John Drane is a spiritual consultant to both traditional and emerging churches in the U.K. and internationally, and a professor of practical thelology in the U.S. at Fuller Seminary in California. He is the author of a number of books, and his most recent is After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry and Christian Discipleship in An Age of Uncertainty (Baker Academic, 2008). In this volume Drane presents the case for a reinvigorated style of ministry and asks what it means to be Christian in a post-Christendom context. Over the weekend he made time for an interview on the thesis of his book.
Morehead's Musings: Professor Drane, I have long benefited from your writing and reflections on the church in the West or the Global North as you prefer to refer to it in your latest book, To put down a proper foundation and context, can you briefly summarize the cultural challenges posed by our post-Christian environment and why these issues need to be squarely faced by the church?
John Drane: I think former General Eric Shinseki, now an Obama nominee, put it succinctly when he commented that "If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less". The biggest challenge may not actually be coming from the cultural environment, but from within the church, where for a generation now we have consistently failed to understand the seismic changes that are sweeping through the whole world system today – but which in reality began almost 50 years ago. Many Christians who lived through the cultural revolution of the 1960s (and who are now the leaders of our major denominations) failed to embrace cultural change then, and as a consequence have been like the proverbial deer caught in headlights as the pace of change has accelerated. Underlying that was the remnant of a Christendom mindset that misunderstood the nature of the relationship between cultural forms and the Christian gospel, failing to realize that in order to stay the same the gospel has always had to change if its challenge is to be heard authentically in diverse circumstances. Paradoxically, this was the very generation that pioneered faithful contextualization within missionary contexts in the non-western world, but failed to see that the West itself was a missionary situation. So in short, while cultural change is real, and is here to stay, I think it’s too easy to blame external circumstances for the challenges we now face.
Morehead's Musings: For those not familiar with your book The McDonaldization of the Church upon which your new book builds and suggests ways forward, can you describe the McDonaldization thesis and its application to the church?
John Drane: The McDonaldization thesis is a specialized version of Max Weber’s understanding of the social process, and especially focuses on the extreme rationalization of late 20th century cultures made possible through the development of technology and the consequent multiplication of rules, regulations, and fixed procedures, and the general growth of bureaucratic systems. The word "McDonaldization" stems from sociologist George Ritzer’s observation that the fast food industry embodies what might be regarded as one of the most extreme forms of such rationalization. As anyone who has ever worked in this environment will know, there is only one way to cook and serve a burger – and even those whose only experience is as customers easily recognize that not only is every fast food meal the same as every other one, but the way in which it is served (even the words used by servers) is going to be identical in all the outlets. Ritzer identified four marks of McDonaldization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. In reflecting on this, he concluded that the growing emphasis on this sort of rationalization in every aspect of our lives is forcing us to operate in a mechanistic way that marginalizes individuality and creativity and as a consequence is arguably a major cause of the disillusionment and existential agony now felt by many people. When I came across that, it seemed natural to wonder how all this might relate to the church. In particular I asked whether we have allowed our churches and their structures – not to mention the ways we worship – to be taken over by the creeping rationalization of modernist culture, and whether that over-rationalized way of being might actually be damaging the spirituality of those in the church, as well as being missionally counterproductive in relation to individuals for whom the rest of life was already over-McDonaldized, and who were looking for freedom from that rather than more of the same. It wasn’t hard to identify the four marks of McDonaldization in inherited forms of church – and just as easy to see that this was at odds with a biblical understanding of faith. Wherever we look, authentic biblical faith recognizes – indeed celebrates – diversity. The prophets raised creativity to an art form that was at times bizarre, but always engaging. Jesus went out of his way to accommodate the most eclectic mix of people among his followers. And even Paul (often claimed to be the creator of a rationalized form of belief) never insisted that all his churches be identical, knowing that for the gospel to be contextualized in Philippi was going to be different from its contextualization in Corinth, Jerusalem, or Rome. Meaningful contextualization in our globalized world is now less a matter of geography (though that is still important in some places), and more a matter of culture and interest groups.
