When in Rome…

By: James Flynn
Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

The Western world is in a time of cultural change so dynamic that our time could be compared to the Renaissance or the Reformation. Just as with the shifts in culture that occurred more than five hundred years ago, technology is once again driving this change. Will the church react as it has in times past, retreating from change to take cover or ignoring change so as not to become stained by the world? If so, then the church is retreating from one of the greatest opportunities to reach people with the gospel that has ever existed.

Huge cultural shifts can be scary things for people. Culture is the way we know, experience, and understand our world. Culture’s written and unwritten rules help us to construct reality, and when culture’s fabric changes, the result is a cultural earthquake that upsets our very basis for understanding life. When the old rules of culture change, people become insecure and look for answers. Again I ask, will the church retreat to try to keep itself pure and safe, or will it earn its right to answer some of the world’s questions by conversing with culture and speaking the new language? As J. Randall Nichols once observed, “. . . people do not have a burning desire to hear about the Jebusites.” That is, unless the Jebusites can help us live life better today.

M. Rex Miller contends there have been four major cultural shifts in Western culture over the last several thousand years and that all these changes have been driven by technological advances. Here is the break down of eras as Miller defines it them:

  • Oral Culture (4000 BC–1500 AD): During this time period, the primary means of communication was oral, taking the form of face-to-face stories, liturgy, ritual, and symbols;
  • Print Culture (1500–1950 AD): With the invention of the printing press, the primary means of communication became printed text, spurring a cultural revolution (the Renaissance) and a religious revolution (the Reformation), as the Scriptures were printed in people’s common languages;
  • Broadcast Culture (1950–1990 AD): With the invention and spread of television, a media revolution occurred that moved communication from words to images even as it also began to bridge distance to create a global culture and community;
  • Digital Culture (1990–???? AD): The introduction of the Internet has created yet another cultural shift by allowing an explosion of global communication and collaboration, as well as a shift toward multimedia communication.

 Each time communication technology has shifted radically, the culture has shifted radically because of it. Many times in the past, the church has reacted negatively to changes in technology rather than embracing them and using that cultural shift to the advantage of the gospel. The church killed those who tried to use print media technology to get the Scriptures to people in their own languages. It denounced television as a tool of the devil until preachers discovered that people like Billy Graham could use it to propagate the gospel. Will we do better with the Internet and the changes that are happening in our culture today, or will we make the same mistakes we have been famous for in the past?

 The answer is probably a little of both. As I write this blog, there are hopeful signs that the church “gets it” as preachers mobilize to use the Internet to deliver streaming audio and video of worship services and sermons globally, penetrating every country with the gospel message. Many are also using social networking capabilities such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to create virtual communities of faith and to share the gospel. Others are standing back from it all because the change is overwhelming. Some walk the same path seen in the history of the church as they denounce the new technology as evil, consigning themselves to a place in the cultural corner. Would that we would act like Jesus and Paul, embracing the culture and wringing from it every opportunity and method by which to present the gospel in this time and space and in a language that is being spoken at this moment.

 As always, God has seen to it that His church has been placed at the crossroads of history in a very fertile place. If we embrace this opportunity with a sense of mission and release the creative and imaginative power He has placed within us, then many will be drawn to the saving power of the gospel through our words. We must become as little children again and take joy in experiencing life and then bring that joy into our discussions with others as we share not only the word but the word in the context of life itself. To do this, we will have to draw deeply from the wellsprings of creativity and imagination. We will need to put others first and lay aside the comfort of our preferred communication styles in favor of the ones that work for our listeners where and when they live in space and time. We become equipped to do these things as our listeners’ story becomes our story and as we love them enough to understand their language, culture, and words. We will connect when we meet with people where they live instead of inviting them to join us where we live. That’s what Jesus and Paul did, and they seemed to do quite well. God grant us the courage to do the same.

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James Flynn
This entry was posted by on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010 at 5:00 am and is filed under Church Ministry, Faith & Culture, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “When in Rome…”

  1. Deb Vaughn says:

    Hey Dr Flynn -
    When I talk with some of my peers, there is reluctance to embrace the digital culture because of its constantly changing nature. Just like teen slang, it seems to change as soon as adults have mastered it. As someone who spends a lot of time conversing and listening on the web, there is a never-ending stream of content to absorb, reflect on and respond to.

    The more critical question that we don’t ask, though, is where ARE the people we are trying to reach? Many of them will not seek out a “churchy” website, or listen to even a 10 minute sermon any more than they would darken a church door. Yet people who are still seeking God need encouragement, hope and peace as they face life’s questions and issues. We can’t assume they will “come to us” — we have to keep on “going” to where they are. We do have to communicate on the web with clear, captivating messages of the Gospel, yet contextually and thoughtfully framed.

    The joy and the challenge of the process of sharing Christ in this new culture!