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Tribes for uncertain times

John Drane

Technological change, urban migration and post-modern thought have radically changed the world we inhabit. JOHN DRANE believes it's time for Christians to change the way we engage with it.

KARL Barth famously asserted that faithful discipleship required living with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. The specific imagery suited Barth's generation, of course. Today we might more easily refer to websites or blogs, or indeed TV and movies, rather than newspapers. But the underlying question is even more pressing now than it was in the 1960s: how to be Christian in a culture that has changed beyond all recognition.

In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella built a baseball pitch in his corn field, on which the ghosts of players of a long-dead generation appeared and put on a magnificent game. They were lucky: the shape of the field, and the rules of the game, had remained fundamentally the same since they were all banned from the 1919 World Series. In contrast, if my grandparents were to return to my home they would need to be re-educated before they could perform the simplest of everyday tasks - even things like cooking or washing-up that they did every day in life. Give them a mobile phone or a computer, and they would be completely lost. If that is true of ordinary things like eating and washing, how much more true is it in relation to how we now view the world and understand our own place within it?

No-one can fail to notice the realities of cultural change and the emergence of new worldviews. Even popular celebrities get in on the act. A couple of years ago I got a copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book thinking it might give me a few new recipes. Imagine my surprise when I opened it, for the whole of the first chapter is about the philosophy of food, tracing our unhealthy attitudes back to the influence of René Descartes (1596-1650) and his successors in the so-called Enlightenment!

Christians, meanwhile, have convinced themselves that the source of all our ills comes down to 'postmodernism' - as if having the right label for a culture will somehow ensure that we know how to live effectively within it. Among the baffling array of alternatives currently in vogue are post-Christian, post-secular, late modernity and liquid modernity. Those who use these terms do not always define them carefully, and in some cases I suspect they have little idea of what they mean.

The more likely reality is that we have no idea what is going on. On the contrary, what we thought we knew and understood of our culture has descended into some sort of unpredictable chaos - and we kid ourselves that if we can name it, we can somehow control it. Churches scramble to buy the latest trendy programmes that are claimed to address this new circumstance, only to discover that few of them seem to make much difference. It seems that Christians struggle more than most to live within a culture that is now so unpredictable, random, and discontinuous with what has gone before, that literally anything might happen next. We have convinced ourselves that everything needs to mean something, and that if only we look hard enough we are bound to find some sort of order beneath the confusion.

The insecurity is understandable enough, because chaos threatens much of what we thought we knew. But the search for absolute rational certainty is a way of being that belongs to the past rather than the future. We can either pretend that nothing is different today from what it was 50, or even 500 years ago - or we can accept the unravelling of much that we have known and loved, and face up to the different challenge of perceiving where God is at work in the chaos, so as to align ourselves with God's activity.

It was sociologist George Ritzer who first coined the term 'McDonaldization' to describe the over-rationalized systems that dominate much of our lives. The McDonald brothers who started the worldwide burger chain began with a street stand in Pasadena, California, but their business only took off when they developed a system for the operation. The buns were to be toasted for a specific time, the burger to be cooked in only one way, then served with predictable quantities of ketchup, mayo, cheese, or whatever. They weren't the first to invent a production line - that was Henry Ford. But in no time at all, the uniformity of this way of doing things spread like a rash through just about everything we do, so that our institutions now favour efficiency, calculability, predictability and control over against humane values such as community, friendship, support, forgiveness, fun, and collaboration. Ritzer suggested that the very systems that were claimed to make our lives easier have actually become what he called an iron cage that instead of liberating us was leading to a growing sense of alienation and oppression among large numbers of people, whether at home or work, or even in the worlds of education and entertainment.

In my book The McDonaldization of the Church I proposed that this syndrome also lies at the heart of much of the church's problem. Our spirituality has become McDonaldized, driven by efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control to such an extent that church has become one more oppressive system offering just one way to do things - a way which tends to major on the analytic and rational and marginalize the artistic and creative. This brings us to the heart of much of our missional ineffectiveness: that most churches appeal to only one sort of person. Many are doing quite well within that frame of reference, but if the medium is the message - and the medium is always words and abstract concepts, what about people who do not naturally operate that way? The response from readers amazed me. It seemed to be something many had intuitively felt, but few had known how to articulate, and when George Ritzer and I joined me in a public conversation at Fuller Seminary, hundreds of people turned up to engage with the idea.
Raising the questions is the easy part. Knowing how to address them is more difficult. Instead of offering another set of prescriptive (McDonaldized) answers, I spent eight years engaging and listening at clergy conferences and seminars around the world before attempting After McDonaldization, knowing that any pointers to the future needed to be rooted in the realities of church life today.

