The spiritual reality of our world by 8Ns5v5T


									The Spiritual Reality of our World. Post Modernity and Pluralism. The New Spiritualities.

The World we now live in.

The Western world that existed in the twentieth century has irreversibly and radically changed as we enter
the twenty-first century. Whilst we rejoice at the profound growth in God’s Church, especially in Africa,
Asia and Southern America; the Church in the “west” is now in a stage of acute and serious decline. We
need to acknowledge and understand both the reality and causes of this sharp difference that now exists
between the exciting growth of the Church in the non-west, and the decline of the church in the west where
in the past it may have been strong. We must state this forcefully: Overall, the Church in the west is failing
in its missional mandate.

In the west (which we will define as Western Europe, Great Britain, North America and Australia/New
Zealand), almost every assumption of society – our collective and individual worldview, our way of
thinking and perceiving, and our spirituality has altered. This enormous change affects every institution in
the west, and the Church in particular has been - and is - very vulnerable, as so much of this change affects
our spiritual orientation and religious affiliation.

Declining Western Church

In most parts of the Western world, this change is clearly reflected in ageing and declining church
gatherings. Mega-churches notwithstanding, poor attendance rates among people under the age of forty
years is very noticeable in Europe, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The exception to this general
portrait had been the USA, though signs of decline are now starting to emerge. The demographic gaps in
younger age groups is foreboding, especially for the actual long-term viability for many local churches and
their witness in their communities.

But the problems of the Western Church are far deeper than just declining and ageing numbers. The
sociological realities we must admit to often involve a wide gulf between Church and society, which further
hampers effective witness and mission. The cultural divide is multi-faceted with class and ethnic divisions,
and sub-cultural groups and networks untouched by any gospel witness. Short term “revival” remedies have
and will continue to fail because Christian expectations of how people will join the Church are unrealistic
and disconnected from the fundamental and normative patterns of life. We are living in an era of enormous
transition and change that has infected, and affects, every fabric of our societies. It is not until God’s
Church fully appreciates the enormity of these societal changes, and is prepared to revisit some of its core
cherished assumptions and presuppositions, that we will be able to regain progress in the God-given task of
evangelism and mission in the modern Western world.

So what are these changes that have occurred in the Western world? We can categorically say that since the
end of World War Two there are no areas of our lives that have been left untouched by our changed world.
Some of these changes have been brought on by mass migration, jet transportation and mass
communication systems. Nations once kept apart by geographical barriers are now connected through
television and the Internet. Cultural, religious and political beliefs are being distributed globally. People can
maintain relationships via a host of electronic means and tend to unite based predominantly on their
demographic similarities rather than their geographic proximity. Western societies have become highly
fragmented and “sub-culturalised” as opposed to the “mono-culture” that previous generations experienced.
No longer do our societies hold single macro or overarching meta-stories that explain, maintain and sustain
our individual identity. Instead we find social fragmentation based on age, demography, common interests,
and spirituality.

Western economies have changed dramatically since the end of World War Two from being producers of
goods, to producers of services. We have an unprecedented high standard of living and life expectancy.
Materially, we’ve never had it so good. We live in a world of “options”. We have a near unlimited amount
of choice, from the food we eat to the career we will pursue. Consumption defines so much of what we are.
It used to be “I think therefore I am”, now it is “I consume therefore I am”. As national loyalties and
boundaries lose their significance, consumption and brand loyalties have come to the fore. Whereas in the
past all may have been expected to marry and have children, even this is now “optional”. The basic unit of
society – the family – is getting smaller, as those of us who actually do choose to procreate, do so later and
produce less offspring.

Our values base has changed from clearly understood and demarcated deontological understandings, to
fragmented and highly personal statements dependent on “how we feel”. We now dictate our own values,
rather than having our values dictated to us from greater society. Every assumption our societies may have
had in the past is questioned. We would no longer consider ourselves as living in “Christian” countries, but
“secular” ones. The Christendom era is finished. The Church is no longer the respected centre of our
culture. In an age of individual freewill and choice, institutional Christianity is seen as irrelevant and

Religious decline – but “spiritual” increase

So does this mean that the West is rapidly becoming closed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Ironically, whilst
interest in organised religion has rapidly declined, interest and active participation in spirituality has rapidly
increased. Sociologists previously expected modernity and secularisation to overcome spirituality, but if
anything, secularisation and modernity have not decreased our appetite for the spiritual –it has fuelled it!
Modernity may have given us a physical quality of life undreamed of by previous generations, but the
unrelenting emphasis of modernity on the material has actually increased our spiritual hunger and longing.
This has opened up in many in the Western world a significant desire and spiritual hunger beyond the

