For the last year and a half, I have been using a phrase that many people don’t seem to recognize. When referring to our task of taking the gospel to a hurting and broken world, I have spoken of a new missional era. Everyone clearly understands what new means, most know what an era is, and Christians can describe the mission of seeking and saving the lost as doing our part to restore a fallen world. However, when we put them all together, what exactly makes our mission new?
It's a good question. It’s also one best answered by describing some common interactions I’ve recently but consistently had with different demographics within our churches. Here is just a sampling:
From Campus ministers: “There seems to be something different these days with college students. They think differently, rarely seem to default to scripture for identity, and are increasingly afraid to act in any way that may get them accused of passing judgment. Some are very afraid to disagree with others, especially on issues related to morality.”
From church leaders: “It is getting harder to preach these days without having to apologize for offending somebody, or having to choose my words extremely carefully. I find myself staying away from the hot topics of society, even though most want to discuss them. It also seems like people are not only reading the Bible less, but differently.”
From church members: “I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels like my church is changing. People are much more sensitive, but also more opinionated. I wish someone would clearly explain what we believe and how we are navigating our current times.”
From non-Christians: “I am just not sure the Christian faith is relevant for me anymore, nor do I feel the scriptures are reliable. They are old and outdated. We need a new an improved idea of what it means to be holy, as well as to deconstruct all our notions about what it means to be a church.”
There are more examples, but these are enough to provide a snapshot of our current reality in North America. The mission of God will always be the same – to draw people into his redemptive story. However, the prevailing paradigm of how faith intersects with the human will is changing. A lot. An effective church must prepare themselves in order to allow the gospel to speak through them.
I first learned this new phrase while reading a book by Patrick Keifert called Here We Are Now. He describes grieving the loss of “Christendom,” a term used to describe an age where people, for the most part, agreed that Christian principles drove how we thought and acted. Most scholars and sociologists believe those days are gone. I agree. They all call it a “post-Christian” age.
We are now living in an era driven by a postmodern view of truth and reality, which essentially means truth is discovered and validated through individual experience and personal preference. Morality is not based on anything objective or certain, but fluid and open to many interpretations. The solutions for a fallen society are seen as correcting the power imbalances caused by sin, increasingly less about seeking a renewed and righteous individual spirit. Most importantly, identity has become whatever one chooses, causing a collective human insecurity unlike anything we’ve seen before. Put frankly, people just aren’t sure where to find good answers for who they are anymore, and since a Creator God is based too much on old models of authority and oppression, he simply can’t be trusted.
There is more to it, which is one of the reasons I wrote a book called Wildfire, an analysis of how all of these ideas and dynamics are affecting churches today. It offers a description of our new era, as well as some forward-thinking ways for individuals and churches to be more effective.
It is still a work in progress, but here is how I currently describe the New Missional Era:
"An opportunity for God's people to be a flourishing and creative minority in North America, which is increasingly Post-Christian, flooded with competing ideas of truth, and theologically influenced by secular ideas of identity and reality."
Too often we can lose heart when discussing this - it is easy to see this new missional era in a somewhat hopeless or negative light. I would advise against that. As Keifert says, it is merely an opportunity to join the Lord in a time of new discoveries about how to help people see the glorious gospel. Grieve the loss of Christendom? Fine, but do not lose heart:
“Healthy grieving frees us for healthy new visions. Healthy grieving makes possible seeing the New Missional Era for what it is: God’s invitation to join in this new adventure in the life of God and world, gospel, church, and culture.” (Keifert in Here We Are Now, p.36)
To allow our light to shine effectively, we must better understand how people think today, and why. We use that knowledge in order to faithfully and responsibly present to them the timeless and transformative gospel message. Let’s learn, grow, and get better at mission together.
The times we live in may be new, but our great God has used the same message to save and transform lives in every generation. May we live up to the task we find ourselves with today.
Grace and peace,