Morehead's Musings: One of the interesting concepts for me in your book was your suggestion that we are moving into the Conceptual Age. Borrowing from Daniel Pink's concepts from his book, A Whole New Mind (Riverhead Trade, 2006) you identify Western culture as having moved from an Agricultural Age, to an Industrial Age, to the Information Age, and now into the Conceptual Age. How do you define the Conceptual Age and why is this significant for the church to understand?
John Drane: I like the notion of the conceptual age because it seems to me that we are in a place where we need a serious reconceptualization of just about everything we think we know. We face unprecedented challenges to our entire existence and it is clear that the paradigms inherited from the past are in large measure a cause of the mess we’re now in, and for that reason alone are unlikely to be answer to the problem. The global financial crisis is just the latest manifestation of this. We also face the reality of environmental degradation. These things have largely been brought about by our current ways of being, which means that doing more of the same is unlikely to be the resolution of things. We do urgently need to find, as Daniel Pink says, “a whole new mind” – and that for me means taking the spiritual far more seriously than has been the case for a very long time.
Morehead's Musings: Another interesting suggestion you offer is that the church needs to develop a twenty-first century eschatology that positively engages with hedonism. You state that if hedonism "is the way in which many people confront and deal with life today, then in one sense that set of behaviors and rituals actually is their spirituality." This struck me because I have had similar thoughts as it relates to my reflections on a theology of play and ritual in connection with Burning Man Festival. How might the church dialogue with culture theologically in this area in order to develop such an eschatology?
John Drane: I think it also has something to do with the articulation of a biblically inspired anthropology. Writers like Nancey Murphy and Joel Green have identified some of the new questions in light of neuroscience but I would also want to approach this through exploration of what, exactly, does it mean for humans to be “made in God’s image”. It seems to me that we have lost touch with our most basic sense of value and purpose in life, and this has a tendency to induce a questioning of our worth and an inability to see our true place in the wider cosmos, which leaves us only with consumerism and hedonism as ways of filling the vacuum. For me, the Lord’s Prayer articulates the challenge quite simply: we are exhorted to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. But a lot of Christians seem to hear that differently, as “let me come to your kingdom, when I die, because that’s where your will is truly done, unlike the earth where I live now”. By paying more attention to a world we don’t live in, and which is not ours to control, and ignoring the world where we can make a difference, we are missing something central to the gospel.
Morehead's Musings: After some discussion of the contemporary "holistic milieu" in Western spiritual experience you challenge the church's "inherited pattern of gathering in congregations [that many assume] will be at the centre of church life." In what ways might Christians be thinking beyond this paradigm for church in ways that seeks to develop new senses of spiritual community, especially in ways that enable us to engage the urban tribes?
John Drane: It’s not that I want to close down the habit of congregational gathering, more that I suspect it is a way of being that is in transition, and eventually may come to be seen as a cultural manifestation of an era and a way of being that is now past. Clearly, church as it is now connects meaningfully with many people, otherwise no-one at all would be in the churches we now have. For me, this is more about the glass being half full or half empty, and my concern is with the half that is empty, by which I mean those many people groups with whom current ways of being church will never connect in meaningful ways. In relation to the new “urban tribes”, then there might well be a different specific answer for different times and places, because not all such tribes are identical, even though they might share many characteristics in common. But speaking more generally, one of the main things that have attracted the urban tribes (and many others as well) to President-elect Obama has been his assurance that we don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done, and new ways might actually be better for human flourishing. From a Christian angle, for me that means a renewed recognition that life is a whole, there is no sacred/secular divide, and we need to ask new questions that begin with something like, “what does faithful discipleship look like in this time and place?”
Morehead's Musings: I think you would agree that the church can be transformed itself by engagement with new urban tribes. What is the potential for transformation for the church in creativity and imagination as it engages artists, poets, filmmakers, and bohemians?
John Drane: One of the things I really like about this forward-looking vision is that it would also take us back to our scriptural foundations. Who are the movers and shakers in the Bible? Well, the prophets were clearly artists and poets (quite often dramatists and mime artists as well), as indeed was Jesus (one of the most challenging things he ever did was to draw a picture, see John 8:8, though he mostly told stories which is what filmmakers do today). And they were all bohemians, if by that you mean people whose lifestyles are anything but conventional.
Morehead's Musings: Drawing from Daniel Pink again, you note that the changing cultural context of our time calls for people who can "synthesize rather than analyze." Can you touch on this and expand on it as to what you are calling for and how such people, particularly in leadership, might be of great help to the church?
