Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Reprinted by permission of Princeton Theological Review
It is difficult to describe how much the audience for systematic theology has changed over the last few decades.1 In these few pages I’ll be arguing that theology needs to change just as radically if it’s going to communicate effectively with Gen-Xers, Millennials, and the increasingly large group of non-religious Americans (“non’s”2) over the coming 10-20 years.
The changes are like the shifting of tectonic plates, which means earthquakes and tsunamis. When I arrived in Munich to study under Wolfhart Pannenberg in the fall of 1981, German theologians still set the tact for Christian theology worldwide. American doctoral programs in theology accepted large numbers of entering students, and most of those students could count on tenure-track jobs when they graduated. Theology journals thrived, and traveling theologians drew large crowds at universities and seminaries. When I asked Pannenberg and other established theologians what was the reason to do abstract academic theology, they invariably appealed to the trickle-down effect: “Our publications influence doctoral students and other academic theologians; their teaching molds the next generation of pastors; and pastors’ sermons and ministries guide the thinking and practice of the vast numbers of people who flock to the churches.” Or something like that.
You don’t have to be a specialist to know that things have changed. A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72% of “Millennials”—Americans between the ages of 18 and 29—now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”3 Even among those who self-identify as practicing Christians, all of the traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous years: church attendance, Bible study, and prayer. Doubts are higher, and affiliation with any institutional church is sharply lower. All of us who are still connected with local congregations already know this pattern, up close and personal. Still, it’s sobering to see the trends writ large; after all, we are talking about almost three-quarters of younger Americans!
If the decline of traditional churches and denominations continues, by 2025 the effects will have transformed the American religious landscape—even if not as radically as in Europe. (For example, on a typical Sunday, some 0.5% of Germans attend church.) Some estimate that up to two-thirds of mainline churches may have closed their doors by that time; others will struggle on without a full-time pastor. Denominations will merge in order to be able to maintain even minimal national staffs and programs. A larger and larger proportion of those who still go to church will visit large “mega” churches, those with 2,000 or more attenders on an average Sunday.
I doubt the American interest in spiritual matters will die; people will continue to report that spirituality is extremely important to them. Nor will they pursue these practices in isolation. New forms of association and shared practice will arise; new religious movements will attract participants; alliances across religious traditions will grow in strength and number. Christians who resist these trends will become increasingly strident and increasingly hostile toward the modern world, even as their numbers decrease. And, of course, discussion of religious themes—and what it means to be a Christian in today’s world—will grow in intensity and urgency. 4
And what of theology? In this context, one can no longer view academic theology as a product with an obvious and assured market. Within many churches, the interest in theology appears to be declining; the market base is no longer there. Those who still attend mainline churches are often deeply suspicious of doctrinal theology and more focused on ethical, political, and other practical concerns. By and large, people seem to be more interested in learning about the beliefs of other religious traditions, in debating ethical issues in our culture today, or in pursuing spiritual formation and practices.
You can bemoan the current state of affairs. You can argue that people still need the kind of reflection that systematic theologians offer (a proposition I agree with!), and you can brainstorm ways to get folks to “consume” the theological products that we “produce.” To those who think the problem is just better marketing, I say: I wish you well. If you can rekindle interest in the kind of theology that authors were producing 30 years ago (and that some continue to write), great. The remainder of this piece is dedicated, however, to those who agree with me that such an approach is not necessarily the best, and certainly not the only, way to proceed today.
One brief caveat: To pursue “theology after Google” does not mean to gleefully destroy all traditional Christian beliefs, to abandon the church, or to advocate a post-Christian worldview. On the contrary, it does, however, mean entering in good conscience into a new kind of open and exploratory discourse—a discourse in which one’s conversation partners are not committed in advance to landing where past theologians have landed. Many of them do end up with a vibrant Christian identity, but that’s no longer a pre-condition for theological dialogue. Theology after Google means navigating the treacherous waters of contemporary culture, religion, science, and philosophy—without knowing in advance that the harbor in which one finally drops anchor will be the same theological port from which the ships of old set sail. For those of us who live, work, and think in a Google-shaped world, such certainties about the outcome of the adventure are just not to be had in advance.
