Evolving or Not

One of the things we have learned from the study of evolution is that species do not necessarily evolve unless threatened by extinction. When 90 percent of our world was covered with water, the early aquatic species of our planet had no need to change. However, as the water began to recede over a period of thousands of years, many of these species, in some unexplainable process, began to grow legs and lungs. Possibly more importantly, they had to give up their gills and fins. I find this both fascinating and telling.

I don’t think there were any meetings to discuss or vote on how these species were going to have to change. Nor do I believe there were consultants who offered their expertise about how they could save themselves by doing what they were doing, but to do it better.

As participation in our local churches continues to drop like a rock across the country more churches continue to close. One has to ask if there is future for the church in particular and for Christianity in general. There are plenty of commentators who are predicting total demise within the next few decades. Quite frankly it is hard to argue with them. The numbers offer no indication there will be a meaningful future for either, at least as we think of them today.

However, we do know human beings are social animals. We like to create communities. We like to have places where we can talk about deep and important things. I remember hearing a highly respected conference minister in the United Church of Christ say something during his retirement banquet that has stuck with me for nearly three decades.

He said, “I am no longer certain who and what Jesus was, and I have no idea if I believe in God or if life has a purpose. But I do know I want to be around people who are interested in these things.”

Many of us still want to be around people who wrestle with the angels, who do care about the deep and often conflicting issues that come up in our lives. Something in these meaningful and challenging topics draws us together in authentic community. By authentic I mean a willingness to share from the heart at the deepest level. I am referring to a level of intimacy not often found at typical social events or in organizations focusing on social service.

So sociologist and commentators are having some interesting conversations these days about the future of Christianity. Some argue we need to get back to the basic—yes, the fundamentals like Salvation through Christ. That might have some value except the fundamentalist churches are aging faster than the progressive Christian churches. Furthermore the data shows young people with college educations, particularly in the liberal arts, are simply not buying the old Jesus story. Frankly they have little interest in religion at all.

A significant number of scholars and commentators are celebrating the dying of what they believe has been and remains a detrimental institution for our society. They often point to the absence of religion in Europe. They note how those countries have aggressively built public institutions for the support of their citizens in need. In some ways, one could argue they have become more Christian in their public actions than the United States.

So as we often do with these conversations, we come back to the question, “Is there a future for Christianity and what might that look like.” Will Christianity die or will it evolve into something new? After 25 years of visiting hundreds of churches, speaking at large conference gatherings, interviewing groups of students on campuses and corresponding with too many people to count, I must admit I am not necessarily an optimist. However I am beginning to see some interesting developing patterns that could indicate new life. It is far too early to decide if these are signs for the future. I may just be projecting my own bias into what appear to be some interesting sprouts but I think they are worth noting. They may even be a whisper of a future voice.

First, I am aware of some churches making substantive changes throughout the entire life of their congregations. They are not just adding a contemporary service or adding a rock band. They are making changes from the ground up. They include everything from liturgy to seating arrangement, from theology to language. For example, they are eliminating church words that mean nothing except to people who grew up in church. They are also changing the focus from beliefs to behavior and from proclamation to education. The focus in these communities is on the historical Jesus rather than in the creedal Christ.

These changes have not come easily or without pain. But what we are seeing is communities of interested people who are excited about what they are doing. They tend to be proud—joyful even—that they may be forging a new path. We have featured some of these communities in this month’s publication.

However, there is a major challenge for this shift beyond the inevitable pain of change. Faith communities that form themselves around the wisdom teachings of Jesus will naturally be more interested in how the participants are actually living their lives. I would presume there would be more attention paid to how the participants treat each other and relate to the world. It will assume some accountability that is not normal in our larger church communities. The emphasis here is not on saving souls or church growth. Rather it is on learning together how to follow a path that could change the way we relate to each other and the rest of the world.

The goal, I hope, would be to actually help each other live the teachings—not necessarily debate them or ignore them—but to practice them. The intention would be to become a “people of the Way” community like the earliest Jesus followers but in the world of the 21st century. While I have seen this model work well in small groups, I am not certain if it will attract enough people to support what we have come to think of as church. That model includes real estate, building upkeep and paid staff. Time will tell.

The second phenomenon I am observing is churches or faith communities within a church. A few years ago I was asked to give a presentation at a local church on Sunday morning. I knew the church well and was frankly surprised that anyone in this very traditional mainline church would be interested in hearing what I would have to say. I arrived at 8 a.m. and was escorted to a large classroom. I was amazed to see over 40 people already there sharing coffee and sweet rolls. It was a surprise in part because I knew the membership in this church was something under 200. This group seemed to represent an unusually large percentage of the church.

