Three American Cultures in One Lifetime

Most traditional mainline Christians are still in the Sacred-Canopy Culture that prevailed through previous American history. After World War II the Modern Scientific Culture challenged the traditional. Mainline ministers oriented themselves to addressing that new culture.  Traditional churches were on the defensive.  But in recent decades young adult Americans have moved on to the Post-Modern Culture. How can churches best witness to this new culture?  This challenge presents some surprises.

The Old Sacred Canopy Culture

This is the culture I grew up in. Lutherans and Catholics, as well as Episcopalians and Reformed, shared fundamental assumptions. Call this the Sacred Canopy: that life was created by God; we defined ourselves by our relationship to this God who sets our morality of responsibilities to him and to each other. Life revolved around sin and salvation. We were all baptized into that faith and catechized into its beliefs. Our lives revolved around loyalty to the church and what was expected of us. It was a fulfilling life for many.  Take God out of the equation and this whole Sacred Canopy collapses.

The Modern Culture

This is the world I learned as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. There is no place for the supernatural. You could have your own beliefs, but those are not relevant to what counts. In this modern culture, the Bible has no special authority; it is a collection of stories told long ago. Those who take it seriously are fundamentalists who really don’t belong in the progressive world. You don’t go around talking about miracles.

In this modern culture mainline ministers learned the new academic rules for interpreting the Bible. There is no significant supernatural world. Miracles need to be explained away. The Bible has no special inspiration; much of it was written based on oral traditions added in later centuries. The old traditions are suspect. Churches became social organizations that need to justify themselves by the social purposes they pursue.

Progressive churches oriented themselves to the modern secular world. But they lost something basic about the spiritual world. Those are the ones in steep decline now.

The Current Post-Modern Culture.

Most young people by training and occupation are now immersed in the scientific culture. They are looking for something more. What can be empirically proven is not providing a fulfilling life for them. Their post-modern culture leaves them open to worlds beyond observable nature–that is, the supernatural. What they are groping for could be called spiritual meaning. But they don’t carry the assumptions of the old Sacred Canopy culture. They don’t see the Bible as having any special authority. They don’t start with Bible-based beliefs and are resistant to denominations that define themselves by their beliefs. They are looking for congregations and fellowships that define themselves by their actions and the quality of their community life.

What are the touchpoints for reaching out to post-moderns? This is the driving question I want to pursue. The challenge is to address their felt lack of meaning and their loneliness. Because they are open to the supernatural, they can be interested in how the Holy Spirit changes lives. They are looking for evidence of the Spirit, not a theology of the Spirit. They are not looking initially for ethical rules and guilt based on them. A loving God of grace who reaches out to them makes sense. They are open to informal church communities that reflect life and relationships open to the Spirit. Including them in such a community has to start with showing intense interest in each personally and by demonstrating what such a Spirit-driven community can offer.

Such a ministry is time-consuming.  Ministry to people in the post-modern culture will be best done by young adults who show aptitude and learn by doing. The best older Christians can do is help raise up and support this new generation of Christian leaders.

Are you most comfortable in the traditional Sacred Canopy Culture, or the Modern Culture or now the Post Modern Culture?

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