Church Should Add Value, Not Extract It

Douglas Rushkoff’s new book came out yesterday. It’s called Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus, and I read the first chapter yesterday. On a bus.

Rushkoff’s core contention is that the imperative for growth is killing us. Here’s a money quote from the introduction.

“We are running an extractive, growth-driven economic system that has reached the limits of its ability to serve anyone, rich or poor, human or corporate. Growth is the single, uncontested, core command of the digital economy.”

He’s talking about economics, but I’m thinking about churches (surprise!).

Most churches are not growing. Membership decline has been the reality in most of our churches and denominations for as long as I’ve been in ministry. There is no shortage of anger and guilt among the remaining church members and their leaders over that fact. People like Bill Easum go so far as to assert that pastors of churches that aren’t growing are “wasting their lives.”

I once had an earnest conversation with a pastor who was leading her church out of the PC (USA) who, in addition to theological scruples, was deeply offended by the denomination’s decline. She was moving to a new denomination, she said, because, “I want to be part of something that’s growing.”

I’ve never been able to square Jesus’ claim that one must lose her life in order to find it with the equation of church growth with discipleship. The decline of church participation in our context is an organizational problem, and a deadly serious one at that. Yet a theology of church growth commits the same sins that Rushkoff is laying at the feet of Uber and Facebook: it extracts value from people rather than making value for them.

Growth was never the goal for the Church. Growth serves a bigger purpose, namely the formation of a community of disciples embodying the grace of Jesus. That community ought to thrive. Where it doesn’t we have work to do. Getting it to grow, though, is not the focus of that work.

Rushkoff’s subtitle is great: How Growth Became The Enemy of Prosperity. I wonder if an assumption of growth–and guilt over its absence–has become the enemy of something in our churches.

ECO And The Mainline Tradition

In the introduction to Elesha J. Coffman’s The Christian Century And The Rise of The Protestant Mainline the author proposes that “the mainline”–that cluster of protestant denominations that includes Methodist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, and the United Church of Christ–be understood as a tradition in the Alisdair MacIntyre sense of that word.

According to MacIntryre’s signature work After Virtue, a tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument.” Coffman extemporizes on that definition for the mainline:

“the mainline has an extended history–it originated somewhere and developed over time. It was, and is, embodied by individuals whose social locations predisposed them to see some things and miss others. And it is definitely an argument–a normative argument about the mission of the church, the nature of humanity, the ordering of society, and the measuring of life. A study of the mainline as a tradition reveals the ways in which personal and organizational history, social location, and the interplay of ideas created not just a network of linked institutions but also the presumption that they were central and powerful. More practically, the focus on argument also helps explain why the mainline has experiences so much conflict, despite its aspirations of building consensus.

Coffman’s book chronicles how a magazine, The Christian Century, profoundly shaped the mainline tradition for the first half of the 2oth century. The book ends at the dawn of the evangelical movement in America, embodied most completely by Billy Graham, a figure, Coffman explains, whose ideas and methods the Century fought vehemently.

Is it helpful for digesting the flight of congregations from the PC(USA) to ECO to view it as a conflict of traditions? Not a conflict of a tradition; not a conflict within a tradition. But a conflict between two different traditions.

Mainline Christianity and evangelical Christianity are two different traditions within American Christianity. Their histories overlap but feature strikingly divergent heroes. They pay homage to separate institutions, from Princeton to Fuller. Their postures toward American culture are almost irreconcilable.

Forgive these broad strokes, but while the mainline tradition celebrates an institutionally unified expression of the church, a graduate level-educated class of clergy who employ modern scholarship in their preaching, and constant engagement with the world’s political struggles, the evangelical tradition prizes the congregation reaching the lost of the world, led by preaching that is less lecture than revival, and an engagement with the political realm that is heavily conservative.

Which points up two problems churches leaving for ECO hope to solve: leadership recruitment and congregational flexibility (I’ve also written about this here).

Take John Ortberg’s address to the congregation of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church informing it of an upcoming vote to switch denominational affiliation. After laying out that congregation’s ambitious desires to reach out to the Bay Area and launch new church sites over the next five years, Ortberg explained,

“To do that we believe we gotta be in a denominational setting that will help us attract great young Christ-following leaders. We gotta have a governance structure that will allow us to launch and create new sites. We believe it will be really helpful to have clear possession of this campus . . . to not have a shadow hanging over our heads about trust clauses or property ownership or a common understanding of the gospel.”

