By Philip Clayton
A note upfront to the reader: Spencer Burke, Tony Jones, Tripp Fuller, I, and a bunch of others are embarked on a revolutionary project to get theology out of the classrooms (and pastors' studies) and into the streets (living rooms, pubs, etc). In this short post I write about this project under the title "Theology after Google."
Though I was trained as an academic theologian and have published a number of brainy books, I no longer believe in theory for theory's sake. This short post is no exception. I want to stimulate your mind, but I also want to get you to do something. (Of course, it's you who has to decide what you're going to do.)
The network I'm involved with -- TransformingTheology.org -- is partnering with TheOoze to put on a first-of-its-kind event in southern California this March. It's all about theology after Google: what it is and how to do it. We call it "leveraging new technologies and networks for transformative ministry." I hope this post will influence your view of what the church and its theologies need to become. I also hope it will convince you to come to Claremont this March 10-12 -- to listen, and to speak your mind in response.
-- Philip Clayton
Why is it that most Americans today don't walk down to their neighborhood church on Sunday mornings for worship, Sunday School, and a church potluck?
Although some Christians seem to get it that "everything must change," why is it that the vast majority don't seem to recognize the enormous changes that are already upon us?
Do we really inhabit two different worlds: those who text, Twitter, blog, and get 80% of our information from the Internet, and those who are "not comfortable" with the new social media and technologies?
Could we today be facing a change in how human society is organized that is as revolutionary in its implications as was the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg over 500 years ago?
If we are, what does all this have to do with theology and the church?
This is not Kansas anymore...
Let me not mince words: for better or worse, I've cast my lot with a rabbi named Jesus. That makes me one of his followers, whom individually people call "Christians," and who as a group are known as the church. Church will still exist in A.D. 2100. But I'm not convinced that Church 2100 will look anything like Church today.
Of course, church has theological definitions, such as "the Body of Christ," the community of the redeemed, the locus where the sacraments are celebrated, the place where Christians gather for worship, teaching, and community. But what church actually is has always been deeply affected by the world around it. When that world changes, so too does church. Everyone acknowledges that we are living in a time of revolutionary change. So tell me why we don't think church is in for some radical changes?
Consider this comparison. On the eastern seaboard in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in the expansion of a young nation westward toward the Pacific Ocean, churches played very specific social functions. Not only were they the center of religious life, the place where one came to be baptized, married, and buried ("hatched, matched, and dispatched")... and everything in between... they were also the heart and soul of the community -- the center of social, communal, political, and even economic life. There was simply no other game in town. The church stood for the moral values of the community, "what made America great." When you see the white steeples in a New England town, or when you drive through Midwest towns with a church on every corner, you realize how central a social institution the church once was.
But things have changed. It's obvious that churches no longer play most of these social functions. We are now a massively pluralistic society living in an increasingly globalized world. Every major world religion is represented among United States citizens.
Take the question of authority. In the frontier town, the Southern city, or the New England village there was the authority of the law and the government. A lot of folks weren't very educated, so they didn't read much, and there was no radio or TV. The pastor of the church was not only the moral and spiritual authority -- the representative of the only true religion and its obviously true scriptures -- but also probably the most educated person in town. He (there were virtually no female pastors!) spoke with authority on a wide variety of issues that were important to the society of his day.