The Common Good
July-August 1998

What Is the Future of the Church?

by Randy A. Nelson | July-August 1998

New visions of the body of Christ.

In recent years, observers of the religious scene in the United States have commented on two trends that at first glance appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, they have noted that the main institutional forms of religion—that is, the mainline churches and denominations—have experienced little, if any, growth. In fact, several of the larger denominations have lost membership. (Financial pressures have also been common.) On the other hand, interest in religious matters in the general public seems to be on the increase.

Rather than being contradictory, the presence of these two trends suggests that a reasonably important shift may be occurring in the expression Americans give to their religious beliefs. Mainline churches are only one of the options available, and increasing numbers of persons are seeking alternative forms through which to express their spirituality.

Donald Miller, professor of religion at the University of Southern California, calls one alternative form the "new paradigm churches." To represent this emerging new shape for Christianity in this country, Miller has identified three of the fastest growing movements within Christianity in this or any other time period in history, and has spent several years studying their growth. The result is Reinventing American Protestantism, a thoughtful, largely sympathetic but provocative book.

In the less than 40 years since the first of these congregations/communities was started, Calvary Chapel, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, and Hope Chapel have together generated more than 1,000 other congregations/ communities in both the United States and other countries. Such communities give structured form to the religious and spiritual interests of persons no longer loyal to traditional forms of religious expression. In giving one institutional embodiment to the second trend noted above, these congregations/communities also provide one explanation for the first trend.

According to Miller, the growth of these new paradigm churches "can be attributed to their ability to communicate the sacred in profound and life-changing ways and to embody this experience in postmodern organizational structures." In another formulation, he says,

...these churches are growing because they address deeply felt anxieties about how the sexes should relate to each other, how to raise children in a violent society, and how to find love in a world that seems to value possessions over relationships....But the real staying power of new paradigm churches is that they are mediating deeply felt religious experience, and doing this much more effectively than many mainline churches.

Miller’s various ways of describing the appeal of these churches makes clear that, in his judgment, these communities are not the reactive, fundamentalistic, biblicistic, culture-denying, closed groups that they are often portrayed to be. That the adherents often "look conservative," both religiously and politically—for example, many affirm traditional roles for women, reject abortion, and look at contemporary psychology with suspicion or disdain—is, in fact, the case. But such values need not be seen as the reflection of a resurrected fundamentalism, highly authoritarian and strongly opposed to modernity. Rather, in Miller’s view, such churches are engaged in significant "cultural repair"—affirming the importance of children, but also challenging individuals to accountability and responsibility, and demanding commitment in service to one another as well as giving praise and glory to God.

Such churches are primarily about the work of internal transformation rather than focusing on external change. They take seriously the reality of sin and evil; they look at the Bible with a sense of historical realism understanding it to be an inspired document that witnesses to events that literally occurred.

They are led by pastors who have generally had their lives transformed through personal religious experiences that rescued them from lifestyles, often either dysfunctional or self-destructive. Such pastors are usually creative risk-takers who have learned to rely on God. Often mentored by more senior pastors, many of them have not been seminary trained.

Attention to, and concern for, organizational structures, especially bureaucratic or hierarchical ones, are generally of little importance. Traditional religious symbols are often absent from the places in which worship is conducted. Music and biblical exposition are central to the worship experience. The music, usually in a culturally relevant idiom, is more often praise to God than songs about God. What is being offered is a sense of hope and meaning that is grounded in a transcendent experience of the "sacred." Often even more central to the ongoing faith life of the participants is involvement in some form of small group.

MILLER’S description of these communities is largely sympathetic. He makes only slight references to those situations that do not measure up to the values and intentions that are said to characterize these communities. Likewise, he doesn’t consider some of the problematic issues related to the values maintained, such as the presence of low self-esteem, lack of opportunity, and actual abuse that can accompany a traditional role for women. He does wonder what will happen in the second and third generations. Specifically, considering the work of Max Weber, he wonders whether these communities will be able to avoid the routinization of leadership and the attendant diminishment, or even loss, of creativity and energy that often seems to occur when those who succeed the original leaders do not share the original vision.

