Church Death and Church Evolution

David Hayward's cartoon above is accompanied by a comment acknowledging that the church itself may never die, but churches die all the time. The reason some religious believers sometimes manage to persuade themselves otherwise is much the same reason some manage to persuade themselves that evolution does not occur. When change occurs over generations, it is easy for the people of one generation to convince themselves that it is not happening at all. But such beliefs do not change the reality.

The mere effort to preserve attendance and keep a congregation from ceasing to be is almost sure to fail in the long run, and may in fact contribute to its demise. It is perhaps worth noting that the New Testament writings nowhere depict anyone trying to avoid driving people from a Christian group, or being concerned about the number of members. Today, many clergy avoiding mentioning things they learned in seminary, or their views on evolution, out of a concern not to alienate members with a fundamentalist mentality. But in pandering to the dead in this way, they often succeed in alienating and driving away the living.

But part of the message of David's post is that that is OK. One could even talk about it in terms of natural selection. The churches that let immature bullies predominate may seem to cling to more members in the short term, as their authoritarianism maintains attendance. But they often die spectacularly as a result of scandal or split. And that is OK, it is healthy, it is normal. Because evolution happens on the level of species and not individual organisms. Churches die as part of the process in which the Church survives, by changing, growing, and adapting to new environments. Those least prepared to cope in a changing environment die, and even if only a few churches survive, they pass their well-adapted traits on to those that follow after them. Evolution at work.

For those of us who can step back and see this big picture, there is a sweet and pleasant irony to seeing that the churches which contribute to widespread church death through their intransigence, their anti-intellectualism, their depiction of Christianity and evolution as incompatible, are ensuring that it will be the “genes” of a healthier sort of Christianity, a more classic approach, that will be the one to survive into the future, precisely through its evolution.

Just as has always been the case.


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  • I haven’t read much about the dying/evolving church or the compatibility (or incapatibility) of Christianity and evolution; but, as a member of a dying church, this post is encouraging to me. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Eric Pettersson

    Hi James, thanks for the insightful post. As someone who came from a conservative evangelical background, I readily see how their rigid anti-intellectualism can be a source of death. However, since transferring to the mainline world, I’ve seen there are also countless shrinking congregations who have no problem with evolution or women pastors or whatever else we may think is intellectually necessary to be acceptable in the modern world. How is this situation to be explained? What bad “genes” do you think are being rooted out among liberal Protestants?

    My own thought is that evangelicals may be better at attraction short term growth, but after 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the mainline church will emerge wiser and ready to make the changes necessary to carry the gospel forward in a faithful and powerful way.

    By the way, I had a similar conversation with an American Baptist pastor last year. He told me he had recently started serving this small, old congregation, and that he accepted the fact that maybe sometimes churches just have life-cycles, and that this is okay because God’s work will continue whether or not his church continues. I thought it was profound, but when I told my UCC pastor, he was not so impressed. What do you think?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I think, if there is anything to my evolutionary metaphor, then the situation is fairly complex. It is not that one denomination or form of Christianity rather than another has good or bad genes, but that their genetic heritage may make them well or poorly poised to survive and thrive in a changing environment. But whichever lineages contribute to the future of Christianity, those descendants of our present-day churches will look different from their ancestors in our time.

      I do think that, as postmodern Christians have rediscovered some of the premodern traditions of Christianity and found them to be less woodenly literal and less focused on Enlightenment concerns than either conservatives or liberals of the classic sort, it may be that some “recessive genes” will play an important role.

      But perhaps I am taking my analogy too far or too literally?