Perhaps a few questions will help to evoke the sea change that we face today:
• 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 many Christians believe that “everything must change”5 why is it that the institutions and those who lead them 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?
Of course, churches will still exist in the year 2030 (and hopefully long afterwards). But we must not assume that they will look much like church practices from 1955-1995. I assume that Christians will still gather for worship, teaching, and community; that the Scriptures will still be read; that the sacraments will be celebrated. But what church means in practice has always been deeply affected by its age and culture. When these change, so too must the church. Everyone acknowledges that we are living in a time of revolutionary transformation. So shouldn’t we expect that the 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. They weren’t only 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. For today’s generation, 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. This transformation has massive implications for ecclesiology. Take, for example, 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. Many people were not very educated, so they did not 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 (almost certainly it was a he) spoke with authority on a wide variety of issues that were important to the society of his day.
Contrast that world with today’s situation. Rarely are pastors approached as figures of authority, except (sometimes!) within their own congregations. Radio, television, and the Internet are our primary authorities for the information we need, with newspapers, advertisements, and movies coming in a close second. For many American Christians, Beliefnet.com (“Your Trusted Source for Free Daily Inspiration & Faith”) is a bigger authority on matters of Christian belief and practice than any pastor. We love self-help books, so we are more likely to read Spirituality for Dummies than to go to a group Bible study. Forty years ago people were influenced in their judgments about religious matters not only by their pastor but also by the editorials in the religion section of their local newspaper. Today the blogs one chooses to follow are far more likely to influence her beliefs.
I am almost embarrassed to list these differences, because they are so obvious. But here’s the amazing fact: Denominations aren’t changing. In most cases they’re not planning for and investing in new forms of church for this brave new world. (There are some great exceptions.)
This is not a matter of blame. The assignment of the administrators who head up denominations is to run the organization that they’ve been given. I once heard a major national leader say (prophetically) to a group of similar leaders something like, “We all know that the ship is in grave danger, and it may go down. But we all seem to have the attitude, ‘Not on my watch!’”
Denominations aren’t changing. In most cases they’re not planning for and investing in new forms of church for this brave new world.
Pastors have a bit more latitude. Individual pastors and churches are doing amazing things across the U.S. (and outside it); so are para-church and extra-church groups, organizations, and ministries. But in most cases, it’s the denominations that determine how pastors are educated, what kinds of ministries they can engage in, and what kinds of church assignments they get. The training and formation of most pastors takes place in seminary, and seminaries are increasingly out of step with the 21st century world. (As a seminary professor, I get to see this up close and personal.)
Imagine that a pastor has the good fortune to depart seminary with her idealism intact. She’s then likely to be assigned to a traditional church that has virtually no youth or younger families present, an average age of 60, and a major budget crisis on its hands. Her orders are, “Keep this church alive!” The church members like the old hymns and liturgies; they don’t like tattoos, rock music, or electronics. They are about as likely to read and respond to blogs as I am to play in the Super Bowl. So the young pastor folds her idealism away in a closet and struggles to offer the traditional ministry that churches want.
In short: The majority of our resources continue to be flung at traditional church structures. Those doing the real revolutionary work, those trying to envision—and incarnate—the church of the future struggle on with the barest of resources.
Progressive and moderate Christian leaders have some vitally important things to say, things that both the church and society desperately need to hear. The trouble is, we tend to deliver our message using technologies that date back to Gutenberg: books, academic articles, sermons, and so forth. (Think of how much of a typical mainline service involves reading written texts.) We aren’t making any significant use of the new technologies, social media, and social networking. When it comes to effective communication of message, the Religious Right is running circles around us.
So what does it mean for the up-and-coming theologians and church leaders of the next generation to do “theology after Google”? At the start, it involves conversations with cultural creatives and experts in the new modes of communication. The new theologians know how to listen the “theobloggers” whose use of the new media (blogging, podcasts, YouTube posts) has already earned them large followings and high levels of influence.6
Progressive and moderate Christian leaders have some vitally important things to say, things that both the church and society desperately need to hear. The trouble is, we tend to deliver our message using technologies that date back to Gutenberg.
