Long before the pandemic, T4CG sensed a cultural unravelling threatening the common good, something much larger than the Covid period and its outflows. Sensing a change of era across the West, and knowing that many across the churches are struggling to make sense of it all, we are pooling our energy with thinkers across the Christian traditions to help us address the question of what it means to be God’s people in a place we’ve never been before. Here, Alan Roxburgh, who has been sensing this for many years, begins to set out the sheer scale and significance of the changes underway, and the implications for the churches.
This essay is for leaders across the Euro-tribal churches on both sides of the Atlantic. It offers a brief perspective on the question of where we find ourselves at this moment as God’s people. The ways of life, institutions and moral virtues of these churches once shaped the imagination and practices of our culture. That has changed. Our neighbourhoods are no longer “Christian”. They’re places of intersection for multiple and complex communities with diverse stories. This essay names some of the challenges before Christian communities in this place.
1. Facing the end of an era
A question, asked and unexpressed that pervades conversations amongst Euro-tribal church leaders right now is: Where are we? The response is that we are at the end of an era and, therefore, also at a turning point as God’s people. We’re confronted with the hard fact of a pervasive unraveling of the churches that is disrupting and disorienting us while producing deepening anxieties that are getting worked out in the attempt “to fix”. A long century characterized by individualism, market capitalism and its attendant globalization has produced a malaise of loneliness, winners-losers, and the erosion of trust in one another and the institutions that have shaped the modern world. Where are we? We’re in a place none of us have been before. This unraveling is new territory in which there is no going back to some imagined “normal”. Political, social, economic, and religious institutions that a short time ago provided us with meaning are inadequate for the challenges before us.
But the other response to the question of where we are is that we are in a space where the Spirit is at work. The One who “makes all things new” is calling God’s people to their ancient vocation as healers of life and formers of social thriving. God’s people are still being called to join with Christ in the reweaving of the frayed threads of our common life. Disciple-making to build common good is about discerning what God is doing in the places where we live and joining the Spirit there. The vocation of leaders is to form local communities of God’s people who dwell in their neighbourhoods to discern and join with God in that place:
This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon…This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper…
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two[a] others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 2 He told them… “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house…Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you…’
2. What to do in a place we’ve never been before?
What do we do when we find ourselves in a place we’ve never been before? Our default is to double down on what we know, to keep using the skills, programmes and habits that once brought us success. But these tactics can’t address the place where we are. There is so much anxiety in the churches because of this very thing – the failure of given methods and strategies to fix our situation. Concerns about post-pandemic recovery, resignations, going “hybrid” or creating programmes for “outreach” or to get back the younger families, abound. In a place we’ve never been before, we can’t just rely on the habits and practices that got us to where we are now. We have to look beyond and beneath the immediate no matter how demanding they may be. Focusing on the crises right in front of us (decline, retirements and resignations, loss of income to run the institutions we lead, the failure of people to return to church, emergency food aid, the gaping economic disparities that keep widening before our eyes) limits our capacities to see the broader patterns underlying these events.
We are all part of population cohorts born after the end of World War II. This seventy-plus-year period set in place unique patterns of life across the West that have been atypical and asynchronous from practically all of Western history. Our experiences of how things work, of what success means, of how institutions function and what is needed to lead well have all been formed by this seventy-five-year interval . Structures, institutions, patterns of life, economies, expectations about what forms a good life – all of these things have been shaped by this period.
The order of things is shifting. This time into which we were born has formed our assumptions and practices, our institutions and systems. It is coming apart, unraveling right before our eyes. It’s not going to be put back together again! The disruptive space created by this unraveling has put us into a place we’ve never been before. The habits and practices we’ve developed in this seventy-five year era will be ineffective in addressing the question: What do we do?
This period, from the 1950s to the present, in the bigger scheme of things is a brief moment. But, from our perspective it is the dominant, BIG story defining everything, from the meaning of success and how the world works to what a good life looks like or how to be an effective leader. The challenge of being in a place we’ve never been before operates on several levels:
First, we need to see the extent to which this BIG story of the past seventy-five years has determined us as God’s people. The Euro-tribal churches hitched their wagons to this story and its siren-like promises of success and control.
