I’ve spent the last decade consulting and studying the challenges of mainline churches and denominations. My conclusion is that most seem to be nearing extinction. I wrote a post on the topic called Circling the Drain: is your church among the walking dead. As I consider these issues, I have thought back time and again to something I read in Michael Chrichton’s book, The Lost World. The prologue shares the title of this post. In it, Chrichton quotes a mathematician, Ian Malcolm, who is quite renowned in the world of Chaos Theory, as he discusses theories about the extinction of dinosaurs. Malcolm said, at his presentation at the Sante Fe Institute in 1993:
Of all the self-organizing behaviors, two are of particular interest to the study of evolution. One is adaptation. We see it everywhere. Corporations adapt to the marketplace, brain cells adapt to signal traffic, the immune system adapts to infection, animals adapt to their food supply. We have come to think the ability to adapt is characteristic of complex systems.
But, even more important is the way complex systems seem to strike a balance between the need for order and the imperative to change. Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place we call ‘the edge of chaos.’ We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy. It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war. Finding the balance point must be a delicate matter--if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far from the edge, it becomes rigid, frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction. Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish.
It’s been nearly twenty years since I read that passage. Today, we read of one species after another going extinct. As I think about the challenges facing the American mainline church, this idea has strong relevance. Mainline denominations and churches have moved far from the edge of chaos.
I’ve seen many churches go beyond valuing tradition to an extreme focus on traditionalism. We have wonderful traditions of the church that bring deep meaning from an ancient past. Too often, people confuse form with substance, and reject the kind of adaptation that will allow a church community to remain a living, breathing body of Christ bringing transformation and faith to its community.
Worship wars come out of this mindset of traditionalism. While Martin Luther wrote his hymns to the music of popular bar tunes of the day, many Lutheran churches resist using anything but pipe organ music in worship.
When my brother and I were coming up in our family business, we realized that the management structures and style our father had created would not hold up in the current age. In the twenty-five years I worked at the company, I saw the rate of change multiply in the world. While my father could build a company and not make major shifts in strategy or structure for decades, we saw the danger that posture left us with by the late 1980’s.
After spending nearly a decade on a plateau, while all our costs rose and our margins shrank, our father died, leaving us to captain the ship. We created a new strategy, pushed into new businesses, and created a learning organization that equipped people to lead. Our business began to grow again.
We unleashed a decade long spurt of growth, quadrupling our revenues. We reinvented ourselves, while continuing to serve the same customers. We bought a competitor, and created two new businesses in five years time. When my father started the business in 1952, he could come up with a strategy and vision that maintained its relevance for 25 years. By the time we sold the business in 1999, you needed to reinvent yourself about every five years.
The financial meltdown of 2008 showed us that even the most venerable businesses could crash and burn in less than three years. My decade of consulting in churches has shown me that they can take twenty years to die. Where the end is quick and brutal in the business world, in the world of religion, churches can wither on the vine for decades.
My research in the Lutheran tribe (ELCA) found that 90% of the existing churches had not added one person to their average Sunday worship over five years. In the life stages of organizations, they were on a plateau at best, with most of them slipping into decline.
My friend Ron Lee served for years on churchwide staff, but spent most of his Pastorate leading large Lutheran churches. Ron looked at the institutional church and said, “The core of the institution is about orthodoxy and control. Change always happens around the edges.” My observation of the 90% of Lutheran churches that were no longer reaching new people is that they were centered on orthodoxy and control.
The trouble is, the Spirit is messy, and cannot be controlled. Lutherans like to talk about needing ‘good order’ in churches. I think this grew from Martin Luther’s experience of the peasants’ revolt during the Reformation. Luther promoted the idea of the priesthood of all believers. When the common people began to take the idea seriously, things got out of control. Luther came down on the side of ‘good order’ and supported the efforts of the princes to subdue the masses.
The trouble is, efforts to create good order can have the effect of stifling innovation and the movement of the Spirit. Churches trying to maintain control lose the ability to locate themselves at the edge of chaos. With that posture, they lose the ability to adapt and thrive in a changing environment.
So, while we have imported democracy into our American church, where we like to vote on everything, we have lost the deep connection to our roots in prayer and discernment of the Spirit’s leading. Show me one example in either the Old or New Testament of a time when the majority of the people came down on the side of what God wanted to do. The Bible is full of stories of how the masses turned from God to worship idols, and it was the few, the prophets, who called them back to the truth. So, we adopt governance mechanisms that over-control, and micromanage the church. These systems are devoid of faith and trust, and try to keep control in human hands. Even when those human hands are well-meaning, they are not the same as the will of God.
I want to live the rest of my life at the edge of chaos, in the midst of the messiness of the Spirit’s work. I hope you will join me there. It is the pathway to abundant life, and to living out God’s plans instead of our own.