“Theology after Google” isn’t just about techniques, though—however important they are. It happens only as the next generation of American theologians and church leaders begins to think together about the implications of these new modes of communication. Marshall McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message” may not have been completely on the mark; still, what we say is affected by how we say it. How are the new media changing the nature of human existence and human social connections? How are they transforming human conceptions of God, Jesus, and Christianity? And what will (and should) the church become as a result? Mastering the new communication technologies is not enough, though it’s essential; it’s also crucial to understand what it means to be religious, and Christian, in a technology-dominated age.
Some will find the results uncomfortable. It means, first of all, that we can no longer define theology only as an academic discipline. Although about Christian beliefs, modern theologies sought primary to meet the standards of the Academy. But the “trickle-down effect”—the idea that the brainy books in academic theology flow through pastors to help congregations and ordinary Christians—is no longer working (if it ever did). By and large academic theologians are not addressing the questions that lay Christians are asking; or they’re answering them so incomprehensibly that only other academic theologians understand them.
Theology after Google devotes itself to the questions that all Christians ask and the kinds of answers that ordinary people give, no matter how hesitating and uncertain. This new definition has a wonderful implication: Theology is tightly bound to whatever and wherever the church is at a given time. Theology is about what the church is and is becoming now. So “theology after Google” asks: What must the church become in a Google-shaped world?
Where is the church today? We face huge challenges with numbers; budget difficulties are a byproduct. Large numbers of younger Americans are staying away. Clergy may be happy about specific successes in ministry, but most are discouraged about long-term trends. And it is hard to bring about change when you serve one or more congregations with no associates, few youth, and scant financial resources.
Protestants are experts at guilt, but it helps to recognize the truth: the reasons for the decline of Christian institutions and congregations are cultural; they do not just have to do with us. We are facing a transformation of 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—perhaps even as revolutionary as the fall of Rome.7 If that’s right, what does this mean for those who are called to be leaders and to guide the church into the 21st century?
What we have to offer—the gospel and the community of the Body of Christ – has not stopped being relevant; Jesus’ promise of comfort in a time of uncertainty is more relevant today than ever before. Stereotypes notwithstanding, most pastors are willing and motivated to try new forms of ministry. But, among all the options, they are unsure what to commit to and implement … and how to make it happen.
First, we need to move from “church 1.0” to “church 2.0.” The analogy should be clear. “Web 1.0” was a series of static pages that one would visit and (passively) read. “Web 2.0a”—the web of today—offers a deeply interactive experience, in which the users themselves help to make the places that they go (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Wikipedia).8 We respond, contribute to, and play at the places we visit; we go there to do things. (If you’re unsure about this, watch a kid playing on the web. My seven-year-old twins will click on anything anywhere on any webpage to see what’ll happen and what it will do. The idea that the Internet might be about passive reading of content never occurred to them.)
Second, in a time of rapid change, there’s no alternative; you have to experiment. Perhaps here also we can learn something from software designers. When designers want to try out a new product, they issue a “beta” release. People try it out, find out what works and what doesn’t work, and let the designers know. They make some changes and then release the next version. What would it mean for us to consciously adopt “beta church” as a model for ecclesiology and for church ministries?9
One of the greatest insights of the Google-World is the freedom of Beta. A Beta is more than a product not-yet-ready-for-consumption, but a way of thinking, creating, and living. It owns being unfinished. It expects contribution, evolution, transparency. For a long time all of culture was under a spell. It believed in the myth of perfection, a closed process of creation, an established finality before completion. Before Beta, a mistake, glitch, virus, or crash was an embarrassment, a failure of the developers. Now these “bugs” are opportunities for learning and we thank people for pointing them out as they join in to improve.
What does Beta talk have to do with the church? Everything. One of the greatest insights that the emerging church movement has shared with the church is this love for the Beta. Think of it as a call for honesty, transparency, innovation, creative participation, and inspired imagination. When we look at the church we think Beta – not because we begrudge what is there, but because we know God is not done, the body of Christ is in the Beta and it is beautiful.