Second, our embracing of this BIG story resulted in our losing confidence in the story (which took many forms but has a tradition and continuity) that had formed Christian identity in the West – the story of God’s acting in and for the world through Jesus Christ. What the great unraveling is laying bare is this loss of confidence.
Several members of our family visited a cathedral in our city during COVID. The liturgy came out of a long-established tradition. Its readings from the Psalms, the Prophets and the Gospels set the stage for prayer and Eucharist – all ways of rooting our lives in God’s great story, of God’s continuing agency in the world. After the Gospel was read, a clergy person delivered a homily. He eloquently described the unraveling in which we found ourselves, then addressed what we should do in the light of our being in a place we’re never been before. His solutions betrayed our captivity to the BIG story of modernity. What we ought to do, he announced, was become a people of innovation and adaptation. There was no call to have confidence that the Spirit was already at work in the unraveling. All we can do is practice what everyone and anyone with an MBA would encourage us to do. Any sense of God as the agent in this unraveling was absent. All we needed was a more faithful commitment to some method.
Third, we will need to see beyond trends, data or demographic analysis. Our calling is to see beyond the default pressures to fix our institutions in order to re-enter God’s great story. Is it possible for us to lay down these defaults so that we might learn to see where and how other Christian communities have addressed the unraveling of their times, in the great confidence that God was making all things new, even when it seemed that all things were coming apart? This was Augustine’s imagination as it was the work of Benedict and, later, the Celts. There are many stories in our traditions that point us to the ways in which Christian practices (this is what was happening in Jeremiah and Luke 10) enable Christians in disorienting times to re-engage with God’s story for the world.
Those in Christian leadership right now (pastors, priests, deacons, bishops and so forth) describe their exhaustion in trying to manage church systems at this time. The majority confess, privately, that they no longer know what to do. Across the board, we’re experiencing an amorphous, overarching grief, a kind of PTSD among these leaders. They sense they’re losing their grasp on what’s going on or what to do about it. Whether it’s the churches and parishes we’ve known, a once stable society that made sense and gave security, or the natural world we took for granted, all at once it is all coming apart. As leaders of the churches we’re supposed to know what to do but we don’t. A world is being lost. The one that’s emerging feels disordered, scary and out of our control. We’re living in a story that’s destroying us. As God’s people we have to reconnect with our founding stories.
We are all shaped by stories of one kind or another. Usually we don’t see them because we simply live in them. Until, that is, they stop working. Then we find ourselves in a kind of fog, a place we’ve never been before. This is the time that is upon us. The institutions for which we were trained, or supposed to support us, don’t work as they once did. The climate hits back with fires, floods and heat waves. Nothing seems to adhere to the rhythms we’ve imposed upon our worlds.
Mary is overworked managing her parish through this time. She put in protocols for coming back to worship even as she extends herself with visitation and taking the Eucharist to many who are still feeling unsafe about going out. Jim pastors a Reformed congregation. He is overwhelmed caring for the anxieties of church members because something has shifted and these members fear there’s no return. Both Mary and Jim are operating inside accepted stories. The fear they’re experiencing is that these stories (good management, faithful liturgies, kind pastoring etc) cannot of themselves fix things. In this their sense of identity and vocation is being called into question. Our church institutions and leader formation were never designed to address this unraveling. The story we’ve lived in over these past seventyplus years told us we could manage, strategize, make, compel, create and reorder anything to do our will. We could bend nature to our outcomes. We could take control and beat this deadly virus. For all our lives this “machine age” story has been our normative story. We became convinced that “We have the technology, we can do it”. And so it seemed until unanticipated consequences of this story began destroying us.
3. On entering a world we’ve never seen
Doubling down inside this story of control and management leaves us working harder with the methods we have been given when, in fact, we’ve entered a space where those very methods both led us into this crisis and are breaking down. But we keep returning to these defaults because this destructive machine age story is all we know. We’re woefully unprepared. In the summer of 2021, states adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico entered hurricane season with great trepidation. Hurricane Katrina (2005) had revealed that the institutions in place to address disasters could not deal with hurricanes in the era of climate change. 2021 brought Hurricane Ida. It’s not unusual for hurricanes to bring heavy rains as they move up the Atlantic seaboard. This time the flooding was catastrophic. Millions of people saw their homes underwater, deaths were high and systems failed. Storms like Ida were the exception 40 years ago, now they come with fearful regularity. Experts in climate modeling were unprepared. Tripti Bhattacharya, assistant professor of earth and environmental science at Syracuse University (NY), stated in a NPR interview: “We are moving into a world we’ve never seen”. Echoing this, the Governor of New Jersey made a stunning observation about the sewage and water systems. They did, he said, exactly what they were designed to do. They worked. The problem was that they were designed for the world of a hundred years ago. They were built for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. We’re in a world we’ve never seen before.
