded college education. Ask the people in your church over 70 years of age, who have a college degree, how many of them were the first in their family to earn a degree. I suspect that you'll find the majority are the first. My father was the first in his family.
The affect of the rise of so many people out of poverty through government funded education in the late forties and fifties was to create the suburban culture and mass consumer economy that we have today. The church adapted to this shift in culture from the Depression era to an emerging age of abundance.
Even as the Dow has risen in value over the past weeks - virtually unprecedented in the past half century - I find that there is not a counterpart intellectual, ethical or spiritual perspective that can sustain it. Especially, in the church, we still have a mindset of scarcity and its twin prosperity theology. What these lead to is not personal discipleship in service, but rather a spiritual life focused on personal security.
If you catalog the issues that many churches face, they have to do with change and traditionalism. There is a strong drive to keep things as they were because of this mindset of scarcity. Even in the most contemporary of churches, this drive for personal security dominates. It is like the church is a zero-sum game. Change is destructive, not additive. Change only reveals our insecurity and the scarcity that exists. I see it as the remnant of an early age when the prospects for wealth were non-existent for most people. The church was a haven of peace and security, a place of caring and sharing and a reminder that a better world awaits in the next life.
The "emergence" of churches that are different is an indication that the vacuum created by the personal security, scarcity/prosperity paradigm is beginning to be filled. The difference will be startling I suspect as a generation that lacks all connection to the old pie-in-sky theology of earthly scarcity and heavenly abundance arrives.
To consider that we live in an age of abundance is to see that this idea is a two-edged sword. On the one hand there is abundance that makes it more difficult to appreciate one's individual need for God's grace. As a result, God becomes a source of entertainment and recreation.
However, on the other hand, there is recognition that abundance leads to the availability of resources that can be utilized to solve critical social/economic needs world-wide. This is where the Missional paradigm is impacting people and churches as they allocate more and more resources to mission projects.
From my perspective, what I actually see happening is the rebirth of what is simply a form of Christian humanism. It is a movement that is moving out of the abstract realm of a heaven-centric theology to a theology rooted in the reality that each Christian believer is an agent for the tangible expression of God's love and grace in the real world. This is a paradigm shift of Reformational proportions.
The paradigm shift is from a faith primarily focused on the biblical words and theological ideas of the Christian tradition to a faith primarily focused on what transpires in relationships between the Christian and the rest of the world. It is a shift from a focus on the abstractions of the faith to the concrete nature of the faith in action. It is clearly less dogmatic and more open. It is more ambiguous from the vantage point of the whole history of Christian thought. And its a shift from security to dynamism.
In this sense, it is change. Change that is occurring on a social and theological spectrum that widening. I suspect that my great, great grandfather who served as a Presbyterian minister during the middle decades of the 19th century would recognize the traditional churches that exist today, but will not recognize the churches that my grandchildren will attend in the future.
The age of the abundant church is upon us. The question is "What are we going to do about it?"
An Additional Thought:
A quick response is not warranted. A long, thoughtful conversation about how culture dictates the theological perspective that becomes the church's paradigm of identity and mission. Too much of the conversation assumes that whatever is the "standard" by which we judge the church is a universal, time-transcendent one.
And I'm saying that the social, economic and political paradigms of the past 500 years that have been the preeminent influence upon the church's development are also shifting in a dramatic way. This is more than from modernism to post-modernism. This is from an age of scarcity to an age of abundance, where during the next century, the tools of abundance making will be available virtually every person on the planet.
I'm I naive to think that this is going to happen without any downside. I'm I just an old progressive who believes in the perfection of humanity and society? No. Not at all. What I see simply is that old authoritarian paradigms that formed the ideological basis for many organizations and national cultures are fading. They are fading with the advent of the availability of low or no cost technology that connections people and cultures. If scarcity is the result of lack of resources and access, then abundance is the result of access to resources that open upon the world to those who have the drive and initiative to create new organizational paradigms.
This applies directly to the church as it therefore must shift from a focus on heavenly-security in an age of scarcity to fulfillment of divine calling in an age of abundance. In an age of scarcity, people did not have a great sense of personal calling to service. That however is changing as increasingly the force of missional calling to individuals and their churches takes root and transforms churches.
The age of abundance can be seen in the example of a high school classmate of mine - Wes Morgan -who recently died from cancer. We built a business upon completing college, and in his last years, before he knew they were his last years, became focused on a ministry to orphaned street kids in Haiti. Here's an article that describes some of the work that he did. By his example, people know about these kids, and soon will know about a capital campaign whose funds will build an orphanage in Haiti. His legacy of initiative and calling will live on.
Lastly, I see in this age of abundance is a shift from dependence upon governance structures to provide for me, even if it means provide from my spiritual welfare, to an interdependence on one another in the church and in other organizations that is born out of a recognition that I have something to offer that increases the abundance of resources available to make a difference. This is what is happening when people commit to a missional focus in the church, and why I see it as the most radical paradigm shift since the Reformation.