It turned out to be a wonderful 90 minutes. These people were well read, interested, and asked informed questions. They seem to delight in new information and different perspectives. When the time was up, I suddenly wondered if I was expected to join the group to attend their regular worship service. But after the chairs were stacked and the coffee cups were cleared, the majority of these folks, along with me, walked out to the parking lot, got into our cars and went home.

I realized this was their church. I later learned only about half of the folks there were official members of the larger congregation but attended this small group meeting weekly. I have now encountered more of these church-within-a-church models and I wonder if these kinds of gatherings will be the nucleus of the future.

In the last couple of years I have come across another phenomenon that fascinates me. I have now been involved with four independent organizations formed in large part to attract and finance progressive speakers, biblical scholars and Christian educators to inform and inspire them. It appears there are more of these organizations in the South. I assume this is because most churches in the area refuse to have anything to do with progressive Christianity. A young man in Birmingham, Alabama recently told me he could not tell his pastor he was attending the event where I was speaking. Sadly he told me he could not even tell his friend and neighbor.

These groups may host the better known authors and speakers two or three times a year. They normally gather somewhere between 100 to 300 people for these events. They all seem to have regular email publications and websites. There is usually one volunteer managing the day-to-day activities and a volunteer board. The speakers might be Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Brandon Scott and other familiar names. However, they are not the typical large conferences with multiple speakers and break-outs.

The part of this that fascinates me is three out of the four organizations have developed active small groups. The fourth one is working on starting them. Usually these small groups meet once a week in someone’s home. They may study a book together, talk about a recent speaker, or someone will volunteer to lead a discussion on something they want to share. At least a couple of these groups have a potluck meal or pot of soup once a month. I was a speaker at one of these events. I discovered this organization already had seven active small groups and they were talking about starting two more. I wondered, as I traveled home that week, if this could be a small bud trying to pop its head out of the ground? If so, what might the new church look like?

Some scholars believe mainline churches can be revived with a new theology and Christology. Marcus Borg, Bishop Spong, and to some degree John Dominic Crossan fall into this category. I think their perspective may be influenced by the fact that when these high-profile speakers are invited to speak, they usually encounter large, enthusiastic crowds. I worked the church growth circuit for over 20 years. All too often I felt the pain of the small elderly remnants in declining communities as they struggled to find a way to save their church. I tend to believe if Christianity is going to survive more than another few generations, it will have to find a whole new model.

There are a few new books out on this subject you may find interesting. I highly recommend David Galston’s book, Embracing the Human Jesus. (Polebridge Press 2012) See the review in this publication. Galston provides an outline of a new Christology based on the wisdom teachings of the historical Jesus. He also offers a way this new Christology might take form in faith communities. The book is informed by an experimental community Galston has helped form. I have asked Galston to keep us informed about their adventure in Canada. You can follow his blogs on their website: http://www.questcentre.ca/

I also want to recommend again, Francis Macnab’s book, Discover a New Faith. (Spectrum Publication 2011) Macnab, both a scholar and the Executive Minister of a church in Melbourne, Australia, has mapped out a new and unique direction for Christian communities in the 21st century. It might appear to be a bit shocking for many people as he suggests moving past some traditional sacred cows. But as I have suggested, I no longer believe tune-ups and adjustments are going to be enough. We need to find a way to gather as Christians in a way that is relevant to the growing number of people who apparently have less and less interest in church.

So will the church evolve or die? That just may be up to the courageous clergy and their dedicated communities. Maybe together we can build a new future.

Review & Commentary

  • Hi Fred, I just wanted to let you know I very much enjoyed your recent article, “Evolving or Not.” Very well done. I think it will behoove everyone to “evolve” beyond the hand-wringing over whether Xnity will survive, and if so, in what form. Obviously, the earliest forms of the “people of the Way” communities were hardly concerned with such things, and if we are willing to just let the institutional/historical structures go the way of all things perhaps we will find folks free to just live out whatever wisdom is to be found in the gospel message. The wonderful story you told of the alternative gathering of 40 folks who met before formal worship, then skipped out of church, is profoundly telling. I could be completely wrong, but I suspect their liveliest conversations that morning had little to do with the questions about the precarious future of the historic faith.