Ministry and mission are not done in a vacuum. They are always carried out in specific context and affected by local, national and increasingly, global contextual factors. Understanding the context of ministry is not optional for 21st century leaders. While we know a great deal about the inside of congregations, church leaders often have limited understanding of the external factors that are reshaping mission and ministry. Trying to lead without both inside and outside information is like a bird trying to fly with only one wing.
Peter Drucker often spoke of “the futurity of present events.” That is, if you want to understand the future, look at the reality of events that have already happened. Here are eight “present reality” shifts in the U.S. culture that are affecting the context of ministry.
THE SHIFT FROM KNOWLEDGE TO EXPERIENCE.
Experience is the new currency of our culture. In the past, we gained knowledge of a subject or issue and then a later experience validated that knowledge. Today, it is just the reverse. People have an experience that is later validated by knowledge. It is useful to remember, as Pine and Gilmore tell us in their book, The Experience Economy, that the purpose of an experience is not to entertain us but to engage us. This shift has implications in the way we learn, communicate and interact. For churches, it impacts:
a) The design of worship and liturgy
b) The shape and content of educational ministries
c) The process of spiritual formation
d) The design of sacred space
THE SHIFT FROM A MONOCULTURE TO A MULTI-CULTURAL POPULATION.
While the U.S. is a nation created from many ethnicities and nationalities, the diversity of our population has accelerated over the past 25 years. Major changes of immigration laws in the 1970’s, the affordability of air travel, the desirability of U.S. economic opportunity, and other factors have combined to create a second wave of new immigrants that may surpass the original wave of the late 1880’s and early 20th century. The face of America is literally changing and will continue to do so in the future. In the 2000 census, 40% of people under the age of 18 are non-Anglo. Population diversity also means religious diversity as these new immigrants have brought with them their temples and mosques that have been added to the American religious landscape.
THE SHIFT FROM A PRODUCER TO A CONSUMER ECONOMY.
In the unprecedented economic boom that followed WWII, driven by advertising and media technology, the U.S. morphed into a consumer-driven culture. This result of this shift can be summed up in one word: options. We want options for everything from the color and model of the cars we drive to our soft drinks and coffee. This consumer mentality has also affected how people select a church and its offerings of “religious goods and services.”
THE SHIFT FROM A YOUTH ORIENTED CULTURE TO THE GRAYING OF AMERICA.
As a result of its size, the baby boom generation brought a new emphasis on youth and now that the generation is reaching midlife, they are driving a new emphasis on aging. Look at the way the AARP has reinvented itself the past five years! Additionally, as a result of advances in medicine and health care, more people are living longer than ever before and the median age of the population continues to rise. While demographers tell us that we are now on the front end of a new baby boomlet, the scales are still tilting to the gray side. But make no mistake; senior adult ministry in the future will be very different than it is now!
THE SHIFT FROM PRINT TO BROADCAST TO INTERACTIVE.
We are living in a time of revolutionary change in communications. The print world that had been dominant for 500 years began to give way in the 1950’s to a visual or broadcast world dominated by radio and television. In the last ten years, the shift from a broadcast to an interactive world has accelerated rapidly. The Internet, many argue, is far more about communications than it is technology. The implications of a 24/7 world and of communicating in visual and digital form are significant for congregations.
THE SHIFT FROM INDIVIDUALISM TO COMMUNITY
From its beginnings, the U.S. has had a social focus on individualism. While we have joined with others in groups to accomplish common tasks, there has still been an underlying thread of individualism. The boomer generation perhaps reflects this individualism to a greater extent than preceding generations. This individualism, coupled with increasing technology, has resulted in a disconnected society and one in which people are searching with new intensity for community. The depth of this search was exposed for many by the tragic events of 9/11 and the ensuing attempts of people to reconnect with family, friends and re-examination of priorities. Succeeding generations of young adults and youth seem to have a sense of community wired into their DNA. In terms of church, people are looking for authentic faith communities that provide a place of meaningful connections and service.
THE SHIFT FROM SUCCESS TO SIGNIFICANCE
Never before in our history have we had such a large number of people entering their 40’s and early 50’s with the expectation that they have another three or four decades of lifeahead of them. This, coupled with the resources of education and finances that afford them an opportunity to reflect on the second half of their lives, is driving the shift from success to significance. People are considering changing careers to engage in work and activities that provide more meaning. Others are opting to develop parallel careers that enable them to continue in their first half role and over time, transition to something new in the second half. The church has an incredible opportunity to help people process this shift and along the way, discover a greater purpose in Kingdom ministry and service.
THE SHIFT FROM LOCAL TO GLOBAL TO GLOBAL/LOCAL
Once upon a time the local dominated people’s lives. The world was small and nearby. Distant events where either unknown or learned of long after they occurred. The neighbor’s broken leg was bigger news than the earthquake that took 20,000 lives half the world away. Then came rapid transportation, the telegraph, telephones, television, computers, the Internet and satellites and the world shrunk.
Globalization produced multi-national companies, international rock and movie stars, inter-related stock markets, international currencies (the Euro), North American markets for South American fruit and vegetables, etc. American investors began tracking the Hang Seng, the Neikki and the FTSE100. Increasingly our world-view is changing from an either “here or there” mindset to a “here and there” one. Ethnically and racially “different” people who used to be “there” are now there and here. We are more aware that what happens “here” often has impact “there” and often what happens “there” has impact “here.” The world-wide AID’s epidemic began with a monkey bite in Africa and entered the United States by a Canadian airline employee who periodically traveled to Seattle.
In this era of globalization, American churches must think less about missions and sending missionaries while learning what it means to be on mission and how a church acts when it “is a missionary” rather than merely a sender of missionaries. Global/local churches are heavily invested in evangelism and church planting both locally and internationally. They do not give relatively small amounts of support money to many missionaries scattered over many parts of the world. Global/local churches tend to adopt a specific people group and prefer supporting indigenous workers over Western ex-patriot missionaries. They tend to minister to that people group wherever they are found – in their native land, other cities and countries, and especially to those found in the near neighborhood of the global/local church. Global/local churches strongly support church planting in the United States and do not limit those plants to ethnic or racial minorities. They often employ Third World mission methodologies to local evangelism and church planting.