Still, in providing a richer and more complex description of these communities than is often the case, Miller has rendered their remarkable growth more understandable and has shed light on changes occurring both on the contemporary religious scene and in the American culture. He explains:

New paradigm churches eliminated many of the inefficiencies of bureaucratized religion by an appeal to the first-century model of Christianity; this "purged" form of religion corresponded to the cultural worldview of baby boomers, who rejected institutionalized religion; with their bureaucratically lean, lay-oriented organizational structures, new paradigm churches offered a style of worship that was attractive to people alienated from establishment religion because it was in their own idiom; this worship and the corresponding message provided direct access to an experience of the sacred, which had the potential of transforming people’s lives by addressing their deepest personal needs.

Miller’s study of the new paradigm churches is helpful in another way. By contrasting these communities with what seems to be the case in the more traditional expressions of Christianity, the challenge to those churches stands out in bold relief. Miller has concluded that the mainline churches will need to reinvent themselves radically if they are to reverse the trend of declining membership and finances and respond to the needs faced by people in urban America—the need for community, for safety, for life transformation, and for hope.

According to Miller, the required reinvention will involve especially two things. The mainline churches "must give the ministry back to the people, which implies creating a much flatter organizational structure; and second, they must become vehicles for people to access the sacred in profound and life-changing ways." Furthermore, denominations will need to be decentralized organizationally; seminaries will need to be restructured in such a way that more education of future clergy takes place at the congregational level; and expectations for what pastors are to do need to be reconsidered. Worship styles and content also need to be rethought, and theology needs to be more informed by contemporary religious experience.

Miller’s study and reflections provide important provocation for those who wonder about the religious impulses of a culture and their institutional embodiments. They also provide serious food for thought for those concerned about the future of denominations and the mainline churches. Whether new paradigm churches represent the wave of the future is not clear; likewise, it is not clear that the best response on the part of the mainline churches is to become more like the new paradigm churches.

Many mainline churches and denominations are aware of the need to adjust to changing contextual realities. Interestingly, some of the adjustments are being stimulated by considering whether the methods and philosophies of corporate America can be useful in stemming the tide of membership and financial losses. A recent article in the business section of The StarTribune of Minneapolis suggested that business language and practices are increasingly being used by churches as they wonder about "downsizing, niche marketing, even customer service"—practices borrowed from the business world to become more efficient, more effective, more team oriented. Such wonderings have led some churches to move from a more hierarchically ordered structure to one that emphasizes a team approach in which all participants are understood to be engaged in the practice of ministry. In the process, some of the divisions between laity and clergy are being diminished.

But one observer perceives the challenge to the mainline churches differently. In his modestly sized book, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity, Douglas John Hall argues that Christianity has reached the end of its tenure as the established religion of the Western world. Accordingly, even new paradigm churches, much less the denominations as currently conceived, are not the wave of the future. Rather, Christian communities need to recognize and embrace their minority status in the culture and disengage from it in order to re-engage it on a more appropriate basis.

There is a sense in which both Miller and Hall, as well as those in the churches who are seeking to reform the way they do their work, have as their primary concern the future of the mainline churches. And Miller’s title notwithstanding, it is not simply about reinventing American Protestantism. What is being discussed is the way in which religious sensitivities and impulses are being and will be embodied in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic culture, and the implications that such diversity has for the institutions in which those sensitivities and impulses have traditionally been embodied. Miller and Hall are only two of the persons engaging in that discussion, but they are among those who truly deserve to be heard.

RANDY A. NELSON is the director of contextual education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He lives in Minneapolis.

The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity. Douglas John Hall. Trinity Press International, 1997.

Reinventing American protestantism: Christianity in the new Millennium. Donald E. Miller. University of California Press, 1997.

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