This is the 2nd article of 8 which reflect back over the last 25 years of my ministry and asks what lessons I have learnt over this period of time about leading a church in mission. The first article, entitled ‘Take a Look in the Mirror’, considered the motivation of the leader for the lost. This article encourages us to turn from the mirror and to take a long hard look out the window and into the world around us and to ask, “What has changed culturally and therefore how must the Church change?”
Take A Look Out Of The Window
My house sits up on a bank overlooking the main road from Winchester to Botley. This means that from my sofa I can watch the world go by; from dog walkers to the number 2 bus, from the Southern Gas workers digging up the road again to the steam engine slowly making its way to the annual local steam show. I enjoy spending time watching the world go by and by doing so I have become convinced that a good missional leader must spend time understanding the world around them.
The world is changing and its changing fast. Some of us don’t like it but our likes and dislikes won’t change anything. We have a message that must be seen and heard and if we don’t take time to understand the cultural movements around us the great message of Jesus will be lost in a cacophony of competing noises. The issue isn’t whether the gospel is relevant, it is whether I am. If a church leader doesn’t understand the world the church will struggle to share the gospel. I think it was Nigel Wright who once said that Christians need two conversions; a conversion to Christ and a conversion to the world. What I think he meant by that was that each generation needs to love the world and therefore seek to understand it before we can reach it.
I have just read an article in ‘Prospect’ by Steve Bloomfield about the rise of Nationalism within the UK. Steve Bloomfield highlights that in just 30 years culture has shifted massively. In 1987 45% of the British population believed that “a man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job is to look after the home and family,” and 33% disagreed. By 2017, only 8% agreed with the statement while 72% disagreed. Attitudes have changed.
In 1992 I was studying at London Bible College, there were no mobile phones, no World Wide Web, no such things as emails and it was rare for anyone to have their own personal computer. Words such as ‘twitter’, ‘blogging’ and ‘podcast’ just didn’t exist! Technology has transformed our world.
The temptation, of course, is to put your head in the sand and ignore the cultural shifts and sadly too many leaders have taken this option. But the missional leader must recognise and embrace cultural change and be prepared to adjust their communication, structures and activities because of it.
Let me highlight 9 major cultural shifts that I believe have impacted church life. Of course, you may identify others. Most of these have been written and spoken about before but I want to highlight them and suggest both a challenge and an opportunity for the missional church.
1. Absolute truth has been replaced by suspicious questioning
Past truths that were previously seen as absolute have been neglected for more subjective personalised views.
The Challenge: The Church generally has declared absolute truths and expected people to respond but we find today that people don’t respond to declared truth.
The Opportunity: People need time to journey into faith, to self-discover and come to their own conclusion that Jesus is the truth. Opening up avenues of walking towards and into faith is essential for any modern-day missional church.
2. Community has been replaced by networks
The geographical make-up of community is fragmenting and instead people are relating more through various fluid social networks.
The Challenge: Church has been based on geographically identifiable communities reflecting the old ‘parish’ model.
The Opportunity: Without fully ignoring the local geographic opportunities (because they still exist) missional churches will also recognise other social connections, networks and relationships and seek to equip their congregations in being missional through these networks
3. Corporate responsibility has been replaced by individual and minority rights
The shift from the individual’s corporate responsibility to the rights of the individual has been massive.
The Challenge: Church has tended to reach out to the crowd and encouraged the individual to be responsible toward others, to be committed, to attend, to serve and to get involved.
The Opportunity: There is nothing wrong in encouraging responsibility but to ignore the individual in doing so is a mistake. Those churches that cares for, journeys with, listens to and respects the individual will find more opportunities to share the gospel with those people
4. Reality has been replaced by image
The image and identity of a person has become more important than their content and character.
The Challenge: The Church generally has a poor image problem. It holds the most precious gift in history but often packages it badly.
The Opportunity: Churches that take time to present themselves well, to be accessible, welcoming, engaging and relevant will find greater opportunity.
5. Tomorrow has been replaced by today
For many the living in the moment of today ranks higher than the consequences of today’s decisions for tomorrow.
The Challenge: The Church generally speaks of life to come rather than life in the moment.
The Opportunity: We have a message that is just as relevant today as it is about tomorrow. Good application of Christian living in the now will help engage others in the difference the gospel makes for today
6. Stability has been replaced by constant change
Change is one of the few constants within society and it is speeding up. Technology and communication have advanced phenomenally and it doesn’t look like it is stopping.
The Challenge: Most churches are comfortable with the status quo and often fearful of change. The older and larger the institution the harder it is to embrace change.
The Opportunity: Missional churches will intentionally embrace change. It will recognise that older generations often find change difficult and therefore it will encourage younger generations to share in leadership to help guide the church through each change as it occurs.
7. The local village is being replaced by the global village
The world is shrinking, and people have greater global concerns. A good illustration of this is the rise of global environmental issues.
The Challenge: The church has generally been insular and quiet on global justice issues. As part of the local it often struggles to see beyond its own city walls to recognise the issues that are impacting the world.
The Opportunity: Churches that embrace a global perspective will become more missional. Issues such as the environment, people trafficking, fair trade, social justice and global poverty are essential to a young generation who recognise these vital global connections. Churches that are willing to address these areas and be pro-active in responding to them will be seen as protagonists for justice.
8. Beliefs are being replaced by values
Doctrinal declarations are generally hitting deaf ears. Instead many are more interested in the working values of an individual and a community.
The Challenge: Churches are good at stating beliefs, writing a doctrinal basis and discussing dogma but not so good at communicating and embodying values.
The Opportunity: Although beliefs are foundational it is not the starting place of those yet to follow Jesus. The values of Christianity however have a greater initial appeal. Rather than leaning initially on the statements of belief a missional church will find greater connection with the world around them perhaps through values found in The Beatitudes and Jesus’ manifesto of ministry from Isaiah 61.
9. Religion is being replaced by spirituality
The vast majority of people are no longer interested in ritualistic religious living. However, many recognise that they have spiritual needs and are searching to make sense and express their spirituality authentically.
The Challenge: Churches are good at ritualising faith (i.e. offering forms and customs in which faith is worked out) rather than giving opportunity for faith to be encountered within an environment of true authenticity.
The Opportunity: Rituals for living out your faith are not necessarily obsolete but must be partnered with an authentic and real relationship with Jesus. A missional church, regardless of its traditional rituals, must first and foremost be an authentic church.
I believe that these nine shifts in culture has brought us to a very different place in reaching those who are yet to be disciples of Jesus. Missional churches therefore need to enable discovery, look beyond the normal geographic parish, respect and befriend the individual, recognise that image is important, apply the gospel for today as well as tomorrow, embrace change and enable those who understand change to share in leadership, look beyond their city walls to a shrinking world, embody and communicate Christlike values and offer an authentic experience of the Christian faith.
But just before you turn away from the window, remind yourself to return regularly to gaze into the world and to ask the question, “What has changed and what does it mean for God’s people to live out and share the good news of Jesus today?”
 Luke 4v18-19