John Drane: You could put this in a different way by saying that what we need today are big picture people, those who see beyond the immediate, and who are two or three steps ahead in understanding the likely future consequences of each small action we might do today. Call them strategic leaders, if you like. Actually, we have too many managers and very few leaders. Remember that nobody is a leader unless somebody is following. People today are moved to follow by someone who has a vision – a big project that transcends our own individual lives, and opens up the possibility of new worlds and new opportunities, and in the process pulling together strands that others never see. That’s not to say that analysis is irrelevant, because visionary leaders often have no idea how to bring their big ideas to fruition. But it’s not the managerial skills that will inspire us to new possibilities.
Morehead's Musings: You share your own personal struggles in the book in coming to your present thoughts on the church and at one point you state that "I only came to that realization because I was prepared to listen to what was going on in a cultural context that in many ways was quite alien to any of my previous experience." Would you describe your experience as a paradigm shift, and how might we develop these listening skills to transform our understanding of the challenges of the day?
John Drane: For me personally, I don’t think I would describe it as a paradigm shift, but it might be when projected onto the bigger screen of church life more generally. One legacy of Christendom is that churches seem to think they have an automatic right to be heard whenever they make pronouncements about things. You see that in the U.S. just as clearly as in the older cultures of Europe. We need to earn the right to be participants in the cultural conversations of our day, and our credibility will only be guaranteed when we start engaging with the questions people are actually asking, rather than the ones we think they should be. You only know what those questions are when you listen. Actually, talking about listening to the culture as if it’s some alien thing out there may not be the best way of putting it, because we are all already a part of the culture in which we are called to be faithful followers of Jesus. But some Christians seem to be in denial about that, and when they’re in the church (though not usually in the rest of their lives) adopt a mindset that puts faith and culture in opposition to each other. Not only is such denial spiritually corrosive in itself, but it also prevents us seeing where God is already at work, and inhibits effective engagement with the many conversations already taking place.
Morehead's Musings: You suggest that the church "begin with the agenda of those who are asking the questions of purpose and identity, rather than with the agenda of the Church." And as a result of this you also suggest that the church shift from being in the service and the experience business to putting energies into the transformation business. Can you touch a little on what you mean by this?
John Drane: I first started thinking about this when I did a survey of how churches present themselves on their websites, and one of the first things I noticed was that if you wanted to know how to follow Jesus then for the most part a church website would not be the place to look. Most of them have the sort of information that I guess needs to be available, but would only interest committed members (things like rotas for who arranges the flowers, who staffs the crèche, and so on). Many churches say very little about their beliefs, but among those that do there is a similar internal preoccupation, using buzz words like "Bible-believing" (who are the Christians who would say they don’t believe it?) or "welcoming and affirming" (what Christian would say they are not?) – or offering creedal statements couched in language that doesn’t really tell people what you are about, but constitutes a social marker to distinguish yourself from some other type of church (usually one you disapprove of). All of that only makes sense to an internal market, where you have people who want a church, and their major question is, which one? In a churched culture (such as the U.S. still is, to a considerable extent), you can still grow a church by offering that sort of religious service to the existing constituency, and you might even gain a few new people by offering a bigger or better experience than some other church in the neighborhood. But the real missional challenge doesn’t focus around questions of that sort. Increasing numbers of people know next to nothing about Christian belief, and are completely baffled by internal arguments about interpretation of scripture or theological angles. They are looking for something that will give meaning and purpose to life. In effect, they will say, “cut the crap: just show me that it works”. That invites us to be into what I called the transformation business. Even more scarily, I speculate in the book about what might happen if we were only paid by results, if our promises of transformative experience actually delivered. One of our biggest challenges is the discrepancy that is all too often found between what we offer and who we are. A previous generation talked about the need to practice what we preach. I might ask why so many churches have so many angry people in them if we are really as transformed as we say we are. Which ultimately comes down to a missional question, for who wants to join a bunch of angry people?
Morehead's Musings: Dr. Drane, thank you again for taking time out of your busy traveling, consulting and teaching schedule to discuss your new book. I highly recommend it as the latest of a series of helpful and thought provoking volumes.