Church for People Who Aren’t So Sure About Religion

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Church for People Who Aren’t So Sure About Religion

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Mark Twain is said to have quipped in 1897, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Today rumors are rampant of the impending death of the church. But, although unimaginable transformations await us in the coming two decades, this is not one of them.

Karl Marx thought that religion, like the state, would shrivel away in the utopian society. Yet the human species without religion is about as likely as the human species with a perfect government. (We can’t even create a functional government!) Nor is it likely that the world will be pervaded by religions and religious practices but that Christianity won’t be numbered among them. In 2030 churches will still exist, along with some of the other institutions that define Christianity today. The questions are: which institutions will still be around? What radically new forms of Christian existence will arise in the coming twenty years? And, most importantly, what new forms of Christian life and practice do we need now? What forms resonate with today’s new types of believers, non-believers, and seekers?

“Spiritual but not Religious”

A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72% of “Millennials” — Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 — now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even among those who self-identify as practicing Christians, all of the traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous years: church attendance, Bible study, prayer. Doubts are higher, and affiliation with the institutional church is sharply lower. All of us who are still connected with local congregations already know this pattern, up close and personal. Still, it’s sobering to see the trends writ large; after all, we’re talking about almost three-quarters of younger Americans!

The decline of traditional churches and denominations will presumably continue, so that by 2020 the effects will be as devastating in the U.S. as they already are in Europe. (On a typical Sunday, for example, 0.5% of Germans attend church.) Numerically, two-thirds or more of mainline churches will close their doors or struggle on without a full-time pastor. Denominations will merge in order to be able to maintain even minimal national staffs and programs. A larger and larger proportion of those who still go to church will attend large “mega” churches, those with 2,000 or more attenders on an average Sunday.

But the American focus on spiritual practices will not die. People will continue to report that spirituality is extremely important to them. Nor will they pursue these practices in isolation. New forms of association and shared practice will arise; new religious movements will attract participants; links between religious traditions — in seminaries, in national ministries, and in local congregrations — will become more frequent. Christians who resist these trends will become increasingly strident, and increasingly hostile toward the modern world, even as their numbers decrease. And, of course, discussion of religious themes — and of what it means to be a Christian in today’s world — will grow in intensity and urgency.

Is It a New Theology That We Need?

I used to think that the answer was a new theology. My emphasis on constructing a theology was similar to the protagonist in Field of Dreams: “if we build it, they will come [back].”

Let’s put it on the record: I was wrong. Christianity’s problem today is not theology. Sure, we’ll tweak and improve our formulations of what the Christian tradition is all about. We’ll learn to be non-dogmatic and open to different beliefs and religions. All this matters. But let’s face it: mainline Protestants have by and large already “been there, done that.” It won’t be a new theological text, or a new school within systematic theology, that will turn the ebb tide of our day.

Instead, the traditional word for what we need is ecclesiology, which means: new visions of what the church is and what it does. In Transforming Christian Theology I summarized features of “missional” churches, drawing on proposals made by Brian McLaren and others. Let me formulate my “call to the church” as bluntly as possible:

We churchpeople were the center of American society since this nation was founded. We enjoyed power and prestige; we were the center of the action; we counted presidents, educators, and industry leaders among our numbers. But those days, it appears, are over. We still have a crucial role to play in the world. But it’s no longer a world that revolves around us.

This new role actually makes it easier for us to model ourselves and our communities on the Head of the church, who “has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him” (Isaiah 53:2). As Dwight Friesen puts it in “Thy Kingdom Connected,” the church can no longer be a “bounded set,” defining itself by the people and ideas it’s opposed to. We now have to be a “centered set,” pointing toward — and living like — the One whose life and ministry we model ourselves on. If we can’t communicate our Center with power and conviction, no one’s going to listen. Oh, and by the way: we have to find ways to do this that don’t sound or look anything like the church has looked over the last 50 years or so.

Not Afraid to Experiment

What does “church” look like when you take it out of the box, replant it, and let it grow organically? It’s going to stretch and challenge you; it’s going to take openness to forms and practices you’ve never seen before:

  • churches that meet in pubs, office buildings, school classrooms, or homes … or virtual churches, like those at;
  • churches that have no leader, or have leaders who don’t look like any pastor you’ve ever known (OMG, what if they have piercings?);
  • pastors who are hosts to discussions, who can listen long and deep to doubts and questions before presenting the answers on which they center their lives;
  • churches that don’t have buildings, denominations, pastors, or sermons; that don’t meet on Sundays; that consist mainly of people who don’t call themselves “Christians.”
  • churches whose participants are drawn from many different religious groups; churches full of “seekers”; churches that consist mostly of silence (like the Quakers) or of heated discussions between participants.