What do you make of this relational vision of the Beta? How far into the life of the church and its public performances does the Beta go? Is our worship in the Beta mode? How about the church structures, or our theology? What about our own life of discipleship and our community? Maybe we could go one step further and say that the entire world is in the Beta? Does Christian theology not point us in this direction?
The Google age is about men and women who live in, and are molded by, a very different era than the Eisenhower, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Baby Boomer eras. Those who walk here know the wilderness of unbelief. They are keenly aware that there are other options. They exist in the Matrix of belief and ambiguity. Ambiguities will not be left behind; they are the reality. As a result, these men and women exist both “inside” and “outside” the church. It may be that the goal is to find the answers (though many Google-Agers would dispute that). But the means, at any rate, is clear: one must know the questions … inside and out.
And the church? In my view, the emerging church is not about tearing down all existing structures: church buildings, denominations, and the rest. But it is about radical changes around us, and courageous responses within the church. When emergence starts happening around us, in ways and places we didn’t expect, our challenge is to learn to encourage and support it, to learn from it, rather than squelching it. Much has changed: the individuals are different; the communities are different; the ways of talking (and believing) are different. So it’s going to take some stretching on our parts. Theologies from the past won’t work as pre-packaged answers. The Catholic author Richard Rohr captures the shift in his description of spiritual practices:
One great idea of the biblical revelation is that God is manifest in the ordinary, in the actual, in the daily, in the now, in the concrete incarnations of life, and not through purity codes and moral achievement contests, which are seldom achieved anyway… We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking… The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality.10
The quickest way to convey a concrete picture of what this all means is to reduce my message to five theses:
(1) Theology is not something you consume, but something you produce. In the Age of Gutenberg, you read theology in a book; you heard it preached in sermons; and you were taught it by Bible teachers. In the Age of Google, theology is what you do when you’re responding to blogs, contributing to a Wiki doc or Google doc online (or on your own computer), participating in worship, inventing new forms of ministry, or talking about God with your friends in a pub.
(2) No institutions, and very few persons, function as authorities for theology after Google. Ever since Jesus’ (often misunderstood) statement about Peter that “on this rock I will build my church” (Mt. 16), the church has had issues with authority. The point is too obvious to need examples. The pastor standing up in the pulpit in the early 1960s was still a major authority.
Of course, pastors still stand up in pulpits today, and some still view themselves as indispensable purveyors of truth. But most of us who still speak from pulpits today are having to rethink our relationship with the audiences we address, since most people today shrug their shoulders at those who claim to be authorities in religious matters. (For many of us, scripture continues to be an authority, but the way in which it’s an authority has changed massively over the last 30 years.) Theology today means what some number of us find plausible about our faith and are willing to share. Today’s religious leaders are those who say things that ring true to us, so that we say, “Yeah, I think that person’s got some important insights. I’m going to read the blog or find a way to talk with him (or her), and I’m going to recommend to my friends that they do the same.”
(3) Theology after Google is not centralized and localized. Likewise, the church cannot be localized in a single building. We find church wherever we find Jesus-followers that we link up with who are doing cool things. This point is huge. Denominational officials and many pastors have not even begun to conceive and wrestle with what it means to work for a church without a clear geographical location.
(4) Similarly, theology after Google does not divide up the world between the “sacred” and the “secular,” as past theologies so often did. All thought and experience bears on it, and all of one’s life manifests it. Thus the distinction between one’s “ministry” and one’s “ordinary life” is bogus. All of one’s life as a Christian is missional. The great 15th-century theologian and mystic Nicholas of Cusa imagined God as a circle whose radius is infinite and whose center is everywhere. It only takes a second to realize that Cusa’s picture wreaks havoc on all geometries of “inside” and “outside.”
(5) The new Christian leader is a host, not an authority who dispenses settled truths, wise words, and the sole path to salvation. This last point is important enough that it deserves a section of its own.
