There is, by the nature of culture, always a gap between the younger and eldergenerations within a society. The arts have almost always been the first to pick up onthis reality whether it is Bob Dylan noting, “Come mothers and fathers throughout theland and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapidly aging. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand for the times they are a-changing.” or Dar Williams with the simple plea, “Teenagers, kick our butts.” However it is named, there is little reason to question the gap that exists. That being said, in this time in history and in this place in the world, there can be little doubt that the previous generation has totally let down their children’s generation and the time has come for those of us of the children’s generation to cast off the absurd expectations of our parents and live in radically different ways. That casting off should begin in the place that has the potential for the most radical change, the church.
First, dear sisters and brothers, let me talk a bit about the manner in which the previous generation has let down the younger. Within the church, the older generation, keenly aware of their own mortality and their impending loss of life and power, has sought to codify the movement of the Spirit within the doctrines and dogmatic assumptions of history. Religion, rather than being the cheerful work of moving with the Spirit to better bring about the Realm of God in this broken world has become a barrier and a burden to those who practice it. Rather than being a time of celebration and inclusion, those in the older generation have increasingly walled off the distinction between the sacred and the secular until the only one’s allowed in the door must look and believe painfully like everyone else
in the room.
The Church is burning down. It is a slow, smoldering burn to be sure, but it is burning down nonetheless. As it burns, those who belong have busied themselves painting over the soot stained walls, putting a new finish over the already depleted structure, in hopes that they will somehow protect the outdated construction that has strayed so far from the Architect's plan.
As the average attendance and membership of mainline protestant churches continue to slowly spiral down, we try to repaint the walls with new contemporary murals, dress up the sanctuary with artistic liturgical dressings and blast out slightly more modern music during the anthem and offertory. The hierarchical structure of the Church (both formal and informal) that sets up power dynamics which are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus? We leave them alone. The programs, groups and events of the church (from Sunday School to various long established women's or men's groups) that have been struggling, in some cases, for decades? We don't dare change them. The hypocritical judgment of anyone who isn't either one of us or like us? We simply ignore the log in our own eye.
We, those who have been part of the leadership of the Church, have been redecorating rather than putting out the fire. As we have done so, we have been fanning the flame. We should have been putting an end to the smoldering mess it has become and began renovating, restructuring and repurposing. We should be revisioning our future but instead we are busy decoupaging our church photo albums, not only remembering the “good old days” but insisting that we recreate the still lives we have created in our heads as way to fix the here and now.
The worst part is, we are so frightened of a new future (and the change needed to achieve it) that we continue to repeat this behavior over and over again receiving the same results every time (which is to say, receiving little to no results) and somehow, each time, we think that this time it will be different. We completely fail to realize that our system is perfectly designed to achieve the results we have – a slowly dying church. Burn baby, burn.
The good news is that no matter what happens, the Church will live. We can let it burn all the way down to the ground as we stand by watching while we embrace the memories in our photo album and the Church will go on – just without us.
Sit Boy, Sit. Good Dogma.
In order to understand why we need to grow our churches organicly (whatever that may mean - don't worry, we will get to that), we need to understand a little about how we, The Church, arrived at our current location as well as what the location is.
There was a time, frequently referred to as “the good ol' days,” when the church was the center of society (as in the first quadrant of the illustration below). A large percentage of a community's life centered around the church. It was not only the moral compass and center for their lives, but it was their social and philanthropic center of their lives as well.
This afforded the church the ability to define for it's community what was acceptable and what was not. It was really unlikely that people would challenge the status quo that was being established (one, not surprisingly, heavily weighted down with dogma). Challenging the thing that defined your community and was the center piece of many people's daily lives and activities would have probably been a really good way to make sure you were not accepted by those who had power in the establishment and ultimately you would probably be pushed out to the margins of the circle of society, if included in it at all. So, the status quo that's being established goes unchallenged and ever-unchanging.
