Key Transitions in Church Systems in the Next 10-15 Years

SUMMARY. In September 2007, I was asked for input on what I thought will emerge as key transitions in the next 10-15 years for church systems in the areas of worship, membership, stewardship, and communications. This post is the essay I wrote in response to that invitation. Since the time I blogged it, it has remained the most frequently viewed post. It includes what I consider to be a critically important statement on paradigm differences and the development of trust:

With these paradigm assumptions in mind [i.e., of Robert Webber’s distinctives between Traditional, Pragmatic, and Younger (Holistic) Evangelicals] if I were required to boil down the ongoing paradigm shift to just one critical issue, here is what I would choose: The locus and the focus of trust. I realize that seems like two or three things, but it is ultimately one issue: TRUST. The locus of leadership is shifting from professionals to participants, and the focus is shifting from authority to authorization. Power has traditionally been in the hands of the paid church leaders, and their decisions needed to be implemented loyally in deference to their positions of authority. Power is now in the hands of participants, who authorize influence to institutional leaders based on maintaining a relationship of trust. This means participants may well not continue their involvement if trust is not established after a reasonable period of relating, or if it is broken and not mended. Thus, I would urge leaders to review all “systems issues” and “church service styles” in light of TRUST. If mutual trust is not the core of bridging generations and paradigms, then the legacy of the Traditionals and Pragmatics will not be sustained, even with well-intentioned “tweaks” of programs and structures in order to seem more Holistic-friendly.

BACKGROUND

In September, I was asked for input on what I thought will emerge as key transitions in the next 10-15 years for church systems in the areas of worship, membership, stewardship, and communications. What follows next is what I wrote back then. I’m putting it here, basically unedited. I’m doing that in part to see what kind of feedback I get, if any, on how understandable this material is. (Actually, I suspect it isn’t very accessible to most people, in part because I still haven’t gotten over being dense about writing things that are too dense. But I don’t think the difficulty is only because of the language level necessarily, but also because most Christian leaders and readers don’t have background in how to analyze culture or talk about it. Yet that’s what a lot of the most pressing issues on missional/emerging blogs touch upon. Anyway, I would really appreciate hearing your feedback on this issue. If there’s interest, I’m thinking maybe I’ll attempt a series of posts on a basic tutorial on culture and social change.) (And I’ll actually try to scale back the complexity level. Promise! Well, I’ll try …)

KEY TRANSITIONS IN CHURCH SYSTEMS IN THE NEXT 10-15 YEARS

The context for my response is to focus first on the inevitable, complex changes in global paradigms, not on simply how to modify pre-existing structures and programs. I assume the underlying paradigm that has led to modernist theologies and mega-churches has long since passed its apex, and will substantially burn out as its orbit decays and combusts. Though some fragments of the vintage ship will survive the descent phase of its journey, these will represent the most robust and biblically-centered dimensions of being and doing church. Therefore, not only must new-paradigm “spaceships” be redesigned from the ground up – not just retrofitted for the new realities – but the entire launch program needs radical reintegration for a radically different zeitgeist.

Church leaders can no longer rely solely on traditional tools of “organizational leadership.” These approaches can help (re)create an institution that is internally effective (doing the right things) and efficient (doing things right). However, they typically do not account for the new external realities of substantial cultural changes that still make effective/efficient institutions obsolete. The interdisciplinary approaches of strategic foresight (i.e., studies of the future) supply deeper-level analysis of paradigms and cultures so our organizations can stay mobile and flexible, while still “on mission.” Put another way, even if organizational leadership helps us decide what styles of services we would like to change, without strategic foresight, we are only changing the style of wood on our institution’s coffin.

The church cultures that are coasting to their conclusion are built around what Robert Webber described in his book, The Younger Evangelicals, as the Traditional and Pragmatic paradigms. The church cultures that are gaining momentum toward ascendancy are based on what I term a Holistic paradigm (basically, this is what Webber terms the Younger Evangelical paradigm). These paradigms are not strictly linked to generations, though there are significant correlations between Traditional and Builders, Pragmatic and Boomers, and Holistic/Younger and Busters and beyond.