This is where we find ourselves. Since before and through COVID and since, we’ve been traveling into unexpected territory with little time to stop to see where we are. We’re tired, confused about how to lead in this place. Like those asking why climate events are coming at us so quickly and with such devastation, we’re asking what’s happened and what to do. It is clear that there is no managing our way out of this. If that approach worked we would not be talking about multiple crisis events or the end of an era. Forms of leadership developed over the past seventy years are like those water and sewage systems – designed for another time. COVID never was the source of this disruption. It is the structures and stories of success, embodied in methods of control, promising us the good things in life, that made our world over the past seventy years. It is this story and its methods that are cracking. This moment will be squandered if we keep focusing our energies on restarting programmes, setting up centers for innovation or determining what kind of “hybrid” church we need. These are processes about how to rejig systems designed for a hundred years ago. This reality is a sticking point for many – the conviction that we can, indeed we must, make this story work remains a powerful default. We need to see another story but it is so hard to see that this story we’ve lived in is misdirecting us.
4. Plowing is ecologically disastrous
I did not expect confirmation of this from a book about farming. James Rebanks’ Pastoral Song is an account of what has happened, and is happening to farming. The book chronicles the demise of the mixed farm and its regeneration as farmers awaken to the destructive effects of industrial farming.
Pastoral Song is written like a three-act play. The first describes how farming existed to the midpoint of the last century (the start of the seventy five year era in which we were formed). It was epitomized by his grandfather from whom his knowledge and love of farming came. The second act describes how farming was transformed from the fifties onward by its industrialization. Technology (sophisticated tractors, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified grasses, intensive monoculture) became the method for maximizing efficiency, reducing the price of goods to a minimum and maximizing the profits of supermarkets. It is farming dissociated from the land, dependent on chemicals and shaped by experts with little relationship to the rhythms of people and land. This global revolution swept away the experience and local knowledge that had shaped farming. By the end of the millennium there was enough evidence that industrial farming had rendered soils void of nutrients, making them dependent on chemicals and fertilizers managed by experts. Layers of local experience were lost. Workers were made redundant by a method of farming that needed few people. In Rebanks’ words: “The countryside that feeds us has changed. It is profoundly different from even a generation ago…the more we learn about this change the more unease and anger we feel about what farming has become.”
The worse the unintended consequences of industrial farming became, “the more people seemed to gravitate to charlatans with grand promises and ready-made scapegoats to focus all their anger on”. Behind this industrial farming lay the BIG story of the last seventy-five years. It was shaped around supermarkets, cheap food for urban dwellers separated from the land and large profits for producers other than farmers. Deep in the BIG story were stories about the power of professional elites to manage and remake the world in their own image. Universities and colleges turned out a professional class with little connection to the land. Their tools are chemical fertilizers, lab produced seeds and massive tractors designed for maximum efficiency. Land care was displaced by a story infused with the language of “consumers”, “choice”, “taste” and “options”. In the third act, Rebanks describes finding his way back to a sustainable farming rooted in the rhythms of the local. He sees this as the essential journey for us all. It’s going to “take time and faith, and radical structural changes…” Farmers became strangers to the fields that feed us, he observed.
Something parallel happened to churches over the last seventy-five years as they became enthralled with growth, techniques of measurement, prediction and the need to manage outcomes. Like industrial farming, the result has been church systems disconnected from their communities and people who travel some distance to associate with one another through affinity. We schooled a guild-like clergy elite to manage and fix institutions designed for this story.