As you could probably guess, this kind of influence (and let's just be honest, power) was somewhat intoxicating. The Church, particularly it's leaders, began to believe the myth that they had established. The myth wasn't that they were at the center of community, because in many ways they really were. The myth that they had begun to believe was that they deserved to be there, that it was by some divine right that they have so much influence (and power).
That was the beginning of getting left behind. In the illustration below, the first quadrant represents where the church once was – in the center of society. The blue arrow represents time and change. Over time, society began changing. The church, in it's perceived place of godly instituted influence and power, did not change even though it has a history of changing and, at times, doing so dynamically. The further society moved down the time line, the more it changed and the more church did not. With each passing year The Church became less and less relevant for a quickly change society.
The bottom half of the illustration is where we arrived. Society has moved on and, much to the surprise of The Church, has done just fine without us. People, it turns out, were created in the image of a very responsive and ever dynamic God and were able to find other social centers, other ways to express their philanthropic needs and other ways to fulfill their spiritual desires. The Church didn't fare as well. We continue to insist that we can repeat the things we used to do (maybe with a few minor adjustments, but certainly not with any changes that are significant or truly challenging) and expect to reap different results. Not surprisingly, it doesn't work and The Church not only continues to die, but more importantly it continues to be less and less relevant for more and more people which takes away the opportunity of doing ministry with them.
We have a problem. Growing our churches organicly is at least one good solution. But before we go there, we need to understand how our current condition has effected our relationship with our community. We will look at that in the third installment in this four part-er on Growing Church Organicly.
Part 1: Hopey-ChangeyPart 3: Can The Walls Come a Tumbling Down?
Churches are dying at an alarming rate. Research by The Barna Group
suggests that 3500 to 4000 churches close every year. More than 2,765,000 people leave the church each year. And yet we, the Church, insist on doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting different results. When confronted with change we insist that “it has always been done that way,” as if history is an acceptable excuse for continuing down our path to demise.
In thinking about this, it is helpful to turn to Dr. Paul Batalden. In looking at the dis-function of our health-care system Dr. Batalden, a Dartmoth Medical School Professor, is fond of saying, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the the results it gets.” If your church is dying, it is perfectly designed to die. You can keep repeating the past over and over again and consistently get the results of dying. That's exactly what most churches are doing.
For years and years churches have joined in with movement after movement, each designed to help the church change. Most of them don't work – at least not in terms of change. They do tend to be very good at distracting from real, substantive change. They are very successful at taking away our guilt for having a church that can't attract new members, because we think "at least we are doing something."
The problem with why these programs fail more times than they work is also part of the problem with many churches themselves: our ability to accept cognitive dissonance. Talking the talk, but not walking the walk... and not really being bothered by it, more or less acknowledging it. The world outside the church, in large part, see us as hypocritical. And we've given them every reason to do so. Churches profess love of neighbor yet either explicitly condemn people of certain lifestyles or implicitly condemn them by our silence when others claiming to be Christians do. We profess that we are all made equal and that we are equal in the eyes of God yet we are astoundingly silent on issues of social justice. The list could go on and on, and I'm not saying that some churches aren't authentically living into these things (because some are). What I am saying is that the world outside the church just doesn't see it much. What they do see leads them to deem us all hypocritical.
That kind of existence allows us to work our way through programs on emerging\ transforming\re-imagining church without ever really doing much more than the head work. We have learned the skill of cognitive dissonance well. It keep us from having to do things that make us uncomfortable like spending time in low income housing areas, talking to the homeless, ministering with those in jail...you know all the things Jesus said we were doing to him when we do them. Cognitive dissonance means we get to be 'Christian' without actually being very Christ-like.
Naturally our churches get to do the same. We can read all about the “hopey, changey” stuff, talk about it it in positive tones, and ultimately back away from it when it leads us to do something as drastic as playing a guitar instead of an organ during worship... or worse yet, playing a guitar instead of an organ during worship and feeling like we have really stretched ourselves.