What Ortberg and fellow evangelicals in the PC(USA) have been fighting these past several years is the evangelical tradition’s battle against the core assumptions of the mainline tradition. Because the mainline tradition doesn’t serve their sense of call to ministry well anymore. And given a conflict between the unity of the institutional church and the flexibility of a congregation to call the leaders it wants to [trained in decidedly non-mainline seminaries]  and to do with its property what it wants to, the evangelical tradition cares less about the former than the latter.

For those of us who identify with the mainline tradition, then, what is the inheritance we most value for the future mission of the church? Is it still the unified institutional church? Is it still standards of education for clergy? Or is it something else, something that has emerged on its own since the era of American mainline hegemony ended?

As Though We Are Being Saved

A summary of last night’s presbytery meeting:

The money’s nearly gone.

The Executive is gone.

Two churches are gone and three more are trying to get gone.

Two pastors are gone, one to a disciplinary action and the other to resignation forced by illness.

Gone, baby, gone.

The gathering diminished throughout the evening, an apparent microcosm of our life as a presbytery. Indeed, of Presbyterianism itself.


Those churches leaving for greener pastures may be kidding themselves, but it’s really easy on nights like this to understand the impulse.

Jump ship.


Screw this.

The best thing that’s ever happened at a NEXT Church gathering was Stacy Johnson’s address in Dallas (embedded below–and made into a clever NEXT promo video here). “There are two ways of living that we know of as Christians,” Johnson said, drawing on 1 Corinthians 1:18. “We can live as those who are perishing or as those who are being saved.”

As those who are perishing . . .

Signs of our perishing are everywhere, perhaps no more evident than at a presbytery meeting like last night’s. Those signs are intrusive and disruptive. They provoke an anxious response, perhaps even a hopeless one.

Yet the message of the gospel is that what looks like perishing can be God’s salvation in disguise. The challenge we face, Johnson said in Dallas, is not first and foremost a cultural or demographic or organizational challenge. As versed as church leaders have become in the language of “adaptive challenges,” the real challenge is the gospel. The real adaptive change we face comes from the good news of life and salvation emerging from death.

So we live as though we are being saved. We invest heavily in a partnership with Presbyterians in Peru. We build networks for collaborative youth ministry. We validate a church’s work with refugees and share it’s costs. All while every outward sign condemns those efforts as futile.

And we gather. Our being saved is evident in our gathering, though these days not as evident as our perishing. Clearly not.

This is how it’s supposed to be, though. Following Jesus is not a strategy for vitality and success. Look at the cross. The hope we have is that our salvation will never be as present as when all signs are pointing to perishing.

This Hurts (A Reader Responds)

A good friend and colleague replied to yesterday’s post about the many churches leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA). Not wanting to focus attention on himself, he replied in a private email message, but he’s given me permission to share his response here. I’m sharing it because it brought me comfort and encouragement, and I hope it will you as well.

As a brother in Christ I feel impelled to affirm you in your call to be a minister of the Gospel. Your search for truth is a proclamation of the Good News. Hear this: Who is in a position to condemn? Nelson Bell? Highland Park? ECO? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Your search for truth, an earnest search, is not a capitulation to culture (whatever that means), but a testament to what the best Pastors have done for centuries: proclaim the Good News to the people God has given to you as your flock (emphasis mine).

Obviously the decisions that are going on in the PC (USA) right now are more complicated than that, and your own journey contains a lot more nuance, but I believe that people like you need to hear that others, outside your community, denomination, even country, are praying for you and view you as a witness to a God greater than schism. I have much more that I could say about the current controversy but I won’t because I want to affirm you basic insight – that the journey to life leads through death and is not just something we can blithely invoke without also recognizing that we experience the pain, despair, and hurt of death. While I feel your hurt, know that you are on the path to life.

Go in peace.

This Hurts

Another domino has fallen in the chain of churches marching out of the PC(USA) and into ECO, the new denomination formed by disaffected Presbyterians nearly two years ago. And this domino is big (actually, all of these dominoes tend big–and suburban). Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas voted to leave on Sunday. On Monday I spent some time reading the church’s statements about it, reading news stories, and even watching videos on the church’s Facebook page.

The past 12-18 months have been a circus of emotions for me as the most influential evangelical churches in this denomination have pronounced its impending death and saddled their wagons to ECO. Anger. The claims they’re making are often exaggerated (this pastor tells church members that they’ll have to fire staff if they don’t leave). Other times they’re just false and devoid of context (this pastor says that his “Reformed Theology” nearly prevented a presbytery from ordaining him). I’ve spent a lot of the last year and a half angry about what’s happening.