Changes in culture are reflected in the places where we now live, and we are more mobile than ever before. People regularly look for fresh networks of friendship (including spiritual connections) when they move house. Churches have known that for a long time, and many of them make a point of meeting with people who are new to their neighbourhood and helping them to integrate. We haven't always appreciated the potential, of course, and it is still a large blot on the record of British churches that when Christians from the Commonwealth landed on these shores in the 1950s and 1960s, they rarely found a welcome in the indigenous churches, which is why they went off and started their own. Something similar is happening today with the influx of migrants from Eastern Europe.

But beyond such ethnically defined population movements, people all around the world are moving into cities. In Manchester, for example, the city centre population in 1988 was less than 1,000. Ten years later it had risen to 2,100, but today (2007 figures) it stands at 17,600 and is continuing to grow at approximately 25 per cent each year. Significantly, 64 per cent of these people are aged between 18 and 34, and 75 per cent are single - two demographic groups that churches mostly fail to connect with. The same story can be replicated in every city throughout the world.

In February this year we passed the point at which more than half the world's population now lives in a city, and according to the United Nations Population Fund, by 2030 the number of city inhabitants worldwide will be more than 5 billion (roughly 60 per cent of the projected world population at that time). No missiological thinking can afford to ignore this reality. The fate of the church in rural areas is undoubtedly a matter of some concern, and one that I know well enough as I currently live in the countryside. But the future shape of Christian witness will be determined not by what happens in remote rural locations, but by what happens in the cities.

These new city dwellers cover the whole spectrum, though some groups are more extensively represented than others. The 'desperate poor' are certainly moving into cities. These are individuals for whom life cannot get any worse, and who might just manage to find a better life for themselves in the relative anonymity of an urban environment. Alongside them, a large section of new city centre dwellers belong to what Richard Florida has called 'the creative class' which also to a considerable extent overlaps with what others call 'urban tribes' consisting of (mostly though not exclusively) young people who come together to create new forms of family community. Think of TV programs like Friends or Frasier, and you get the picture. They are acting as catalysts for the regeneration of city living throughout the world. Such people are not called 'creative' for nothing: they are driven by a need to think outside the box, and work to bring to fruition dreams that might seem impossible. There is no one single thing that such people might be doing, and they might be anything from barristas to barristers, or between jobs - again, Friends is the quintessential image here.

Christians sometimes criticize these people as being self-centred and arrogant. Some of them are, but the same characteristics can be found at all levels of society so it is not their creativity that makes them like that. Actually, their creativity is the one thing that connects them with the desperate poor, and which in turn connects both groups back to the divine image which we find on the first page of the Bible, where people are made 'in God's image' and where God's primary attribute is - creativity. In Biblical terms, creativity is not limited by social class or economic accomplishment, but is intrinsic to being human. Moreover, creativity is the exact opposite of McDonaldization, which is why the sort of Christian communities that are springing up in such environments may hold the key to new forms of mission, ministry, and theology.

Such urban tribes can be cynical about the sort of community spirit that is engendered by traditional civic structures, which is why they are unlikely to join the sort of voluntary service associations that in the past would have helped others (things like Scouts, Guides or Rotary Club). But in many places (and not least through emerging churches), these 'tribal' groups are reinventing responsibility by reverting to more ancient patterns of support rooted in friendship, without the need for institutional structures to control their outcomes. One emerging church group I know has done everything from painting murals in school yards to helping furnish homes for their own members, or for the marginalized. This is the new world of the 'conceptual age', in which values of integrity, openness, honesty and accountability are more highly prized than the McDonaldized structures of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. It is also the ancient world of Jesus' call to discipleship.