Not only conservatives will wonder and worry where one should draw the line. And that’s the point: we’ve now entered an age where we no longer know how to draw lines, because the old criteria just don’t work anymore — except to exclude the vast majority of the people whom we hope to interest.

As I look back over what I’ve written, I think, “Yes, this is a world, and a kind of church, that Jesus would have understood.” I’m not sure he would have understood the papacy, or Christian imperialism, or the monumental systematic theologies, or the “church triumphant” in Victorian America. But what about an age in which people passionately yearn to experience God, to live a lifestyle of love and self-emptying, to embrace the needy whoever and wherever they are, even as the old orthodoxies are collapsing around us? Somehow, I think Jesus would have been at home in this world. Perhaps he still is.


Ian Carmichael

July 3, 2010at 3:07 am

Thanks for these musings, Philip.
Is it back to the future? In the first stirrings of the ‘Way’ they didn’t know how to draw the lines either. Partly, they didn’t have power to draw the lines – they were drawn by others, the synagogues, the governors, the emperor.
One of the fascinating ways of reading the Acts of the Apostles is as the snapping of every line which was (attempted) to be drawn. On Pentecost, Peter gave a nice neat pattern of what was to be done ‘to be saved’. The next few chapters see the response to the gospel breaking every part of the pattern – aside from hearing the message first.
The council of Jerusalem wanted to draw some lines, but in the course of the process, the lines became very much guidelines rather than strictures.
I’ve been reading recently some studies of the novels of Frederick Buechner – I think we need to live more in his world – it’s ambiguous, uncertain, freighted with fear and doubt, and its there that there are flickers and starts of help, meaning, life and grace. Like the world we do actually live in.
I recall a couple of book titles which are paradigmatic, I think, for the modern age. One is ‘The Presence of the Future’, a second is ‘The Temporary Community’. I apologise to both authors for never carefully reading their work. Their titles were too good! But their meaning is obviously ‘time to move on and move out’ – provisionally. Hungry for God, giving and receiving compassion in all its unfashionable practicality.
Perhaps a theology might help, but it might help the church and not the world. The world is helped far more by story than system. Isn’t it interesting that our exemplary text, inspired, authoritative, or just early and strong tradition seems to be so full of story?
An image from Buechner that helps me think, and live
“They were better than they were. Angels, standing in the rain.”

John King

July 3, 2010at 8:48 am

Dr. Clayton,

Your topic is one to which I have given some thought. Although I am quite sure that I have not arrived at any answers.

In the past, the church has filled certain needs that are now met more effectively and efficiently by other means.

When America was founded a very large percentage of people had their lives revolve around agriculture. I have read the percentage was as high as 98 percent. In this context, the church filled some very specific needs.

1. Fellowship – Those who worked on farms many times worked in isolation, only interacting with their own families for days at a time. Gathering for worship filled the need for interacting with other people. Today, for many people, we interact with so many people through our work that we now have a need for “alone” time more than we have a need for fellowship. And if it is fellowship we need, there are so many other more effective and efficent opportunities for fellowshiop today. Bars, parties, clubs, unions, museums, volunteer organizations, etc. Most of these opportunities are more effective because them come with less requrements, less judgment, more acceptance, and less cost than church.

2. Information – The church was a place to find out “what happened” the past week. In our information age, we are so connected that we nearly experience the world around us in ‘real time’. No need for the “once a week” catching up.

3. Intelligence and education – At one time, in many cases, the minister, pastor, priest, rabbi was the most educated person in the community and the church was a place that one could be exposed to reading and learning. Many people learned to read by reading the Bible. It was at church, people could hear an educated voice and learn from someone who had a wider education. Many churches had libraries that had more books than any place in town. Even when I was growing up in a small town, the pastor’s library was the second biggest collection of books in town after the local school. Today that same town, has a public library and I can get nearly anything electronically on my ereader. There are many replacements for the education and intelligence that once could find at the local church.

4. Music/entertainment – The church had a venue and instruments for music. It was a place that people could express their musical talents and enjoy music. Obviously no longer the only place music is available.