Existing forms of Church in the west are seen as a part of the problem, and not the solution, by these
spiritual seekers. Existing forms of Church are seen as being an extension of modernity; propositional,
remote, material and uncaring. Whilst institutional forms of religion are dying, unstructured person-centred,
non-gendered, often nature based forms of spirituality have dramatically increased. There are significant
openings and opportunities for the Gospel in the west – we just need our eyes open to see them, and we
need to be prepared to “do things” differently to meet this challenge.

But unable to comprehend the modern Western world, the Church stays inward looking and focused. There
is an unwillingness to acknowledge that much of what is referred to as “alternative spiritualities” has arisen
because of the dissatisfaction with institutional Christianity. The desire for a “here and now” spirituality has
been created in part due to our inability to present God as being both transcendent and immanent. We find it
difficult to interact with people who no longer base their religion solely on rationality, but base their
spirituality primarily on their intuition and self exploration. Models of church that revolved around
geographic “parishes” are far less relevant for people who form relationships based on common interests.
Models of church and mission that revolve around “cognitive downloads” are unintelligible to people who
feel truth. As the Western Church, we were used to being the “sole player” in the Christendom town. Yet in
the space of our generation, we now have to compete with world religions, imported via migration – and
also this home grown expansion in “alternative” spirituality. Yet our inability to interact with this changed
spiritual landscape further compounds the perception that the Church is irrelevant and further compounds
our inward focus.

What we describe as New or Alternative Spiritualities is not a single or organised “movement”. It is an
eclectic collection of ideas and starting points that are swept up for possible integration by the individual on
their spiritual journey. Much of what we are describing as new spirituality is about transforming the
individual and their life into an integrated whole. This is very much a reaction against the fragmentation of
modernity and the material reductionism which it has been brought to life in the west. Often this new
spirituality will reflect in ecological and environmental activism, again an attempt to correct the wrongs of
the exploitation of the modernity. This Spirituality is often perceived as a journey. The truth is out there
and so it is up to the individual to sample a range of options to determine this truth.

The starting point for assessing “truth” is the self. You assess your personal truth based on your
experiences, not the opinion of a scientist, priest or expert. Often, something is more “truthful” if it is
perceived to have been repressed by the “experts”. Christian apologists, who are used to working in a
rationalist-evidential apologetic model, will often be frustrated that in this “new spiritual world” the Bible is
often perceived as either untruthful in one extreme, or just as truthful as other religious writings, in the
other extreme. To claim that there is an exclusive macro truth is illusive, as ultimately only your truth is
trustworthy. Christians working from a rationalist apologetic model often be frustrated by the seeming
contradictions in the seekers spirituality. Extreme care needs to be taken by the apologist, as correcting
misunderstandings or misrepresentations about Christianity, without the context of a firm relationship, will
only confirm in the Spiritual seeker that Christianity is an arrogant irrelevant religion that cannot offer
worth for their journey. Current Western Christians must acknowledge the damage that much of our current
witness and evangelism is doing, and be prepared to change our approaches and methods.

The “mix and match” of new spirituality can and does draw from an almost unlimited supply of sources.
Whilst Jesus is very often a figure of respect and intrigue, the reliability of the Bible has often been
undermined by extreme liberal or conspiratorial writings. The Jesus of new spirituality is very often
embellished with exotic travels, myth and syncretism with other religions. Spiritual inspiration can be
drawn from existing religions, however it is often the mystical extreme of those religions which gets swept
into their religious matrix; for example, the Christian mystics, Buddhist scripture or Sufism (Islamic
mysticism). The esoteric is very often mixed in, for example Gnosticism, Kabala and Theosophy. Practical
religious expressions will also be drawn in, for example; Yoga, Tantric Sex, Chi energy systems and the
possible reorganisation of ones house based on the principles of Feng Shui. Popular reading and may
include a “Course in Miracles”, reading the “Celestine Prophecy” or “Da Vinci Code” or even reading the
Koran. If all of this is not enough UFO conspiratorial stories, Science fiction or celebrity worship may well
be drawn upon. Rebellion against your Church upbringing may involve some La Vey Satanism, or one can
worship the goddess within, aided by some of Fiona Horne’s writings on Wicca, or connecting with nature
with the supposedly pre-Christian neo-paganism.

