Littlefield, Patrick~Emerging Expressions

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How Social Trends are Impacting the Christian Church

Text of Littlefield, Patrick~Emerging Expressions

  • Emerging Expressions:

    How Social Trends are Impacting the Christian Church

    Patrick Littlefield

    March 5, 2010

  • Emerging Expressions How social trends are impacting the Christian Church

    Throughout the early twentieth century and the time leading up to it, Christian churches

    enjoyed their place in a culture of modernity surrounded by the safeguards of Christendom. The

    era of Christendom is often believed to have begun around the time of the rule of the Roman

    Emperor Constantine and the subsequent legalization and political embrace of Christianity.

    Christendom, which grew and developed in the time leading up to and through the twentieth

    century, constitutes a time period in which the church was granted a privileged position as an

    agent of the state. It provided the moral and ideological bulwark of the society.1 In England

    especially, the institution of the Anglican Church reigned supreme and traditional styles of

    worship were the norm. However, in the past several decades, churches of every denomination

    in England have seen drastic declines in popularity and attendance.2 Eddie Gibbs, a researcher

    of current church trends, notes, As Christendom gave way to a secular and religiously pluralistic

    society, so the ministry sphere of priests and pastors began to shrink.3 Indeed, secularization is

    often seen as one of the chief causes of the decline of Christianity across Europe. Philip Jenkins,

    another author concerned with religious trends, explains through the secularization theory that as

    Great Britain (among other European countries) has grown to be the urbanized, industrialized

    giant it is today, one can track a clear negative correlation between economic development and

    traditional piety.4 The correlation between the growth of modernity, made up in part by a

    1 Eddie Gibbs, Churchmorph: How Megatrends are Reshaping Christian Communities (Grand Rapids: Baker

    Academic, 2009), 25. 2 Statistics are numerous and staggering including such figures as: only 38% of British respondents have declared

    Jesus as Son of God (2001), 44% of Britons claim any religious affiliation, and a startling 15% of Britons are

    reported to attend any place of worship weekly. See Philip Jenkins, Gods Continent: Christianity, Islam, and

    Europes Religious Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 27-28. 3 Gibbs, 25.

    4 Jenkins, 43-44. This in combination with a limited mobility afforded to Europeans that Americans do not

    experience. Jenkins finds this limited mobility a key factor in why America has not also been affected by such

    secularization forces.

  • growing secular culture, and the decline of Christian practice is undeniable, especially in Great


    Also during this time, the western world experienced a major culture shift from

    modernity to postmodernity and what many Christians now believe to be a shift from

    Christendom to post-Christendom. Christianity no longer has the influence in society that it once

    had. Christianitys hold on political, social, and cultural expressions of nations throughout the

    west has given way to more secular pluralistic expressions. Eddie Gibbs notes, The

    organizational structures of historic churches were designed for a different cultural context, in

    which change was more predictable and occurred at a slower pace. Today we live in a culture of

    discontinuous and often unpredictable change.5 Philip Jenkins reflects on the demise of

    Christendom but hopefully notes, The recent experience of Christian Europe might suggest not

    that the continent is potentially a graveyard for religion but rather that it is a laboratory for new

    forms of faith, new structures of organization and interaction, that can accommodate to a

    dominant secular environment.6 While the Anglican Church, along with every other

    denomination, continues to push through this time of uncertainty in church attendance and

    importance, some other groups, from both within and outside of the institutional church, have

    begun to emerge to address this cultural shift. These forms of church throughout England are in

    fact reacting to an emerging postmodern, globalized, post-spiritual culture through a rethinking

    and remolding of church structure, philosophy, and practices. These shifts are very diverse, with

    few all-encompassing principles. The only surety surrounding this ecclesial shift is that the

    world outside the church has changed drastically in regard to globalized, postmodern culture.

    5 Gibbs, 12.

    6 Jenkins, 19.

  • A view into this world shows that it is getting drastically smaller everyday. Ever-

    increasing connections between peoples and societies and advances in technology characterize

    such a small world. It is a world that has been propelled into its current position through many

    interacting forces, most notably the widespread process commonly called globalization. John

    Tomlinson describes globalization as an empirical condition of the modern world: what I shall

    call complex connectivity. By this I mean that globalization refers to the rapidly developing and

    ever-densening network of interconnections and interdependeces that characterize modern social

    life.7 The connectivity that is at the heart of this situation is all-pervasive. According to

    Tomlinson, globalization theorist Anthony McGrew speaks of globalization as simply the

    intensification of global interconnectedness and stresses the multiplicity of linkages it implies.8

    Furthermore, Jurgen Osterhammel and Niels Petersson explain, In a single word, this term

    [globalization] summarizes a wide spectrum of experiences shared by many people. For one, the

    people of the worlds wealthy nations find (nearly) the entire world at their doorstep every day

    thanks to modern forms of consumption and communication.9 The effects of globalization are

    prevalent in modern societies and affect every aspect of life by connecting people and cultures to

    one another in ways never imagined before.

    The onset of globalization has also brought about the passage from the solid to a

    liquid phase of modernity: that is, into a condition in which social forms (structures that limit

    individual choices, institutions that guard repetitions of routines, patterns of acceptable

    behaviour) can no longer (and are not expected) to keep their shape for long, because they

    decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast them, and once they are cast for them to

    7 John Tomlinson, Globalization and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2.

    8 Tomlinson, 2.

    9 Jurgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Petersson, Globalization: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press,

    2005), 2.

  • set.10 In such liquid times, it is believed that social structures must adapt a more liquid,

    networked frame of reference toward the rest of the globalized world or risk becoming lost and

    forgotten. However, it is also the very embrace of fluid structures that continues to perpetuate

    with increasing rapidity the onset of global networks. In considering the advancement of

    network societies, Castells illuminates the tension between a space of flows and a space of

    places. In doing so, he explains that society is constructed around flows: flows of capital,

    flows of information, flows of technology, flows of organizational interaction, flows of images,

    sounds and symbols. Flows are not just one element of the social organization: they are the

    expression of processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life.11 The

    correlation between fluid, liquid structures and a worldwide connectivity is all pervasive in

    developed cultures, and colors personal, local, and international relations and ways of life.

    Such connectivity resulting from globalization has also commonly been explained by

    what some call space-time-compression.12 This concept suggests that modern technology and

    communication have erased the distance established by space and time. People can now share

    ideas and beliefs instantaneously, creating a global, shared culture. Osterhammel and Petersson

    note, Another way to express this idea is to refer to deterritorialization or supraterreitoriality.

    Location, distance, and borders no longer play a role in many social relationships.13

    Globalization has brought together people and, more importantly, the ideas and beliefs of those

    people by lifting the boundaries once set by national and cultural territories. Vincent Miller

    further clarifies this issue by stating, Mediated culture, easy travel and migration, and choice of

    community unbind culture from geographical space. Deterritorialization intensifies

    10 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 1.

    11 Manuel Castells, The Rise of the )etwork Society (Malen, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 442.

    12 Osterhammel and Petersson, 8.

    13 Osterhammel and Petersson, 8.

  • heterogenization. These two dynamisms combine to give rise to a certain "cultural ecology"

    which fosters communities that focus on their own identities.14