It is 2017. For Protestant Christians—Lutherans in particular—it is the big 5-0-0.
500 years ago Martin Luther stood up to the religious and political authorities of his day and changed Western civilization.
He lived at a pivotal time. Technology was opening doors. Information once accessible to only the elite was about to become available to anyone who could read. Luther made sure the scriptures benefited from the revolution. He took it upon himself, without official permission, to use the technology for evangelism.
Had he used technology to do what the Church had always done—present the scriptures in ancient languages—he would have wasted a huge opportunity.
Fast frame ahead. 2017 is 1517 on steroids.
How will Church fit into the world our children and grandchildren will inherit? How will the Church adapt to new possibilities? Will we see God in technology?
The strategy of most church leaders for the last fifty years was to increasingly follow corporate trends — consolidate assets and activity in a few user-friendly settings. Spanky-looking large plants with parking lots. Paid staff for every identified need. Symbols of success.
Corporate America seeks to get the most and make the most of whatever they can get their hands on. Inevitably, the elect few profit most. Philanthropy is secondary and often used to enhance public image.
Corporate America rarely sets out to serve the most needy in the toughest places.
The corporate approach to religion works about as well as the corporate approach to politics works.
Following the corporate model slowly affects denominational thinking. Size matters. Servant leadership, the Christ model, deflects rom a mission of prosperity and abundance. Protecting the roles of the professional leaders, who see themselves as CEOs, is necessary for the survival of the corporate church. The conscience-driven disruption that created the Reformation and marked the first centuries of Protestantism has little place.
When decision-makers benefit personally from group decisions, progress suffers.
A New Reformation
What would a Reformation look like in 2017?
Here’s what we know about Church from 2000 years of experience.
- Large churches have never caught on. Most people belong to small churches.
- Large churches are difficult to sustain. Even megachurches rarely survive the first charismatic leaders—who typically withhold millions from offerings for their own enrichment.
- Large churches are more expensive to operate than small churches. Corporate CEOs expect healthier salaries for over-seeing larger operations. Ambitious pastors have difficulty embracing servanthood. Standards change.
- Despite the concentration of resources, effective mission range remains local. Unlike corporations that can spread influence, establishing satellites all over the world, the focus of large churches is site- and region-centric. We dare not grow beyond geographic constraints—even though that is entirely possible in today’s interconnected world.
The Church in the Information Age
The internet is game-changer the Church fears.
The Information Age is leveling of authority. Hierarchy isn’t what it used to be.
The Church fears technology with good reason. Congregations using the full power of the internet could outgrow their regional offices. What will happen when congregations don’t need them—when the pastor of a small congregation has more influence than elected bishops? What happens will happen when laity take religion online?
A token nod to technology results—encouraged only so far as it helps us stay in our comfort zones. The result: A donation button on the home page of static websites.
The Failing Corporate Model
Modern church failure is difficult to understand. The very first congregations—with little in the way of hierarchy—managed to spread Christianity across several continents within a few hundred years! Early congregations in the New World anchored struggling families through settlement, wars and the Great Depression. Shouldn’t we thrive with today’s affluence?
The Church cannot sustain the corporate church model. What comes first in corporate thinking? Salaries, benefits and property. Congregations slowly table mission, education, and social justice as they struggle to meet these insatiable expectations.
Failure is associated with small congregations. Statistics reveal that even large congregations are in decline.
Breaking the 200-member threshold is a popular but failing benchmark. This goal supports Church as we knew it. It takes the contributions of 200 members to sustain one pastor and keep one plant. The 200-member goal is designed to achieve stability and comfort.
Make Way for Micro-ministries.
The survival of Christianity may rely on doing a 180.
Stop pursuing large. Start pursuing innovation.
Micro-ministries are inspired and fueled by the passions of a few.
Micro-ministries aren’t new. The gospel was first spread two by two. Word of mouth served early evangelists well. Home churches are the biblical model !They managed to reach every corner of the known world within a few centuries. Small groups of laity started the Sunday School movement of the 19th century.
Today’s popular small group ministries are the tip of the iceberg. These tend to serve special interests by age, gender, or some common concern such as divorce, child-rearing, significant loss, illness or addiction.
But the potential to serve in small groups is just as vital as having needs served by small groups.
The need to control hampers micro-ministry. “But we don’t have anyone to lead that interest,” is likely to be leadership response.
We are leaving our comfort zone for a new frontier. We don’t know how to train leadership or monitor results. Who will be responsible? How will offerings be collected? Who will get the credit?
Christianity grew from micro-ministry.
Martin Luther was particularly interested in family nurturing spiritual formation. He wrote the Catechisms as teaching tools. Modern-day Christian families struggle to keep the faith in a secular society. A new Reformation would revive family faith.
Empower family leaders and you empower the church.
Luther challenged leadership. Today’s church leaders are insulated from the people they serve. Seminaries concentrate on filling clergy positions. Regional bodies create and monitor those positions. There is order in this. But it is not an order for the Information Age.
Most dialogue in the Church is professional to professional. The voice of the laity is but a whisper in leadership circles following this model. Since laity have a great deal to lose and very little influence, it is little wonder that younger generations feel a disconnect.
Laity were once far more influential. The church in early America was strengthened by lay leadership planting churches in plots carved from cow pastures. They sent for pastors from the homeland only when they could afford it.
Micro-ministry would empower individuals to use the resources on thousands of small projects as opposed to plugging congregations into national or regional programming equipped with logos and slogans but little wiggle room for innovation. Some will fail. Some will grow. Success will depend on networking.
Micro-ministry would create networks of similarly impassioned people using powerful modern communication tools. Participants will not necessarily live nearby or follow comfortable rhythms of traditional church life. Using technology your Church will be open 24/7.
This can’t happen as long as church leaders foster an expectation among a dwindling following that the primary objective of Christian community is propping up yesterday’s Church.
Those who embrace technology soon learn the power of cooperation—working with others. Other ministries are not competition.
Need an example of micro-ministry? This website, 2×2 virtual church, is the project of very few. We stay faithful to Lutheran roots although we exist entirely outside of Lutheran structure. There is no clergy oversight. Our website reaches more people every week than the largest churches in the regional body serving our area. Reach is worldwide. After six years, our website is beginning to attract bloggers looking for a platform to share their micro-ministry interests. We’ll be featuring these bloggers this summer.
Nurture the small and expect big (surprising) results. The future of mainline denominations depends on its ability to serve the least.