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.