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The church and secular society: reading the cultural stream
Leadership is like fishing. Successful anglers are adaptable, constantly reading the water to discover the best place to cast their line. They learn to think like a fish. In their attempt to outsmart the slippery fin, frequently they approach the water slowly, keeping a low profile.
Effective leaders constantly read the cultural stream. They continually study social, cultural and organizational trends that are like currents in a stream. They get a sense of what will likely happen as a result of those trends. Thus, they are better prepared to face today and tomorrow.
There is a shift toward a secularized society. A secularized society pronounces, consciously or unconsciously, its independence from God and acts in ways that exclude God from its value system, beliefs and behavior. The shift that has taken place sociologically, morally, politically, and philosophically is of such magnitude that it defies the individual or institution to ignore it intellectually or practically. Secularization of our culture and society stands like Goliath to test the church's mettle and present it with its greatest challenge. This truly can be the church's finest hour or its greatest defeat, depending on our response.
The church must realize that its greatest influence on its community is not programs but the character and commitment of its people. The way to fight the secularization of society is to develop people whose lives reflect the value system, character, and lifestyle of a true Christian. Strive to develop excellence in your people instead of excellent programs.
People's view of life as well as their world view is fragmented. People tend to be eclectic and selective in their views and values. They pick and choose based upon their own preferences and personal ideas. They have no comprehensive worldview. People may be politically conservative and morally liberal or religiously conservative and politically liberal or a variety of other combinations. The plurality of our society has created a generation without a holistic, integrated, or cohesive worldview. People have failed to realize that there is an interrelationship between all areas of life---- home, work, social, emotional, spiritual. We tend to separate these areas into distinct compartments, mistakenly believing that they don't affect each other. A person can't be one thing at home and another at work without eventual serious personal and relational problems.
The Sunday school and church must teach the whole gospel. There is a greater need today for teaching Bible doctrine and basic life principles. Research reveals that regular attendees are ignorant of the basic tenets of faith. Teach the Word. Don't just discuss life issues and felt needs without bringing God's principles to shine a guiding light. Sunday school and Bible study groups provide opportunities for people to grow in understanding of community and interrelatedness.
We are a society that is addicted to choice and rights. Choices are everywhere. Our society has become increasingly pluralistic and tolerant of all kinds of ideals, beliefs and rights. Choice and rights have become the very essence of life. "My choice" and "my rights" stand above all other virtues. Choice and rights win over truth. What I want or what I feel is owed to me is perceived as "right and truth". Right and wrong have become totally subjective and relative to the situation. Each one does what is right in his own eyes. This has moved us away from moral absolutes to moral relativity. Subsequently we have a society in which everyone is his own god. Each person pushes for his rights while abdicating his responsibility. Many Americans do not have clearly defined convictions. This leads to decreasing commitment, fractured community and chaos. This is one of the most serious issues that confronts the church.
The church must not be afraid of calling people to commitment. However, you must first have a clear, challenging vision and strategy before you expect commitment. People need to know where you are going, how you are going to get there, and what it is going to cost before they commit. The We Build People model gives great help in increasing commitment.
Obligation, responsibility, and commitment have become passé, while freedom, flexibility, and convenience have become the norm. Americans place high value on self, personal fulfillment, and independence. Whenever a society experiences rapid change, people are reluctant to make commitments. Rapid change, mobility and extreme emphasis upon "self" have made long-term commitments nearly impossible to get. No one wants to make a commitment because that could limit future options. Maintaining my freedom and flexibility has become more important than my commitments and responsibilities.
The impact on religious faith is a general increase in shallowness and transience. Consequently, the church finds it difficult to recruit teachers who will commit for any length of time. Classes that were once 4 to 13 weeks in duration are more effectively done as one-day seminars or in short segments. Long-term committee or board assignments are not as appealing or as efficient as short-term task force responsibilities.
We have become more pagan while seeking some supernatural spiritual experience. While there is an incredible spiritual thirst, this doesn't mean that there is an interest in Christianity or the church. People are seeking a spiritual experience more than they are seeking the truth. They want a god that they can touch, feel, or see. They pursue signs and wonders. They seek a god that makes them "feel" the way they want to feel or will do what they want done. This leads people to believe that if they have the "right experience" they must also have truth.
The New Age ideas and philosophies are pursued by millions. Talking with spirits is increasingly acceptable, perceived as innocent and harmless. Channeling, reincarnation, horoscopes, crystals are all quests for the supernatural.
Christianity no longer impacts the way a person lives or believes. You can claim to be a Christian yet not be influenced by the values of true Christianity or biblical truth. Each faith is seen as just one preference among many. Christianity and its values have lost power and influence in our American culture.
Man's search for the supernatural provides a great opportunity for the church to present the authentic, genuine supernatural found in a deep, personal and rich relationship with Jesus Christ. It requires, however, that as Christians we demonstrate the true values, character, and lifestyle of a true Christian. The first barrier to a personal relationship with Christ is not a feeling of guilt but doubt. People doubt the credibility and authenticity of God, the Bible, the church or Christians. Our lives must demonstrate credible Christianity. Evangelism must be more relational, giving opportunity to demonstrate genuine Christian living.
We have become an increasingly diverse culture. Since 1900 America has grown from 45 states with 76 million people to 50 states with 276 million people by 2000. By the year 2000, the U.S. population by race will be 71 percent white, 1 3 percent African-American, 11 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian, and 1 percent a mix of other races, including Native American and Eskimos. By the year 2010, nonwhite races are projected to comprise 44 percent of the national population, or 132 million people.
We also face age and gender diversity. In the 20th century, birthrates have dropped sharply, and life expectancy has skyrocketed to a projected average of 77 years in 2000, up from an average of 47 years in 1900. Median age has advanced from 23 years in 1900 to 35 years in 2000.
Today females make up 51 percent of the population. More women are in the work force and will increasingly become a force in politics, business, and other professions. The men's movement will continue to grow in influence into the next century. Churches can respond by realizing fewer women are available to volunteer for ministry because they work. Ministries and group Bible study opportunities are needed that fit women's schedules. Ministry to men is needed that helps establish accountable relationships so that men can develop the basic habits, disciplines, commitments and character of a true disciple.
The traditional family is increasingly under attack and facing extinction. Divorce, abortion, immorality, and the degeneration of principle-centered values are destroying the family. Since 1960 there have been more that 34 million divorces, and since 1967 one in two marriages has ended in divorce. Of all the abortions in 1990, 82 percent of them were performed on unmarried women, 65 percent of the women were white while 77 percent were ages 15 to 29. In the 1990s almost 50 percent of children born will spend time in a one-parent family. In 1993, there were 11 million single-parent family groups, or 3 out of every 10 families.
Yet, key indicators now point to the slowing of abortion and divorce. Christians in the 21st century have an obligation and opportunity to champion the call for sound and healthy families. Churches that demonstrate through programs and ministries that they value the family will thrive. The church can also increase ministries to the needs of single-parent homes, childcare, and families with absentee fathers.
One of the greatest struggles facing the leader is how to minister, in the context of a changing society, to the perceived and real needs of people, without compromising biblical principles. We must be able to read the stream with keen vision and clear senses.