The Realignment Battle of the Mainline Church, Part II

Last time we looked at the theological divides within the mainline denominations over Christ’s divinity, Biblical authority, and means of salvation. The other major fissure growing within mainline churches is over adaptive change: can you change fast enough to disciple this generation as Jesus followers before its lights out?

Surprising to some, denominations as church structures and theological camps are not in the Bible! They are, in fact, by-products of the American Industrial Age. After a period of settlement rooted in religious freedom, our young country found itself with a variety of Christian streams seeking to keep up with the rapid advancement of European culture from the east to west coast. A structure was needed to see that a Methodist church or a Presbyterian church was in each and every town from Philadelphia to Fresno.

The “McDonaldization” of the church occurred as practices and liturgies were standardized and a bureaucracy arose to perpetuate such. After a generation or two, many American Christians focused on maintaining their unique church culture rather than making new followers of Jesus. New followers were welcome, provided they adopted the unique cultural elements of a denominational tradition: giving to Lottie Moon Offering for Baptists, singing Wesley’s hymns for Methodists, and promoting God’s sovereignty and my depravity for Presbyterians.

American society, if you’ve noticed, changed, and continues to change. The revolutions we have experienced in technology, communications, and transportation have brought us into the Information Age. Today we fly on planes, tweet our thoughts, and pine away for hours on entertainment. No longer does the geographic boundaries for church governance need to depend on how far one could travel by horse, then by train, then by car. I know few people who listen to organ music in the car or memorize catechism questions.

What’s a church to do when the rate of decline, for the Presbyterian Church USA in particular, indicates that there will be no one left by 2042?

Eco-system science has introduced the world to the idea of adaptive change. Leadership gurus have fine tuned the idea that successful enterprises need leaders who are trained in prompting, managing and celebrating change that is adaptive to its surrounding environment.

We see in many of the non-denominational churches, such as Northland and Summit, great examples of Christians responding to their changing context with adaptive change techniques. And even within the mainline structures adaptively changing churches are emerging with the capability of surviving, if not thriving.

Maintaining a Biblically based theological identity and practice is possible in today’s advancing world. But, it is hard; there is great resistance; and there are only so many resources. It becomes a realignment battle, and it will only continue with increasing stress on out-moded systems of governance, leadership formation, church planting, outreach efforts, and discipleship techniques. Churches that are clear about their theological identity, and that lead through this era with a flexibility are the ones producing the Jesus followers who will change the world. More power to them.

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