In the April 18, 2012 issue of The Christian Century, William McKinney recently reviewed 5 different books or reports with data on the state of the church in the USA. ("Crunching the numbers," pages 26-29)
I found McKinney's closing comments particularly helpful:
The crisis that emerges from these snapshots of religious life is twofold. The first is the growing inability of many mainline institutions to maintain themselves. The second crisis may be more important in the long run: the absence of resources for building new institutions to meet current and future needs.
Across the denominational spectrum, religions have fought to maintain the institutional forms and practices that were put in place in the 19th century to meet the needs of an expanding population. Religious groups knew who "their" people were, and the institutions they built were shaped to meet their community's needs. For example, Lutherans built schools and colleges to prepare immigrant Germans, Swedes and Norwegians for careers on the frontier; Presbyterians started seminaries to prepare learned clergy for their congregations; Catholics and Jews founded hospitals to provide health care for their people.
Over time each group developed remarkably similar patterns of connecting their local, regional and national constituencies in order to carry out their particular mission. Formal and informal clusters of denominational groups came into being to express similar theological, ethnic and mission commitments. Most of those institutions still exist in some form, albeit in slimmed-down versions.
In 1976, when I started my first full-time position as a researcher in one of the national agencies of the United Church of Christ, my boss told me that my job was "to figure out what is going on in the United States and what it means for the church's mission." I didn't realize at the time how important it would be to link these two questions. The most effective leaders I have known are those who can connect their descriptions of reality with practical agendas for action.
Social research such as the studies summarized here does not spell out an agenda, but it can inform one. The sustainability of the mainline Protestant traditions in particular depends on their ability to answer some huge questions. Can these traditions speak to the religious yearnings of younger Americans? Will they invest in reaching out to the new populations, especially to immigrants? Can they articulate a compelling message to population groups whose principal exposure to Jesus Christ and to Christianity has flowed through mostly conservative channels? Will they be able to identify, prepare and support a new generation of leaders who can help shape new forms of congregating that will be sustainable?
The challenges call for more than technical fixes. They are what Ron Heifetz has called "adaptive challenges." The last thing American faith communities need is another round of programmatic efforts to reverse declines. These haven't worked because they haven't addressed the fundamental changes that are taking place in the broader culture.
"Changes that are taking place in the broader culture" are absolutely crucial to forming any strategies for organizational changes within denominations.
Organisms that thrive change their form in response to external changes so that they are able to draw sustenance from the environment (and respond to toxins as well).
Denominations have adopted their current forms in part as a means to best express their faith, values, and mission. But a crucial error is to identify the form with the faith. As the environment changes, so must the form. Can denominations find new forms that adopt in ways to draw sustenance from the new culture while maintaining their faith, values, and mission?
Too often churches spend inordinate amounts of time and energy developing new mission statements, when in fact, the problem is not their mission. The problem is their organizational methods and structures which are not working in the new environment.
Paradoxically, liberal denominations are faring the worst in the changing environment precisely because the new environment has become more liberal.
They don't stand out; don't appear to offer anything distinctive from the wider culture. So why bother investing personal time, money and energy to be part of something that doesn't offer anything new, any "added value?"
The new environment is highly individualistic and highly virtual.
But even old-line, liberal denominations are still highly community, highly real-time.
I'm not sure we need to be so heavily invested in a large number of large properties to make community real.
But we do need to find a real way to sell the value of face-to-face spirituality. And actually have something of "added value" to offer.
Permission is granted for non-profit use of these materials provided credit is acknowledged as, "David Ewart, www.davidewart.ca."