Dramatic cultural change plays out in thoughts, values, aesthetics and tools, Doug Pagitt told the 2013 Evangelism and Church Growth conference here today (Sept. 18), and the question for churches ― which affect and are affected by cultural shifts ― is “How do we fit in our world?”

Pagitt ― author, popular speaker and pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis ― outline four seismic cultural shifts in American culture over the last 200 years: from agrarian to industrial to information to inventive. “Churches are always part of these, “ he said, “and they exist simultaneously … so we constantly have to ask what it’s going to look like when we shape them and are shaped by them.”

The agrarian age was centered around the farm, “a classic North American archetype,” Pagitt said. Communities were fairly homogeneous and the minister “was seen as a parish pastor representing everyone and was the representative of Christianity to everyone.”

The dawn of the industrial age ushered in movement from rural to urban life and the center shifted from the farm to the factory, Pagitt continued. Culturally, people were reorganized into dense urban huddles and churches began looking architecturally like factories and denominations organized themselves like factories, With churches on every corner, “pastors became brand representatives as denominations sought to differentiate themselves,” he said.

With the information age, the focus shifted again ― from farm to factory to school, Pagitt said.  “Now, knowledge is power and individual identification moved from who you are (farm communities) to what you do (urban life) to what you know,” he said. This was the golden age of “sermon topics on church signs and a boom in adding educational wings to church buildings.”

The new age now dawning is referred to as the “inventive age” or “conceptual age,” Pagitt said. “The locus of culture has shifted from the farm to the factory to the school to the Internet.”  In this new culture, individuals have moved from being part of small, intimate rural communities to global citizens, he said, “and this new ‘mash-up’ sensibility with everything connected to everything else has implications for the church that are massive.”

Thought, values, aesthetics and tools

In previous eras, Pagitt said, culture rewarded analytical and organizational ability. Modern cultural shifts increasingly, but not exclusively, reward creativity and innovation. “In this new cultural era we’re going to think different things and think about them differently,” he said.

Values and tastes are increasingly not consistent, Pagitt insisted, because in a global community there are so many variables and choices. “Values are culturally created norms,” he said, “and so whole value systems are shifting.”

And tools really matter, Pagitt said. “From stones to iPhones ― tools are radically changing.” The old saw that “necessity is the mother of invention” has been turned on its head. “We’re more apt to say that invention is the mother of necessity, not the other way around. We’re creating the technology first and, of course, then we have to figure out how to use it. The implications of that are profound.”

Faced with the sometimes bewildering pace of change, people are increasingly wanting to be “meaning-makers,” Pagitt said. “Life (and Christian faith) is not just knowing the truth or reality, but in making meaning out of it all.,” he said.

“These changes are not demographic, they are psychographic because they happen to everyone,” Pagitt said. “People want to be engaged in places where they feel their participation makes a difference. The last thing the church should be doing is creating systems that don’t need people. Too many systems disempower too many people.”

Pagitt conceded that “not every place is going to be an ‘inventive-age’ place, but Presbyterians are well-situated because we claim to be ‘reformed, always reforming.’”

Church folk are too often paralyzed by fear or uncertainty or feelings of inadequacy, Pagitt said.

“Just do something and figure it out,” he urged. “Try and try and try and you’ll figure it out. Every one of us gets good at something by just keeping at it until we figure it out or get good at it.”