Imagine life during the 1950’s and 1960’s. For some of you, you won’t have to use any imagination at all. Remember when going to church was almost a cultural norm? Sure, there were people who chose not to be religious; but for many families in America, every Sunday was spent at church. Whether the faith of those individuals was genuine or not can only be determined by God. Either way, much of the country was very familiar with Christianity. As the years have gone by, however, fewer and fewer people have decided to make the act of going to church a priority in their lives. With more options than ever on Sunday mornings, families are now spending their day on soccer fields, tennis courts, or simply in the privacy of their homes. Times have changed.
In his book, After Heaven, sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes very interesting categories of spirituality to help think about this dramatic shift in the spiritual culture of America. He argues that the baby boom and expansion of suburbanization following World War II led to the centrality of the nuclear family in the lives of Americans. The picture of a father, mother, children and pets, all living together peacefully under one roof, became the guiding metaphor for peoples’ sense of spirituality. Referring to it as “dwelling-oriented spirituality,” Wuthnow suggests that pastors shaped their churches around this picture, creating churches that were “comfortable, familiar, domestic, offering an image of God that was basically congruent with the domestic tranquility of the ideal home” to make people feel “at home with God.” This central theme also shaped the mission of the congregation. Wuthnow says the goal of the local church, whether explicit or implicit, was “to provide a safe haven amidst the growing uncertainties of the world in which people live.” It would be wrong of us to judge this metaphor of spirituality negatively in retrospect. The approaches of church life that emerged during this time were effective for the context in which they existed.
The 1960’s, however, marked the beginning of the shift toward an era of exploration and “freedom.” Turned off by the denominational “claims to having absolute truth,”as well as “changes in the U.S. family,”the shape of dwelling-oriented spirituality began to change. As more and more families became dysfunctional and complex, the idea of a church reflecting one’s home life was no longer attractive. Wuthnow says that these “complex social realities [left] many Americans with a sense of spiritual homelessness.” Instead of finding comfort in the church buildings in which they grew up, people began to seek for experiences of the divine in a variety of places. This new seeker-oriented spirituality changed the congregation from a refuge to a “supplier of goods and services”in competition with the range of alternate voices. Again, for the context in which it existed, the practices of churches to attract seeker-oriented individuals were effective. American spirituality, however, has continued to change. The problem is that many of our struggling churches today are still operating with one, or both, of these guiding metaphors shaping their programs and missions.
In the new religious America we find fewer and fewer families attending church on a regular basis. Going to church is no longer a priority in the lives of individuals, much less of whole families. While many people had a basic knowledge of Christian beliefs and practices in the 1950’s and 1960’s, people today are very naïve to the ways of the church. We can no longer assume that the people we are trying to reach are already familiar with the Christian language we use. Christianity has gone from being a cultural norm in America, to becoming an afterthought, if it even enters the psyche of an individual to begin with. Again, times have changed.
So, if being a safe-haven no longer works to attract people to our churches, and appealing to “seekers” is no longer working as well either, then how is a church supposed to attract its neighbors? What if I told you that being “attractional,” in and of itself, might be one of our biggest hang-ups? Enter the missional church.
For the first time in the history of American culture, the church must be formed around the mindset that it no longer exists as a primary entity in society. Instead, the church in America now finds itself as a missionary outpost in the midst of a post-Christian culture. In the same way that a missionary adjusts to life in a foreign country, the church in America is forced to adjust to life in a highly secular world. Our best bet to making this adjustment as painless as possible—fully recognizing that it will not be pain-free—is to take our cues from missionaries around the world who have been faithfully embodying the gospel for generations. This is foundation of what it means to be a missional church.
Does that mean that we kick everyone out who grew up within the context of dwelling-oriented or seeker-oriented spirituality? Of course not! In fact, recognizing these categories can really help us communicate across generational divides within our church families. These different spiritual worldviews are not necessarily “wrong;” they’re just that: different. Depending on the context in which each of us was formed, individuals connect to and prefer different models of church structure and organization. The bottom line is, the dramatic shifts in American culture are forcing us to ask the question: “How will the church respond?” In my humble opinion, our churches must make the shift toward becoming missionally-focused, or else they risk letting their numbers dwindle as fewer and fewer people step foot into their sanctuaries.
Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950’s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 33.