5. Physical rest – In an agricultural community, people work hard, physcially hard. People needed a day of physical rest. No so much today. In many work environments today there is not real physical challenge. Today, it is the stress of to much, to fast. The cure for this does not seem to be another place to go with another program to follow with more demands of our time. Today the challenge for many is to find time alone, down time, a space where there is no specific time requirements.

6. Spiritual – So it seems that we still have our spiritual needs to be filled. However, my own personal opinion is that all of the previous five points above are “part” of our spiritual needs. Today, we can get them met without being explicitly religious. We are left with a sort of a vague desire to “be spiritual” but have little understanding in a positive sense how to fill that need. Many people know that they do not want the judgment, close- mindedness, intellectual backwardness, outdated presentation, and under utilized (overly expensive) buildings of yesterday’s churches.

So for me, the problem seems to be easy to identify. The solution is harder.

My question is what type of organization and/or activity will allow people to connect to the awe and wonder of God, explore questions of ultimate concern, and act on their values without all of that baggage in the first five points above that we no longer need? I think the my answer to my question is partially embedded in the question itself. An answer that I am not quite ready to give.

Ken Silva

July 3, 2010at 5:03 pm

“we no longer know how to draw lines, because the old criteria just don’t work anymore”

It’s pretty simple, lines are drawn using God’s Word in the Bible; and per Acts 2:42-47, I think you’ll find Jesus disagrees with you re. “the old criteria.”

Robert Rynders

July 3, 2010at 5:27 pm


As someone who has been working in college ministry the past three years, I think you are right on. I am on the leadership committee for the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association and we discussed many of the same issues you bring up here in regards of bringing new folks into the church. We are designing our next national campus ministry gathering for July 2011 around the theme of “Scandalous Evangelism.” We want to look at ways of working with college students beyond church walls and doing things, such as worship, like we have never done before. Peter Rollins is going to be our keynote speaker and we are excited to hear about ways we can think outside the lines (or eliminate them altogether) when it comes to “evangelism.”

At Arizona state we are already seeing a little of this. Our weekly worship service is centered around communion and a sermon/discussion time that incorporates various points of views from students on our topic or scripture verse for that service. Our gatherings have attracted liberals, conservatives, other mainline protestants, atheists, agnostics, and even a muslim student, and of course United Methodist students, all who attend regularly. This has seemed natural in a college setting, however, I wonder how successful this could be in a suburban mainline church? Now that would be scandalous!

Jonathan Gross

July 3, 2010at 9:04 pm


It seems you feel very strongly and speak very straight-forwardly in your post. Personally, I have never felt the lines very clear to draw, even using the Bible as one’s guide. I think that is one of the beauties of the biblical tradition. It constantly calls its followers out of settled norms and into new ways of seeing, knowing, and experiencing God. You mentioned the book of Acts. It’s so interesting to watch the Church in Acts struggle with what to do about the issue of circumcision. If they had stuck literally to the law and the prophets that they had in written texts, they would have had little wiggle room out of the requirement for circumcision. But instead of clinging to the letter, they allowed themselves to follow the God who leads people out of bondage and into freedom. Lines were erased and redrawn. I think the Bible is the source par excellence for Christians seeking to draw those lines. But I think it has to be read deeply, not simply as if it were a legal document or charter. I think we have to see the way God works and moves among people to break them of enslavements and lead them into ever deepening levels of freedom and relatedness.

As to another point, about your respons to Dr. Clayton’s post, I think it is important to find out what Dr. Clayton meant when he said “old criteria” before speaking on behalf of Jesus. As for your reference to the end of Acts chapter 2: would that all Christians – make that all people – lived in this way.

Jason Derr

July 3, 2010at 9:09 pm

Dr Clayton –

Important and timely musings. As we move into postdenominational worlds the church will have to adapt. As a member of the Progressive Christian Alliance I am please to be a part of a group that is faltering, stumbling and bumbling its way to Gods new way of being church. As a theologian – MA, theological studies, Vancouver School of Theology – and a writer for Pathos and soon, i hope, The Huffington Post I believe strongly in contextual and theopoetic theologies for this new world, but in a way that includes the past and transcends (for lack of a better word).

As a theologian for the PCA I have been doing part of my work in liturgies – the fall PCA gathering and a ‘Mass of Grief’ for Patheos. As you say what needs to change is not just our ideas but how we do church and how we pray. Maybe our theologies should start at the worship and prayer level before anything else.