Only those churches, businesses, and community agencies whose leaders intentionally move to make significant paradigm changes will be able to construct new values, strategies, and structures from the inside out. This will require far deeper and more drastic changes at the theological level than most people expect – and many may not be willing to experience the challenge. In my estimation, the Holistic paradigm is far more paradoxical; its proponents intuitively or intentionally reintegrate what was split during the liberal-fundamentalist theological wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. Holistics will not tolerate the deficiencies of either liberalism with its half-biblical attempts at social action and cultural relevancy, nor conservatism with its half-biblical emphasis on personal morality and cultural separation.

Just gluing the broken pieces back together will not suffice. Instead, the paradoxical Holistics will pursue both moral purity with social justice, and both embodied/incarnational social presence with biblically countercultural lifestyles. This does not represent a compromise “middle ground,” but a reintegrated biblical grounding. Since this radical “re-pairing” emanates from a holistic, integrative paradigm, it cannot be categorized as “post-liberal” or “post-conservative,” depending on the organization’s starting point; it is neither one and it is more than both. At any rate, churches which stubbornly persist in grasping to one of the two halves, or attempt to force the two together in some non-holistic way, can fully expect to become extinct in the next 25 to 50 years – regardless of whatever “relevant” mini-adjustments they may make to their systems and structures.

That may sound ominous, and perhaps even frightening or fatalistic. But there is hope. The Holistic paradigm is the providential key to sustainability in the era that is emerging. And, in this period of global transition, intercultural people may prove to be the locksmiths. (More about them shortly.)

With these paradigm assumptions in mind, if I were required to boil down the ongoing paradigm shift to just one critical issue, here is what I would choose: The locus and the focus of trust. I realize that seems like two or three things, but it is ultimately one issue: TRUST. The locus of leadership is shifting from professionals to participants, and the focus is shifting from authority to authorization. Power has traditionally been in the hands of the paid church leaders, and their decisions needed to be implemented loyally in deference to their positions of authority. Power is now in the hands of participants, who authorize influence to institutional leaders based on maintaining a relationship of trust. This means participants may well not continue their involvement if trust is not established after a reasonable period of relating, or if it is broken and  not mended. Thus, I would urge leaders to review all “systems issues” and “church service styles” in light of TRUST. If mutual trust is not the core of bridging generations and paradigms, then the legacy of the Traditionals and Pragmatics will not be sustained, even with well-intentioned “tweaks” of programs and structures in order to seem more Holistic-friendly.

Trustworthy communications systems are not perfect, but they do move over time toward improved clarity, consistency of follow-through on what is said and/or promised, and seeking input from members/participants and weighing it carefully before pronouncing a decision.

Trust-filled worship …

Trust in membership …

Trust in stewardship …

Holistic; all parts all the time.

[Sidenotes: It would take many pages to lay out my research and reasons for why I say trust is the critical issue. If you want to catch a glimpse of why, read Robert Bly’s truly foresighted foreword in the reissued edition of Society without the Father by Alexander Mitscherlich (HarperPerennial, 1992). Likewise, my conclusions about intercultural people (“Interpolators”) come from my own intensive research and extensive writing.

TRENDS IN MANAGING MEMBERSHIP

“Seeker-sensitive” programs and using key church services as a platform for evangelism are based on a consumerist paradigm; discipleship – TRUE discipleship – is based on a participatory/producer paradigm. The emerging paradigm that will be in ascendancy soon [what Robert Webber calls Younger Evangelical paradigm] is based on a producer mentality. So, if today’s “front door” to church appeals to consumers, trying to close the “back door” tomorrow is irrelevant. Churches that reinforce spiritual consumerism will be functioning on a paradigm in decline that will be in full decay within 25 to 50 years. The time is now to transition toward an integrative, holistic, producer-use-your-giftings paradigm. If we can connect God’s people into meaningful ministry at levels appropriate to their gifts and spiritual maturity, I suspect many aspects of being/doing church will take care of themselves, as long as there is intentional discipleship and training.

