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.


Millennium Matrix Home Page

CAN Home Page


Jonathan said...

Very nice blog, Paul! Woohoo.

There is a site on the web called "The Onion" that you might want to find. It is an e-zine for all things post-modern or emerging church. I have written a few articles for it.

I am not sure that Miller is correct, but have noticed that there is a tendency to "throw out the baby with the bathwater" when change comes to the church.

I think that major change in the structure and rituals of the church is something akin to a death or divorce in a family. It is never received lightly and has tsunami-like unforseen effects that can surface catostrophically at a great distance and wipe out whole spiritual coastlines.

One such earthquake was the "Jesus Movement" in the 60's and 70's, basically a mass movement of people who wanted to get rid of all the baggage of traditional church and just worship Jesus. However, in reality they were simply exchanging one set of rituals for another. However, to exchange the rituals meant that they needed to reject the old in order to embrace the new. The old rituals were "dead" and new ones "spiritual".

Perhaps it is part of the "new wineskins" truth that Jesus talked about. There always seem to be a few busted open wineskins before we figure it out.

Cindy said...

Very interesting article and great idea for a blog. I hope this can stimulate some interaction among missionaries and others in Japan such as some of us fondly remember from past "Hayama Missionary Seminars."

One of my personal responses. If it is true that "There are many signs, though, that we will see a lot more art, ritual, mysticism, " and that this may be a "loopback" to ancient Christian traditions (ala Robert Webber's work), is this trend congruent with the digitalization of communication or does it represent something quite different at work, maybe even a reaction?
I'd also be very interested if any signs of the "Emerging church" can be observed in Japan.

Paul Nethercott said...

Hi Cindy and thanks for your post. How did you find this blog? Just curious as it has not been publicized yet. You ask two good, and hard to answer, questions. I have heard that many people are seeking low tech, warm, fuzzy, relationship oriented things and experiences in reaction to technology so this probably is a factor that is driving the Emerging Church.

As far as Japan is concerned, I see few signs of an Emerging Church here. Actually, the progressive churches are broadcast style with many more in the process of transitioning to it. Of course my perspective is limited to a small part of Japan so I am very interested in hearing what others are hearing and seeing.

One interesting thing: CLTC held a seminar yesterday on worship with about 40 Japanese. We did an Emerging Church type of communion service and the response was extremely positive. We used visual art, fresh aromatic bread, people came forward and served each other, there was some liturgy in an intimate setting.
Given the high value Japanese place on aesthetics as well as the pervasiveness of digital technology here, it will surprise me if we don’t see an Emerging Church (Japanese style) taking shape here in the next few years.

mark kraakevik said...


I just got your e-mail that this blog was here, and I came to check it out.

Deep thoughts. What matters most in life is doing the next right thing. Making church more interactive and focusing on the mystery and wonder of God seem to me to be the next right things to do.

As for whether the emerging church moment is heretical. To the extent that the movement denies the existance of a meta-narrative ( a big story that encompasses all of history) I think it is. But the more subtle changes being brought by the movement (see about paragraph) are good and right.

My thoughts (as an American youth pastor in the suburbs of Denver Colorado)

Paul Nethercott said...

Thanks Mark for your post! Good comments and good to hear from an "old" Minnesota friend. Can you expand on the meta-narrative comment? Are you saying that at least some in the Emerging Church deny the existance of a meta-narrative?

mrexmiller said...


I'd like to compliment you on such a thorough and accurate read of the book. This is the best recap I've found. If you don't mind I'd like to watch the conversation develop. You've done a great job sparking it and I'm very curious about an far eastern perspective too.

You also make a good point on the critiques. The reason I put 2010 (as if I could really project an accurate date) is that we haven't seen a revolutionary catalyst yet. Even though Broadcast became dominant around 1950 it took a generation to hit the streets in the mid-60s.

I also hope the book is optomistic in the sense that it provides an alternative paradigm for bringing walls down between congregations so we can connect more and behave as a local church. On page 138 I've posted a warning about the nature of any tool - it's the story of Frankenstein's monster. I was discipled in the works of Jacques Ellul and don't have any illusions about our culture and many churches becoming seduced by the mystique anbd power of interactive media. I wanted to address that as a separate topic and deal with the nature of sociological principalities and powers.

For those interested - my DVD's are arriving from a broadcast with George Barna, Erwin McManus and myself.

I'll try to find a way to make them available on my website.

This was a blessing to stumble across this quality of dialogue and see what you've started.

Rex Miller

Steve Spinella said...

Paul, I saw your site mentioned by DB in our international connection.

Did you know the average blogger only makes one post? So keep it up, man!

I hope you guys have a great retreat in May--wish I could come join you!


Leo said...

Nice article. And an intresting overview of the history of the church. And the conclusion of the way the new generation seems to be an obvious one: this day and age the new generation is being trained to have their say and their opinion. So in that sense it is logical to see that this new generation will react in that way. In the traditional church that will not happen, but this house-church movement will definently be an excellent outlet for this new digital generation. But this is normal with every new generation: people like to be heard in the group they feel at home. And are a possitive challenge to the consisting situation.

I read your article in the spring edition of Japan Harvest. What i find a bit annoying was the fact that as a reference point with Japan, you took was America. And i think that is a bit short-sighted considering the amount of non-american missionaries in Japan. With these people, there is a big influx with ideas, not all neccesary coming out of America, coming into the japanese church.

Paul Nethercott said...

Leo thanks for your post. I concur with you that my perspective is limited. I have spent about half of my life in the US (I was born in Canada, moved to the US when I was four and have lived in Japan for 18 years). Unfortunately, I am only able to contrast Japan with what I know best (the US). One reason Blogs are valuable is that they give opportunity for readers to enrich the discussion by posting content based on their perspective. I urge you and all other readers to post responses so we can learn from each other.

Sam said...

I found your blog just looking around on the web, and have enjoyed reading your posts. It is good to see christians discussing the church in Japan.
This was an interesting post, and an enlighting book review.
Mark Driskoll is a successful missional pastor that has published afew books and works with Acts 29, a missional church planting organization. I don't know if you have heard of him, but I think it will be worth your time to check him out.

Mike Lee said...

The previous generations' primary fear--and I am here speaking of the "print generation" mentioned in your article--has always been the de-intellectualizing and dumbing down of worship services in favor of "feel good" sermons aimed at the lowest common denominator, without regard for proper Scriptural theology and doctrine.

While I understand their position (coming from a traditional Reformed/Calvinist Christian church myself), the major flaw with the "primacy of the intellect" movement, as good and necessary as its intentions are, is that it tends to downplay much of the importance of [proper] mysticism and aesthetic sense, something I believe the late Francis Schaeffer often emphasized in his works "True Spirituality" and "The Church at the End of the 20th Century". This is an important thing to note as Schaeffer was himself a Philosophy of Art professor, if I'm not mistaken.

I encourage you to read this short article by the Reformed author John F. Frame. He mentions the shortcoming of the "Christ and Culture in Paradox" mindset that many traditional congregations have held to, particularly most Reformed ones.

Paul Nethercott said...

Mike, thanks a lot for your comment!

Rex's book continues to be near the top of my list of books that are important to read. For those of us living at this time in history it provides an excellent framework for understanding what is going on.

Thanks for your recommendation of the Frame article -- I will take a look at it.