Christians often describe discipleship in terms of believing, belonging, and behaving. In spite of much discussion around these notions, it is still the case that in very many churches you only get to belong once you profess the right beliefs, and they then get to work on you to inculcate patterns of Christian behaviour. In recent years, some have prioritized belonging over believing. Something can be said in favour of both approaches, for different people can find themselves drawn into relationship with the Gospel through different entry points. In The McDonaldization of the Church I identified seven people groups, and for those I called 'traditionalists' and 'corporate achievers', belief can often be the starting point for the journey of discipleship, the need to have some rational basis for life commitments taking precedence over anything else.

For others - most notably those I call 'spiritual searchers' - acceptance has often been the key consideration. Today, though, I sense a growing concern about lifestyle issues (behaviour), most obviously among new city dwellers though by no means limited to them. The question of the conceptual age is not so much 'what can I believe?' or 'how can I be sure?', but 'how can I live - in ways that will be empowering and life-giving for others, as well as for myself?'

Not long ago in a gathering of an emerging church that I happen to know rather well, I found myself in conversation with a young woman I had not seen before. As we spoke, I asked her how she had come to be with this group of Christians. She told me that she looked at herself in the bathroom mirror one morning, and asked 'what am I doing with my life?' Now 28, she had had more than 30 sexual partners that she could remember (and some others who were long forgotten). She felt a need to break free from this cycle of behaviour, and had shared this with a work colleague, who happened to be part of the church in question. She told me with gratitude of how these people were supporting her in her quest for a new lifestyle, and honestly admitted that she had no idea whether she believed anything (in a rational, abstract sense, that is), but she was definitely finding new direction for her life. It was not that she was disinterested in believing as such - and she certainly felt that she belonged - but it was behaviour, or lifestyle, that had been her entry point into creative encounter with the Gospel.

Different ways of being church are likely to connect with the aspirations of different kinds of people: traditional churches most easily relate to questions of belief, charismatically-inclined churches (which can also sometimes be traditional) offer a sense of belonging, and emerging churches are the ones that most obviously recognize the importance of behaviour as a primary entry point into faith. They all have their own favourite scriptures as well: traditionalists tend to favour Paul (especially Romans, with its analytical style of argument), while those who major on belonging tend to like the action-oriented book of Acts, and the Paul of Corinthians who engages with real-life questions. Regarding behaviour and lifestyle as a key point of missional engagement invites us to connect with some Bible resources that might otherwise be sidelined: books like Leviticus, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, not to mention Revelation and of course the Gospels. Emerging churches are often criticized for not taking scripture seriously, but I shall never forget the first time I met with Tribe of Los Angeles, where Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran is the pastor. She introduced a colleague who was a biochemist, who was doing a whole series of studies on Leviticus, which took on a new life when approached through the questions of creative class people in LA - questions about HIV, about STDs, about food and sustainability - and which we then explored through visiting a series of reflective prayer stations. To say I was gobsmacked is stating the obvious - and a major reason why every time I'm back in LA, Tribe is one of the first places I head for.

No single church style has a monopoly on effective mission. Moving beyond McDonaldized ways of being invites us to be more benevolent than we have typically been to other people's ways of doing things, recognizing that this is at the heart of a Biblical notion of divine creativity, which can be demonstrated through many different understandings of ministry and ways of doing theology. Any one of these pathways can be an entry point for different people who, once they have taken the risky step of engaging with church at all, discover that - like Dr Who's Tardis - there is a lot more to be explored from within than might appear to be the case from just a casual glance. Once we understand that McDonaldized systems are the enemy of authentic Biblical spirituality, we can begin to reimagine a church for the 21st century!


After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry and Christian Discipleship in an Age of Uncertainty by John Drane, is out now, published by Darton Longman & Todd.


1 Interview in Time magazine, May 31, 1963.
2 Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The River Cottage Meat Book (London: Hodder & Stoughton 2004), 12-19.
3 John Drane, The McDonaldization of the Church (London: Darton Longman & Todd 2000).
4 John Drane, After McDonaldization (London: Darton Longman & Todd 2008)
5 See:
6 UNFPA, State of World Population 2007: unleashing the potential of urban growth (New York: United Nations 2007).
7 Richard Florida, Cities and the Creative Class (New York: Routledge 2005).
8 Ethan Watters, Urban Tribes (New York: Bloomsbury 2003).
9 Cf. Robert D Putnam, Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community (New York: Simon & Schuster 2000).