I first really grasped the idea of pastors as hosts in a conversation with Spencer Burke, and it has turned my understanding of Christian leadership upside down. Today, the leaders who influence our faith and action are those who convene (or moderate or enable) the conversations that change our life—or the activities that transform our understanding of ourselves, our world, and our God. It could be an older Christian who convenes discussions at a church, a house, or a pub. It could be Shane Claiborne leading an activity at The Simple Way on Potter Street in Philadelphia—perhaps gardening in the communal garden—that gives you a sense of community that you’ve rarely had but always longed for. It could be a website or a blogger that you frequently go to, where you read others’ responses and add your own thoughts. Christian leadership is about enabling significant community around the name of Jesus, wherever two or more are gathered in his name.
The new models of emerging leadership in emerging communities deserve a whole article just for themselves. These new leaders are those who discern; they see, state, and honor the spirituality within those they meet – both inside and outside the church. They are “cultural creatives,” able to hear and interpret the pulse of our age. They are scouts for discovering existing communities and hosts for the emergence of new communities. There are the bridgers of conversations. They are lovers of what the church has been and welcomers of what she is becoming.
Above all else, though, they remind me of a great hostess. She makes the guests comfortable; she anticipates their needs. She matches folks up and gets the conversations started, though she doesn’t need to place herself in the middle of each one. She leads by example, often by establishing an atmosphere or an ethos that fosters deep sharing. And, at her best, she transforms the lives of those whom she hosts. I cannot think of a better model for leadership in the church after Google.
Note that a whole new set of spiritual disciplines is implied by (and required for!) this new model of Christian leadership, including the spiritual disciplines of coming alongside (cf. Parcletos, the name for the Holy Spirit in John 14), listening, sitting with hard questions, and thinking (and living) “in the gray.”11 It is, in short, the spiritual discipline of Hermes: translating the language that nurtured us into the language of those around us. Note also that Hermes did his “ministry” not on Mt. Olympus but in the “secular” spaces of this world, far from the sacred halls.
Although many authors, especially in the emerging church movement, have developed the notion of pastor as host, almost no one has explored what it would mean for theologians to understand themselves as hosts. Here’s the idea: Traditionally, the theologian was the “keeper of the faith.” He (I use the pronoun advisedly) was responsible for doctrinal purity; it was his task to make sure that what folks got in sermons and Christian books was “the faith once given.” Of course, there were some interpretive issues that had to be worked out, and the faith had to be applied to the specific challenges of one’s own day and age. Yet this task was held primarily as the trust for a professional class within the church, the pastors and theologians.12
The theologian who wants to participate in and contribute to discussions about faith today has a very different set of job requirements. She certainly is not the lecturer who conveys traditional answers and then sends people off to the examination room. But nor is she expected first to listen patiently as the group does its exploring, and then to close the discussion with her pronouncements on what people should actually think about these questions. (Note, however, that this second role is a vast improvement on the first; would that we had more theologians even willing to go this far!) Instead, her most effective role is as a convener of and participant in the discussions.
It obviously requires some significant humbling to take up this new role and to carry it out with enthusiasm, with grace, and in an edifying way. I happen to think that that sort of humbling should lie at the very center of a Christ-shaped ministry. Call it the kenotic theological method, one shaped by and around the self-emptying Christological picture of Phil. 2:5-8. Note that many of us who pursue the kenotic theological method today, often with fear and trembling, do so not because we think all previous theologies were misguided and because we hope to remake Christianity in our own image. To the contrary! Many of us are convinced that the only way to rekindle interest in core theological questions, to enable the sort of discourse that will help people work their way to something like a Christian world view, is to foster the kind of open discourse that allows them to explore the questions themselves. As the old saying goes, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours; if it doesn’t, it never was.”
