Doug Pagitt’s most recent book, Church in the Inventive Age, is a quick but valuable read. Doug offers a historical stratigraphy of American Christianity over the past 200 years—a relatively short period of time that has seen remarkably quick and far-reaching change—into four periods: the Agrarian Age, the Industrial Age, the Information Age, and what he calls the Inventive Age. As the title indicates, his biggest concern is how church culture can adapt to be effective in the Inventive Age.
Through my work on the PC(USA) Middle Governing Bodies Commission, I have been spending some time thinking about how we tell the story of American church history. As in any historical endeavor, the way we tell the story says much about what we think is important and how we think about our contemporary situation. If Doug’s analysis of American church history is a little too neat and perhaps even a little forced, I can forgive that because every attempt to present complicated history in a digestible way falls victim to in this tendency. In this case, Doug tells a good story that reinforces his primary focus, how the church can think about itself and its mission in the Inventive Age. So, for example, while I’m not so sure that his characterization of Information Age churches as learning centers is a sufficiently robust description, it works well to tee up his discussion of the Inventive Age.
If there is anything Doug is poised to describe with the knowledge of an insider, it is Inventive Age churches. Solomon’s Porch has been a very successful cutting edge experiment in new ways of being church in today’s world.
I would describe Doug’s narrative of the transition from Information Age to Inventive Age as a shift from being consumers of information to producers and participants. If the Information Age was characterized by television and the mass consumption of information on the internet, the Inventive Age is typified by Web 2.0, wiki culture, and social networking. In Doug’s own words, “The Inventive Age is one in which inclusion, participation, collaboration, and beauty are essential values. … It is the age of ownership and customization and user-created content.”
Along the way of working through his analysis, Doug has a good chapter on an accessible anthropological approach to culture that focuses on ways of thinking, values, aesthetics, and tools. He is right on in his claim that churches are also cultural institutions that can be helpfully studied with these same anthropological tools. He uses this to good effect in a subsequent chapter discussing the imbalance within and between Evangelicals/Pentecostals and Denominationalists/Mainliners. Doug is probably right that E/Ps have been conservative with thinking and values and more willing to experiment with aesthetics and tools, whereas the opposite is the case with D/Ms, who are more conservative with aesthetics and tools (I might say institutions) and more free with thinking and values. A more healthy and constructive approach is to open up all four areas to adaptation for changing cultural situations.
He concludes his book by discussing three basic approaches to being church in the Inventive Age. Being church for the Inventive Age means maintaining vibrant traditional churches, which Doug sees as important and valuable. An example of being church with the Inventive Age is a traditional church partnering with and supporting an Inventive Age church. Being church as the Inventive Age is doing something completely different, like Solomon’s Porch. I was pleased to see that Doug sees a place for all of these expressions in the Inventive Age, which means that this is not an all or nothing approach. If a traditional church is working, it doesn’t need to become something it’s not because there are obviously people out there who need that kind of church. But there are lots of people who need something else, something more in tune with Inventive Age sensibilities.
All in all, this is a good book for church leaders seeking a quick introduction to the changing context of American culture.
Like any reading I do, I read this book in the midst of a variety of pastoral contexts and questions. Here is a taste of how this book is interacting with what I’m doing right now.
Fourth Presbyterian Church
Fourth perfectly fits the description of a church for the Inventive Age. We are a traditional church shaped by the Industrial and Information Ages. We will never change to a church like Solomon’s Porch, and that is okay. As a growing mainline church actively and missionally involved in its community, we have an important role in the Inventive Age. At the same time, Doug notes a shift in the Inventive Age to smaller churches that focus on relationships and connection, something that is hard to do (but not impossible) in a 6000 member church. We also try to be a church with the Inventive Age through our relationship with Wicker Park Grace, a relationship that could be deepened in the ways Doug suggests.
As a youth minister in a mainline church for the Inventive Age, I wonder how I would characterize our youth ministry. Are we also a youth ministry for or with the Inventive Age, or do we do youth ministry as the Inventive Age? My guess is the former and not the latter. I think our youth ministry system, which we are slowly trying to develop and grow, is still largely shaped by the culture of the church as a whole. Is that the way it should (or must) be, or is it possible for us to move our youth ministry fully into the Inventive Age?
Middle Governing Body Commission
In my work on the PC(USA) MGB Commission, I’m thinking a lot about our denominational system and its structures. Doug points out that denominations were a tool created by Industrial Age churches. Are they no longer necessary for the Inventive Age? I think Doug would say that they aren’t. Still, there are aspects of Presbyterianism—which by definition seems to require some kind of collective organization—that can adapt well to the Inventive Age. For example, Doug notes that in the Inventive Age authority has shifted to relationships rather than hierarchical or corporate understandings of authority. I can see a revived focus on presbyteries as communities of discipleship and discipline aligning with this shift. Doug also points out the Inventive Age shift toward smaller churches that focus on connection. An emerging theme from our MGB Commission work is that we might want to consider moving back to smaller presbyteries and networks of presbyters to facilitate just this sort of connectionalism.
In my reflections on Fourth Church, I also meant to discuss our “Fourth at Four” jazz worship service as a potential way of being church with the Inventive Age. In some ways, we are beginning to view this service, with a different aesthetic and a younger group of preaching pastors, as an opportunity to grow a congregation that is different from morning worship attenders. At this point, though, I don’t think this new venture is doing any better at being church as the Inventive Age.