July 4, 2010at 12:01 am

My first reaction to this post was “yeah, yeah, been there, done that,” but as I finished reading I realized that your post is not the “let’s make church trendy” essay or the “let’s ditch the negative Jesus stuff” essay that I was expecting. I think John King’s comments identify a lot of the problems very well and I say that as a long term Christian who loves to argue theology, to worship, and to read the Bible, but increasingly doesn’t like church. I’m tired of Sunday being a day to dress up in my uncomfortable best, sit on a hard pew and listen to a badly played organ, hear a mildly heartwarming sermon and then duck out a side door before one of the committee women can try to convince me that because I’m single I have time to enroll in a sixteen week evening class that will enable me to engage in a particular ministry group. I’ve been to “modern” services and they are more of the same with worse music. As many theologians have pointed out Christ is anything but banal. But the life of the church seems to have become so. What happened and how do we fix it without throwing out the heart of Christianity in favor of some new flashy toy that will prove even more banal?

Philip Clayton

July 4, 2010at 4:55 pm

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your challenging posts, which both stretch and encourage me. They excite me as well, because as I travel, speak, and listen, I am hearing echoes of what you are writing everwhere I go. Surely great change is afoot!

Sarah writes as “a long term Christian” whose faith is solid but who “increasingly doesn’t like church.” Rob Rynders and his colleagues are exploring “Scandalous Evangelism,” evangelism outside the old boxes. (In a sense, Ken Silva’s “Apprising Ministries” also represents evangelism outside at least some of the traditional boxes.) Jason Derr and Jonathan Gross continue to challenge me to develop a vision that is expansive enough for the “postdenominational worlds” we now inhabit. John continues the deeply reflective contributions that he has made to this blog in the past. (John, am I right in seeing some movement in your understanding of your faith over the last few months?)

Ian, I have been thinking hard about your comments — especially about what you posted on my Facebook page: “I can’t imagine (m)any leader(s) being willing to give up control, but if you control less and less, what does it matter? The reality has moved well away from the notional institution. … Was it Gandhi who said – ‘There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader’?”

I am struct by Sarah’s expectation that this blog would support “trendy church” or Christianity that is embarrassed about Jesus. What makes me so encouraged is that more and more Christians are thinking about their faith without being dominated by the old battles between conservative and liberal. Ken may post a further response saying that I am just a liberal in sheep’s clothing. But I really don’t think that’s true. I think that we are beginning to find ways to be faithful to the Lord of the church in ways that don’t merely mirror church as we’ve known it. I believe that we’re only seeing the beginning of a movement of reform and innovation that may match the Reformation in the 16th century in terms of its impact.

— Philip

Michael Raimer-Goodman

July 5, 2010at 11:10 am

Philip –

Thank you for mirroring how to treat those who disagree with you in such a loving and pastoral way. I learned more about how to be centered-well from that than from your ostensible discussion on the topic. I think there’s a metaphor there somewhere for the church.

Jason Derr

July 6, 2010at 3:13 am

I wonder how we can accomplish this move beyond liberal/conservative? And how do we do so with out making theological questioning flat and dull? By that i mean – I name myself as one of those bible-loving, Jesus seminar respecting Christian types. But I know that my position does not hold all truth or the truth, but is a conversation along the way. And really I don’t want to be in a church that is only like me. I am scared of falling into the pre/trans fallacy (Is Jesus the Son of God? Pre-conventional says ‘yes’ (fundie), Post-conventional says ‘no’ (seminar), post-conventional says ‘yes’ but it is a different type of yes…with nuance and history and scholarship and community and expierence and relationships and all of that).

Dr Clayton – to what extent does Connectivist Theory or Peer2Peer/OpenSource thinking influence how you envision the future of the church?

John King

July 6, 2010at 8:35 pm

Dr. Clayton,

I really do not think there is any real significant movement in my thinking. Any change you perceive I think is more related to the fact that it is hard to be comprehensive or systematic in the short blog responses.

In the past, you may have heard me express my hope for an ecumenical perspective and even extol the positive experiences that I have had with a wide variety of churches. All of this still holds true for me. It is just that the good that I have experienced does not blind me to the many problems of the institutional expressions of our faith.

Philip Clayton

July 7, 2010at 5:17 am

Thanks for your comments.

I agree that it’s boring just to think of splitting the difference between liberal and conservative, as if all we imagined was some mushy middle point between the two, lacking extremes but also lacking all conviction.

Let’s think of it differently. For example, can we show why the old battle between liberal and conservative just isn’t the right battle any longer? Can we show why certain key assumptions of both groups have become untenable?

