1. Apocalyptic Visions
Something big is happening. And it will forever change the Church.
Historians call it the greatest watershed ever recorded. "If the world has not come to its end," Solzhenitsyn writes, "it has approached a major turn in history." Because, Alvin Toffler explains, "We are the final generation of an old civilization and the first generation of a new one."
Time magazine applied the same apocalypse: "The 1990s have become a transforming boundary between one age and another, between a scheme of things that is disintegrating and another that is taking shape."
Without doubt, something old has been dying, and something new is being born.
"A Means to Revelation"
We call this death "postmodernism." Postmodernism points to the end of the modern world, the collapse of current civilization, the crumbling of old laws, and the tearing of social fabric.
Simply put, it is the "death of culture."
At the same time, the way we think is crossing new thresholds. Already, our cold logic -- our "absolute" truth -- is surrendering to something new. We are seeing with different eyes and hearing with different ears. Even reality itself is changing! It's not that two and two are no longer four, it's just that two and two are no longer the issue.
This new reality means we are speaking a new language -- not just new words, but a new way of using words. Implicit words are replacing explicit words. Metaphoric words are replacing literal words. Endless flowing images are replacing orderly ideas. Experience is replacing reason. And feeling is replacing form.
In all these, "hidden" meanings are replacing rigorous definitions. Yet, these hidden meanings -- Scripture proved ages ago -- serve "as a means to revelation."
From Dogma to Depth
The church -- as a human institution -- clings to the same dying culture. So the same death and the same rebirth haunt believers as well.
Church scholars, for example, call this "the end of the Reformation." Loren B. Mead claims, "God is dismantling the denominational systems as fast as possible." And Robert Webber insists we already live in a "post-Christian" culture.
We find this first in reports of church attendance. Mainline churches have seen a slow, painful collapse since their peak in 1963. The Catholic Church has experienced a crisis in priestly callings, and many disenchanted Protestants who returned to the market-driven mega-churches are leaving again.
As a result, Christianity has lost its privileged position in the world. In truth, it has become a "subculture." Just look around! In urbane, urban centers like New York City, more spiritually sensitive seekers go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sundays than to cathedrals.
Yet, not all is lost. In place of "religion" is a "post-religious spirituality" We are tracking a new trail from the mind to the heart, from rhetoric to revelation, from public to private, from institution to individual, and from external to internal.
In short, we are tracking a trail from dogma to depth.
A Thief in the Night
This trail leads to the birth of not only a new spirituality, but a new culture as well. And this new culture manifests mostly on the Internet -- a metaphor of the future.
The Internet is the fastest growing medium the world has known. Author Don Tapscott says, "There has never been any technology or innovation in human history that comes close in speed of adoption, significance, and impact." And an Internet-based marketer says, "The number of Internet users is expected to nearly quadruple over the next five years at an average annual rate of 79 percent."
It will power the future: Without doubt, "the digital revolution will set the course of the world." Its massive and pervasive global network will, indeed, create a new planetary culture.
It's called the "information superhighway," and it can do amazing things. Fiber optics the size of a human hair, for example, can deliver every issue of the Wall Street Journal in less than one second. And the cunning power of this digital demon -- like a thief in the night -- has broken into every area of modern living.
Even the Pope confesses, "The computer has changed my life."
That's because this new media is changing the way we think. In the digital frontier, for example, the rules for survival and success are changing. And, like a force of nature, the change is irrevocable and unstoppable.
There's no turning back.
Make no mistake. What we see today is not the digital age -- it will reach critical mass just around the corner. The change we've known in the past is not the change we'll know in the future -- a future that will render life as we know it obsolete while something new struggles for survival. And the science of today is not the science of tomorrow. Cyberspace, for example, will be a "virtual" reality, a "metaphorical" space.
What does this menacing change mean for the Church? It means we have entered a high-stakes battle in an amoral, postmodern world. It means we are in a race for the entire planet's faith -- both "on-line" and "off-line."
Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive and know it and will you not give heed to it?
These predictions will occur sooner than we think. We're not waiting for some invention. It's already here, and things are taking place earlier than even extremists had believed.
