I am taking a seminar at the Off-The-Map 'Revolution' conference, and will be a panelist responding to the plenary session speakers. I have quite a few questions I hope to get to put to George Barna.
I've been asked to talk in my seminar on a european perspective and how it differs and correlates with the conference theme in the USA. As I have been mulling over ideas, one I am probably going to suggest is that I don't buy the premise of George Barna's book. It's one thing to statistically note there are millions of de-churched christians as a number, but I think quite another to suggest that it represents a revolution by God.
It highlights the difficulties of sociology. So we can be quantitative in tracking numbers of church leavers, but when we move from the numbers to ask why, things become more murky. There are many approaches we can take, ethnographic being qualitative and getting down and inhabiting the context of people who have left and what is happening with them in their culture, the process of description. I think a large section of the emerging church blog world is an ethnographic biography in that sense. Or maybe we stay with the numbers and get less personal and map data and trends and offer empirical ideas that fit the data, and suggest explanations.
And I suppose it seems to me like the prevailing trend for analysis and explanation is to say all these people leaving is a revolution and a post-church move of God taking people from the church into mission on the world. In some places I am sure that is the case, and many of you reading this have experienced that, or seen it first hand, but I want to suggest that maybe it is also something else, a 'migration' rather than a revolution.
Secularization theory that has dominated the sociological world was the notion that as modern society advances it will become increasingly secular, and religion will become increasingly hollow. In other words people would turn away from organised religion.
Secularization theorists have been puzzled by the resurgence of organised religion around the world, and USA, and the growth of religious expression outside organised religion, and these theories are being revised by many to suggest that people are transitioning from organised religion as an intermediate step of secularization.
In other words there is the serious heavy weight of analysis that suggest that the numbers of christians leaving church is a migration to privatized faith, away from religion as part of secularization. Amazing how I just reduced a whole area of research to a crude paragraph on a blog!
In addition to taking a look at secularization theories seriously when analyzing the movement of christians out of church, there is another theory that I think might account for a lot of what is happening, the shift from structure to agency. Again I do the theory disservice by summarizing it crudely, but it explores the interplay between how structures (organizations) and the agents (people taking individual actions) works.
I think in the emerging church there has been a polarity between structure and agency that has grown and an inability to integrate the two, or move beyond them as polarities. By that I mean in the development of the pursuit of the individual in the modern world, the idea that to be me, to be authentic, to take action, my agency takes primacy over structure, so I move away from and distrust anything organised. What emerges is an anti-structure approach to church (Alan Roxburgh has written on this at some length.
The organization of religion is seen as antithetical to genuine mission. Now it's one thing to rightly identify that the structures of the modern church no longer adequately serve mission in our changing world, but another to progress to the belief that all organised church is wrong (I would describe this as the post-church movement, and it is often self described by others within it this way).
These kinds of christians migrations out of church are often described by an over/against response to the churches they left. Just incase you think I am arguing for organised religion I'm not! I'm suggesting that the push of people to the edges of the church recognizing that something is wrong with things the way they are, has in many cases located itself in an expression of anti-structre.
So to be missional, organic, holistic is defined as a form for church that does not have a congregation for instance. I think those terms mean far more than that, and do not exclude the need for structure at all, but highlight the need for healthy structure.
So I see the move of large numbers of christians out of church as having many causes:
1. The genuine missional move of God to take people into the world in mission, and bring a need critique to the structures of church. 2. The continuation of secularization, and draw of the religion of consumerism, that makes us unable to belong to anything organised for genuine mission. 3. A migration of christians into ant-structuralism 4. Lots and lots more reasons....
The challenge is will we find new structures that support the missional drive of the emerging church, and can we do that together, rather than in the opposition of the organised traditional church vs post church migration.