Rebanks, in his struggle to understand and undo the devastations of industrial farming proposes that adjustment is no longer enough. I gasped when he described the need for a different story for farming, assuming he thought that the plough was an essential part of farming: no plough, no farming. Then, he states:
But in the past thirty years we have learned that plowing is ecologically disastrous…This news is staggering – and hard to take in for farmers…Our civilization rests on the plough (and the chemical tools of the post war period) and yet the plough is the problem…that means changing how we farm and thinking again about tools we have come to rely on.
As staggering and hard to take in as it is for farmers, current forms of church and leadership also can’t address the unraveling before us. We’ve stumbled into a world we’ve never seen before which is why so many leaders feel lost in a fog.
5. Direction in the fog
God’s people are called to participate in building the common good within our fractured societies and broken creation. Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is a huge gift for our unraveling times. It lays out a theologically informed praxis for how to be God’s people in this new space. When people ask the question about what to do, or how to stand as witness against this destructive storyone of the first places to go for sustenance and direction is CST. COVID and its lockdowns have exposed the precarities of Euro-tribal churches as they struggle to make sense of their identity and mission in a crumbling story. Leaders are overwhelmed. Many talk about being in a thick fog not knowing how to find a way out. This is a difficult place for competent professionals. It can overcome one with a debilitating sense of failure. In the midst of this disruptive moment there is in the church herself a theological tradition of praxis (CST) that we sorely need.
6. Getting Perspective
We’ve used several metaphors to shape our understanding of our new context. We’ve described climate change with its increasingly regular events (hurricanes, floods, fires, droughts) as an image for the disruptive unraveling confronting churches and their leaders. We’ve pointed to the insights of James Rebanks as he awoke to the destructive, unintended consequences of “industrial farming” comparing it to what has happened to the churches and their leaders through the last century. We’ve proposed that what is happening is that we’re living in the end of a seventy-five-year story that has been fundamentally anomalous to practically all previous eras of Western history. Cumulatively, these metaphors paint a picture of something deep and pervasive happening across the West. In response people are proposing all kinds of ways to fix and renew the order and forms of church that we have put in place over this period. We end by proposing a final metaphor that suggests a way of looking at the question of what we do.
How we view events or movements will determine how we act in response. The ice caps at the poles are now in an advanced state of disintegration. To understand what’s happening and develop ways of responding scientists drill core holes deep into the ice. These core holes are intended to look beneath the surface because they know that looking only at the surface will horribly misguide those attempts to understand what is happening to the ice. These cores reveal the geological history of the ice as layer upon layer of snow formed into glaciers. These layers carry in themselves the long story of what has been happening. It is this capacity to stand back from the immediate to see what has been happening to the ice beyond surface changes that gives us the ability to understand what is happening and see how we might respond.
We have to take a similar stance to get a true picture of where we are and what has happened to us. The habits of the Euro-tribal churches are not to dig cores but to read the surface signs and make determinations about what they need to do. The diagnosis seems too negative and we would prefer to hear a hopeful story, or the difficult work of drilling down is cast aside as too demanding and time consuming when data can tell us what is happening and how to act. But we won’t even understand the surface properly unless we attend to what the deeper core readings are telling us. In the emerging dark time we can’t afford to focus on the beguiling sirens of the latest polls or data studies, we cannot be lured by the latest innovations or programmes coming at us. A different approach is needed.
To get a picture of what’s been happening to these churches we have to look at a “core” and see what it is showing of the last several hundred years of dwelling in the modern story. In this “core” sample, it’s possible to see three levels relating to how this unraveling of the Euro-tribal churches has developed. The first level is the surface – it’s a thin layer that captures what we see going on around us right now. This surface is expressed in the data and studies about growth and decline, studies around attitudes and values, descriptions of trends and the uses of the latest techniques. We tend to be beguiled by numbers and data. We seem transfixed by these tools to the point where we don’t see much beyond them. We’ve come to believe these methods capture and explain reality. This surface level appears, for example, in the proposals of some seminaries and theological colleges to set up quantitative research centers to gather information around what is happening to the churches or to create “centers” for “missional innovation”. This “surface” has some importance in terms of lifting up the immediate (clergy resignations, clergy and congregation trauma, increased conflict, post-COVID management, how to imagine fresh actions, etc.). They are also problematic. It is sourcing from and being dependent on, the skills, practices and frameworks of this past seventy-five-year period, that has led us to our malaise.