What we have outlined here very briefly is just some of the broad flavours that can be swept into the
Spiritual matrix. For some, their spirituality may draw from numerous sources and be semi-serious and
open to change from whatever is popular. For others, their spirituality is intensely important and serious and
may well have resulted in some major life changes. The sin of modernity, trying to logically categorise a
persons beliefs, is near impossible in this eclectic world. To fully understand a person’s spiritual world, you
need them to describe in their words their Spirituality and to listen to the journeys that it has taken them on.
It can be intensely personal and seemingly non-directional.

Problematic Christian responses

So much of the Christian response to alternative spirituality is side-tracked by ill-informed debate over the
rightness or wrongness of post-modernity and postmodernism, which is tied up in this debate over the
potential for absolute truth in the human worldview. A worldview is an attempt to describe the way
individuals perceive and process the world in which we live. Postmodernism describes those academics
who challenge the philosophical and epistemological basis of the enlightenment era, which in turn led to the
modern era. Much of this particular debate has occurred at an abstract academic level. It is at this level
where Christians have mostly interacted, essentially to denounce postmodernism. The result of this has
been a sad failure to build bridges with the huge bulk of people who, for practical not philosophical reasons,
think as post-modern people. Ultimately people of the Western world have adopted a “practical” post-
modern worldview, not because they have read or even understand critical post-modern thought, but simple
because it is the worldview that is around them and that they have absorbed and internalised. The inability
of the Church to meaningfully interact with the vast bulk of Western people whose worldview is shaped by
“practical post-modernity” compounds this missional failure of the Church of the west.

We need to note that the same collection of issues that confront the Church today confronted the Church at
the dawn of the Reformation, 500 years ago. Back then, the political scene in Europe was changing from
that of principalities into nation states. Increased production led to an increase in urbanisation and wealth.
The printing press provided a means of mass communication and information retrieval. Christendom was
being challenged by the Muslim empire. It was a world of a changing worldview with the start of the
enlightenment era, the era of rationality; and the growing realisation that a whole new world existed beyond
Europe. The Reformation expelled the non-Biblical medieval accumulation that had occurred and refocused
its theology and praxis for the newly changed world.

In the same way that the changes in the world 500 years ago saw a radical revitalisation of the Church at the
Reformation, such a radical revitalisation is required today if the Christian community is to rise to its
missional responsibilities in the West today. Ironically, the religious pluralism of the world today is very
similar to the religious pluralism of the Roman-Greco world of the early Church. And so rather than being
overcome by a fear that we going into unknown territory, we should maybe feel reassured that we go back
into a world in which the Church was born and rapidly grew.

Protestantism in the Western World, a child of modernity, has operated on the missional model of “believe,
then behave then belong.” In other words, in the west we tend to operate on a cognitive evangelism where
once propositions have to be accepted, and expected behaviours conformed to, then we’ll allow you to
belong. The realities of post-modernity are that we have to be prepared to reverse this missional paradigm.
Conversion will no longer be a single event but a process, where people will need to experience Christian
spirituality, fellowship and intellectualism and be allowed time to explore, feel and internalise that Jesus-
centred spirituality is the ultimate. Conversion may not be seen as one event, but conversion as a string of
events on a journey towards, and embracing Christ. Biblically, we need to reflect that Jesus said “follow
me”- his invitation to journey with him, more often than “believe in me” as a cognate proposition of
intellectual acceptance.

As a result of Modernity, much of the apologetic methodology used by Western evangelicals consists of
“cognitive downloads” and arguments that are rationally connected and linear in progression. In a post-
modern world we are not arguing for an irrational faith –in fact, Christianity which is both intensely
Spiritual and intensely intellectually vigorous is very highly desirable when presented properly – but we are
arguing that what is needed are new post-modern forms of apologetics and missiology that is interactive,
listening, journeying, more creative and more holistic.

The Challenge to the Western Church

And so those of us in the West are faced with a huge and undeniable missional challenge. But this must not
be seen as insurmountable as long as we can firstly acknowledge that the world we now live in is radically
different than the world from which we may have come, and that secondly, we appropriately change our
missional and evangelistic methodology to suit this changed environment. It the western Church can alter
our praxis to more meaningfully interact with the Spiritual seekers, we can feel a degree of optimism about
the God given task at hand. The only conclusion we can draw if the Church fails to meet this twin
challenge, is a continued slide into obscurity and irrelevance.


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