Several years ago Spencer Johnson wrote a parable titled "Who Moved My Cheese?" which took the business world by storm as it highlighted the need to respond to significant changes in the organizations we work in and the family or community in which we live. The "cheese" to which Spencer Johnson referred is a metaphor for what people want in life - "whether a good job, a loving relationship, money, possessions, health, or spiritual peace of mind." What Spencer Johnson was saying is that the context in which people pursue their goals has changed - and thus the ways in which they attain their goals have changed as well.
For the 21st century church life has changed across multiple dimensions. Today Global Evangelicalism needs educational innovation in order to re-imagine, recapture, and multiply service in the mission of God in a fundamentally changing environment.
Western Religious Identity is Fundamentally Shifting
Western civilization is journeying through a tumultuous identity shift. This is affecting the way people know, think, behave and desire. The spiritual problem of our time is essentially a problem of identity (Langbaum 1982). For those living in Western society, organized and doctrinaire religion has been supplanted by a quest for spirituality. However, if religion is defined as "linking humans with the divine and thus linking humans with each other," then religion has not declined. Instead, religion has changed form: it is "less institutional, more improvised, but always present as a factor of the social link, a sort of faith without dogma (Goldman & Papson, 1996);" that is, a "faith community."
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age suggests that three dramatic changes have shifted the whole of Western civilization (2007). First, there has been a pragmatic shift in the cultural centrality of Christianity and this has been manifested in the emptying of public spaces of reference to God. Second, there has been a falling off of traditional religious belief and practice. Third, and most importantly, there has been a dramatic change in the conditions of belief. We have moved from a society where belief in God is unchallenged to one where it is understood to be one option among others. The context has changed - we now live in a missionary environment in North America (Newbigin, 1986).
Western Church Identity is Challenged
The 20th century, for evangelical churches, is known as the era in which evangelical churches and organizations were birthed, grew in significance, saw powerful movements of people coming to know Christ, and created systems to train and send ministers and missionaries around the world (Latourette, 1998). The North American Protestant consensus of church - government - family that emerged in 19th century America began to shatter in the 1890s which continued until Protestants (in the United States) became a minority. Through the 20th century, the foundations of Judaeo-Christian heritage were assaulted by waves of theological liberalism, the growth of major world religions, and the blossoming of new age philosophies that combined to create an environment to which the Evangelical church struggled to respond.
As the populace began to lose their biblical heritage, accepted evangelization and apologetic methods became less effective for three reasons: 1) they assumed a basic level of biblical understanding that is no longer there; 2) they assumed a philosophical approach to reality that is no longer shared by many people; and 3) they did not address the pressing questions of the day couched in language which the populace understood.
By the turn of the 21st century many of the time worn approaches bore less and less fruit; increasingly Christian people began to drop out of the existing evangelical structures, and financial support began to wane. Christian leaders moved into an era of massive institutional experimentation. Evangelicals became seen as a people giving answers to questions that people were no longer asking.
Information Age Creates Mediated Communication that Shapes Identity
With the growth of the internet the nature of communication changed. No longer was information in the hands of the few, now everyone becomes a curator and disseminator of information, opinions, and perspectives. Computer mediated communication changed the ways in which people relate across time and space. It also changed the way people consume information. Media creates an environment in which personal and social identities are shaped by the interplay of the culture-communication dialogue that speeds up change in our social macroworlds and personal microworlds (Fitzgerald, 1993).
As the medium became the message (McLuhan, 1967), the traditional lecture style became less and less effective to the ears of those accustomed to soundbite culture (Slayden & Whillock, 1998). Global multimedia accessed from across the globe created a level of cultural literacy never seen before. Through macro forces of migration and globalization, the average person's understanding of self-identity continues to shift as she is influenced by and influences the digital consumption of ideas.
Growth of Christianity Moved to the Global South
As the context of Western Christianity changed, the center of Christianity moved to the Global South. In the 1960s only 29% of Christians lived in South America, Africa and Asia. Today 78% of Christians live in the global south. The Christian population of North America only accounts for 12% of global Christianity (Stiller et. al, 2015). The sending of missionaries is no longer confined to North America and the UK. In fact, North America now receives 10% of all missionaries that are sent worldwide. Today Christians are called from anywhere to everywhere.
Western Believers Recapture First Century Missional Identity
Today, God is birthing fresh expressions of Biblical Christianity in the hearts of average ordinary followers of Christ who are responding to the radically changing Western cultural context. Believers in the western world are beginning to recapture their role as "sent ones" who have been sent by a missionary God to join in His mission to impact their neighbors, communities and the world around them. Today followers of Jesus are becoming "missional" - meaning "acting like someone on mission" to serve God through their vocations and avocations. However, most Christians are still unaware that God designed them for mission - and has a unique purpose and plan for them to serve in the overarching story of God's redemptive mission on the earth.
Meanwhile as the explosive growth of Christianity continues in the Global South, the need for training leaders far out strips the equipping capacity of the available institutional structures. Leaders in the Global South continue to fall further and further behind in equipping Christian believers to become missional followers of Jesus.
My Personal Calling to Facilitate the Global Missional Movement
God called me to ministry at age 10 as I watched my dad, a pastor, reach people for Christ, disciple them and equip them to multiply (and they did). Having begun to preach at age 14 and having served in multiple churches I quickly saw that the majority of believers had not been equipped like those in my dad's churches had been. As I watched the last 30 years unfold and observed the trends lines, God began to form within me a vision for new approaches to facilitate grassroots lay leaders to become all that God was calling them to be.
God has burdened me for more than twenty years that the long range answer to the question "where is the cheese" is not to retool but to rethink the best approaches that are needed given our current and future reality. It appears that the best way forward is to address the issues evangelical Christianity faces by gathering Christian missional leaders from across the globe to come together to equip God's people to serve in the mission of God through the most accessible and affordable means possible. The confluence of a number of factors demonstrates that the use of internet-based education is the only viable method to meet the global demand for missional training of the people of God.
My passion is to see God's people regain the ancient biblical, missional practices that enabled the early church to multiply under adverse circumstances and impact their world for Christ. May God raise up a new generation of grassroots missional leaders across the globe who understand the mission of God and their role in it; who know how to share their faith in Christ in a dialogical, non-confrontational way; and know how to grow spiritually, help other believers to grow spiritually and join other believers in engaging their communities for Christ.
“Believing in the Global South | Philip Jenkins.” First Things. Accessed October 30, 2017. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/12/believing-in-the-global-south.
“Global Statistics | Joshua Project.” Accessed October 30, 2017. https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/statistics.
“Global Survey of Evangelical Protestant Leaders.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project (blog), June 22, 2011. http://www.pewforum.org/2011/06/22/global-survey-of-evangelical-protestant-leaders/.
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Goldman, R. & S. Papson. Sign Wars: The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising. (New York: The Guildford Press, 1996).
Langbaum, Robert. The Mysteries of Identity. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
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Masci, David. “Christianity Poised to Continue Its Shift from Europe to Africa.” Pew Research Center (blog), April 7, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/07/christianity-is-poised-to-continue-its-southward-march/.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects. (New York: Bantam Books, 1967).
Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).
Slayden, David, and Rita Kirk Whillock. Soundbite Culture: The Death of Discourse in a Wired World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998.
Stiller, Brian et. al. Evangelicals Around the World: a Global Handbook for the 21st Century. World Evangelical Alliance. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 215).
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Werner, Dietrich, David Esterline, Namsoon Kang, and Joshva Raja. Handbook of Theological Education in World Christianity: Theological Perspectives, Ecumenical Trends, Regional Surveys. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2010.