Monday, March 03, 2008

The Once and Future Church - Book Review

This is one of the books on my DMin reading list. It was written by Loren B. Mead who was the past president of the Alban Institute. Since I have to do a review of it for my course, I thought I'd post a summary and a bit of a review here.

The book does a decent job of examining the current state (EDIT: when written in 1991) of the church - although from a decidedly mainline perspective. Mead begins by analyzing the"current" Christendom situation - which in many ways still applies today.

Mainline churches in first half of 20th century were powered by a strong clear uniform paradigm of mission – built buildings and seminaries, and mission agencies that were well funded and clear in their mission. That changed in 60’s and 70’s. The one clear paradigm of mission stopped being clear and consensus disappeared – different agendas, conflicting demands and needs appeared because the culture was changing. People and congregations who were once prepared to make sacrifices to support a mission consensus found it hard to generate enthusiasm and conviction for a more complicated reality (a reality interpreted primarily by the denominational officials out of touch with the reality in specific congregations).
Three things happening simultaneously:
1. a fundamental change in how we understand the mission of the church
2. congregations were being challenged to move from a passive supportive role to a front line active role. The role of laity, clergy, bishops is in transition
3. institutional forms and structures are changing – the old are collapsing.

Three responses to these events:
1. frantic effort to recapture initiative with new programs so compelling they will garner new support – restructuring, downsizing, trying to stop the bleeding
2. holding steady and hoping for the best – (i.e. RC church not responding to shortage of priests, PAOC shared funding model)
3. moving ahead into a new paradigm of mission, rebuilding and reinventing the church as we go
Mead favours the third response but says we need to know:
a. what the new paradigm really is and should look like
b. how do we determine what parts of the old system to keep to make it in the new era?

He then describes three paradigms in church history.
1. The Apostolic Paradigm
The central reality of this church was a local community called out of the world, that lived by the power and the values of Jesus, preserved and shared within the intimate community through apostolic teaching and fellowship and through ritual acts (eucharist). One gained entrance into the community only when the community was convinced that you shared its values and experienced the power of the Spirit. The world was opposed and hostile to this community. There was a clear inside and outside. There was a powerful conversion event to enter the community. Baptism was death to the former life in the world and a birth into the mission of the community. Your role in the community demanded a role in mission to the world. The role of the community (and its traveling troubleshooters – like Paul) was to build up its members with the courage, strength and skill to communicate God’s good news in that hostile world. This paradigm continued until the fourth century until the conversion of Constantine.

Then came the second paradigm:
2. The Christendom Paradigm
Christianity became the official religion of the empire – no longer was there a hostile world around the church – the church and the world became one – the church was the empire. The missionary boundary became the geographic boundaries of the empire – so to extend the empire was to extend Christianity. No longer was the individual on the mission frontier – no longer needed to witness – no longer needed to be different or separate from the world. Missions was now the task of the professional (soldier, politician, emperor). The task of every Christian was now to be a good citizen, to support the laws and leaders of the empire. One was no longer converted into the church but was born into it.

This paradigm still influences us today. However there are cracks in the system. The "empire" is no longer Christian - even if it has a Christian leader. There is no longer uniformity of mission or purpose. Mead goes on to say a third paradigm is emerging but we don't know what it is yet.

He spends much of the rest of the book trying to describe some of what is going on in many mainline churches today. Although he makes a number of interesting points, much of his material are tired ideas suggesting change and fresh thinking that still lines up with a Christendom paradigm.

Some good analysis of the three paradigms. He has a very good description of the development of the Christendom model and the characteristics of it that can still be felt today. There is a good rationale for the historic development of the denominational system in USA. His analysis applies equally to the mainline and free church traditions (the appendix is helpful but a bit redundant). Unfortunately, his solutions and suggestions are tired and old. He clings to the denominational structures and institutions. He assumes the traditional role of worship and church services. He nowhere defines mission and never mentions the name of Jesus until his conclusion. His suggestions for the shift that needs to take place in the clergy seems like a pep talk with no real concrete changes. Suggestions about experimenting more and helping lay people do more theological reflection are truisms that don’t really help anyone who has been seriously thinking about church and culture.

If one of the problems is lack of agreement about mission then the definition of mission needs to be a priority. He seems to shy away from any kind of parameters of what the mission should look like. This is clearly articulated in the final chapter as he gives examples. He never really says that the vitality of the mission must always be about the vitality of the relationship of the believer to Jesus and the formation of a community of faith. He still assumes that visitors will be coming into the church from the community and that there will always be children to train. Most mainline churches are graying out and many “free” churches are merely collecting the castoffs from the mainline churches as opposed to responding to the post-Christendom culture. (The Evangelical churches are clumped into the "free" church category. These are not currently facing the same intensity of the crisis that mainline churches face but will be soon.)

He nowhere addresses the real task of mission into a hostile world and how to do that. He merely assumes that as the church changes the mission will once again become clear. He also assumes the continuation of the clergy role (although in a changed form). I think he completely misses the boat there. I’m not sure there will be a role for national and international denominational offices. The more likely role is to band like-minded churches together regionally or as cities.

All in all I think this author has not grasped the seriousness of the cultural change around him. He assumes that the church will change and must change. He also admits he doesn't know what that change will look like. It will be more different than he ever imagined.


Anonymous said...

I'd just like to point out that "Once and Future Church" was written in 1991, so to use words like "current" when reviewing it is to somehow miss the point. It was quite prescient in its time, and I'm sure Mead would be the first to admit its "current" shortcomings. An important book, though, and quite influential.


hillschurch said...

Thanks Richard
Good point.

I had been reading it with 21st century sensibilities. Having been published in 1991 his thoughts really came out of the late eighties when most people in my circles (evangelical/pentecostal) were feeling that they had finally arrived.


hillschurch said...

(Sorry didn't really finish my thought)

"Arrived" means that they felt they had it all figured out and were the ones who had the answers because they were growing.