‘When you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols’
Western society is at an historical hinge point; that it is undergoing an unprecedented cultural shift of tectonic proportions; a society that is experiencing rapid and accelerating cultural change in which the only ‘certainty’ is ‘uncertainty’; one which has been engulfed by waves of a Christianity-hostile rampant neo-paganism. This is the socio-spiritual landscape in which the Church (I use the ‘Church’ word in its broadest sense of being the Body of Christ) is called to do mission, that is, and the point of this article, Pagan mission. This is a challenge that the western Church has not faced for 1500 years, seems not to have fully grasped, and has frankly not yet worked out how to do.
The missional ball game has dramatically changed, as society has rapidly moved from the still generally Christianised one of the last century, for which most still-in-use missional programs (including sizeable church plants) were designed, to one which has now been overwhelmed by the new paganism.
In its battle with this now pagan society, the Church is losing badly. This is evidenced by every metric of Church health, whether it be falling attendances and membership; especially by the declining numbers of ‘unchurched’ and/or ‘de-churched’ members in congregations; by falling Youth involvement; aging congregations; and the catastrophic national census data indicating the plummeting number of those who box-tick that they have even the most minimal connection with Christian faith.
I canvassed many of what I believe to be the major reasons for this picture of unhealth in my book ‘Quantum Mission’. It is one of these, namely ‘A Cultural Intelligence Deficit’, particularly the aspect of Paganism, that is the subject of this article.
The Cultural landscape has undergone, and continues to undergo, a seismic shift from that of the Christendom landscape in which and for which the standard church model of today (in virtually all denominations) was designed and developed. That landscape was a society-
- That, MOST importantly, was Christianized.
- That was generally ethnically and linguistically homogenous.
- Where the majority went to church. This would have included many non-Christians, so there was no need for ‘outreach’ activities.
- Where all had a biblical world view (even if sub-consciously) not least because it was generally the only one available.
- Where the ‘church’ building was the centre and integrating hub of community life.
- Where nearly everybody worked locally, and not at all on Sundays.
- Where church structures and ministries were constructed not for mission but for the maintenance of existing Christian congregations.
- Where change was so slow as to be imperceptible.
It should come as no great surprise then that we struggle in the missional endeavour, for our culture is nothing like that. For 21st century western culture is one-
- Which is (and this is the KEY issue) in the thrall of the new Paganism.
- Where the society-guiding biblical world view has disappeared.
- That is experiencing the rampant collapse of religious affiliation.
- Where the church is on the retreating periphery of a society increasingly hostile to it.
- Where ‘work and play’ micro-culture activity has consumed the erstwhile activity-free zone of Sunday.
- Where the pool of Europe-originating people that has formed the church’s natural constituency is shrinking as a proportion of the population.
- That is neither ethnically nor linguistically homogenous and where 26 per cent (and rising) of the population were born overseas
- Where very few now ‘go to church’.
- Where change is rapid, ongoing, unpredictable, and accelerating.
This is a cultural shift of seismic proportions, not least in the aspect of the conquest of society by what we now might call neo-paganism.
Paganism is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as-
‘Spiritual beliefs and practices other than those of Judaism, Islam, or especially Christianity: such as
- the spiritual beliefs and practices of ancient polytheistic religions.
- the beliefs and practices of contemporary religions or spiritual movements based on ancient paganism.’
To which I would add the ‘gods’ of this age, e.g.
- The ‘Unholy Trinity’ of Materialism, Consumerism and Hedonism.
- As well as family/children/grandchildren, sport, health, career et al.
These are the things which people now ‘worship’, as shown by the degree to which these both control their lives (evidenced by their decision-making) and into which they invest most of their God-given resources – time, money, abilities etc.
So, what should be the approach to mission in the now neo-pagan western society? It must-
1. Be Culturally Intelligent
One of the key causes of the missional malaise is a widespread ‘Cultural Intelligence Deficit’, or a serious failure to grasp the degree to which the multitude of neo-pagan micro-cultures now comprising society are alien, and increasingly hostile, to the church culture. The missional communities required for Quantum Mission must not only access the cultural universes of the lost but be able to be accessed by their inhabitants in terms of reflecting, using, and relating to the cultural forms, styles, and ‘street’ languages (Archbishop Cranmer’s ‘Vulgar Tongue’) of the pieces of the cultural mosaic in which they are set.
The key mindset required here is:
‘Their place, their time, their language, their style!’