But don’t underestimate the human ability for self-deception! We often think that we are being fantastic listeners and open to the flow of the discussion, when in fact we are dominating the airwaves and holding the reins of the outcome tightly in our hands. It is essential to solicit regular, honest feedback about the role that one is actually playing. It is frequently humbling to experience what that feedback actually says. Yet the few times that one succeeds are immensely encouraging.13
In the book that Tripp Fuller and I just published, Transforming Christian Theology, we argue that theology is about attempting to answer the Seven Core Christian Questions. These questions have impressive-sounding names: the doctrine of God (theology proper), anthropology, soteriology, christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Theologians will recognize the source of these “core questions” in the first systematic theology of the Reformation, Philip Melanchthon’s Loci communes theologici (1521). But they are really just the simple, recurring questions that every Christian wonders about as he or she struggles to be a Jesus disciple: Who is God? What are human beings? How are we separated from God, and how can that separation be overcome? Who is Jesus Christ? What or Who is the Spirit? What is the church, and what should it be doing? And what is our hope for the final future of the cosmos and humanity?
These questions do not have to be discussed in esoteric debates sprinkled liberally with Greek and German technical terms. The most humble attempts to answer these questions, in word and action, are as authentically theology as are the rarified debates within the Ivy Tower—indeed, they may be more authentic than what academic theologians do. Call it the Theology of the Widow’s Mite. What matters is that the broadest possible range of people is given the opportunity to reflect on, debate, and make up their minds about the questions that are fundamental to Christian self-understanding.
Some people who read the book will come down to the “left” of where I am as a theologian, others to the “right” of me. But those theologians after Google who follow the kenotic methodology don’t see it as their primary job description to make sure that everyone lands at precisely the same point of the theological spectrum that the theologian herself inhabits. The ongoing formation of Christian identity in a complex, multi-faceted world—and the individual’s decision about that identity—is for us the primary calling.
Can you pursue this kenotic methodology also in your written work? It is fairly obvious that popular books, articles, and especially blog posts can utilize this kenotic approach. (In fact, books and articles that do so are generally far more effective and far more widely read than those that follow the old model.) But even in academic writing it is possible to make one’s suggestions and proposals in a manner that is guided by the questions, rather than conveying only the certainty that one possesses the answers. I suspect that a survey of publications in theology over the last ten years would show that the most interesting and effective publications were those that worked out of intense and urgent questions rather than out of the guiding framework of a specific set of answers.
Theology after Google is guided by our present context: situation, audience, and social and cultural environment. It cares about the process, the effects, and the usefulness of theology. It is about Jesus, whom we call the Christ, but it is also irreducibly autobiographical. The new theologians write theology for the needs of the church today. For us this means: we write theology not just for the comfortable insiders within the churches, but for those who are slowly drifting away—and for those who have moved so far away that it’s hard for them to imagine being part of the traditional churches any longer at all. We write with their needs and concerns in mind; we write in language they can understand; and we compose arguments that pay attention to their plausibility structures, not just our own.
If we were to write a Wiki manifesto for theology after Google, it might read something like this (edits requested!): We find ourselves here, somehow, as followers of Jesus. That part seems to stick and to deepen the longer we live.
We’re not sure exactly how we got here; it’s almost like it happened to us. We call it grace. We find others around us who follow the same Teacher and who therefore struggle with many of the same questions and issues that we face. They help us understand ourselves and to remain faithful to our Guide. We call them church.
But what exactly do we believe? What must we say, and what should we not say (and do)? The quest to know is open-ended. It’s filled with uncertainties and indecisions, and it’s constantly evolving. That quest just is theology. It’s everything we think about and do. It’s reading the New York Times headlines online each morning when we awake. It’s the philosophy text that we read in a classroom or the intriguing idea about christology that we talk about with friends over a beer. It’s the ethical questions we struggle with. It’s our attempts to be involved in authentic forms of ministry and Christian community, and the questions we ask about whether those attempts are really faithful and how to make them better. It’s that recurring question, “What should I do with my life?”
I can already hear the question from the learned theologian who reads the Princeton Theological Review: so is this approach evangelical or conservative? Well, clearly it is a method that would work well for evangelicals, or at least for question-asking evangelicals, because it keeps attention focused on the classic Christian questions, which it calls the “core” questions. It also works well in mainline and progressive communities, because it allows people to voice their questions and concerns and to take a hand in formulating the answers to which they themselves are drawn.
