Paradigm Shift?

I went to a day of reflection yesterday on the topic “Contemporary Christianity.” What’s happening to the church? The session leader gave us some interesting perspectives. I’d like to share some of them with you, as well as my own reflections.

  • Weekly attendance at church services in Australia was 74% in 1954 and is 14% today.
  • The Christian church is shrinking in western countries with “European-based traditions” but growing in developing countries.

He also quoted a historian’s view that every 500 years or so, The Christian church goes major upheaval.

  • 500AD: The fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian kings, with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in the western world
  • 1000AD: Increased conflict between east and west, with the schism in the church and the crusades
  • 1500AD: The reformation and rise of individualism
  • 2000AD: Our current experiences that “church” and “religion” are in decline, at least in Australia and other western countries

One author has called our current situation the “end of Christendom.” It certainly feels like an ending of some kind to me. But, with any change, there must be an ending before a new beginning. That current chaotic situation is a clear sign that Christians and others are experiencing what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift — when more and more questions emerge for which the “old” answers don’t work. [1]

The search for a “new” paradigm

Are the “old” answers of “religion” and “church” and “Christendom” not working anymore? If so, what questions were these realities created to answer? Are those questions no longer relevant?

To explore what’s going on, what if we seek the questions which Jesus asked. Were His questions “Which church do you go to?” or “Which Christian religion do you practice?” Seen in those terms, we can see that these “old” questions” seem wrong somehow. They weren’t central in Jesus’ preaching. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would even ask these questions today.

So what questions is Jesus asking? I suggest that you read his questions to his apostles, and decide for yourself. Make a complete list. See how many of them have to do with “church” or “religion” per se. I’ll give you a clue. Here’s one sequence from Mark 8:17-18: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

The unshifting paradigm

You get the feeling that Jesus was pointing beyond our human search for answers and paradigms when he asked His questions. He almost seemed frustrated at times with his closest friends when they didn’t understand what was going on. In the end, when Philip asked, “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us” Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” [John 14: 8-9] If we understand who Jesus is, He is the unchanging ‘paradigm’, and history is understood in the light of who He is. “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” [1 Corinthians 15:24]

If we view “church” and “religion” in terms of dominion, authority and power (as we do), that way of human thinking (paradigm) is passing away, even in our lifetime. But we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water.’ God’s kingdom is in the ascendency in the ‘final days’, and not merely in individual hearts. There is ‘one body’ of which Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, even if it appears that the ‘branches’ are being pruned right now.

We ought to take to heart what Jesus said to his disciples, and trust that he will answer our questions in due course. “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?”

[1] Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1962.



The end of the beginning; Steve Jobs

“The study of man unmediated by religion marked the end of the middle ages and saw the beginning of the modern world.” (Rebecca Fraser in The History of Britain) It is easy for historians to look back and see the end of one way of thinking and the beginning of another. It doesn’t happen at one date, with one mind-shattering event. But, in hindsight one can see the beginning of the end of the old thinking, and the end of the beginning of the new way. Or as the sports vernacular has it,”a shift in momentum from one team to another.”

You can easily see that ‘shift in momentum’ in Steve Jobs accomplishments. Due to his creativitiy, computing became truly personal, mobile and a part of life rather than a calculating adjunct. Historians will surely look back and see his accomplishments as opening up a new paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn called it,  in not only technology but human life. We are at the beginning of an expanded way of living daily possibilities that will change our most fundamental concepts.  Stay tuned.

What does this have to do with the transformation of local churches? I think you can guess. If our way of living daily is changing radically, surely this signals the end of one way of thinking about church and the beginning of another. Whether the momentum is with the new way yet will be left to historians in the future, but there is no doubt in my mind that the old way of thinking about local church doesn’t work anymore. There are too many questions and too few answers. This is a sure sign of an impending paradigm shift according to Kuhn.

It is too easy for Christians to answer all this by saying that there are eternal verities that do not change, and we must seek them. True, but our seeking is strongly shaped by our mental models, which are strongly shaped by the world in which we live. Ths is sociology 101. If churches are to change, surely they must find ways to relate to the hyper-expanding communities of the new techno-social world many people now live in. That goes way beyond ministries to young people, who are at the leading edge of this change. Shouldn’t we be looking at the ideas and boundaries that hem in our local church community, and keep it from influencing people as widely as Facebook and Twitter? Can we become as revolutionary as Steve Jobs in our view of our “customers” and our ability to bring them new “products and experiences” that will change their lives?

Are there any people in your local church even talking about these things?