Not, as currently – ‘Our place, Our time, Our language, Our style’
2. Have a Flexative Mindset
A vital characteristic essential for the approach to 21st century mission, as I have said in ‘Quantum Mission’, is that it should not be prescriptive. That requires the letting go of the ‘Formulaic’ mindset that has shaped local mission for decades, one that follows formulae, programs etc (especially ones that have failed before). Rather, the essence of our missional endeavour should be that it is shaped and driven by what I call a ‘Flexative’ mindset which is able to continuously adapt to the ever-morphing mosaic of pagan micro-cultures that is western society. This I have previously described in these terms–
The Flexative mindset is ‘about adapting to and managing whatever cultural context ‘turns up’ and whenever it does so.
Flexative thinkers . . . . . . . . set out on a journey where the ‘End’ (even Ends) is not necessarily pre-determined (unlike the case a Church planting strategy for example) and indeed may vary. It may also even be that new ‘Ends’ appear along the way.
The Flexative thinking leader starts with asking the question: Where do the lost, the neo-pagan members of society already regularly gather? Having determined the answer to that question (which may be a pub, workplace, café, playgroup, club, community centre, park, interest group, etc.), they then say: ‘Let’s go there!’ They then do what’s necessary to create or shape a missional community in that location or activity.’
3. Count the Cost
This is a most important, but little discussed, characteristic for those who genuinely do wish to see a great increase in the missional effectiveness of the Church, one that is revealed by examination of significant missional movements of the past. And that is the reality that almost everywhere Pagan Mission is Costly! Indeed, effective mission to hostile, pagan societies has always been costly as ours will be. Just a few examples make the point.
Starting with the New Testament, the opposition, jailings, beatings etc faced by Paul and colleagues; the need to leave home and comfortable Sunday church lifestyle, and take on the challenge of alien cultures and of uncomfortable conditions, e.g., the jungle mission faced by David Livingstone; the risks taken by Celtic missionaries rowing across the storm-tossed Irish sea in small coracles to take the gospel to Scotland and Northern England; the ultimate sacrifice of missionaries such as Jim Elliot and four colleagues killed by Auca Indians on an Ecuadorian beach in 1957 and of course the legions of Christians down the centuries (some known, most not) that have paid a great cost for proclaiming Christ in pagan societies.
In stark contrast to this, most missional programs churches attempt today whether Church plants, packaged strategies such as Evangelism Explosion, Alpha, Christianity Explored and many others are ‘Comfortable’. They don’t require great sacrifice by the Christians running them, they don’t require the leaving of comfortable Sunday Church Christianity. However, the problem is, as a journey through the history of significant missional movements will show, that pagan mission is anything but comfortable! In fact it costs, and to put the words ‘Comfortable’ and ‘Pagan Mission’ together is an oxymoron!
The idea of being uncomfortable for the sake of mission will not be entertained by most contemporary church members. For as the former Bishop to the Australian Armed Forces Tom Frame has written-
‘The culturally compliant strain of Christianity promoted in Australia does not oblige (people) to embrace lifestyle choices that might involve discomfort.’
4. Understand the Enemy
The Church is at war, and we should not forget that fighting this war (our mission) is not primarily a human endeavour, for Paganism in all its forms is fundamentally a spiritual entity that controls peoples’ thinking and behaviour. As the Apostle Paul wrote,
‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’. (Ephesians 6:12)
Rather, it is against the opposition of the deluding power of the ‘Serpent that was more crafty than any of the others the Lord God had made’ [Genesis 1:1); the ‘Father of lies’ (John 8:44); the ‘god of this world who blinds the eyes of the unbeliever’ (2 Corinthians 4:4), who does not want the Church to be fruitful in mission.
If this battle is to be fully joined it must be understood that it will be costly, indeed as in any war there will be casualties. Church history, as referenced above, gives a great deal of evidence of this fact, but the vast majority of contemporary church members either choose to ignore or are ignorant of the reality that the enemy is a spiritual one. In fact, many church members would appear to be ‘Functional Sadducees’. That is, in a similar way to the Sadducee religious party of Jesus time, they believe in God, attend all the normal rituals such as Sunday church, seek to live by the moral imperatives of the New Testament, yet, while happily praying ‘deliver us from evil’, largely deny the spiritual realm, and the Church-opposing Enemy that occupies it.
Most certainly, if we don’t acknowledge and understand the Enemy and that the society-controlling neo-paganism is his tool, the battle will be lost.