By Matthew White, a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.
As Western culture experiences and takes part in the final unraveling of Christendom, most Christian groups in the United States—most especially mainline Protestant denominations—are experiencing significant declines in membership and attendance. This radical social transformation should by no means be a cause for unadulterated mourning, since it marks a definitive requiem for centuries of religious triumphalism that often perverted the Gospel message, as well as the death knell for a kind of “social Christianity” in which church membership (particularly Protestant church membership) was often a marker for social advancement and, as late as the 1960 presidential election, sometimes even a litmus test for American patriotism.
Nonetheless, the real danger that mainline denominations may simply disintegrate, fading away within as little as a generation, is profoundly alarming, not least because they remain the prime carriers of a progressive Christian message deeply needed in our contemporary society. Spiritual leaders today cannot and should not look to turn back the clock on broad social changes, but must find new ways to proclaim the Gospel by reconstituting Christian communities as meaning-centered resources for lateral cultural transformation.
Seth Godin’s Tribes argues that the most successful organizations today are “about belief in an idea and in a community” (9). People want to be “part of something that matter[s]” (29). Put another way, the church, like other organizations, will only succeed if it has a meaningful story to communicate and empowers people to feel they are participating in the narration and actualization of that story.
Of course, in a generic sense, as Christians we believe we have an incredible narrative—indeed a meta-narrative of radical grace and radical inclusion that makes sense of the other narratives of our lives and social realities. Nonetheless, all too often churches, like businesses, fall into what Godin describes as the “factory” model (10). This model sees the church as Field of Dreams: if you build it—whether “it” is better facilities, polished preaching, more activities—they will come. This model is simply not working. Americans, especially millennials and Gen-X’ers, already lead heavily overprogrammed lives, and we yearn not for more “stuff” to do but for active engagement in communities of meaning and narrative-making.
One creative form of spiritual leadership in this context may be to reimagine some local Christian worshipping communities as affinity groups focused on a single overarching core vision and uniting mission. As a recovering addict, one of my most cherished goals in future ministry is to create a recovery-centric Episcopal missional community, whose worship, educational efforts, and outreach would all be focused on the unique needs of those in recovery from addiction or experiencing active addiction to drugs or alcohol. Community leadership would be intentionally drawn from the ranks of recovering addicts. The fact that some of our smaller churches draw fewer people to their worship services than to the 12-step meetings that take place in their buildings suggest there is a hunger there that is not being met when such core missions are simply add-ons or tiny pieces of a divided focus.
I certainly recognize the danger of atomizing our overall experience of church by transforming communities of worship into mere interest groups, but in some sense this happens already through the phenomenon of “homophily,” and certainly it would make more sense to unite local faith communities around genuine specific human needs than around more questionable affinities such as race, ethnicity, and social class, as often happens in traditional congregations.
Whether in traditional congregations or new paradigms of community, however, spiritual leaders in the twenty-first century will share one overarching imperative: to provide the inspiration and the resources for the inner circle of active church members—analogous to Godin’s “true fans” (see 56)—to bring the Christian meta-narrative to their own social circles, to become the “micro-leaders” (56) by which the Christian message can reengage a culture from which it has largely become disconnected.
Churches must no longer be thought of as destinations but rather as resourcing and outfitting centers, where leaders are formed and shaped to impact their own social networks, whether in digital or face-to-face encounters.
Indeed, this may be the most important and also the hardest mission for ministers in the coming decades. For far too long, Christians have looked at church as something focused on vertical lines: priest-congregation, preacher-audience. Now we must motivate people to think of church as something lateral, and to experience and actualize the Christian message as something that breaks boundaries, moving beyond the traditional congregation, impacting even those who may never set foot in one of our church buildings.
People are hungry for meaning, and as Christendom disappears, we are entering a new apostolic age, where the good news must be taken outside arbitrary boundaries.