Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

John C. Ortberg, Jr.

Denominations and Dinosaurs

If congregations do not adapt to a rapidly changing environment, they will become extinct.

Val Tollefson's complaint about Pastor Ingqvist of the Lutheran church in Lake Wobegon is that he mumbles and he murmurs; it's a lot of on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand that. "He never comes straight out. He never puts the hay down where the goats can get it."

Putting the hay down where the goats can get it is a challenge for the church in every era. Perhaps it is no more so in ours than in others. But the goats seem to be moving more rapidly these days. They are more mobile, more consumer-oriented, and busier than they once were. They have more options for amusement; more claims on their allegiance; less loyalty to a denomination, and higher expectations for fulfillment than any flocks of recent memory.

Indeed, thinkers as various as David Wells and Martin Marty wonder if, in our preoccupation with reaching the goats, we have not forgotten the hay. Meanwhile, church-growth consultants insist that those who reckon themselves guardians of the hay do not understand the goats; Rich Mouw writes in Consulting the Faithful that the goats themselves may have wisdom we're not hearing. Getting the true hay to real goats is not a simple job.

So the work of sociologist Nancy Ammerman and her colleagues in Congregation and Community is both welcome and timely. It is an ambitious project, intended to serve as a sequel to H. Paul Douglass's classic 1925 study, Church in the Changing City.

The scope alone sets this work apart: a team of 17 researchers and writers studied nine communities scattered across the United States, identifying 449 churches and doing extensive research on two congregations in each community plus five mini-studies of other congregations. Congregation and Community is more empirically based than, say, Habits of the Heart, but it also aims to be a reflective consideration of the state of the church in America. It is painstakingly meticulous, thorough in detail, and will clearly be the definitive sociological study of the church for many years to come.

Ammerman is focusing on the interaction between congregations and their surrounding communities. Perhaps the most important metaphor here is the notion that churches exist as part of a religious ecology. As with any ecology, as the environment changes new life forms emerge and old ones fade from the scene. Although such change involves pain, Ammerman is enough of an ecclesiastical Darwinist to see it as a good thing. Ability to adapt to the environment becomes key to survival. This dynamic is increasingly important to the flourishing of the church.

For most of the 2,000-year existence of the church, the ecological system has changed relatively slowly. Gregorian chants held up pretty well from one generation to the next. Any given neighborhood in Sweden was likely to remain Swedish a century later, unless the Norwegians had been particularly restless.

But today, all bets are off. Musical tastes, ethnic composition, economic conditions, geographic mobility, and educational background shift like plates along the San Andreas fault, and churches that fail to respond to these changes are likely to fall through the cracks. Ammerman echoes a point made by Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, that the lack of an established, state-recognized church may be one of the most important factors in allowing the church to flourish: "With no government regulation or subsidy to keep outmoded religious institutions in place, the social processes of community formation govern the rise and fall of congregations, and the spiritual energies generated in congregations help to shape the social structures of communities" (emphasis Ammerman's). This makes all the more serious the central finding of the study: the most common response to change in the environment on the part of churches is inertia:

Most congregations do not choose adaptation. They choose not to fight and thus not to change. They may be aware that the ecology in which they were born no longer exists, but they continue doing what they know to do. … After a period of slow decline, these congregations are likely to disappear from the scene, perhaps making way for utterly different congregations to sprout up in their stead. As with any other ecology, death is an inevitable part of the life cycle.

When churches do choose to seek to adapt to a changing environment, they have several options. One is that instead of trying to adapt to their changing neighborhood they can relocate to a neighborhood that better fits their congregational profile. While the theologian in Ammerman struggles with this, her sociological instincts tell her that the issue is not a simple one.

Other churches may become "niche" congregations. As opposed to traditional parish or neighborhood churches, niche congregations establish a distinctive identity (perhaps involving worship or ministries or social programs or generational targets) that enables them to reach people beyond their local neighborhood.

Still other churches seek to change themselves so that the makeup of the congregation comes to reflect the population of the surrounding neighborhood. Insofar as there is a criterion for a healthy congregation, it is "the congregation's survival as the institution it determines it should be."

Ammerman suggests we will learn much more by studying the interaction between congregation and context than by simply reflecting on broad themes such as the rise of individualism and the loss of community. (She cites Thomas Bender's point that if we were to believe every historian who has written about the breakdown of community in the United States, we would not know whether to place the critical turning point in the 1650s, 1690s, 1740s, 1780s, 1820s, 1850s, 1880s, 1920s, or 1960s.)