TRENDS IN STEWARDSHIP

The Traditional and Pragmatic paradigms (again, using Robert Webber’s terms from The Younger Evangelicals) overfocus on stewardship as money, while the Younger [what I term Holistic] paradigm sees stewardship more as a whole-life, whole-lifetime concern. So, it incorporates work and family, and our “third places,” like cafe or coffee house, in Ray Oldenburg’s term for an “external living room” where we process life. It incorporates money, time, talents, and rest/sabbath. Most American churches seem to have succumbed to the same warp (and warped!) speed as our culture. Tell ’em the title and subtitle of this book and see if they go ouch! – Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed. As I have written elsewhere, “If we don’t take a sabbath rest, a sabbath will arrest us.” If a consumerist paradigm prevails, neither staff nor laypeople will be rested enough to have silent space for reflection about God’s activities in and around us; this means we quench the Spirit. If speed and consumerism fill the church coffers but chase away the Holy Spirit, is that what we really, really want?

TRENDS IN WORSHIP

I see the most critical issue in worship being that we have imported (i.e., consumed) a worship identity via outsourcing. It is not bad/wrong to import worship songs and hymns from elsewhere. However, if we truly believe the New Testament’s framework of spiritual gifts and ministries, then surely we ought to have some local/indigenous people in our midst who are gifted to produce worship music, devotionals, arts, liturgies, reflection pieces, etc., etc., etc., that (super)naturally match the local culture. Import everything worshipful from outside the local culture, and I fear the “hidden curriculum” messages are that “We aren’t capable of producing any ‘real’ worship leaders here” and “We don’t care about local flavuh.” Can we not contextualize worship for here and now, and also ground it in past, present, and future so that we are reminded of our unseen continuity and connections with ALL siblings in Christ from all races, spaces, and places in the last 2000 years? I’m not so sure “style” of worship is THE critical issue; I suspect a sustainable worship style over the next 25 years of global paradigm transition will include many forms and formats; but if it is completely consumerist, it will stunt the spirit of worship and we will all be poorer for that loss.

TRENDS IN CHURCH COMMUNICATIONS

I long for our churches to better understand the many different ways that God providentially “wired” people to process information. If we use learning styles as a base for diversifying our communication formats, that would be a wonderful thing! [For example, see How Am I Smart? A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences by Kathy Koch, Ph.D.]

Even if we conquer the issue of multiple forms, we can miss the essential concern of content, if we still conform to Traditional or Pragmatic paradigms. In these, the leader has automatic authority to decide and lead because of their official positions/roles. In the emerging Holistic paradigm, leaders earn authorization to advise and influence based on a relationship of trust. I suspect many churches, denominations, and ministries experience significant breakdowns in their communication systems. Do we follow through on what we say? Do we promise things too far beyond what we know we can fulfill? Does anyone take notes at meetings so we don’t waste time later trying to reconstruct what the decisions and details were? Whatever the specifics, leaders (and therefore their Kingdom enterprises) often are not proving trustworthy, and that is a warning signal to those who crave the security of trustworthy leaders. (In an America where many children come from homes of divorce, and where typical senior pastor turnover is around three years if I remember correctly, consistency and continuity are essential for maintaining leadership roles in the lives of generations X, Y, and Z. In an unstable world, at least we can offer godly security of doing things decently and in order, and keeping our word!)

Trustworthy communications systems are not perfect, but they do move over time toward improved clarity, consistency of follow-through on what is said and/or promised, and seeking input from members/participants and weighing it carefully before pronouncing a decision. I have to believe that improving our trustworthiness factor is a critical element in formation of community. We can provide all the spiritual and social services in the world for people … we can have great programs and systems for getting people into groups, and blogs and e-letters for cross-talking … and still not have authentic community if we are not people of truth and trust.

A final thought on facilitating formation of community in this era of cultural upheaval. I believe intercultural people represent our best facilitators. They are often cross-cultural “people of peace,” and they know by gift, intuition, and/or intention how to welcome people and connect them with others. If we can identify intercultural people and ask them to serve in bridging the gaps between people of different generations and paradigms, it could help tremendously. After all, consider the fact that most of the people raised up in Old and New Testament for history-changing and/or new-work-catalyzing work in the midst of significant cultural changes were at least bicultural … For details on interculturals, check out this blog entry on Interpolators.”

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14 thoughts on “Key Transitions in Church Systems in the Next 10-15 Years

  1. I whole heartedly agree about the change in authority for relationships between leaders and congregation with the issue being the locus and focus of trust. I work with teenagers in the criminal justice system and trust is a key factor and authority is not about my role but about trust and as you say authorised influence. I have to earn the influence I have in their lives. Culture is such a complex term and sometimes its used so trivially it becomes nonsensical. We definately need to learn more about it. I like reading your thoughts, your ideas are chiming with a lot of my reading and reflecting at the moment.

