By Melissa Miller, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
Seth Godin says, “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea… A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” Tribes can be based around any kind of interest or idea, are not bound geographically, and do not have an average or preferred size. Tribes are based in faith, the belief in an idea, and community. Godin also says that tribes are not about “stuff” but about “connection.” And, gladly, he says “tribes are increasingly voluntary.”
When thinking about spiritual leadership, our churches and congregations as we currently know them, the above statements about tribes should be exciting. Do they paint a different picture of what church will look like? Yes, definitely. But is that bad? I would argue, no.
Throughout Tribes, Godin builds the image of a true leader as one who can inspire a tribe, breed connection between and outside of the tribe, is brave enough to create a new tribe, and is humble enough to include the whole tribe in the work. A tribe is simply a group of people who interact together because of a common interest. Our churches are already essentially the same thing—we are groups who gather around our belief in and desire to follow Jesus (hopefully). That part does not need to shift. What does need to shift is our view of leadership and our diehard desire for what we call ‘tradition.’
Today, most of our ministers and church leaders are managers of their churches and are being managed by their churches. This model will not continue to work in a post-Christendom environment for two reasons: ministers, as leaders, do not desire to be managed by their congregations and ministers can only have so much effect if they are being forced to manage instead of lead. Good spiritual leaders care more about the sense of connection to the Divine and emotional health of their flock instead of their consistency to show up in the same geographical location. Church is not, and does not have to be, a building. The post-Christendom church is not really a place, but a vehicle of connection and encouragement. As humans, and as Christians—or really, as faithful responders of God—what we seek most is someone that can help us see and experience the Spirit around us so we can be reminded that we are not alone in this thing called life.
Spiritual leaders will need—no, be allowed—to focus more on the care of individual believers and not on the maintainance of building and repetitiveness of services. Instead, their daily ‘job’ will be more about reaching out to the tribe they create—online, through Facebook or Twitter, in emails, on FaceTime or Skpye—no matter the geographical location. Perhaps a weekly or regular service will make sense for their tribe. And, if so, that may take place in a traditional church building, or a coffee shop, or a living room, or as a streamed webcast. It could be that the pastor is in a building with ten people and an online audience of 1,000. Since more people are already giving or tithing online, it is no longer necessary that people show up personally to support a ministry. And, by the way, that ministry will become more and more focused on things outside of the church building than ever before. Because good tribe leaders know that outreach is about meeting real outside needs not funding the best youth choir.
That said, will churches as we currently know them still function? Probably. Godin says, “Some tribes do better when they’re smaller.” The point is not that all traditionally structured churches need to go away; it is simply that we need to think more broadly about what church really is to people and why it matters. The focus should always be on the Gospel and we need to be more open, creative, and receptive to how we share that with others.
Godin says, “Every single industry changes and, eventually, fades”. This does not mean all churches are going to fade, but the church industry as we see it today probably will. Simply put, people connect differently today than they did yesterday. We still seek and need the physical, face-to-face connection with other humans, but our lives have shifted and we seek those connections differently. Especially those who self-identify as spiritual but not religious. A large and quickly growing population of people want to associate with ministers who can help them connect their faith with their daily lives but they do not seek the current stagnate environment of our churches. These are the people our spiritual leaders should reach out to.
The ‘church’ is not dying but it is changing.