Earlier upheavals moved with slow, blood-drenched dramas of war, revolt, famine, and other calamities. Even positive events resulted from the forward march of expected progress. And though the experience of time has speeded up, we have never lost the feeling of continuity.
But tomorrow will be different. It won't continue the same fast pace; it will shift suddenly. It won't reveal itself one step at a time; it will appear instantly. It won't improve the past; it will break with the past. Like living inside a kaleidoscope, the time to come will shock us with amazing metamorphosis, exponential change, and crystalizing revolution.
For the first time, the future will unfold with "warp velocity." And with the old culture quickly crumbling, there is nothing firm on which to stand; so the shaking hands of even the experts paint small, blurred pictures. All the while, someone larger than us is painting a giant fresco, but we're so close to it we can't see it!
The church can't move into the future with past paradigms. The world is full of well-intentioned, church-growth experts who peddle formulas, programs, and techniques. But old paradigms, old management styles, or any warmed-over idea masquerading as something new can't grasp the change that is engulfing us on a global scale.
Worldly economists report that innovation profits drive most digital data, but their moneyed myopia also misses the real picture. Other shortsighted observers misread the "information" in the "information age." Cyberspace, after all, means much more than information.
Guardians of Grace
How should the church respond?
The great historian Arnold Toynbee said we respond to crises in one of four ways: (1) We retreat -- like turtles--(2) we trust -- like lambs led to slaughter--(3) we tremble -- like paranoids looking for demons -- or (4) we take hold of the crisis and transform it into something useful.
Many of us in the church face crises the first way -- we retreat into the past. The past remains our savior, so we, as good guardians of grace, turn our clocks back to a "golden age." We lock ourselves into another time and place. Indeed, some of us spend all of our resources on old causes.
Sadly, we forget "human hands had been at work through the centuries,," in honor of our small memories,, "probing and fumbling, and not always very happily." We don't realize our churches have often become halls of mirrors where we see only our own reflections. We fail to grasp that our reputed "truth" feels good simply because it is in harmony with our own biases and bigotries.
Of course, the past can also be right.
But often, old and impotent models have lost their ability to empower the future. Often, past seasons of revelation have become dead metaphors in a new era. And often, our love for the "familiar" only tells of a time and place where God once was.
As a result, we mistake the oyster for the pearl. We confuse culture for content. We misread metaphor for message.
The symbols of faith replace faith itself.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem... How often I have desired and yearned to gather your children together [around Me], as a hen [gathers] her young under her wings, but you would not!
Second, we blindly trust. Our confident assurance shows more flesh than faith. We simply ignore the threatening realities of the coming world. We simply hold to the status quo and try to do what we've been doing a little better.
In the meantime, we "just say no" to computers.
Or, we ward off the digital demons with another "quick fix." We assent to "an entertainment fix, a self-esteem fix, a self-righteousness fix, or a self-help fix." But the church remains the same. We are no more prepared for the future than before.
It's as if we were placing temporary bandages over mortal wounds.
Even improving the present won't work. What the church has today won't work tomorrow. The problems of today cannot be solved by the same mind-sets that created these problems in the first place. For tomorrow will render irrelevant all of our passive ploys.
After all, admission to the coming age will cost us something. There is a price to pay.
"There are three things which come not back -- the spent arrow, the spoken word, and the lost opportunity."
Third, we tremble. We avoid truth by looking for external enemies. We blame all of our problems on "the evil forces of the age." As Paul Maier says in his book, A Skeleton in God's Closet, we become the pious paranoid, the "religious" spirits, the fearful fanatics "with twitching nostrils who can sniff out heresy at a hundred kilometers."
Consider Augustine who said Christians should avoid those who can add or subtract, because they obviously had "made a covenant with the Devil."
In this strategy, there's a strange tragedy. Our rebellious youth and advanced technologies are not the enemies of the Church. At this moment, in fact, they are our only hope. If we fail the future, the blame will fall, instead, on our fleshly pride, which we disguise as "religion."
So we need to reflect Toynbee's fourth reaction: We need to take hold of the crisis and transform it into something useful. The other three problem solvers try to make things go away, but here, we try to bring new things into being.
