We are facing a crisis in the Mainline Church. It's a crumbling institution. Scores of members have left. Thousands of churches have closed. Denominational leadership is overworked and understaffed. Seminaries are laying off tenured professors and selling their buildings. In fact, my alma matter, Eden Theological Seminary, just sold its library along with other parts of its property. The list goes on and on. The Mainline has become a bit sidelinded. And the emergency is clear to most people who care about the Church. This time of crisis and transition needs to be addressed. If nothing changes we will fail for sure. But if we act creatively and innovatively, we might just succeed. It's time for an extreme makeover of the Mainline Church!
The task is upon us to join together in an effort to rebuild the Mainline Church into something more effective and efficient in our world. This seems like a big request. And it is. It’s going to take a group effort – and a whole lot of conversation and hard work. But I am convinced that nothing short of the survival of the Mainline Church is at stake. A time of great transition is before us – and we need to find ways of addressing this transition in order to do effective ministry in the future.
All generations of Christians have faced some kind of change, along with the challenge of addressing that change. But once in a while there’s a major shift that goes beyond the gradual change that always occurs. Instead of steady amounts of minor change, it’s a time of radical revolution. All times are transitionary, but not all times are revolutionary. I believe that we are in the midst of a revolutionary time that is unique in the history of the Church and world. Many folks are beginning to name this revolutionary time, “Postmodernity.”
The concept of Postmodernity defies simple definition – especially since its impact and implications are still emerging. But there are characteristics of Postmodernity that can be described: global consciousness, religious plurality, cultural diversity, pragmatic idealism, internet communication, de-centralization of authority, rejection of universals, attention to context, honoring distinctiveness, theological fluidity, rejection of dogma, embracing paradox, collaborative wisdom, centralizing marginalized perspectives, etc. All of these things are having a revolutionary impact on our world and the way our lives are lived. In order to do effective and faithful ministry in our Postmodern world, we’re going to have to explore and employ new and creative ways of being the Church in the future.
I believe that we need to reform the Church as we know it. Just as Jesus started a reformation of Judaism, and Martin Luther started a reformation of Catholicism, we need to start a reformation of “Mainline” Christianity. We stand in a long line of faithful people who had to address changing times with deep reformation. The following 25 ideas are meant to encourage the conversation about how we can engage in this reformation. My hope is that these ideas will inspire more ideas as we work together to reform the Church for our time.
1. Support young, creative church leaders in their effort to do innovative and effective ministries in our rapidly changing world. They must not simply be used to conserve existing structures and traditions. Their insights and passions must be employed effectively throughout the Church.
2. Make the work of academic theologians more accessible to the general population in order to help their work be more relevant, effective, and popularized.
3. Encourage academic theologians to use fast-moving and interactive mediums like blogs, Facebook, and YouTube – and not just peer review journals, academic books, and other mediums that are slow, non-interactive, and largely irrelevant to most people. Internet-based mediums allow authors and readers to interact and work collaboratively.
4. Work collaboratively to find effective and immediate ways to bridge the deep chasm that exists between theological seminaries and local congregations.
5. Address the rapid decline of membership in our congregations honestly, effectively, and immediately.
6. Focus on faithful forms of evangelism instead of trying to sell denomination through gimmicky branding and advertising.
7. De-professionalize theology so that all people can be encouraged and empowered to think theologically. For example, sermons and classes could be more conversational and interactive in order to encourage the theologian-ship of all believers.
8. De-professionalize church leadership. Now is an important time to re-examine the practical implications, ethical considerations, and Biblical perspectives of ordination. We need to explore shared ministries as we emphasize the priesthood of all believers.
9. Make “Mainline” denominations more nimble and effective in our rapidly changing world. This may require us to reassess our structures of leadership, manuals on ministry, systems of accountability, etc.
10. Explore ways to make worship styles and spiritual practices more adventurous, engaging, interactive, ancient-yet-innovative, and Christ-centered.
11. Find ways that “Mainline” denominations can work together more closely, if not merge together, in order to continue do effective ministries in the future. The petty differences of the past must not be a reason to resist relevancy in the future. We must find ways to address our common challenges and improve our common ministries. This isn’t just about ecumenism, it’s about survival.
12. Encourage failing congregations to find a conclusion of dignity. These congregations deserve to have their ministries honored as they transition towards closure. Where possible, these congregations could be consolidated into one viable congregation. This process would help small congregations consolidate while also freeing up the pastors and resources needed to begin new and creative ministries.
13. Make sure that the local and national leaders are hosts of creative conversations more than keepers of established structures.
14. Practice a deeper spirituality in our congregations. Increasing numbers of people are spiritual, yet the church is often the last place they look for spirituality. We need to rekindle our spiritual fire in the Church.
15. Write new music, hymns, poetry, novels, devotionals, children’s books, etc. in order to help bring progressive theology to the masses. If we fail to do this, the Prosperity Gospel, Pop Psychology Gospel, Fundamentalist Gospel, New Age Gospel, etc. will continue to fly off bookshelves, fill televisions screens, and be used in megachurches. If we succeed at sharing progressive theology in relatable ways, then we will help change the future of the Church.
16. Speak more relevantly and passionately about the big issues of the day from an overtly theological perspective. This doesn't mean speaking from a wishy-washy liberal perspective, a reactionary conservative perspective, or a mushy middle-ground perspective. It means speaking out of our faith tradition instead of predictable political stances.
17. Explore ways of being more overt and passionate about following God in Way of Jesus. We can claim the uniqueness of God-in-Jesus without being triumphantly exclusivistic. We can also be sensitive to the dignity of other religions without losing our ability to speak from an explicitly Christian perspective. We could make it more clear that the life and teaching of Jesus are central to the ways we worship, act, think, etc.
18. Employ practices of being the Church that are thoughtfully contextual instead of blindly universal. Each local congregation is unique – and we need to explore effective practices of ministry that are most appropriate for each location.
19. Encourage the Mainline Church and the Emergent Church to dialogue frequently and collaborate often. " “Mainline” folks could share their rich theological and liturgical traditions. “Emergent” folks could share their postmodern insights and practical invocations. Together, we can explore and employ effective ways of doing ministry.
20. Engage the relevant and accessible books that are already available: Transforming Christian Theology by Philip Clayton, The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle, Reclaiming the Church by John Cobb, A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren, etc. There are many conversation partners we can use as we explore the concrete actions we can take.
21. Invest money in planting churches that will engage in creative and innovative ministries.
22. Help pastors find ways to assist their congregations through the transition into the Post-“Mainline” world. This includes facing the death of the institution honestly and finding hope for the future realistically.
23. Provide comfort to and inspire hope in people who grieve for the “good ol’ days.”
24. Find ways to move from a spirit of maintenance to a spirit of mission.
25. Actively open the conversation about Postmodern, Post-Mainline ministry to everyone who is interested in listening, sharing, and exploring.
The list could go on and on. And I hope a lot of different people will add many other ideas. We need an effective list. The times are rapidly changing. So, we need to work together in order to realistically and faithfully face the revolutionary shifts that are taking place in our world and explore ways to do effective ministry in the midst of that transformation.
The Mainline Church needs an extreme makeover. So let the creative planning and urgent rebuilding begin!
Now, where is Ty Pennington?