  2. Awesome post, Brad! Absolutely, trust is the key issue. And reading about the warp speed of culture reminded me of Thomas Merton’s striking statement: “The rush of life if a form of violence.” It smacked me when I first heard it four years ago, and it keeps smacking me today…how can the Messiah’s shalom be ours when we embrace this kind of rushing violence???

    I am so grateful that you are willing to invest your precious energy in this space and bring your gifts and wisdom out where it is such a breath of fresh air in the sails of so many.

    The Abbess is honored to call you friend and brother….

  3. An excellent post Brad,

    You said a lot of this, but sometimes I get a better understanding by imagining a visual picture. That goes back to the 3D vennography discussion earlier.

    When I look at the Great Commission which in reality is what we are talking about succeeding at, one of the things I see is basically a catch and release attitude. We are supposed to have a transitional attitude about those we minister to. We get them for a time, but they are not ours. Just like children, and not any easier to give up control of either. But, in order to fulfill the commission, we must. And that, first of all, as you say takes trust. Not only of them, that they will do the right things and continue the processes that God has allowed us to plant the seeds of, but also (punch line here), of God when He tells us to let go.

    When we do managerial stuff, and face it, most church structures and attitudes are managing, we cannot be entrepreneurial (hope my spelling holds up). God is calling His church, the WHOLE body, to be catching and releasing. That is the picture that helps me let go when I do not want to.

  4. Brad,

    Great post — extremely informative and enlightening. Like Peggy I appreciate your sharing this. I going to post your link to this post on my blog. If I’m hearing you correctly and there is much to digest, but it sounds “organic” or what I perceive that type of ecclesial form to be. How close am I?

  5. Thanks for dropping in, ya’ll, and for your feedback.

    Rob – I think you’re relatively close. I’d say the paradigm system from which I analyze culture stuff is “organic” in at least a couple of ways. First, I work hard to become increasingly more holistic in my paradigm: to have all the parts (be comprehensive), to have all the parts interconnect (be integrative), and to have the whole be vital (there is “spirit” to it, not just sterile details). We reproduce what we are, so the more comprehensive, integrative, and Spirit-infused we are, then that’s what the fruits of our labors are.

    Second, and this may actually sound almost the same, I work hard to have a holistic set of systems and processes that are comprehensive, interconnected, and vital. For instance, I don’t think worldview is the main thing to look at; there is stuff even deeper. Those deeper-level assumptions and values affect what we select as our worldview elements, how we integrate the aspects of what we think, what kinds of theologies and philosophies and processes emerge out of them, and subsequently, what kinds of strategies, structures, methodological models, and practices “emerge.” All this comes from the DNA in the root, not from the bark on the surface.

    Actually, now that I think of it, everyone’s system is “organic” in the sense that what’s at the root predetermines the fruit. I’m trying to study and reflect on my own experiences and processing in ways that hopefully helps me expand the biblical content in my paradigm and ensure I integrate elements to more carefully align to what I am perceiving (Hi Peggy!) God’s values/heart to be.

    I think this helps explain why there is such upheaval over Willow Creek’s REVEAL study. By the evidence of some level of blight in the long-term fruit, we can DECONSTRUCT that there was some degree of blight in the founding assumptions/DNA … and then the whole set of systems followed suit.

    How much better it would be to make intentional efforts to CONSTRUCT a hugely holistic paradigm and set of systems from the outset in a new Kingdom enterprise …

  6. An add-on thought based on your comments, Richard.

    I wonder if all of us tend to stay children spiritually if we don’t have things structured in ways that challenge us to move through spiritual adolescence to maturity. In God’s design, we’re supposed to move from milk to meat. We’re supposed to go from knowing the Father’s love as babes, to overcoming the Evil One as young adults, to knowing the Father’s love from the beginning as mature disciples.

    Yes, catch and release … we cannot choose for others to move forward, but we should not simply baby everyone and accommodate all their needs (wants?), unless we expect ’em to remain babies.

  7. Brad…right on, bro. If you don’t intentionally do things, they just don’t get done! Raising children is very hard work and requires tremendous intentionality to do well. Yes, humans are tremendously creative (that whole Eikon thing, don’t you know), but that just goes back to the whole pathetic reality of Reverse Mentoring versus Intentional Mentoring!

