Prodigal Project

Intro to The Prodigal Project – journey into the emerging church by Mike Riddell, Mark Pierson, Andrew Lorien, and Cathy Kirkpatrick. It provides insights into current trends in Western culture, particularly the decline of church attendance.

Over the last half of the twentieth century, the great ship of Western culture has been listing, terminally holed below the waterline. Why should a cultural synthesis which has endured for centuries suddenly begin to founder under our feet? It’s not hard to identify some of the causes, but in the end none of them is sufficient to explain the events. There is an essential mystery in the turning of the tide of the ages, which Christians might want to describe as the activity of God in history. It is something we must have respect for rather than attempt to control, much as seafarers learn to honour and read the ocean.

[…] To be a Christian in these times is not easy for a Westerner. To be a churchgoer is even more difficult. There is something of a crisis of confidence, as previous modes of response to the world prove increasingly inadequate. In such times, it is important that we as the body of Christ do not turn on each other, nor be too quick to allocate blame for the difficult waters we have encountered. There have been many attempts to locate the bogey: the failure of the clergy, the selfishness of the laity, the lure of materialism, the subversion of ‘humanism’, the activity of demons, the lack of evangelism or the absence of the Spirit.

Full text:
‘Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.’ So sang Joni Mitchell many years ago, with sweet poignancy. And surely it does seem like the truth. Many people these days are grieving the loss of a way of life that has disappeared almost as quickly as the ‘paradise’ she mourned. We feel nostalgic for something, even when we can’t find the words for what it is that’s missing. Like the characters in George Orwell’s 1984, we have vague memories that things may have been different once. But even the future has become past for us.

For better or for worse, we have the privilege of living through one of those periods of history when the world really does change, substantially and irretrievably. The general sense of dislocation felt by so many is a valid indicator that the ages are moving under our feet. The upheaval is such that, as Yeats1 had it, ‘the centre cannot hold’. There is a good deal of anxiety felt in our global society at present, as the things which once were fixed begin to betray our long-standing trust in them.

Over the last half of the twentieth century, the great ship of Western culture has been listing, terminally holed below the waterline. Why should a cultural synthesis which has endured for centuries suddenly begin to founder under our feet? It’s not hard to identify some of the causes, but in the end none of them is sufficient to explain the events. There is an essential mystery in the turning of the tide of the ages, which Christians might want to describe as the activity of God in history. It is something we must have respect for rather than attempt to control, much as seafarers learn to honour and read the ocean.

The fact that the mid-point of cultural transition coincided with the turning of the millennium has fuelled apocalyptic distress in the wider community. It is not necessary to be a social commentator or historian to be aware of deeply troubling disquiet. It ‘feels’, especially to those who straddle the ages, as if everything familiar has fallen around our ears, and we have woken in foreign territory populated by Barbarians.2 A great deal of the stress present in Western urban communities is due to this seemingly non-specific dis-ease.

The church, as one cultural vessel among many, finds itself in troubled waters. On the one hand, the ship of the church is itself foundering in the cross-currents of cultural transition. And on the other, it has become a sort of hospital ship, attracting refugees from a former era who find in it hope of return to more familiar waters. To employ a much-overworked analogy, there is a good deal of rearranging of the deckchairs, not to mention angry arguments on the bridge. Meanwhile, some distressed passengers are leaping overboard, preferring their chances in the open sea.

To be a Christian in these times is not easy for a Westerner. To be a churchgoer is even more difficult. There is something of a crisis of confidence, as previous modes of response to the world prove increasingly inadequate. In such times, it is important that we as the body of Christ do not turn on each other, nor be too quick to allocate blame for the difficult waters we have encountered. There have been many attempts to locate the bogey: the failure of the clergy, the selfishness of the laity, the lure of materialism, the subversion of ‘humanism’, the activity of demons, the lack of evangelism or the absence of the Spirit.

None of these is sufficient to explain current problems. Rather, much of the malaise the church is experiencing is simply the result of its participation in the wider cultural shift occurring in society. We have woken to find ourselves in ‘exile’, despite having no clear memories of getting there.3 It is, naturally, a strange and troubling place to be. It will be important to grieve, and to express the pain at that which has been lost. But it is also important to try to understand what it is that’s different about this new place, and how we might learn to sing our songs in a foreign land.

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