Carriages, Cars, and Dodos

It is no secret that when it comes to church—both local congregations and the broader body of Christ—we live in a complicated, angst-ridden era. As we live through the final disintegration of Christendom, many of the assumptions that have guided us for generations have begun to fail us. For centuries in Europe and North America, Christianity was the dominant, even assumed religion, and the church held sway over the culture. As recently as fifty or sixty years ago in the US, this was the unquestioned state of affairs. Not surprisingly, that was also the period in which mainline churches and denominations such as ours were at the height of their influence.

Since the 1960s, however, we have witnessed a steady decline in our cultural dominance. At the same time we have witnessed the rise of a deeply politicized movement among conservative evangelical Christians, which has in turn contributed to the “culture wars” and the polarization that came to a head in last year’s presidential campaign. Churches of a progressive bent, not used to serving as a countercultural movement because up to that point the mainline church and the broader culture had been kissing cousins, got caught unawares. We were not ready for the culture wars; as a result these angrier, more militant elements in the church began to dominate the conversation. We have been playing defense ever since.

" Dodo " by  Kevin Walsh  is a Creative Commons image, licensed under  CC BY-NC 2.0

"Dodo" by Kevin Walsh is a Creative Commons image, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

With this combination of factors—declining membership, loss of cultural authority, and having come out on the short end of the struggle to serve as spokespersons for the faith in the wider world—one might think that churches like ours are in danger of going the way of the dodo. But that is only true if we do not adjust to the new reality. Our new status as a minority voice in the post-Christendom environment may actually be good news rather than a death knell. Our task (and opportunity) is to recognize the changed circumstances and exercise some flexibility. The church of the future will not look like the church of the past.

Let me say that again: the church of the future will not look like the church of the past. We need to get used to that idea, because if we don’t, we will cease to exist. This is not a value judgment or a doomsday pronouncement; it’s simply the new reality. And that new reality is going to come into clearer and clearer focus in the coming decades.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Imagine a thriving horse-drawn carriage dealership in the 1880s. Business has been booming for the past couple of decades, as Easterners continue to stream westward looking for gold or land or a new start in life. Future prospects for the company look bright, and the strategy is simply to “keep on keeping on.”

Now imagine the same company twenty-five years later. Business is still good, but there is an ominous rumbling in the air. The source of this rumbling is the internal combustion engine and the advent of the automobile age. Our friendly carriage sales company isn't too worried, however. It’s just a passing fad; it will never catch on. No sense in changing our business model.

Fast forward another decade. The automobile industry has not gone away, and in fact appears to be here to stay. But it still holds only a relatively small share of the transportation market; people are still buying carriages at greater rates than the new-fangled “horseless carriages,” so there’s nothing to worry about, right? Some of our company’s competitors have jumped on the bandwagon and expanded into automobile sales and repairs, but the conventional wisdom continues to paint them as rash early adopters who will lose their shirts when the automobile market inevitably crashes.

Well, you know how the story ends. The company that refuses to recognize the new reality and change its practices accordingly is doomed. How many shops that sell or repair horse-drawn carriages do you see nowadays?

We are in the same position in the church-and-culture “market” today. Which will we resemble, the company that dug in its heels and went out of business or the one that adapted to the new reality and became a car dealership? True, the latter company in 1950 looked very different than it did in 1900, but it still existed and was carrying out its essential function of meeting its customers’ transportation needs.

In this peculiar historical moment, we who care about the church need to identify the church's essential function. We need to differentiate between that essence and the forms we use to carry out our mission. The Spirit is calling us to take a hard look at who we are and who we are meant to be, and to be willing to jettison anything that does not contribute to our carrying out our essential function.