Friday, November 27, 2009

Reflections on "The Millennium Matrix" - a book by Rex Miller

It has been four years since my wife brought “The Millennium Matrix" home from one of her classes at the Robert Webber Institute For Worship Studies in Florida. This book is extremely valuable to me because it has helped me understand what is going on in the world, both now and in the past, from a nee perspective. Reading it has changed the way I think, no exaggeration.

Following is an updated review of “The Millennium Matrix that I wrote several years ago.

“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 helped me understand why many churches in the US look like Wal-Marts with video screens. This book also contributed to my understanding the church and culture of Japan. The heart of The Millennium Matrix is a chart called The Complete Millennium Matrix” which is a framework that enables us to understand the past, the present, and the future from a new perspective.

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 (from the ancient past through 1,500 AD)

2) Print (1,500 AD – 1950)

3) Broadcast (1950 – 2010)

4) Digital (2010---

Miller includes lists detailing the impact on culture of each of the dominant media. 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 an important means of remembering information. Rituals (liturgy) also help people remember so that is why the early 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 “print culture” believers got rid of almost all art. Besides the 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 less mystical so both general and special revelation became an object of rationalistic study. Individuals rose in importance, laying the foundation for democracy and many 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 like TV studios with a stage, sound and lighting. The worship service became 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 is far less interested in broadcast style churches. So, we find ourselves in the middle of yet another major transition.

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 yet adapted to broadcast culture and now we have a new paradigm to deal with. The challenges are immense and we don’t know what the new “emerging Church” in Japan is going to be like but it is going to be different.

There are signs, though, that digital era 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 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 his 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 new characteristics of young Japanese are ones that Miller says are common to the new digital generation around the world.

If Miller is more or less right, if Mr. 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.

Many Japanese growing up in the new digital era will have great difficulty fitting into traditional church structures. 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, and they will die.

This is one reason we need new churches and new missions in Japan. One large mission in Japan has, in effect, created a new mission structure by splitting from 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 exciting new 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. Interactive media such as the CD “tracts” produced by Campus Crusade 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.

The new digital culture will change Japan but Japan will also change it, giving it characteristics that will make it unique. Those of us that work with Japanese need to be aware and be ready to respond with effective strategies and methods.

There are some weaknesses in Miller’s views. For one thing, he is probably off on his timing; it seems to me that the digital age will be established sooner than 2010. I also think that he is a too optimistic about the new digital era. Different it will be, no question about it. But, people will still have the same core problems as before.

Around the world there will be much conflict related to the digital revolution. Many will view the new digital culture, and the church that is emerging with it, with alarm and simply condemn it. If we understand the profound impact of media, we gain a new perspective and we can be constructive rather than reactionary.

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