Monday, March 29, 2010

Institutional Death and Resurrection

As we enter another Holy Week, I find myself pondering issues of death and resurrection--not individual death and resurrection, but congregational and denominational death and resurrection. It seems to me that there are many signs that congregations and denominations that flourished in the twentieth century are finding it difficult to continue to survive, much less thrive, in the post-Christendom, post-modern, and post-Great Recession times of the early part of this century. Author and blogger George Bullard has some thoughts on exactly this:

The Columbia Partnership: The Coming Death of National Denominations

Among many other observations, he notes that:

...many national denominations believe that restructuring themselves or re-tasking national agencies is the same thing as renewing the spiritual, strategic direction of the national denomination. No consistent evidence exists that restructuring national denominations alone leads to the renewal of these denominations. Restructuring actually is a step in preparing for another restructuring within five to ten years. Restructuring fits in the same category as rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

Being raised in Silicon Valley and graduating from high school in the mid-1980s, I have some personal experience with the difference between large institutions who fail to innovate quickly and small, nimble companies who can adjust to changing demands and conditions quickly. For more than a decade, I've said that many aspects of mainline denominations resemble a battleship--slow, difficult to steer, but incredibly tough and resilient. There was a reason for the "battleship church"--it was seen as a source of stability, power, and consistency in a world that was anything but stable. Words like "sanctuary" and hymns like "A Mighty Fortress is our God" spoke of the church as an unchanging rock against the tidal waves of change sweeping the culture of the late twentieth century. That sense of the church a a guardian remains one of the main touchstones of many people's faith.

Yet we are now in the era where institutions must be more like powerboats or patrol boats than battleships. The Navy doesn't make or use battleships anymore. In the same way, we in the church must find ways of rediscovering that "nimble church" that is alive, vibrant, and perhaps a bit more vulnerable than the previous "edifice church." That is easier said than done, of course. Planting new churches, re-planting declining or plateaued churches, and not simply rearranging things but revitalizing the things we do is an incredible challenge. Yet the message of Holy Week and Easter is that sometimes things need to die before then can be reborn. The message of the cross is that to get to resurrection we must place our sins at the foot of the cross and die to an old life. How does that function on a congregational level? What things do we need to crucify in our congregations (without getting crucified ourselves, of course!) in order to make room for new life? Something to think about.

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