Friday, February 11, 2005

Reflections on "The Millennium Matrix"

“We are at that very point in time when a 400-year-old age is dying and another is struggling to be born – a shifting of culture, science, society, and institutions enormously greater than the world has ever experienced.” (Dee Hock)

Have you wondered why some churches are ornate temple-like structures full of symbolic art while others look like a Wal-Mart with chairs? What about the different approaches to corporate worship - from ritualistic liturgical forms to highly produced performances with stage, lights, and state-of-the-art PA systems?

Rex Miller’s book The Millennium Matrix not only explains why some American churches look like Wal-Marts, it is useful in understanding the church and culture of Japan. The heart of The Millennium Matrix is a chart called “The Complete Millennium Matrix.” Miller’s chart is “a compelling framework that enables us to view ourselves, our times, and the church in a way that makes sense of the past, the present, and the future.” MIller's main premise is, “when the primary means of storing and distributing information changes, our worldviews change.” In other words, the way we communicate has a profound impact on our worldview and lifestyle including how we conceptualize and express our Christianity.

Miller’s chart identifies four major methods of communication, each of which also denotes an epoch in world history:

1) Oral

2) Print

3) Broadcast

4) Digital.

As part of his chart, Miller includes lists detailing the impact on culture of each of the methods of communication. These lists are divided into a number of categories including “how we believe, how we see beauty, how we know, and how we work and trade."

Now, here is the exciting part. Using Miller’s chart we can see that for oral cultures visual art is one means of remembering information. Rituals (liturgy) also help people remember, they maintain traditions. Hence, the early oral church was liturgical and its buildings were full of visual art. For the illiterate masses, stained glass windows were their “Bibles.”

When printed literature became common, a major clash took place between the new “print culture” and the old oral one. Therefore, the Reformation was not only a break with the past theologically; it was also a giant conflict between the old oral culture and the new print one. For several reasons the newly literate, Protestant print culture-based believers got rid of almost all art. Besides the familiar issue of Protestants rejecting art because it was “Catholic,” the new print culture no longer needed or appreciated it. Reflecting the print-based emphasis on linear/logical/rationalistic thinking, church architecture became plain, with few embellishments. Rituals were less important and church music became more complex because people could read it in printed books. For the new print culture, revelation was far less mystical. Both general and special revelation became an object of rationalistic study. Individuals rose in importance, laying the foundation for democracy and many other new social institutions.

In the Fifties, the entrance of broadcast culture created another major clash, one that is still going on today. Churches started looking a lot like TV studios with stages and lighting. The worship service became less of a teaching time and more of a celebration featuring bands, videos, and drama. This approach works great for large groups, so the era of the mega-church was born. Generally, the older print culture generation thought it was awful; the younger generation, the current baby boomers, mostly loved it. Now, only fifty years after the beginning of the broadcast era we have an “emerging” digital generation that doesn’t appreciate broadcast style churches so we are in the middle of another drastic shift in culture.

Digital technology is driving dramatic changes worldwide. Via digital technology, we have merged text, sound, images, and data into one common “language.” “Mass media” is no longer the monolithic power it once was; “personalized media” gives individuals primary control over what they read, see, and hear. The iPod, Apple's iconic device for storing digital data, is a multi-million-dollar marketing success that is at the cutting edge of personalized media.

In Japan digital technology is changing the way people work, think, behave, and believe. This is putting tremendous stress on society and on the church in Japan. Large portions of the church have not adapted to broadcast culture and now we have yet another new paradigm to deal with. We do not yet know what the new “Emerging Church” is going to be like. There are many signs, though, that evangelical churches will have candles, incense, art of all kinds and liturgy as part of their worship – in the US many already do. A return to mysticism, awe, and beauty along with an emphasis on “authenticity” is taking place. Worship services will be more interactive, less performance-oriented, and generally smaller. There will almost certainly be a growing trend towards house churches in Japan. Robert Webber, Leonard Sweet, and many other thinkers are noting the similarities of the Emerging Church to churches of the past. Ironically, the Emerging Church is "looping back" actively reviving ancient practices unused for several centuries by Protestants.

According to Japan Campus Crusade for Christ staff member Yoshitaka Satoh, “the current college kids are completely different from my generation; they want interaction, discussion, and don’t want long logical messages by the ’Sensei'.” He also reports that they do not like top-down command-and-control leadership. Significantly, these characteristics are ones that Miller says are common to the new digital generation around the world.

If Miller is more or less right, if Satoh’s evaluation of college students is more or less accurate, we need to make huge adjustments to be effective at making disciples of younger Japanese. We will have to get rid of old stereotypes, accept new realities, and make changes in almost every area. It appears that Japanese growing up in the new era we are now entering will have great difficulty fitting into traditional church structures in Japan. Imagine the college students Satoh described attending a church where there is no interaction during the worship service, long analytical messages, and decisions are made from the top down. Many churches will probably not be able to adjust. That is one reason we need new churches and new missions. One large mission in Japan has, in effect, created a new mission structure by “spliting” with its’ Japanese denomination. This mission shifted to an exclusive focus on starting house churches (the Japanese denomination involved rejected this strategy).

Along with challenge, we have tremendous opportunities to use digital technology to build the church. Through connecting via the Internet, groups and individuals are collaborating as never before. The Internet is breaking down walls between denominations and no one can stop it. Interactive media such as the CD “tract” produced by Campus Crusade for the Christmas in Peace outreach are reaching the digital generation. Potentialities with using digital technology to spread the gospel are innumerable and we have only begun to imagine what they are.

There are some weaknesses in Miller’s views. For one thing, he is a little too optimistic about the new digital era. Different it will be, but people will still have all the same core problems as before. It will solve some problems and create some new ones. For another, he is probably off on his timing, it seems to me that the digital age will be established considerably sooner than 2010…. perhaps it already is.

The new digital culture will change Japan but Japan will also change it, giving it some Japanesque characteristics that will make it unique. We need to be aware and be as ready as we can be to respond with effective strategies and methods. There will be much conflict over the changes we are facing. Many will view the new digital culture and the church that is emerging with it as a great evil. Some are already proclaiming the North American Emerging Church movement as apostate. Miller’s perspective is that it is generally a healthy response to a radically new situation, that we need to adapt or our mission will fail.


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