Walter Russell Mead at the American Interest invokes Luther’s reforms and claims that the church today needs another structural reformation:
The Christian churches in the United States are in trouble for all the usual reasons — human sinfulness and selfishness, the temptations of life in an affluent society, doctrinal and moral controversies and uncertainties and on and on and on — but also and to a surprisingly large degree they are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth. The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today. They are organized around what I’ve been calling the blue social model, built by rules that don’t work anymore, and oriented to a set of ideas that are well past their sell-by date.
Without even questioning it, most churchgoers assume that a successful church has its own building and a full-time staff including one or more professionally trained leaders (ordained or not depending on the denomination). Perhaps no more than half of all congregations across the country can afford this at all; most manage only by neglecting maintenance on their buildings or otherwise by cutting corners. And even when they manage to make the payroll and keep the roof in repair, congregations spend most of their energy just keeping the show going from year to year. The life of the community centers around the attempt to maintain a model of congregational life that doesn’t work, can’t work, won’t work no matter how hard they try. People who don’t like futile tasks have a tendency to wander off and do other things and little by little the life and vitality (and the rising generations) drift away.
At the next level up, there is another level of ecclesiastical bureaucrats and officials staffing regional offices. . . .
Bishops today in their sinking, decaying dioceses surround themselves with large staffs who hold frequent meetings and no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, although nobody outside the office ever quite knows what these are. And it isn’t just Anglicans. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, UCC, the whole crowd has pretty much the same story to tell. Staffs grow; procedures flourish and become ever more complex; more and more years of school are required from an increasingly ‘professional’ church staff: everything gets better and better every year — except somehow the churches keep shrinking. Inside, the professionals are pretty busy jumping through hoops and writing memos to each other and grand sweeping statements of support for raising the minimum wage and other noble causes — but outside the regional headquarters and away from the hum of the computers and printers, local congregations lose members, watch their buildings fall year by year into greater disrepair, and in the end they close their doors. . . .
Finally, denominations maintain national staffs — both individually and collectively. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others have national headquarters and/or lobbying presences in Washington; they also join to support a national staff for the NCCC (National Council of the Churches of Christ). Again it is rather mysterious what these organizations all do — but it is clear that if any of their work is directed at promoting the growth of the congregations of their respective denominations or of increasing church membership in other ways, they have little but failure to show for the millions of dollars they’ve spent over the years.
We Missouri Synod Lutherans are considering a big restructuring, but it doesn’t sound like it would address what Mead is calling for and might even, from his perspective, make it worse. He is calling for decentralization, networks of house churches, and clergy without professional degrees. What do you think of his diagnosis and proposed treatment?
HT: Joe Carter