While we “study” the programs on changing, we get to feel like we are doing something. The problem is the companies who market them have to be able to... well, market them, so the programs always have some kind of a release valve built in that allows those who don't really want to commit to change to be able to do a little something different, feel better about having done something, without actually really addressing any of the systemic problems. It leaves the core system in tack and it continues to perfectly get the results it gets...but we feel better because, “Well, at least we tried.”
In the next three parts of this four part series, we will look at how we got here, the Church's response to dying, and what we might do about it. In book after book, authors have tried to take on this topic so the work I'll do here is admittedly cursory, but maybe it will be a place for you and/or your church to begin engaging in the conversation. If so keep one thing in mind, don't do it if you aren't willing to enter into it with a willingness to be committed to the vision and the change. This is more than a good idea; it is more than a possible way to keep your church from dying; it is an act of faith.Part 2: Sit Boy, Sit. Good Dogma.
A good friend sent me an email this morning that reminded me of how important the call to the modern church to change or be prepared to die is.
He referenced a new book by Gil Rendle, Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Maine Churches.
A quote that he shared really hit home. It reminds me of what I've seen over and over again in mainline churches: “In his work on organizational change, Robert Quinn writes about a level of change that he identifies as "deep change," and he states that many organizations are now at the point where there is only one choice left- either deep change or slow death. Quinn was not writing for the church, although this point of deep change is clearly felt by the mainline church. He was commenting on the level of change that all organizations, corporations, and businesses need to address in order to learn how to stay alive and thrive in the newly shaping world about us.”
This goes right in line with my point in “Can the Church Catch Up?
” Change. That's what this is all about- and not just change, but deep change. Most churches are satisfied with toying with change or flirting with it but they have real commitment issues. It is one thing to have book studies or to try a new program or two, it is an all together different story to peruse change with a passion, to tear down the old and build up the new, to revision not only how we do worship, but how we are structured, how we interact with our community, what our daily lives look like, how we treat strangers and the least of these.
The same minister friend who sent the email once said, “Jesus asked everyone he met to change.” Just being who he was challenged anyone in his presence to change. Every 500 years or so, God challenges the church to change – not flirt with change but commit to deep change, systemic change.
October 31 marks the 493rd anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Thesis to the doors of the church in Wittenburg. We are due for a change – a deep change. And here's the thing, if we don't do it, it won't stop God from doing it. Change is gonna' come. The question is, are we gonna' be a part of it?
Much like the church in Martin Luther's time, the modern church has drifted away from biblical precepts. In the way most churches operate, privilege is more important than humility, the rich more important than the poor, members are more important than outsiders, cleanliness is next to godliness (just mess up the kitchen or wear dirty clothes if you don't believe me), repeating the 'law' or the way of the past substitutes for being led by the Spirit who we really would rather just not talk about more-or-less be led by... you are probably getting the point. What we have become, is not what we are meant to be and those on the outside see it clearly
, even though churches frequently do not.
It is time for a deep change. Feel free to argue that it's not, frankly it won't change anything (literally). It is perfectly rational to not like change. Change is uncomfortable. By definition it means the loss of what was; it is it's own kind of death experience. It is
perfectly rational to not like change...but for Christians, the people of the resurrection, we should not fear that kind of death
. Remember, “the old life is gone and the new life has begun.”
The argument can and has been made that we then also shouldn't fear not changing and the slow death that will come with it. To that I say true, but you miss two important elements which come with that perspective. First, if you let your church and The Church die because of your unwillingness to let the Spirit move you as the Spirit wills, while there will undoubtedly be life on the other side for The Church, there probably won't be life on the other side for your church. Do not forget what happens to the fig tree that bares no fruit. Second, this is not about changing for the sake of change, this is about changing for the sake of God, changing toward God's will and away from the twisted representation of Christ that so many Christians portray.
It's do or die time – you in?