The Church in an Age of Revolution:
Society, Church and Technological Change
by David Luke
When the Teacher of Ecclesiastes wrote that, 'there is nothing new under the sun', it perhaps seems inconceivable that he could have had in mind the world of satellite communications, personal computers and virtual reality. Innovations such as these have transformed and are transforming the world in which we live. Of course, to many it seems that the present technological revolution has made the Christian faith redundant. Christians might quickly counter that whatever changes technology has brought to our world the plight of mankind remains constant. The Teacher was right.
While the Christian message remains constant, the ability of the churches to present that message effectively and to challenge this rapidly changing world with its claims seems another issue. The Church, it seems to many (even in the Church itself) is at its lowest ebb, cowed by a self-assured, technologically driven society. While this might lead some to despair of the Church, there is a sense in which we have been here before, that there is nothing new under the sun.
It is perhaps significant that Wired, the magazine known as 'The Bible of the Internet', chose to launch its first British edition with a quote from Thomas Paine, the 18th century English radical, who wrote, 'We have it in our power to begin the world over again.' Paine was writing at the height of the Industrial Revolution, reflecting on a society driven by technological innovation and buoyed by a sense of confidence in human achievement.
While it is of course always dangerous to draw parallels between the contemporary world and times past, there can be little doubt that we are living in a society undergoing radical change in away comparable to and yet far outpacing British society in the 18th century. It is true that there are many dissimilarities between that society and our own, but there are also certain parallels, both in the condition of society and of the church, which are worthy of our attention. Indeed, there are lessons to be learned.
Society and Technological Change
Much debate continues to be waged in academic discussion as to whether or not it is accurate to speak of an 'industrial revolution' in Britain in the 18th century. If it is accurate to use such a term, the question is: when did it begin? Wherever one may choose to take a stand in this debate, there can be little doubt that the impact of technology dramatically changed the face of British society in the 18th century.
During this period, Britain rapidly moved from small cottage based industries to become the first industrialised nation in the western world, with a truly global economy. No other nation came near her until late in the 19th century. Yet, alongside such economic advance came the changes in society to which I have already referred. These changes were many and varied, and documenting them is well beyond the scope of this short article — so I have , chosen to highlight some which I think have important parallels with the impact of technological change in contemporary society. I realise that my choice is highly selective but I hope no less important or representative because of that. Forgive me if I have omitted your personal favourite!
The break up of traditional communities: On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was a largely rural community with patterns of settlement often dating back over centuries. The Industrial Revolution changed that. As the centres of industry shifted from small cottage industries centred on the family unit to the new factory power bases, so traditional communities began to break up. People went where work was to be found.
The rapid growth in urbanization: This followed on from the break-up of traditional communities, as the new centres of industry sprang up.
Cities like Manchester sprang up almost overnight. England, which in the early part of the century had only a handful of towns with over 5,000 inhabitants, had, by the end of the century, around one third of the population living in towns, with the figure reaching one half within the next fifty years. Here we find the roots of the bleak Dickensian society, but devoid of its sentiment.
The loss of individual significance: This followed on from the break-up of traditional communities and rapid urbanization. Large numbers of people came to live in expanding, anonymous cities, far removed from their traditional family roots. One historian, E. R. Wickham, has concluded that society was reduced to a 'mass of faces in the High Street.' People worked long hours in poor conditions, unprotected by any kind of government legislation. They were, de facto, owned by their employers. They also lived in extremely poor accommodation, rife with diseases, both physical and spiritual.
The changing nature of the family: The family had always been the base of traditional cottage industries. Everyone in the family was involved to some extent in the means of production. However, with the coming of factory-based industries, the family was no longer the unit which controlled production. Instead it was controlled by the production process. The whole family was still involved, but it no longer functioned as a unit. Parents and children became autonomous units in the industrial process. One result was that children were exposed to the hazards of industrial society which have come to us as part of the lore of the Industrial Revolution. Today's society, of course, seems far removed from Blake's land of 'dark satanic mills.' So much is this the case that one might query whether or not there are worthwhile parallels here. I think there are.
Today we may be talking about personal computers instead of power driven looms, but the impact of the new technology is in many ways similar to that of the old.
1. Once again, there is a sense of the loss of community. There is a great fluidity of movement in our society, driven by the increased demands of changing work patterns.
2. Again, the pattern in which we find ourselves is one of increased urbanization. Urbanization has the effect, as it did in the Industrial Revolution, of creating proximity without creating community.
This breakdown of community life is reinforced in me contemporary case by the growing use of technology operated by individuals. In the new world of technology people can perform an ever increasing range of tasks without ever leaving their computer station. But in all this they will lose what John Gray recently described in the Guardian as 'the human exchanges [which] have an unfathomable depth of meaning that no computer can simulate.' Perhaps the 'personal' computer is the most inappropriately named piece of technology we have yet encountered.