But what I really want to answer is: That’s the wrong question! The native inhabitants of the Google age, Gen-Xers and Millennials, just aren’t so interested in the labels that defined the discourse for the previous generations. Your “-isms” simply don’t define the social and cultural spaces that they inhabit. Identities today are more complex, shifting, and uncertain. The implicit essentialism of “isms”-based thinking is foreign to them. So to insist that we define our theological frameworks in terms of preexisting sets of categories—say, exclusively in liberal/evangelical terms (which we know has been the sacred cow of American Christianity for decades), is both misleading and unproductive.
I noted earlier that theology after Google is intrinsically autobiographical. So here is my own take: I believe that the message of Jesus is as relevant and as urgent for today’s world as it has ever been. I also find that this message is more accessible in today’s context than it was, say, in the comfortable years of the Eisenhower era—years of growth, comfort, and clear self-identities. This is an age of uncertainly, complexity, and unprecedented change. Jesus was not a provider of comfortable answers. He was not a teacher of easy black-and-white distinctions. He was not a prophet who asked his followers to identify with their friends and to vilify the others.
In each of these regards, and in many more, the inhabitants of the Google age may be more attuned to Jesus’ message, way of thinking, and way of living, than were many previous ages. In a world increasingly dominated by scientism, capitalism, religious intolerance, and a sense of meaninglessness, this profound message of the kingdom of God is more powerful than ever before. Theology after Google is far more than merely a new church-growth movement, a new way to package and disseminate the old-style theology. It is instead a radically new way of doing theology, one which (we believe) opens up the power of Jesus’ message to today’s world in new and exciting ways.
1 Many of these ideas stemmed from the national conference on “Theology After Google” at Claremont School of Theology in March, 2010. The audience and the presenters deserve credit for anything of value that follows. What you can find are videos of the talks, live interviews, and PowerPoint presentations at www.TransformingTheology.org.
2 Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
3 Associated Press, “Survey: 72% of Millennials ‘more spiritual than religious’,” USA Today, October 14, 2010
4 Peter Berger predicted this trend in his prophetic A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (New York: Free Press, 1992). For an example, see Religion Dispatches.
5 Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007).
6 I recommend regularly spending some time at HomebrewedChristianity.com and similar sites.
7 Phyllis Tickle makes the first point in The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008). Brian McLaren draws the connections with Rome in A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), and I draw analogies with Augustine’s situation in Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 43ff.
8 “The term Web 2.0 is commonly associated with web applications that facilitate interactive information sharing, … user-centered design, and collaboration.… A Web 2.0 site gives its users the free choice to interact or collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (‘prosumers’) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (‘consumers’) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them. Examples of Web 2.0 include social-networking sites, blogs, wikis, video-sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, mashups…” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2.0.)
9 The following three paragraphs were written by Tripp Fuller, modified by Spencer Burke, edited again by me, and widely commented on at TheOoze.com. It’s an example of beta writing, which has no single author and is constantly evolving. Imagine that seminaries would start teaching models for ministry of this sort!
10 These quotations have their own life on the web ( just Google them yourself).
11 Still classically formulated by Paul Tillich in Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1957).
12 It still surprises me to see how little interest there is today in the classic creeds and their traditional interpretations. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that more liberal mainline churchgoers would not consider themselves bound by the past conclusions. But one finds less and less interest even among evangelical pastors and church members today. To teach the doctrinal loci with the expectation that the members of one’s class will simply write them down, memorize them, and begin believing them is unrealistic. (Not even seminary students are willing to do this!) But one does find an amazing number of people, many of them outside seminaries and churches, who are interested in the questions that the creeds addressed. They want to explore the traditional questions in the context of today’s issues, and they want to do it with the freedom to explore, question, reject, and reconstruct.
13 I remember once bumping into one of fourteen students in such an experimental group about a year after our class met. Her words were perhaps the most gratifying I have ever heard from a student: “Oh, weren’t you in my class last year?” The fact that she remembered me as a participant and not as the controlling agent was exactly the outcome we were hoping for.