Here’s another approach: liberals expressed their dissatisfaction with conservative assumptions by ceasing to do theology altogether. Why not instead do theology *better*? That is, can we formulate Christian views of the world that wrestle more deeply with the biblical docments, that more deeply reflect the life and teachings of Jesus, that learn more deeply from the strengths and mistakes of the history of Christian thought through the ages, and that speak more powerfully to our own day? And then, can we embed them in forms of Christian practice that seek to embody the very values we write about — even if they are not identical to the ways the American church has been over the last 200 years?

— Philip

John King

July 7, 2010at 9:30 am

Dr. Clayton,

I am a big fan of questions, and I think you have asked some good ones!

John King

July 7, 2010at 9:46 am

Regarding theology, there is an article written by Bruce Epperly entitled “Why Progressive Theology is Important” Much of the summarized points in this article are ones that I would share. Articles such as these help people realize that a Christian perspective does not necessarily mean judgmental, authoritarian, or out of touch with the world.

Ian Carmichael

July 8, 2010at 7:41 am

Mmm, Philip, I’m not sure that ‘liberals’ (zounds, I loathe these labels) ceased to do theology, but rather they shifted their basis for theologising because of the interests of the age. So, against a culture of deism, Schleiermacher, for example, concentrated on affective perceptions, and the sense of ‘absolute dependence’, Bultmann, convinced that there was no certain understanding of a historical Jesus, concentrated on the response of faith. Barth, convinced similarly, concentrated on the theology of the Word – avoiding the uncertainties, as he saw it of both natural theology and historical events. And I think we could go on. Why I think this is important in terms of the debate here is that such an understanding at least allows a view of the integrity of our list of theologians – seeking, I think to find a way of communicating Christ to the world at a meaningful bridge-point for the time. So, we try to discern the ‘spirit of the age’, not in order to succumb to it, but rather to gain a hearing without needing to clear unnecessary encumbrances to understanding. Schleiermacher wanted to connect with the ‘cultured despisers’. Pascal was aware of the gentlemen’s pursuit of gambling when he proposed the apologetic ‘Wager’.
To recognise this process is not necessarily to endorse each attempt – some are manifestly flawed, and some mutually contend with each other, even when addressing the same Zeitgeist (eg Barth, Brunner and Bultmann). In evangelical mode, the ground of appeal changes from age to age -from “the message is true, accept the truth and respond”, through “Jesus is Lord, your proper action is obedience” to “You are loved beyond limit, return the love lavished on you”.
Why say all that? I think we need to get back to a sense of respect. Generally, people are seeking, with integrity, to live a relevant gospel, in thought, love and action. Their instantiations may be flawed – but such flaws are not character faults, and do not require personal vilification.
It was certainly an important corrective for me to see that our varieties of theologians were wrestling with how to communicate a living gospel to a particular age (or, to take Godin’s typology, t communicate within a particular tribe.)
I’m also mindful of the disciples’ wrangle with another follower of Jesus – he wasn’t one of them, so they told him to stop. And Jesus said – leave him be.[Luke 9:49-50]
(Just because they’re not one of us doesn’t mean that they’re not some of his!)

Philip Clayton

July 8, 2010at 9:24 am

Ian, yes! I welcome all of the positions you cite into the dialogue.

The problem today is not that mainline churches are bursting with classes and lecture series that are covering these (and other) theologians. The problem is the opposite: there is little to no excitement about such figures and inquiries, either from the pulpit or in discussion groups. And let me point the finger first at myself and other seminary professors, since we are among those who are failing to prepare future pastors to lead rich theological discussions and wrestle with hard theological questions — the kind that John King endorses above.

When I suggested moving beyond “the old battle between liberal and conservative,” I meant not to ostracize the thinkers you list but to put them back on the table — to the extent that they’re still helpful to folks.

Because people in a given congregation don’t share the same beliefs as they once did, we’re encouraged to stop talking about beliefs and just concentrate on actions, social justice programs, and the like.

But people are expressing their views on our current approach by voting with their feet. What do we need to do for our churches to offer people what they’re really looking for?

