After the Theology After Google conference, Philip Clayton said: "This major conference wasn’t really about Google. In one sense, it wasn’t even about technology. At a deeper level, it was about two questions: should the church adapt to the rapidly changing world around us? And, if so, what precisely should we do?" My answer is "yes" to the first question and "it depends" to the second question.
Should the church adapt to the rapidly changing world around us?
Yes! Each age has had to adjust for its time and context. Adaptation has been a part of the Church since the Church has been the Church. Here are a few of the people who have led some of these adaptations: Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Lydia, Phoebe, Clement, Macrina, Irenaeus, Syncletica, Tertullian, Origen, Hildegard, First Council of Nicaea, Anselm, Abelard, Lombard, Augustine, Pelagius, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Council of Trent, Spener, Wesley, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Hodge, Briggs, Niagara Bible Conference, Rauschenbusch, Vatican II, Schillebeeckx, Barth, Niebuhr, Tillich, Edwards, Bultmann, Moltmann, Johnson, Ruether, Sobrino, Tamez, Cone, Grant, Pui Lan, Dube, Cobb, Keller, Wright, Borg, McLaren, Theology After Google, etc.
All of these people and groups adapted the Church’s theologies and practices in an effort to help the Church be faithful, the message be relevant, and ministry be effective. That’s not wrong or controversial. That’s practical and faithful. It demonstrates the Church’s ability to discern God’s voice and apply Scriptural wisdom to our different and changing contexts. So the Church is going to be expressed and embodied differently in each congregation as adaptations are made along the way. These adaptations are what the Church has always done as we seek to faithfully live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in each new age and location. As we adapt ourselves, we are not called to “be” Jesus by doing ministry just like he did, in the lands where he traveled. That’s not adaptation – and it’s certainly not realistic. Instead, we are called to be faithful to the Gospel in the particular place we live, and in ways that make sense for the place we live. The fundamental question of the Church isn’t: What would Jesus do? The fundamental question is: What would Jesus have us do in our particular time and place? That’s the question each of us must face. And each of us will have a different answer. The important thing is to be faithful to the answer that each of us discerns. The common thread will be adaptation and change as we seek to be as faithful and effective as possible in our different contexts. As Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” For the sake of the effectiveness of the Church and our ability to share the Good News, we need to adapt. Theology After Google was one important conversation along the path toward good and faithful adaptation. We need more conversations like these. They help us to discern the best ways to adapt the Church in our postmodern, internet-based world. As our foremothers and forefathers in faith have always done, we must continue to mold ourselves into ever-new designs from the clay that has been passed onto us.
What precisely should we do?
It depends. Seriously. Each context will require different kinds of adaptations and actions. A short list of possible ideas could include these strategies: Organic over canned. Dialogue over doctrine. Poetry over creeds. Fluidity over structure. Spirituality over programs. Practical over abstract. Inclusive over exclusive. Fun over formal. Joyfulness over sullenness. Visual over wordy. Real over flowery. Open over reclusive. People over buildings. Present over past. Doable over theoretical. Interactive over cloistered. Circles over rectangles. Pentecostal over contrived. Chairs over pews. Barstools over pulpits. Blogs over journals. Comprehensive over lectionary. Movement over stagnation. Contextual over universal. Passion over solemness. Invitation over coercion. Nonviolent over harmful. Loving over distant. Justice over inequity. Mutuality over hierarchy. Cultural inclusiveness over cultural imperialism. Tossed salad over melting pot. Navigating ambiguity over forcing certainty. Bible discussions over Bible classes. Restorative justice over condemning judgment. Artistic expression over barren staleness. Local engagement over systemic outrage. Communal salvation over individual salvation. Facilitative leadership over dictatorial CEO-ship. Relational church over mega church. Holistic mission over limited engagement. Diverse music over singular genre. Varied liturgies over repetitive liturgies. Spiritual groups over work committees. Youth engagement over youth estrangement. Brain-storming over narrow-mindedness. Revolving power over stationary power. Dynamic verbs over static nouns. Creation-centered over Creation-excluded. Townhall meetings over monologue speeches. Modern-yet-ancient over contemporary-yet-1980s. Celebration-through-lament over suffering-through-masking. Theologian-of-all-believers over pontifications-from-on-high. Etc.
All of these ideas and more will be needed as we adapt the Church for the postmodern, internet-age world. The last thing we need to do is be a "Gutenberg Church" (hierarchical and monological) in a "Google World" (interconnected and dialogical). So we need fresh, relevant ideas about which adaptations would be most faithful and effective - and how to apply those adaptations. But one person can't make such a list. For one thing, the list would be outdated by the time the person finished writing it. For another thing, a good idea in one place may not be a good idea in another place. Therefore, the most important thing we can possibly do right now is to join the conversation and start trying things. And that is part of the point. We need to be more dialogical, contextual, and nimble. And always be learning, growing, and adapting.
What ideas do you have?