The short answer is Postmodernism, but before elaborating, let us overview the epistemology of the three modern periods: premodernism, modernism and postmodernism. This is how Louis Hoffman, Ph.D. describes these periods.
PREMODERNISM (Beginnings up to 1650's)
The premodern period was based upon revealed knowledge from authoritative sources. In premodern times it was believed that Ultimate Truth could be known and the way to this knowledge is through direct revelation. This direct revelation was generally assumed to come from God or a god. The church, being the holders and interpreters of revealed knowledge, were the primary authority source in premodern time.
Two new approaches to knowing became dominant in the modern period. The first was empiricism (knowing through the senses), which gradually evolved into scientific empiricism or modern science with the development of modernist methodology. The second approach of this period was reason or logic. Often, science and reason were collaboratively or in conjunction with each other. As the shift in power moved away from the church, politics (governments, kings, etc.) and universities (scholars, professors) took over as the primary sources of authority. Oftentimes, a religious perspective was integrated into these modern authority sources, but the church no longer enjoyed the privileged power position.
It is important to note that this is more a western issue, not a worldwide issue, although postmodernism can be seen in some non-western countries such as Japan where the youth are abandoning their traditional culture in mass. In western countries the church numbers of a two thousand year old religion are dwindling, yet else where in the world thousands, millions are flocking to this exciting radical brand new religion called Christianity.
What we have now in western countries is a societal rejection of everything Modernism: single, authoritative sources of knowledge, tradition, institutions and power structures. For example, factories are bad for the environment, governments cannot be trusted, and religion causes war. Even the basic family unit has been changed from a paternal then maternal authority base to ‘child-centred’ rearing in which the child becomes, in effect, the new head of the family. In fact, there are individuals and groups who specifically seek and destroy traditions, institutions and mindsets within society. Don’t believe me? Go on Facebook and comment on how you believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman, just as the Bible says so. See the hate mail you get, just for holding onto a modernist value.
Now, there are those of us who are ‘old school’, who will not go quietly into the night, who like the predictability of our traditions and the relative safety that comes from time tested power structures. We dutifully (duty being a dirty word in a postmodern society) attempt to teach our children to respect their elders, pay our taxes, and go to church every Sunday. But we are steadily loosing ground. Some individual churches are growing but overall there is a decline and the older the church institution, usually the worse off they are.
Furthermore, if we are completely honest, at least some of the growth experienced by a few churches is matriculation from other churches. The largest example of this is the Catholic church in Australia which has had some significant growth as many ‘old school’ Anglicans jumped ship trying to hold on to basic biblical beliefs that the progressive Anglican church have been abandoning. For example, 900 Anglicans, including 60 clergy, converted to Roman Catholic during Holy Week in 2011.
Institutionalised Christianity is throwing out its traditional belief structure, something I like to call the Word of God, in an attempt to appease the postmodernist society. For example, the performing of gay marriage cerimonies (Gen 2:18, 22; Eph 5:23). But what if the Word isn’t the problem. What if it is the institutionalism of the Word that is the greater issue: an unpalatable delivery system for the Word if you like. Young people don’t want to go to movie theatres anymore; they just download the movie to their computer, phone or tablet and watch it wherever and whenever they want. They still watch the movie. It is the entire delivery system of the movie that has changed. Besides, if we keep changing what Christianity is, eventually it will cease to be Christianity and then what will be the point.
IS THERE AN ALTERNATE CHURCH MODEL?
The early Christian church was not the institutionalised model we see today. The book of Acts describes a communal based church with Christians preaching, ministering and worshiping in the streets, the homes (Acts 2:46), and in temples (Acts 2:46) not a building based religion such as Judaism: even the famous Pentecost happen in a house (Acts 2:2). Jewish temples were used to witness to the Jews and other God fearing people, as Paul did in Athens. In fact, many “sermons” were given on the Sabbath (Saturday) only because that was when all the Jews would be in the one place and prepared to debate religious matters as was their custom, not because gathering at a temple on a Saturday (or Sunday as we do) was the Christian thing to do. So what happened? Why did the church of Acts disappear and give way to the Church Institution we have now?
Early Christian life was a calamity of persecution from many sources that escalated in 250AD when antichristian laws were passed, and culminate in the Great Persecution (303 to 313AD) by the Romans. Then, in February 313, Constantine I (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus; c. 272 – 337) and Licinius I (Gaius Valerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus c. 263 – 325) developed the Edict of Milan. This put into law freedom of religion and it was Constantine, in collaboration with Christian leaders of the day, who then institutionalised and Romanised Christianity.
It should be noted that, though Constantine I proclaimed to be Christian, he continued to worship other Gods: as evident by the Arch of Constantine, built in 315 to celebrate victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The arch is decorated with images of the goddess Victoria and, at the time of its dedication, sacrifices to gods like Apollo, Diana, and Hercules were made. Most notably absent from the Arch are any depictions whatsoever regarding Christian symbolism.