If all we have are surface samples we’ll fail to grasp the underlying dynamics of our parlous situation. We have to look deeper into the drilled core. This brings us to a second level where we learn to discern what has been happening to us as Euro-tribal churches over the 20th century. This level starts to tell us what is actually driving our current situation. It reveals underlying causes of the unraveling. This level helps us start to see that what has brought the churches to this moment of crisis are not the surface culprits (COVID, secularization, clergy burnout, lack of strategic planning etc.) but the church’s long enthralment with what Rebanks’ describes as “Industrial” farming, and Paul Kingsnorth calls the “Machine”, namely, the dominance of technocratic rationality through the managerial elites we formed from the middle of the 20th century forward. Here lie the underlying big stories driving our churches today. Here is the source of our primary focus on data, prediction, management, innovation and on and on.
Attending to this second level reveals a third level. This level opens windows to see the deeper challenge confronting us. Before the beginning of the 20th century, with its catastrophic technological means of genocide, and before a complete embracing of this technocratic world after World War II, is this other stubborn story that underlay a developing West. We see it as we stand back from the immediate. Then emerged the modern project, based on an individualistic idea of freedom, and a massive wager that life could be lived well without God. We would still believe in God and the need for the Christian story to support us like a warm haven in a heartless world but something profound shifted in the birth of the modern – this new conviction that through method and technocratic mastery (the “machine”) we, as human agents, could design, manage and make the world and society we wanted. At this third level of our imaginary core we discern that what has been lost is any concrete, practical sense of God’s agency in our collective lives or in the shaping of the world.
At this level we confront the more basic reason why the churches have failed to grasp their vocation. This is the source of our crisis, the underlying reason why churches and their leaders are disoriented, feeling in a fog, overcome by trauma. We have drunk deeply from the proud well of a human agency that only needs God for ancillary support of our plans and strategies. That story is running out. Fewer and fewer of us believe in its ability to address the widening crises (political, economic, social, and environmental) it has created. The challenge is that, after seventy-five years, we no longer have an imagination for what it would look like to be God’s people, to discern God’s agency among and ahead of us in the unraveling. We have to step back from immediate, surface causes to grasp the dynamics of levels two and three. This is our work as leaders. It will be in our tradition, our attending to that other story of God with us that we will discern the Christian practices that can address the question: What then do we do? But that is for another time.
Alan J Roxburgh is a pastor, teacher, writer and consultant with more than 30 years experience in church leadership, consulting and seminary education. Among his many books are: Joining God in the Great Unraveling (2021), Leadership, God’s Agency, and Disruptions (2022, with Mark Lau Branson), Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World (2015), and Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West (2018, with Martin Robinson).
 This essay is an abstract from a book to be published in 2024.
 “Euro-tribal” is a way of designating those forms of church life that have been formed out of the European reformations and then colonised through various parts of the world.
 Jeremiah 29: 1-12 NIV
 Luke 10: 1-12 NIV
 In this essay this period is described as a “Seventy-five year story”. Obviously, the story being described here is much longer than that in terms of its development. The point being made here is that in the first half of the twentieth century the forces shaping the modern West coalesced, especially at the end of W.W. II, into the single story shaping us as a society.
 Note, for example, the ways in which, almost every day, our situation is described in terms of multiple cascading crises that current programmes and strategies are not able to address.
 See YouTube, Paul Kingsnorth: The Machine and the Christian Way
 The reasons for this are multiple but one of the most powerful is what we have described as modernity’s wager (see Roxburgh and Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West, 2018), the conviction that life can be lived well without God. What is fundamentally at stake in the seventy-five year story is the question of agency. The intense search for fixes in this unraveling is a default back to the conviction that we will shape a future out of our own agency.
 Rebanks, 170
 Rebanks, 191
 Rebanks, 246
 A theme that is not addressed in this essay.
 A much more detailed response of how we engage this unraveling as God’s people will be addressed in a forthcoming essay.
 See Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (2019)
 See Roxburgh and Robinson, Practices for the Refounding of God’s People: The Missional Challenge of the West (2018)
This article was featured in T4CG’s Easter 2023 Newsletter. You can subscribe to our newsletter here
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