The worship DNA of classic protestant churches

Classic protestant churches are much like. Each congregation has a strong sense of identity that has developed over more than a century and continues to characterize its worship and congregational life. Most of these congregations, however, remember times when their sense of vitality was greater than now is the case. They hope to find ways of renewing and strengthening their worship, work, and congregational life, but to do so it is necessary to understand the nature of their current diminishment.

These churches manifest a condition that Ronald Heifetz and colleagues describe as the gap between an espoused value and current reality (Adaptive Leadership, p. 18). They order their activities according to theological and cultural principles that have sustained them for generations and led them to their times of greatest effectiveness. Since the 1960s, however, the world around these churches has changed and the patterns of life developed in earlier periods are less and less effective.

Heifetz and his colleagues propose that organizations (such as classic protestant congregations across the United States and Canada) can enter into a period of adaptive change that will lead them to renewed health and effectiveness. This approach to congregational transformation is based on understanding two aspects of the situation in which congregations now exist.

First is for congregational leaders to become aware of the values, relationships, and activities that are central to their core being. Churches have ecclesial DNA, which over time can be rearranged or go through a process of mutation, but which stays with the congregation on into the future. No matter how much a congregation changes, it is the same congregation.

The second factor is the changed cultural world within which the congregation and its people find themselves.  It’s easy enough to recognize that community demographics change over time, and many congregations have found useful ways of adapting their worship, congregational life, and mission as these external conditions change. More challenging is the need to recognize and understand the broad cultural changes that are changing many of the most basic aspects of the social, cultural, and political world within which all of the people live.

Heifetz and his colleagues suggest that organizations that meet their new culture can thrive. They draw the “concept of thriving from evolutionary biology, in which a successful adaptation has three characteristics.” It (1) preserves the DNA essential to the organism’s continued life; (2) it discards, reregulates, or rearranges the DNA no longer useful; (3) it creates DNA arrangements that make it possible for the organism to “flourish in new ways and in more challenging environments” (p. 14).

So what is the DNA of churches of the classic churches that have been at the center of American life, churches on a continuum with Episcopal at the “liturgical” end, Disciples of Christ” at the “non-liturgical” end, and Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational (United Christ of Christ) in between? Here’s my list.

1.     They are variants of the western Catholic Tradition as it was modified during the sixteenth-century Reformation. All of them share a modified theological structure that draws upon the great theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Niebuhr, and Tillich.

2.     Worship is based on the classic Word-Table model, but with greater emphasis upon Word than upon Table. The Bible is central in worship and teaching, preaching is a major component of public worship, and print media (thanks to Gutenberg) and literacy are deeply engrained.

3.     Worship is expressed in a traditional and polished version of the vernacular. Extempore forms of prayer are valued. Congregational singing, especially metrical hymns in place of chanted psalms and canticles, is the major mode of congregational participation in worship.

4.     The intellectual and cultural developments often referred to as humanism, the Enlightenment, and modernism have been embraced and continue to be valued. The scientific and historical world view has been affirmed.

5.     The churches are adapted to the political-cultural patterns of the western nations in which they practice their versions of the Christian faith. They fluctuate between supporting the political system and serving as a prophetic counter voice.

The result is a tight integration of protestant churches and a wide range of human culture. In their worship these churches lift the heart, soul, and mind of a society up to God in prayer.

The serious downside is that these churches become so accommodated to the culture that their transcendence is compromised. Gradually, these churches and the worship the conduct  become “conventional,” to use Tom Schattauer’s analysis, salt that has lost its savor, to use the cryptic analogy from the Sermon on the Mount. For this very reason, these churches find it difficult to deal with the changes that occur in the larger cultural context. People hang on to what is familiar and fail to make the adaptive changes that will allow them to continue to thrive.

What are these cultural changes? More on that next time.

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5 Responses to The worship DNA of classic protestant churches

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thanks Keith,

    This is helpful — things change, but the church remains the same church — as it’s DNA maybe altered, but it’s still the same DNA.

    • One of my friends is an Episcopal priest who in retirement heads a small group with the purpose of helping churches in his diocese recover vitality and priests develop greater effectiveness in their ministries. He commented that in his experience pastors come into a new situation and recognize that things need to change. They go right to work to take the congregation in a direction it has never gone before. Inevitably, he concludes, the congregation wins and the pastor loses. The church will continue to be what it already is. That is the “same DNA” side of the situation. Heifetz highlights the ability of dynamic organisms and organizations to use that DNA in ways that allow them to change as their environments change. The DNA is reorganized, rearranged, sometimes suppressed, sometimes mutating until it serves the organism or organization in new ways. Later in this series I hope to give examples of how this might happen. My list, however, is not very large, partly because I don’t get around much.

  2. Robert McGeary says:

    Keith, Heifetz uses an interesting analogy with DNA. There are similarities between the way genes and chromosomes act together to determine personality and survivability and the various characteristics of a given church that determine its “version of the Christian faith.” In fact, Darwin’s simple mechanism is survival of the fitest (as long as we understand the various connotations of fitness). In like manner, the church in general has a geneology also. I suspect that you will get into this discussion in subsequent posts, but is it not our task, rather than to understand that the church is resistant to change, to determine what those chromosomes are that must mutate. Kennon Callahan has offered his Twelve Keys as an imporant way to choose those chromosomes. I’m sure there are other ways to circumscribe our chromosomal structure, but I find Callahan’s model a good way to get started.

    • Bob, thanks for your comments on the relationship between Callahan and Heifetz. I find these two writers compatible in important ways. Callahan provides a straightforward way to develop a strategy of action. I fully support the value of selecting certain keys for strengthening. If worship is one of those keys to be worked on, the question then arises as to how worship can be made even stronger. One way is to do certain technical fixes, which is what I think Callahan proposes (without using that term) in his proposals about worship. I, too, would be glad to see technical fixes in the worship of most churches that I visit on Sunday mornings. Heifetz also affirms the value of technical fixes. I think, however, that the situation facing mainline protestant churches is at a deep level that requires more than technical fixes. This is where the analysis that Heifetz proposes becomes a way of thinking about the work to be done. On my blog, I will continue to offer comments about this deeper level, although I have to admit that I am reaching out toward phenomena that I barely understand. And I will interrupt the series now and then with entries on other topics related to American religion.

  3. […] By being sensitive to the religious dimensions of the Woodstock World, these churches with the old DNA can learn to thrive […]

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