Church in the Inventive Age -- Review

CHURCH IN THE INVENTIVE AGE. By Doug Pagitt. Minneapolis: Sparkhouse Press, 2010. 114 pages.

Whether we’re ready or not, we have entered the “inventive age,” so says Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. Of course, other writers have suggested other names for this new age that we’ve entered. Consider that Harvey Cox has called this the Age of the Spirit,” and Phyllis Tickle speaks of the “Great Emergence.” Whatever you want to call it, the world is changing and we can embrace the changes, resist them, or adapt as best we can – sort of survive. Doug puts it this way:

We live in the midst of inescapable change. Maybe this thrills you. Maybe this scares you. Regardless, the changes happening right now in American society mean every cultural institution, every community, every individual has a choice to make: We can either be in on the change or we can be left behind. (p. 3).
The choice is rather stark, but real.

Church in the Inventive Age is a rather brief and even breezy book. As Doug notes early on the focus is on the big idea and not necessarily the details – like you’ll find in a book such as American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. The first three ages will be familiar to most readers – the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, and then the Information Age. There are churches that still exist, and may even thrive that represent each of these patterns, but even the information age is giving way to something new, something that will focus on collaboration and creativity. But, in focusing on the future and on change, Pagitt doesn’t want us to jettison the path, but rather to make sure we don’t get stuck in the past

So, what are the first three ages and how does the church exist in them? The first age is the Agrarian Age, and interestingly this was the age into which the American Republic was born. This was an age in which the people were dependent on the land and on each other. In this age the church was often structured around the parish – that is, it was geographically defined. You didn’t go looking for something different, at least not very often. Besides, most communities were mono-cultural, and churches were defined by those cultures. And for the most part the churches themselves, as buildings, were fairly simple structures. . And the dominant image of minister/church leader was that of pastor or shepherd, who was charged with caring for the flock. I’m assuming that this image is deeply ingrained in the psyche’s of many, even in this age of massive change.

The second age, the Industrial Age, emerged on the American scene in the 19th century, taking hold first in the north and then later making headway in the south. This is the age of urbanization and massive immigration. Here the farm is replaced by the factory as the primary social/cultural image. Instead of dependence the metaphor of the age might be that of repeatability – Henry Ford! The church of this age, as it tried to respond to the changes remained ethnically monocultural, even if the community itself was diverse. And the simple structures of the past gave way to what Pagitt refers to as “fortresses with smokestack-like steeples and red brick facades" (in his presentation at Theology after Google, Doug showed us a slide of the former Methodist Church that Solomon’s Porch took over that looks very much like the one in this metaphor). This is also the age in which denominations began to gain strength, and the pastor was called to teach the denomination’s theology, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see the expansion of seminaries.

Finally we come to the Information Age. You may be wondering – isn’t that the age we’re in currently? Well, apparently not. This is the age of the suburb and the megachurch. With few exceptions, those who are by definition Caucasian can mix and be Americanized. Schools and Education are emphasized, and thus not only in the public field but Christian education has its hey day. Churches become learning centers, and the pastor is teacher/CEO. Of course in this era, bigger is better! Or is it?

The Information Age, which emerged just yesterday, or so it seems, has begun to lose its hold on the populace, which is increasingly disenchanted by the way things are going. It’s not that mega-churches are going away, but more and more people are looking for alternatives. In the Inventive Age the focus is on creativity in a context where the future remains unknown. There is a great lack of certainty, which makes long term planning difficult! This is the age of more dynamic forms of media, such as blogs and social media (Facebook and Twitter), which allows for much more creativity and collaboration across vast spaces in the world. Pagitt writes: “The Inventive Age is one in which inclusion, participation, collaboration, and beauty are essential values. The values of the previous age still exist, but in different, even subservient, roles” (p. 30). In this new age size might not matter all that much, with focus being placed on participation. The pastor, while still teaching, preaching, and leading, will put her or his focus on creating space for “open-source faith experiences.” That is, making a place for the people be spiritually creative.

If we’re to understand these different ages, we must understand what makes for culture and cultural change. Pagitt uses four images – head (thinking), heart (values), gut (aesthetics), and hands (tools). In each age these cultural components exist, but in different ways, and with different components having greater sway. What is true of previous ages is true of the Inventive Age, which must concern itself with each aspect of culture. And to survive in this age there must be collaboration between those who emphasize different aspects – and thus there is need for collaboration between evangelical and mainline (that word should get the attention of those in both camps that would rather not engage the other). So what must the church be doing in this new age? According to Pagitt, it must be engaged in remaking the culture. That is, even as we adapt to culture, we must be engaged in its creation – lest we be left behind.

So, what shall we do? That may depend on where we find ourselves – we have, according to Pagitt, three options. We can exist for, with or as the Inventive Age. To live for the Inventive Age is to take what we have and bring it to bear on and in the new age. As I read the book, I saw my own church in this position. We’re keeping alive an older – industrial age – model in many ways, but there is something valuable to bring to the table, even as the church makes room for new things. The key here is being authentic to yourself. I appreciated this word from Doug because some in the Emergent Movement give off the vibe that the older Mainline churches are essentially old hat. Doug seems, at least here, to give room for older traditional churches to play a significant role in the future.

Perhaps the most difficult situation to be in is to live with the Inventive Age. In essence this stature means being a church within a church. Many churches have tried to have both traditional and contemporary styles, though this doesn’t often work easily. But the point is finding ways to make room within the structure for younger generations. Success here requires being willing to walk alongside each other as equal partners and learn from each other. That requires incredible trust, which isn’t easy to build. It also means being loose with the furniture! I’ll leave that one to your imagination. And as Doug points out, “churches that do the ‘with’ relationship well often end up becoming separate congregations for all the right reasons” (p. 94).

Finally there is the church that lives “as the Inventive Age.” This is the church that’s being born now. It may be, like Doug’s one that lives within a building, or it could be one like Koinonia, a church launched and led by Kimberly Knight that exists in Second Life, a virtual reality. Such realities exist in what Doug calls “perpetual beta.” They’re always changing and adapting – much like Facebook, which never goes down completely, but recreates itself on the fly. It may be multilingual in that it brings together ancient and modern symbols and realities. It is an age of “coulds,” where the past is curated for service to the future and meaning is central. And its not simply creating meaningful spiritual experiences for the individual – so that the focus gets put on personal salvation. No, what the Inventives long for are “spiritual communities in which their faith matters – not only to them, but to the world around them” (p. 102). In this movement forward, there is no “target audience,” so don’t think this is just about 20-somethings!

So, what should we expect about the future church? We can’t really know all the particulars, we must be ready to adapt and grow with the changing times. Instead of using the metaphor of a road, Pagitt suggests that of flight. A road moves from one location to another, with flight the space is open. What we must do in setting the flight plan is account for the variables and risks that we will encounter, and then head out!

As I noted at the beginning of the review. This is a fast reading book that is big on big ideas and not on details. As a historian I could get picky on the time lines, but that’s not the point. Key here is getting the sense that our churches represent different ages, and that all four ages are existing simultaneously. It’s also key to know that the faith structures of the past ages aren’t bad or wrong, but they don’t work for everyone, including a growing number of younger people. There are other places to go for deeper analysis, but what I find useful here is that it can open us up to a conversation about the world that we inhabit and the tools and experiences that we all bring to the conversation. Pick up and read Church in the Inventive Age and begin the conversation.


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