How Social Trends are Impacting the Christian Church
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
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,
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