3. Following on from this, there is that growing sense of the lack of individual significance. People continue to be at the behest of what appear to be random economic factors leading to redundancy and long term unemployment. People seem to be no more important to their employers than machines or workstations: they are simply another commodity. Again, as in the case of the Industrial Revolution, people are, it seems, virtually owned by theiremployers. The demands that are placed on the lives of employees seem to be ever increasing with a corresponding diminution of their personal value and significance. It is a cycle of insignificance not broken by the provision of bonuses and leisure facilities. This simply increases the sense of ownership by the corporation, when they control even recreation.
4. All of these factors have of course far reaching implications for the family and this in an age when families are already under extreme pressure. Pressure on parents to be ready to respond to the increasing ; demands of their employment has a knock on effect in family life. As in the Industrial Revolution, the basic family unit as one under parental control and guidance is being undermined.
This analysis of the impact of technology on contemporary society has perhaps said nothing new. In a sense it has not intended to. Instead, it has sought to say that we are not in a unique position but a situation with a strong historical parallel.
The Church in the Changing Society
With such rapid change in the 18th century, the Church struggled to adapt. The real reason that the Church struggled to adapt was not so much the rapidity of the change as the underlying malaise in the church. Spiritually and socially, the Church was characterised by a complacency and parochialism which ill equipped it to meet the challenges of the rapid changes in society. The Church of England was spiritually moribund, an institution in thralldom to an aristocratic form of government which pervaded all levels of society. The Dissenting churches, having been exhausted by the struggle to survive in the last quarter of the 17th century, now — enjoyed the luxury of toleration. Toleration also afforded the further luxury of a series of doctrinal disputes, often on mundane matters, which had an enervating effect on dissenting life. The Church in the early part of the 18th century was marked by declining church attendance, spiritual aridity, or organizational inflexibility and the marginalisation of the Church in society.
How relevant are the parallels for today? Certainly there is declining church attendance; this is something which is acknowledged across the board in our churches.
There are, happily, exceptions to that general trend, but they do little to disguise the overall problem. The spiritual condition of churches is much more difficult to ascertain. Thankfully, evangelicalism seems to be growing in all denominations, but there is still the question of the depth of its spiritual roots. I cannot offer facts and figures on this, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that the traditional indicators of evangelical fervour — prayer, Bible study (both personal and corporate), evangelism, mission and giving, are registering low in most evangelical churches.
It would also appear that there is an increasing entrenchment on a range of questions (both theological and ecclesiastical) resulting in an inordinate amount of time given over to 'trimming the hedge when the house is on fire.' Added to this, there is an organizational inflexibility in the lives of local congregations. Traditionalism has for many unconsciously assumed the place of the guiding rule of scriptural principles in previous generations. Many would appear to be in that rut which differs from the grave only by its depth.
These various factors contribute heavily to the increasing marginalisation of the church in society. That marginalisation is seen in declining church practice. For example, we have smaller attendances during the major Christian festivals and significantly declining numbers in Sunday School. In the past, it was often perceived as the right thing to do in Northern Ireland that, even if the parents had little interest in Church, the children still went to Sunday School. This is no longer the case.
The Church is also being marginalised in public life. Of course, it still has its public say but how much real influence does it still wield? Church leaders may have the ear of central and local government officials, but how much influence do they have with people in society? How easy is it to mobilise the Church even on the key issues in our society? Also, the Church is increasingly removed from the communities in which it seeks to live and to witness. One church recently received a questionnaire asking for its comments on the community it lived in and promptly returned it uncompleted and with the comment, 'We have nothing to say to the community.' I suspect that this is not an isolated case. Like the Church of the 18th century, we seem to be characterized by complacency and parochialism. In the first instance, we must ask: do we recognize this? Having answered in the affirmative we must then ask: do we have the desire and the will to move beyond this?
The Shock of Evangelicalism
A key question for our churches is: how do we get from where we are in our contemporary society to where we would like to be? The 18th century. as well as offering some significant parallels regarding Church and society, also seems to offer some significant pointers to the future. The great fact of 18th century evangelicalism was the revival which broke out and had far-reaching effects in Britain. Ireland, the American colonies and ultimately across the globe with the rise of the modern missionary movement. While we cannot engineer revival it is important to note that the 18th century evangelicalism was rooted above all else in spiritual renewal. As a movement, it recognized the interdependence of personal and corporate renewal. Such renewal, guided by the Holy Spirit and shaped by the Word of God. must be our first and ultimate goal. Evangelicalism in a sense shocked society and Church just as much as did the Industrial Revolution. Why? Because it was not constrained and threatened by the dynamics of rapid social change. Rather, it had the capacity to respond to that change and indeed utilize it in a way that encouraged the spread of the Christian message and the strengthening of Christian disciples. Some examples of its capacity to embrace the dynamics of social change are:
1. Open air preaching: While 18th century evangelicals did not invent open air preaching, they perhaps utilised it more effectively than anyone since the early church. The effectiveness of open air preaching was that it allowed them to take their message wherever people were. Famous images of the period relating to John Wesley preaching to great throngs of miners coming off their shift demonstrate above all else the capacity of evangelicals to go to people in an age of vast population shifts. In this respect, one of the strengths of the evangelical movement of the 18th century was its capacity to move beyond parish boundaries. The Church of England, in particular, was greatly constrained by its traditional parish system which, in the 18th century, no longer bore any relation to where people lived. Thus, what had been small parishes served, perhaps, by one cleric, still had the same pastoral care when they grew to be parishes of hundreds of thousands. Evangelicalism established churches where the need arose rather than seeking to draw people into redundant structures based upon the outdated constraints of ecclesiastical bureaucracy.