When new paradigms appear, mere appearances had better disappear.
No Longer New
Some observers point to the success of the fastest-growing churches as God's answer for the future. These churches have been called many things: charismatic, Pentecostal, free, independent, praise and worship. And, no doubt, they came in with a roaring fire. Their Pentecostal origins in the early 1900s claimed "an 'end to history,' a 'new age,' and a 'postmodern era' long before any of these currently fashionable terms were invented."
Sometimes called "post-denominational," they are neither Protestant nor Catholic. And in the traditional sense, they are not even a "religion"! Yet, they remain the fastest-growing churches in the world.
Some scholars believe they are the "new paradigm" church. And, true enough, they were new at one time. But no longer. These believers participate in their own passing paradigm.
For the "new paradigm church" does not yet exist!
The tragedy in this movement stems from the way it ties itself to the secular market. Its pristine power has too often turned crassly commercial. It asks a trendy, secular society what it wants the church to be, then it canonizes society's craze as "eternal truth."
Yes, each age casts its shadow. Yes, each generation follows the curvature of its own culture. These secular meditations are to be expected. But today, worship responds too often to trendsetters in a moneyed market, to apologists for the secular world, and to propagandists in a worldly theocracy.
When these things happen, the world squeezes the church into its own fleshly mold, its own biased blindness, and its own particular prejudice. Then we confuse the "spirit of our time" with the Spirit of worship. Then we find religious "experience" a slippery notion.
For we can no longer tell gold from dross.
Jekyll and Hyde
So nothing in our past totally prepares us for the future. With deep affection, we hope that our older, more precious metaphors will still speak with power in the time to come. But God's creative power will astound us: "We are at the front edges of the greatest transformation of the Church.... It may eventually make the transformation of the Reformation look like a ripple in a pond." That's because the future promises a spiritual event, not just a technological discovery. It promises the wisdom of the heart, not just the intellect of the mind. It promises values and visions, not just bytes and bits.
With these promises, the Church can lead again! It can lead history rather than follow it. New life can birth from decaying old life. New order can emerge from distressing disorder.
Yet, without our leadership, the future will go the other way. For it is a Jekyll and Hyde future where the winner takes all.
The futurist Marshall McLuhan saw, but never precisely stated, that highly advanced electronic media in the hands of bankrupt spirits will soon destroy us because a medium that works with the speed of light requires a Spirit of Light. The power of the Internet works for good only if we are good. It surfs safely only if we savor certainty.
That is, it works only if we live in the Truth.
Already the Internet races out of control. Cyberspace is a place of no laws, no restraints. It has turned into an impulsive monster -- reckless, confused, uncertain, and dangerous. Even its inventors fear what it may become.
If we don't get our act together -- and soon! -- the church could suffer a great tragedy in its refusal to see God's hand in this apocalyptic event. The twenty-first century already evokes images of spiritual wars and end-time disasters.
So we must prepare for action. We must leave behind all of our excess baggage. We must redefine ourselves for the digital age. We must set a revolutionary agenda. Yes, we always confess Christ "the same, yesterday, today, and forever." But we also must expertly adapt Christ's story to the demands of the digital age.
In this postmodern age, is it possible to sing "the Lord's song in a strange land"?
A Compass for the Future
This book prepares the church for a future of change. It confronts the hidden tyrannies among the most revered traditions and reveals the glorious promises among the most feared trends. It tells how we got here, where we're going, and secrets to a successful transition.
Perhaps most important, it gives a glimpse of God's nature in a new worldly order.
For that reason, this book is not the typical "church-growth" book. It does not stand on past paradigms. It does not warm up yesterday's management techniques. It does not pitch old ideas as something new. Instead, it provides a compass that can guide us to a place where no one has ever been.
It paints an accurate picture of the driving forces in the emerging era and presents the astounding opportunities for the "New Millennium Church." It describes a new Word for a new age, a divine Word for a digital age, a transcendent metaphor for a transcendent moment. It lovingly and honestly lays to rest the lost legacies of the past and describes the "digital demons" of the future. More important, it says how the church will defeat the demons.
In short, this book navigates the church through the stormy waters of our approaching time.
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas Hohstadt