Since I was saved over 10 years ago, I had difficulty reconcealing the modern church with the book of Acts, and always felt like church was Christianity viewed through Judaist coloured glasses: with its synagogue based preaching, formal dress standards, tithing and other Judaist like practices that seemed to have little relevance to the New Testament. Yet, we cannot realistically hold street-party style church services as not everyone in our various streets are saved and some or our parishioners come from far and wide to meet at our humble church: a building that requires regular tithes to maintain, which, in turn, predominately come from regular Sunday attendance. We have some home meetings (as in Acts) but most meetings are held at the church building, which itself is the base from which our other ministries and outreaches are operated. And with our well scheduled work, gym, sports and family life, wandering aimlessly from house to house, ministering whenever, and selling our possessions to support one another (Acts 2:45) just seems to be an anarchy that our old fashioned modernist minds can’t cope with despite what may fit in with today’s society.
So, with a clear failing of the present church system, and a clear system described in Acts that appears to fit the less structured mindset of the postmodernist society, how do we bridge the gap? And we are not talking about posting sermons on the net, and giving your church a Facebook page.
HOW TO BREACH THE GAP BETWEEN ACTS AND INSTITUTIONALISED CHURCH?
Wrong question. What would Jesus do? Wrong question. What did Jesus do? Now we are talking. The bible clearly tells us to follow Jesus’s example and to be more like Him: Paul said “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1Cor 11:1 NIV) also John 13:13-17 and 1Pet 2:21.
The church of Acts was a product of the actions Jesus took from His baptism by John up to His ascension into heaven: He went out and ministered, gaining followers (Luke 5). Then He nominated 12 disciples, and paired them (Matt 10:2). The disciples followed Jesus, He taught them and they had opportunities to practice. When they were ready, Jesus sent out His disciples (Luke 9). Then the bible says the “Lord” chose 72 others and also paired them (Luke 10:1), sending them out to the mission field.
It is not specific, but as 12 goes into 72 six times, one could make an educated guess that, in the same manner as Jesus (“maintain the tradition” 1Cor 11:2 ESV) paired and took responsibility for the 12 disciples, each pair of disciples (6 pairs) took responsibility for 12 of the 72 others. If this were not the case, emulating Jesus’ formula as best we could, grouping them in this manner regardless would maintain a logical line of authority and accountability (Prov 11:14).
On that note, let us look at emulating the church of Jesus (church meaning body, not a building). Note, and this is good news for pastors everywhere, remembering that temples were a part of the church of Acts (Acts 2:46), one does not have to abandon the church building or stop Sunday sermons. However, what is required is a deliberate, planned and precise movement to discipleship.
Like the Father and the Son, God and Jesus, at the top level there should be two Overseers (Eccl 4:9–12). These are selected by the church following the standards set in 1Tim 3:1-7. A possible model for the pair could be based on Jesus and God: as Jesus did as His Father commanded, one of the pair could be appointed the CO (having executive power) and the other the XO (Adjutant or helper). If there are no people within the church ready for the mission field, then a pair (or more) should be selected and trained.
The pair, based at and supported by their church are now launched into the mission field. Having their church behind them is important: remember that Jesus took time out to reflect, pray and regenerate, and instructed His disciples to do the same (Mark 6:31-32, 45). As such, it is important that the Overseers have somewhere to go for rest, resources, leadership, accountability and encouragement.
By going out into the mission field, teaching, preaching, healing and filling the needs of the people anywhere and everywhere, this pair would naturally gather a following, as Jesus did in Luke 5. The following are ministered and preached to (not just on Sundays) and linked back to the church, though their main source of ministry remains the Overseers.
When ready, the Overseers, following 1Tim 3:8-13, choose and pair 12 disciples as Jesus did (Matt 10:2). At this point the 12 chosen would probably be classed as deacons. These disciples would follow the Overseers and learn their craft.
After a period of training and internship, the Deacons would be sent out (just as Jesus sent out his disciples in Luke 9) to fulfil ministry functions emulating Jesus and the successful activities of the Overseers.
These pairs, aside from their usual ministerial duties, would inturn gather their own following.
Emulating Luke chapter 10:1 as best we can, when they have enough quality followers, each pair of disciples would select twelve candidates. With final approval from the Overseers, these new disciples would begin formal training under their respective leaders. These chosen, 72 in total, could then be classed as Deacons, and the 12 deacons above them could be promoted to Apostles.
Once trained, the 72 Deacons would be released into the mission field completing Luke 10:1.
Combined with the Overseers, this church would then have 86 committed members. Assuming each disciple had a wife and two children, the church would have 344 members not including the general followers.
The process continues and repeats.
The emphasis of this ministry is not the Sunday morning sermon, but of the discipleship of missionaries and going out into the community, into homes, workplaces, hospitals, prisons, public events, and so on, to fulfil the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20). As a by-product the Church (building) will undoubtedly be filled, children’s and other ministries will flourish, and tithes will abound.
Planting a church (temple) and waiting for seats to fill worked under premodern and modern social values, but is progressively failing under postmodernism. Holding big events with special speakers and great music will fill many seats temporarily. New exciting programs will start off with great attendance and then usually dwindle. These are all good things to do, but none of them should be the bread and butter of a church. It is the Jews who received the instructions from God to build a physical temple. Jesus’ final command to Christians was the Great Commission, and the only logical way to fulfil it is the same manner in which Christ Himself executed it: discipleship.