Nevertheless, I think Ammerman overemphasizes the connection between demographics and growth. For example, she suggests that churches in areas with "white, middle-class, home-owning families-with-children" are likely to grow whatever their theology, but the reality is more complex. The researchers here deliberately chose to study congregations only in contexts that were not likely to result in numerical growth. But even in an area where demographics are favorable to growth some congregations will flourish while others wither.

Furthermore, I think Ammerman underestimates the role that theological factors play in the flourishing of the church. For instance, the decline of many denominations in terms of church attendance and resources over the last 30 years cannot be adequately explained by response to context alone. In particular, I think any theology that lacks some sort of evangelistic impulse is headed for trouble in the long term. In order to survive, the church must be about more than its own survival.

If Congregation and Community has a theological orientation, it might be said to be broadly mainline, although each case study is sympathetic toward the particular congregation at hand. This means that certain questions evangelicals are likely to ask get little air time.

For instance, three of the congregations studied are transitioning to include gay as well as straight parishioners. But a question that goes unasked is: How does a church respond to a growing gay population if the church itself is theologically committed to the position that sexual intimacy is reserved for heterosexual marriages? How can thoughtful evangelicals combine adherence to this position with a genuine commitment to civility, patience, humility, and love in a cultural context that is increasingly polarized and adversarial?

One of the consistent findings was the importance of pastoral leadership. Churches that receive unmotivated, mismatched pastors suffered. But churches that received a pastor who "fit the profile of the potential congregation rather than the declining one" took on new life. Rather than diminish lay participation, these studies found that strong pastoral leadership is associated with higher levels of lay participation and partnership.

There are important implications for the church here. For instance, consider what might be called the ecology of church leadership. Ammerman and her colleagues found that churches need leaders who are able to read their contexts, adapt appropriately, forge a sense of partnership with the laity, and mobilize resources effectively.

These are not areas of competency that seminaries have traditionally thought of themselves as responsible for. Increasingly, large churches that develop these core competencies are becoming training centers for pastoral leadership. However, many of these churches do not value theological reflection and education.

Add to this another trend: the rise of nonaffiliated, nondenominational churches. (Some church observers believe that we have recently crossed a Rubicon of sorts: for the first time more people are attending nondenominational than denominationally affiliated churches. Unfortunately, because this work focuses on the interaction between congregations and their local communities, broader trends such as this tend not to get addressed.) Where denominational officials once served as gatekeepers to ministry, and could make sure ministry candidates had a theological degree before being allowed into the union, this is decreasingly the case. Furthermore, seminary students are tending to be older and (arguably) more likely to use the seminary experience as a time for personal exploration than preparation for ministry.

All this suggests that we may be in a "leadership ecology" that will produce leaders who are less and less theologically educated, unless forces that are not clearly visible now rise to change the ecosystem.

The recurring theme, though, is that in environments of rapid transition, churches much change or die:

The most striking pattern … is the relationship between trying to change and achieving change. Of those currently experiencing serious declines in membership and resources, all have either actively resisted change or have continued with existing patterns, apparently unable to envision how things might be different. While we cannot say whether congregations outside our study population also tried new programs and failed, we can say that congregations that do not try new programs and new forms of outreach when they are faced with environmental change are not likely to survive past the life spans of their current members.

One of the biggest ironies in this study is that nonadapting churches actually have far higher levels of commitment (as measured by regular attendance and giving) than do adapting ones. But their commitment tends to be inward-looking and past-oriented ("to the memories their congregation represents") and therefore discourages needed adaptation. Helping us think clearly about how to engender the right kind of commitment—the kind that will allow churches to adapt and flourish—is one of the best gifts of this deeply insightful work.

Garret Keizer writes that the keeping of public time is a task that was once performed by church bells in steeple towers, but has now been taken over by digital clocks on bank signs. The location of the public clock, he adds, tells us much about the way culture gives meaning to time. When a main reason people needed to know time was so they could know when to pray, it made sense for the church to tell time. But now our time is not liturgical but financial, marked by quarters and maturation periods of certificates of deposit.

I'm not sure that past generations were any less financially motivated than our own. The love of money seems to stretch back pretty far. But the days of the belltower are over. Yearning for their return will do no good. We will have to find another way to proclaim the time.

John C. Ortberg, Jr, is teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. He is the author of The Life You've Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Zondervan).

Most ReadMost Shared