— Philip

Ian Carmichael

July 8, 2010at 6:47 pm

Perhaps we could vote with our feet too? But failing that a little heart and head might help. Despite the fact that I’ve laced a list of names across my previous post, in most churches such teaching would be pointless. And I’m sure that (most) classes covering these characters would be much the same, unless we could read method into contemporary life. (Something like “Old Masters in the modern age: theology like it matters” and use some of these people and their approaches as illustrations.)
Those of us with teaching ministries would do well ourselves to get to grips with the varieties of theology – not so that we can name-drop, but so that we have a range of theological tools in our kitbag, and can be alive in our public reflections.
I see no problem exploring beliefs and texts without necessarily including a running condemnation on any diversities. In a little way, in our small fellowship, that’s the approach I try to take.
A second problem of the age, compounding our difficulties is a reluctance, in general, to think. Partly it’s a consequence of postmodernism and constructivism. (I take the effect of this to be the attitude “If all views are ‘valid’, having a view is therefore not important, and changing a view is just incoherent.”)
But further: the central interest of the day is connection – social media, profligate texting etc. And perhaps, as I’ve waffled to here, the ground we need to plough is the ground of real, deep, committed community. As we concentrate on how to be a people in relation with each other and God there might be the avenue of progress.
Can we, for example, contrast “imperative” mission “GO and make disciples…” with “participial” mission “AS you go, make disciples…”? (A distinction Avery Willis makes -without the grammar tags!- in ‘The Biblical Basis of Mission’.) Then this gives some openings to explore ‘how we wander around (go) Christianly?

Ian Carmichael

July 8, 2010at 10:03 pm

Just to follow up a little. In the 60s and 70s physical community was a bit of a Christian fad – matching, at one level the desire to be self-sufficient physically identifiable communities as exemplefied by the hippies, amongst others. There’s still a kind of nostalgia for this, and a great respect for, eg, the Amish. It was a legitimate and powerful expression of the Christian community as portrayed in Acts.
A real question now is, does Christian community strongly imply the move to physical proximity – many of the old communities have long since ceased to be – or is it one model among many? Does our community exist (to hold to the ‘tribes’ picture) as ‘clans’? To perhaps trivialise it: May my ‘clan’ be the food van ministry and my tribe be the assembly of clans for celebration and communication between ‘clans’? We are a community always identifiable by clan (ministry) and tribe (doctrine, worship and culture), but not necessarily a physically identifiable community by geography or domicile.
Would an organising phrase be Paul’s ‘When you come together…’

Then again, should we be looking again at physical Christian communities, having regard to walking lightly upon the earth, and reducing our carbon ‘snowshoe’ print – and showing a serious, ecologically responsible attitude to our lifestyles?

The ‘foot-vote’ problem tells me at least one other thing than relevance: the ease with which people drift in and drift out shows a terrible weakness of community. Of course, in New Testament times, social identity was far more important, and ostracism was a terrible punishment. The seeking for connection has returned to modern Western culture. I think we should be addressing it – theologically and practically.

Or am I way off-beam here?

John L

July 9, 2010at 3:34 pm

Ian wrote, “The seeking for connection has returned to modern Western culture.”

This rings true to me, but the nature of that “connecting place” is changing. Connections are now being multiplied more on the global level than the local level. We’re the first generation to experience this virtual shift. It’s hard to see the future, but we know these positive, globalizing connective forces will accelerate, often in ways we simply can’t predict. (certainly, there are negative globalizing forces as well, but that’s another conversation).

I think people are hungry for authenticity – in religion, in life, relationships, etc.. Perhaps one of the reasons virtual connection is increasingly attractive is that it sidesteps much of the unhealthy baggage common in localized community: imbalanced / inauthentic power and hierarchies, remote and/or institutional controls, subtle and overt suspicion of “other” outside of community boundaries leading to rigidly defined provincial and denominational dynamics, etc..

Not that virtuality is a replacement for locality (see Maslow’s first two layers), but rather people are finding new global opportunities and freedoms for expression, sharing, connecting, learning, growing, etc.. that are simply not available to them at the local level. This is especially true, I think, in religion and spirituality (e.g., this blog). And those that care most about these connective ideals will be those who define how religion and spirituality looks in the future. The difference today is that these changes can occur far faster and more organically than at any time in the past, with a vastly greater number of participants than ever before, all participating in a single, flattened world forum that may be effectively displacing old positional and institutional power structures.

Responding to both Phil and Ken on “drawing religious lines,” perhaps this is what’s changing most dramatically. The challenging and questioning of ideological “lines” is starting to move from tribal journals, academic cloisters, and limited ecumenical exchange to a new and deeply connected global “community of involvement.” Religion, especially, seems to be moving from the “expert age” to an age of shared reality.

