Looking for Innovation in the Church

That the modern Church is troubled is hardly news. Statistics have been plummeting for years.


Where will the Church find the answers it so desperately seeks?


We are looking for transformation, innovation. Yet the religious and clergy-written blogs I read could have been published 20 years ago. There are few new ideas. They use the same language—a bit harsher, perhaps. They offer the same advice—a bit more desperately, perhaps.


Often, the efforts of laity are dismissed, discouraged, or actively put down in the online clergy dialogs. You’d think we are the enemy.


It’s an oddity. The entire structure of Church relies on the strength of the laity, but successes are usually attributed to clergy. Strong lay leaders with obvious skills are a threat.


I, as the key contributor to 2x2virtualchurch, have felt this prejudice. My writings are sometimes labeled “antiestablishment.”


I am very much for the establishment of religion. However,  I recognize that the traditional methods of establishing and maintaining religion simply will not work as our society moves in directions the world has never known—especially if the Church does not move along with it.


With Lutheran roots, I feel within my rights to address Church topics. Luther taught equality in that regard. I believe that small churches are pivotal to the future of Christianity.  Some mainline denominations seem to view them as expendable. Their property and endowments makes this an attractive option. One little problem. You have to get rid of the people who own the property. Messy business. The root of all evil. . .


Jesus started small. He could have gone straight to the religious establishment of the day. He chose to concentrate on the laity—from the get go. Plan A!


We know modern challenges are daunting. Church leaders juggle difficult conditions.


Laity can help. But not if they are trampled over and locked out.


More books are bound to be published on the topic of Church Transformation. They are not likely to make much difference unless they begin to respect the skills and experience of the laity as leaders—not dutiful followers.


There is logic in this. Precedent, too!


Clergy are schooled in the traditions of their denominations. Frankly, they are vested in the system—theologically, traditionally,  professionally, and economically. Innovation is risky. Safer to keep doing the things that bring in the paychecks and keep people content if no less concerned.


Laity, on the other hand, have an entirely different view—many different views, in fact. Active laity are more interested in problem-solving. Who sits at the right hand of the bishop means little to us. We fund the church. We’re on the giving side of the economic equation.


As for precedent. Look to history. One of the biggest movements that shaped the Church—as our older members remember it—was conceived and executed by laity.


Study the history of the Sunday School.

The Sunday School is largely responsible for the strength of the Christian Church in America—even more so than the churches themselves.


The original concept, dating back to the mid to late 1700s in England, is attributed to a journalist, Robert Raikes of the Gloucester Journal. Today, he might have his own religious blog!


Raikes saw a need. Education and literacy belonged to the gentry. Raikes used the concept of Sunday School to teach children in the slums to read. Their lives revolved around their work. Sunday was the only day off. His innovation resulted in revamping the English school system. Raikes found support among the clergy of his day. Was he motivated by the pocketbook? Literacy is good for the newspaper business. But the passion that went into his ideas speaks otherwise. He centered his project around the Bible, not the newspaper.


His ideas were transplanted in American soil where clergy opposed the movement. They considered it a violation of the Sabbath. But perhaps they were feeling a little green. They were being asked to share the Sunday spotlight.


In 1817 in Medway, Massachusetts, when the minister and deacons were opposing the women’s idea of starting a Sunday school, one male leader complained, “These young folk are taking too much upon themselves.” Others said, “These women will be in the pulpit next.”


Sounds familiar!


Nevertheless, the Sunday School movement spread across the United States with the help of housewives, doctors, educators, industrialists, even an architect who designed the typical Sunday School Assembly area with classrooms surrounding a central gathering hall. .


Sunday Schools were lay organizations. Clergy had little or nothing to do with them.


Sunday Schools often operate separately from their sponsoring church. They take up their own offerings and have their own board of directors, usually entirely lay led. Under lay control, they take on social aspects as young people form sports leagues and older members plan picnics and festivals. These early networking techniques benefited the Church. Without the Sunday School movement, churches would likely have struggled going into the 20th century.


2×2 Foundation and our blog are part of this lay tradition. We offer our ideas on the state of the Church and are willing to experiment and innovate.


There is a big difference between the 19th century and the 21st century.


In the 1800s the movers and shakers of society were involved in church from an early age and as they established themselves in their careers. Their families were likely to have come to America for religious reasons. Their colleges and universities were likely to have strong religious roots.


Today’s younger generations are largely finding other places to serve. All indications are that they are no less spiritual. Church just isn’t making sense to them. They are no longer mostly slum children craving education and a way out of misery. They are the best-educated generation in history and many have been blessed with commonplace comfort of the middle class, which would have seemed like luxury to most people in pre-World War II America.


Congregations that want to survive will find ways to connect to today’s younger generations now, before it is too late. And let’s be clear. By younger generations, I mean all of those under 50. That’s a huge population! Most church-goers today are over 50!


Denominations that want to survive will stop viewing lay talent as competition. They will stop seeing disrespect in every new proposal.


Christ empowered the laity. He sent us out two by two (2×2).


Laity can make a difference. Give us a chance.