As we continue to consider the nature & construction of Discipleship Greenhouses, it seems there are two significant challenges to their creation today that were not present in 18th century England as the Methodist revival blossomed:
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The first has to do with public spaces. Though Whitfield, Wesley, and others constructed their own arenas through field preaching, the expectation was that effective communication occurred though and in large groups: preaching in churches, lectures on the subject of the day, speeches by politicians, and so on. Not so today: we live in a time of dramatically withered public & civic engagement. Robert Putnam’s classic Bowling Alone is one exploration of how relationality and community are withdrawing from the public square and even atrophying completely. Whatever the sources of the decline (and they are legion), one implication is that there are few remaining arenas for public conversation of any kind, much less one filled with potential and respect. Despite record numbers at NASCAR races, book & newspaper sales decline, lecture halls & auditoriums are vacant, and banal press releases compete for the dwindling space left unused by entertainment-as-news.
There are no public places where John Wesley would be able to preach today.
Arguably, the rise of electronic communication changes this: especially the last few years as social media has exploded with influence and use. Predictions in the early 1990s of a new “town hall” through the internet (thank you, Ross Perot) have been finally fulfilled with a rise in social networking, mobile devices, and multimedia technology: iPhones, Facebook, podcasts, Flip videocameras, MySpace, Blackberries, blogs, YouTube, Twitter…and the list goes on.
However, the distance imposed by the computer screen still influences the conversation–witness the rampant flame wars that are waged on blogs, in forums, and through Facebook comments. We may be able to share communication instantly across the globe, but the quality does not demonstrate marked improvement.
So far, social networking has not yielded this interaction, by which we enter into a conversation that is larger than ourselves and shape it for the common good.
Contrast this flat public dynamic with the ferment happening in my Annual Conference’s partner Cote d’Ivoire. The Ivorian boldness I witnessed last November is matched perfectly with a context full of rich communal ties, even if they are complex. Our hope is that their energy for the Gospel can be shared with us; I pray it works.
The second challenge is related to intimacy and invitation. Small groups on the one hand are particularly encouraging because of the general conviction that “authentic conversation” must happen among small groups. While large format arenas vanish, one-to-one relationships and small groups of friends grow more strongly idealized as the place where people can be truthful and transformational. However, interest and potential for engagement is generally measured by how many others are interested, not by the subject matter or personalities involved. We’re back to sporting events and stadium concert tours.
Moreover, if our contemporaries crave intimacy, they at the same time are suspicious of manipulation by religious groups–not exclusively so, but they are wary. The claims from some quarters that Christianity isn’t really a religion but a “faith” don’t help the credibility issue. From the interior, we can draw some distinctions between the ways Christians believe from other religious practices, but from the outside it comes off as duplicitous to try & explain away or ignore the sociological & institutional markers of religion (and why would we want to?).
Instead of engaging in the primary tasks of discipleship, we expend enormous energy on buildings, political hot potatoes, and doctrinal & moral minutiae. Churches have been the one place left where individuals made music and sang together. If current trends continue, even within the church musical literacy and virtuosity will reach the same low, facile ability level as the rest of society.How well can invitation function in such a volatile climate?
We’re caught in a double-bind that our 18th-century forebears were not.
So authentic communication of the Gospel today is challenged both by the lack of public space and by the inability to shape intimate spaces into graced responses. A final question: given a high-expectation, low-commitment culture that values nuance and takes time to trust, is rapid conversion (microscopic) and meteoric growth (macroscopic) desirable or suitable? Moreover, Richard Foster notes that the difficulty with living sacrifices is that they keep trying to crawl off the altar…that’s why they take a lifetime to offer. How much are we in a hurry to get people “done”? Can transformation be both rapid and substantial? Does the greenhouse model offer an illusion of effectiveness or excellence, but not actually either?
These questions have been plaguging me for a while…I hope they keep you up at night too!