Ian Carmichael

July 9, 2010at 7:35 pm

Thanks John (L)
Among the many services that Philip is providing this avenue of moving theology into the public sphere – where anyone who self-qualifies themselves (logs in!) is welcome to a place at the discussion table – very different to the filters set on entrance to the denomination, cloister or academy. Thelopgical reflection can therefore come on the journey publicly in ways that have not have been possible hitherto. It is very exciting to see such platforms as metanexus, the Faraday Institute, and even the Edge (to keep us a little focused!)
Most important for growth are the blog/discussion platforms, such as here, where interchange is possible, encouraged, and potentially transformative…. In brief, I guess here is a framework for theological/ecclesial emergence!

Philip Clayton

July 10, 2010at 10:06 am

Ian and John,

You write with wisdom, accuracy, and foresight. Together with other readers, I listen to and learn from your words.

In this new “theological/ecclesial emergence” I am neither the gatekeeper (there is none) nor judge (the many, many people who browse this sight are the judges). The various posts together constitute their own narrative, and each reader who follows the thread evalutes whether our claims our true and/or helpful. We are not saying that there is no truth or truth does not matter (see John Franke’s excellent book on this topic). But we *are* saying that the quest to be authentically Christian in this new world is more complex than it once was, and the forms that Christian community takes will be different — sometimes shockingly different — than they once were. (One could say the same, more generally, for religious community or spiritual community.)

Biology is now teaching that life consists of systems of systems, systems built up out of systems, systems in sensitive interdependence with other systems. Human communities, including religious communities, work in the same way. Communities form through this (and other) websites. I read and learn things here that I do not learn elsewhere; hence it is indispensable to me. But the face-to-face communities that we participate in are also indispensable — not only for our survival, but also because I can give more deeply there than I can here.

We do not have to create new forms of human creativity, including virtual communities — there are *already* happening and are playing increasingly large roles in many people’s lives. But we *do* have to help Christians recognize, acknowledge, foster, and use these new forms of community. That’s “theology,” in my sense of the world: providing evolving Christian interpretations of the events that are occurring around us and to us.

The authors in these now 21 responses are doing theology in this sense of the word.

— Philip

Ian Carmichael

July 11, 2010at 6:36 am

And the same is true for me – a chance to think in a different setting, with different and dynamic conversations (although a forumised platform lends itself better to dynamic conversation, and particularly cross -conversations than the comment-stacking system of blogs. I digress!)
I can be refined, reformed, refocussed rebuked, reconnected – and that carries out into my other communities for enrichment there, and return here.
The least useful thing I can do is join a ‘yes’ forum where we all follow in one another’s footsteps!

Bill Cook

July 20, 2010at 9:06 am

I am so glad that I came upon this blog, and this post. I am an Elder in the United Methodist Church, and these are the issues with which I am struggling. I appreciate Clayton’s observation that at issue may not be the broad scope of theology, but the more narrow band of ecclesiology. I might refine the task even more and name it ecclisio-praxis. How do we be the church?

A few years ago a wonderful young couple joined the church I was serving. Their sincerity was remarkable. They jumped into the program life of the church (youth ministry, mission work, teaching Sunday school, adult study groups, pot-lucks, and tithing). After two years of very involved membership they left the church. They met with me first and explained that they appreciated my work as pastor, my preaching etc., but that they had done everything that the church offered, and were looking for something more. They were yearning for something, some deep connection with Christ, that the program and worship life of the congregation did not touch. They could not name it or describe it, but it was painfully real for them. So they left.

The truth is that I frequently feel that way. I spend too much of my time serving an organization constituted by programs, practices, and structures that often do not touch the deepest resonances of my spirit. Sometimes it touches me deeply. Other times it feels irrelevant. I often feel as if we are providing answers to questions that most people are not asking, and that I am serving an organization desperately trying to prove that it is relevant. .

And yet I am convinced that our essential mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ who bring and embody Christ’s love in the world, is the most relevant and meaningful thing I would do with my life. I still believe that my vocation is to do that in and through the church. The question remains: how? What form does the community take? How do we be the ekklesia in this new context?

Philip Clayton

July 20, 2010at 9:45 am

Dear Bill,

I don’t normally jump in after a single post. But your entry speaks so strongly to the burning question, and so clearly identifies the problems, that I must respond. It’s one thing when a young couple leaves, looking for “something more.” But it’s even more poignant when the *pastor” responds, “The truth is that I frequently feel that way.”