  8. Covenant is such a strong theme throughout the whole of scripture… a concept that is largely lost in the West, replaced by the idea of legal arrangements. I’ve heard the Genesis story of Abraham making a blood covannt with God explained. The whole idea of cutting an animal in two and walking between the halves was that it symbolically represented: “may what has happened to this animal happen to me (and worse) if I break faith with you.”

    Within the West there’s seems so little loyalty in workplaces to staff, in marriages to spouses, in families, in networks of relationships… it’s like a sign of the kingdom where we see covenantal faithfulness.

    Leadership that fails to empower others isn’t leadership at all… it’s just use of power.

    I see this post not only as insightful about the future, but also as deeply grounded in profound theological themes.

  9. As a fairly new christian I completely agree. One thing that God spoke to me when I first entered ministry was to Guard My Heart only For Him. I am terribly cynical and tend to trust more people outside of the church than my own leaders. Any preacher or leader I work with I get to know personally and I find out whatever I can about their history. This may seem arrogant but I am accountable to God and the existing church has been a major obstacle in my finding Christ.

    I see covenant and trust the same way I see Jesus. In Jesus I see the Father the One thing I trust and have given my life to. When I see that in a leader, that leader gains my trust even if we do not always agree. Simply because I begin to see them as God does. The problem with some of my leaders is I don’t see Jesus, I see their agenda or an image of God created by themselves, whereby I can not trust. So even with the same leader I may trust Him in one area because God has spoken to me through that leader, I will not trust that leader in another area.

    A very basic example: My former pastor is awesome! A restorationist scholar and historian. Taught me alot on worship and the Hebrew Bible. He sucks at counseling though.

    When my brother as a new christian stumbled this created disapointment for my pastor. In his humanity my pastor was trusting in what he could see not in God. It was an attitude of hopelessness. I knew in that moment I couldn’t trust him I needed to trust Jesus. This meant that I would someday see my brother again because I knew he had Christ. Infact, I couldn’t even trust myself or my own personal experience with my brother. I trusted in God alone and 2 weeks later my brother showed up alive. Because I trusted in the Christ in my brother it has encouraged him to become stronger in God. Now he’s very strong in ministry. If I would have trusted in my pastor I would have given up hope or even not have helped him again.

    Weird but I tell my husband all the time not to put his trust in me. I tell him to put his trust in God and our covenant because when trials come, which they do, my husband can still see me as God does, and than instead of giving up we can work through the trial.

  10. Brad…you and I have the same challenge…there are too many things to chew on in our posts! I have to keep coming back to pick up the next tid bit ;^)

    Nice to see you here, Janet and Penney…our TFW tribe travels far and wide, eh?

    Penney, thanks for sharing about the importance of putting your trust in God/Christ alone…and I love the idea of trusting the Christ that is in another. That is a powerful image…one that speaks to the power of covenant/cHesed.

    Blessings, all!

  11. You’ve used a lot of terminology I’m not familiar with (or comfortable) with “Holistic” being one of them as I think of a New Age-y, Whole Foods, Organic, Surfs-up-Dude! sub-context. Post-modernism at it’s most subtle undercurrent. Or perhaps I’m just too exhausted to absorb everything written … but what I DO understand is thought-provoking and I’ll be back to work through it all, even if I have to get my dictionary, thesauraus and Concordance to do so!

  12. Hi Renea, and thanks for your comment. I especially appreciate that you’re willing to work through this material and exercise your discernment.

    As a linguist by training and a lover of words by practice, I try to be as precise as I can about word usage. But we just don’t have a common vocabulary to work from in the Kingdom. So … I see that I need to add holistic to my Glossary page to-do list. Here’s a short version:

    For me, being holistic has more to do with being as “biblically comprehensive” as possible in my perspectives, my categories for thinking, and how those categories relate to one another, than with the isshy-squissshy subjectivism we tend to associate with New Age-y wholism. (Although, I suppose my opinion of what constitutes “biblical comprehensive” / perspectives / categories / inter-relationships is subjective. Still, learning and living out that kind of holistic framework is nevertheless a major objective of mine!)

    To be continued …

    Again, thanks for dropping in, and hope you find other material that helps you learn and discern.

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