But also hurt, and this is more to the point. I’m second guessing my own commitments, doubting what has felt like growth and discernment. And that’s painful. Necessary, perhaps, but painful. Because what felt like a growing experience of the richness of Scripture, a more adequate understanding of the complexity of human desire and affection, and a more faithful faith in the character of God–those things are now condemned by colleagues as “drift.”

If these men and women are right, then what felt to me like growth in faith and understanding is actually bankrupt accommodation to the spirit of the age. I would have done better to not seek out relationships with people I disagree with but fortified myself against them with like-minded bonds of accountability. I shouldn’t have prayed to understand the truth but for strength to persist in my present understanding. And reading Scripture as the inspired product of particular cultures with particular values was a waste of energy that would have been better spent memorizing verses to buttress theological debates.

The good news of the gospel is that God brings life out of death. That is my profound hope. But the death still hurts.

The Present Shocked Church: Chronobiology

I’m making my way through Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, sharing observations for the church as I go. The book’s received complimentary reviews in the New York Times, among other sources, if reviews are important to you. My first post on the book is here.

Here’s what Douglas is worried about:

Instead of demanding that our technologies conform to ourselves and our own innate rhythms, we strive to become more compatible with our technologies and the new cultural norms their timelessness implies. We compete to process more emails or attract more social networking connections than our colleagues, as if more to do on the computer meant something good. We misapply the clockwork era’s goals of efficiency and productivity over time to a digital culture’s asynchronous landscape. Instead of working inside the machine, as we did before, we must become the machine.

We’re conducting something of a “listening campaign” in my church that involves lots of one-on-one conversations conducted by a trained group of people who then share what they’re hearing with one another. We’re hearing what Rushkoff describes, particularly from folks in the prime of their working years who also have school-aged kids. They expect machine-like efficiency and precision of themselves in their jobs, at home, and even in their community commitments. And the youth I work with? Of course they’re addicted to Instagram and Facebook, but not for the reasons grown ups think they are. It’s actually worse. They must be social networking machines because they’re terrified of missing out, and thus being left out, of the social life of their peers. One of my students recently confessed her guilty angst that she missed a text from a friend in need at 1:00 in the morning.

One obvious asset our church has to combat this “digiphrenia” is the liturgical calendar. To people who expect mechanistic productivity of themselves all day every day, every day of the week, whatever the season, the liturgical calendar offers a valuable narrative canopy and rhythm for life. The colors, stories, and songs that attend Advent and Lent and Easter and–my favorite–Ordinary Time are a lifeline, a road to stroll, not march. People badly need that.

But there’s more to this. In an era of participatory decline, anxiety abounds about the future of the church. Many in my denomination have left to start something new out of protest over liberalizing theology, yes, but also over worries about decline (which they clearly tie to the liberalizing theology). One departing colleague said to me, “I just want to be part of something that’s growing.” You could hear the yearning in her voice.

There’s a clear expectation here that the church be always growing. Getting smaller raises all kinds of fears and longing for a more robust era or church involvement. Like the price of a stock, we fret and strategize when church attendance goes down. What else would we do?

Present Shock gives two examples of businesses that have built regular decline into their planning, even into their identity. One of those is Duncan, the toy company that makes the famous yo-yos. The toys

“enjoy a cyclical popularity as up and down as the motion of the toy itself. The products become wildly popular every ten years or so, and then retreat into near total stagnation. The company has learned to ride this ebb and flow, emerging with TV campaigns, celebrity spokespeople, and national tournaments every time a new generation of yo-yo aficionados comes of age.

There’s also Birkenstock.

Birkenstock shoes rise and fall in popularity along with a host of other back-to-nature products and behaviors. Instead of resisting these trend waves and ending up with unsold stock and disappointing estimates, the company has learned to recognize the signs of an impending swing in either direction. With each new wave of popularity, Birkenstock launches new lines and opens new dealerships, then pulls back when consumer appetites level off.

Could we see church “decline” as something more cyclical? Could it be something that happens naturally, something that we allow to shape our experience of the church’s story (death and resurrection?) rather than kicking against the goads to get the thing running like it did back in ’55?

What say you?

Bonus points to the first person who comments with the details of their Duncan yo-yo.