2. The absence of church buildings: The evangelicals, often scorned by the established church, were forced to meet outside traditional church buildings. Thus much evangelicalism was practised in homes or other temporary premises, such as school rooms. Homes in particular became the central unit in the development of the new evangelical movement. Again, this allowed greater flexibility in the movement with respect to shifting population patterns. It also meant that vast amounts of money were not being invested in the maintenance of buildings and fabric.
3. The class system: Associated in particular with the emerging Methodist movement, the class system recognized the need for the effective discipling of new converts and members of the movement. It had the effect, to state it crudely, of tying people into the movement by creating accountability, involvement and commitment. These were the ecclesiolae ecclesia, the Church of little churches, which Luther had seen as such a vital dimension for the spread of Reformation teaching.
4. New hymnology: Perhaps this is the dimension of 18th century evangelicalism with which we are most familiar. Out of this vibrant movement of spiritual renewal, a new hymnology emerged that is still very much with us today. The hymns of Wesley, Cennick, and Newton all spring from this remarkable era.
So how far are we to regard the 18th century as a paradigm for change?
While there is much to be admired in the Evangelical Movement of the 18th century it would be simplistic to suggest that its methodology provides a paradigm for change. Doing away with traditional church buildings, introducing home groups and singing new hymns does not provide slick answers to the problems of the contemporary church. Yet there are some fundamental lessons that we can learn. Let me draw your attention to just three.
1. The Evangelical Movement of the 18th century was, above all, a movement rooted in spiritual renewal. I have already drawn attention to this above, but it is worth emphasizing.
The important changes in church life in the 18th century came about not on a pragmatic level but as a result of spiritual renewal. We live in an age where, in the church, we are often driven by the pragmatic. In that sense, we are being conformed to the world around us. As a result, our primary concern becomes change designed to see church buildings filled, rather than Holy Spirit-led change that is primarily concerned with the proper functioning of the body of Christ. There is a need for spiritual renewal and for a growing appreciation that church life carried on in the strength of the flesh must fail, no matter how orthodox its roots or well-intentioned its motivation.
2. The importance of people was something that was recognized by the Evangelical Movement of the 18th century. The recognition of the importance of people is perhaps the ultimate antidote to the technological society, where human worth is constantly being squeezed. As Christians, we have the ultimate message of human worth and dignity. We need to begin to communicate that, not only in the gospel we preach but in the lives of our churches. The answer is not to try to compete with the technologically driven world on its own terms, after the manner of the 'cyberflesh', but to reaffirm human worth and dignity in the eyes of the living God. For example, our evangelism needs to be orientated towards the people we are trying to reach rather than built around the events and programmes with which we feel comfortable. Our fellowship must be deepened in such a way that people find their true worth in an increasingly depersonalized society.
3. The importance of change and flexibility became evident to 18th century evangelicalism. No doubt some of the change was forced upon the movement, but much of it grew out of the spiritual renewal of this period. If we would enjoy the new wine, then we must dispense with the old wineskins.
It would be doctrinaire to claim that all churches need a radical organizational shake-up, but most certainly need organizational flexibility. If our churches continue to have everything set in tablets of stone, then ultimately the churches themselves will become petrified. They will then be surpassed, as were the churches of the 18th century, by those churches able to accommodate the dynamics of social change.
Perhaps the most sobering lesson of all is to look beyond the 18th and into the 19th century. For there we see the decline of evangelicalism. Numerically strong and with previously unknown influence in Church and society, evangelicalism had already began to stagnate. Chief among the reasons for its decline was its loss of the very things that had made it strong. The spiritual freshness of the previous generation gave way to maintaining what had by the 19th century become the new traditions. People became less important than burgeoning numbers and maintaining ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The building of grand denominational edifices and the quest for respectability in the eyes of society became more important than the flexibility that once enabled the evangelicals to adapt to the rapidly changing world.
There are many lessons to be learned and mistakes to be avoided. Above all, we learn that there is nothing to be feared if we are open to the movement of the Spirit of God and are willing to apply biblical principles to the renewing and building of the Church in the age of change.
David Luke, ‘The Church in an Age of Revolution: Society, Church and Technological Change’, 16 December 2007, Gilnahirk Baptist Church Web site. http://www.gilnahirkbaptist.org.uk/resources/frontiers/1/2/luke-church-revolution.php (accessed 26 May 2013).
This article first appeared in Frontiers, 1.2 (Autumn 1996):30-35, and is used with permission.