Over the last 50 years we’ve tried all the obvious responses: new theologies, youth services, more social ministries, more discussion groups within the congregation. Gradually it’s dawning on us that we’re facing a crisis of the traditional ecclesial structures themselves. (That’s why I wrote *Transforming Christian Theology*.)

You ask: how do we be the ekklesia in this new context? Bold, sometimes risky experiments are going on. In, outside, and around the traditional structures, ordained and unordained people are trying out new answers. Join with us, talk about what you see, help guide us!

I’ll post a blog shortly about the name I would give to what many of us are seeking. I call it Deep Discipleship — the sort that gives rise to deep community.

— Philip

BIll Cook

July 20, 2010at 12:16 pm

Thank you for taking the time to respond so quickly. “Deep Discipleship” does sound like a solid approach that focuses on what I think is needed. It also raises the question of what it looks like, what it asks of us, and how we embrace it in a way that remains open (I like the “center set” vs. boudary focused identity). I will be look for “Transforming Christian Theology.” I look forward to reading your thoughts on Deep Discipleship. – Bill

Ian Carmichael

July 23, 2010at 11:46 pm

A great idea. Even the name provides an immediately corrective view. ‘Deep community’ might be another term to help address our superficiality of connection as well. I may be off beam here but I think this connects with ideas of ‘strong emergence’ as you’ve written about elsewhere, Philip – the claims and call of Christ are foundational for the development of communities which are not just another sociologically identifiable ‘club’/’tribe’, the bonds within the Christian communities should be stronger than other communities, and the boundaries should be more permeable, so that the welcome of strangers is both genuine, and deep (not stand-offish and forced). And when I use the word welcome, I want it to be wide – my welcome might be simple friendship, it may be action for healing, justice, advocacy, or the extending of refuge to others.
I look forward to your upcoming post!

Philip Clayton

July 24, 2010at 9:06 am

Ian, I like it a lot. Now we need a third “Deep” term, to go along Deep Discipleship and Deep Community. What is it?

— Philip

John L

July 24, 2010at 1:01 pm

Years ago, Andrew Jones suggested the term “deep ecclesiology” – which I like a lot. And I would suggest that deep virtuality is becoming the primary driver of this deepening ecclesiology. Kevin Kelly wrote in 1998, “the only ‘inside’ now is whether you are on the network or off.” McLuhan noted 50 years ago that “the electric age may appear to some to turn the globe itself into a single computer.”

This is precisely what’s happening. “Locality” is being redefined as anywhere the Internet is available. A growing reliance upon connective technology seems to be giving rise to a spirituality of radical inclusion rather than religious out-grouping. Virtuality is creating what David Morgan calls an “extended community of interpretation.”

John Grant

July 24, 2010at 3:32 pm

I’ve enjoyed following the dialogue on this topic here. I like the ideas of “Deep”… As far as a third “deep” I was thinking of something in terms of mission. Discipleship and Community seem to be about those inside (though, of course not exclusively). But rather than just using something like “Mission” or “evangelism” becuase both can have a one way connotation, I kind of like the idea of of “dialogue” or “conversation.”

Ian Carmichael

July 25, 2010at 2:02 am

Well, how about Deep Creativity? – covering aesthetics, invention, and ecological wisdom, perhaps more. Then there is the possibility of some solid trinitarian mapping (Holy Spirit and community, Son and discipleship, Father and creativity). Perhaps it’s too cute, but I think it has some ontological and theological power.


August 13, 2010at 6:52 pm

Hi Philip,
Back on June 18 in the “Do No Share Convictions Remain” you wrote you were going to do a post addressing my question about what would be the children’s version of the new theology, or the one that would win new converts. Apparently in this post you’ve announced you’ve given up on that approach, maybe because what you were coming up with was what the mainline protestants have already done, so no use in re-inventing a flat tire – the alternative re-invent how church is done. Have you’ve looked at what the Quakers did in the 1600’s when they restructured church and had a huge impact for nearly 200 years out of proportion to their share of the population? It happened before, perhaps something like it is happening again. I’m happy attending a conservative Anglican Church and see how how that liturgy actually has quite a bit of flex and could be a skeleton for a lovely flexible, free church worship and body life if artfully and creatively used. But at the heart of any true church is the worship and service of the True God. Paul warned about a different gospel, a different Jesus, a different spirit. In his time I’m sure some regarded Paul as a restrictive Ken Silva, others regarded Paul as the overly liberal Philip Clayton countenancing compromise and looseness with the Old Testament. Frankly I veer towards Mr. Silva’s concerns in what’s going on in the emergent church.

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