A congregation I love is in the throes of recasting itself.
It has known who it is for decades—a healthy, largely well-to-do mix of young and old members who have learned from each other and loved each other while worshipping in a traditional form and leaning in a progressive direction. But now this solid, celebrated congregation is not working as well as it used to. Attendance was down even before the pandemic, the number of giving units is down, there are fewer young families, and of course no one knows whether people will return post-COVID. Members are beginning to sense that something must change.
Because members are thinking about change, they are starting to share articles they previously would have ignored. Just this past week, they shared Thom Rainer’s “Twelve Major Trends for Churches in 2021” and an article from the Sunday Denver Post, “Pandemic Shifts, Declining Membership: Colorado Churches Chart Out Future In Uncertain Times.”
Attendance May Stay Low
From Rainer they learned that “once the pandemic stabilizes and the number of cases decline, churches’ average worship attendance will be down 20% to 30% from pre-pandemic levels,” and that “denominations will begin their steepest decline in 2021.” The Post cites last year’s Gallup milestone—the first time since the question began being asked in 1937—that fewer than half (47%) of US adults were members of churches, synagogues, or mosques. The decline cuts across every major demographic category, including age, race, political affiliation, and income.
My church friends are anxious for their future, and I sympathize. Change is hard. The pandemic has diminished our confidence and crushed our resilience, and there is no clear path to success, especially for congregations that relish the questions more than the answers.
Thinking about Giant Clams
However, I want to offer a different article for them to read: “Giant Clams, Pollen, and Squid Eyes—Blueprints For A Better World.”
This article is obviously not about churches. It is about Alison Sweeney, an associate professor of physics and ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) at Yale University. Her lab focuses on “the evolution of biological soft matter and the mechanisms by which they assembled themselves over time.” (On the days when someone is throwing substitutionary atonement at me, I wish I’d chosen to study the evolution of biological soft matter!)
Sweeney says that understanding these mechanisms may offer the means for creating new biofuels, chemicals, and materials that help sustain planet earth. I cannot do the article justice, let alone Professor Sweeney’s research, but I want to share what she says about giant clams:
EEB brings with it a very specific wealth of knowledge about animal diversity. In my lab, we study giant clams, and although we tend to talk about them as a composite animal, there are seven to 10 species of giant clams. Each of them has its own subtleties and nuances of where they like to live and what they look like. You can’t brainstorm or problem solve about their evolutionary mechanisms unless you’ve done the hard, organizational biology work to figure out all of the differences…
We’re working on a paper now that makes a strong claim that giant clams are the most efficient solar energy system on Earth. By that I mean giant clams take in the greatest fraction of sunlight and convert it into chemical energy. We can compare it to any other system, from tropical rainforests to cornfields in Iowa. The thing that comes closest is the boreal spruce forests…
It has to do with the way light scatters from spherical particles onto vertical surfaces. What both the giant clam and the spruce forests have discovered is that you can physically absorb a lot more sunlight if your absorbing surfaces are parallel to the incoming light rather than perpendicular to them. And then you have to spread that light out over the vertical surfaces. Clams and spruce forests both have these vertical pillars and a mechanism to redistribute and wrap light around them.
I think churches may be like giant clams. We tend to talk about them as if they were one kind of thing, but each has its own subtleties and nuances. You can’t brainstorm or problem solve until you’ve done the hard work of studying them and figuring out their differences.
Like clams, churches are evolutionary mechanisms—the result of endless tiny changes over a long time that have allowed them to thrive in a particular environment. And to extrapolate from Sweeney’s article, the church’s best chance for success as a species may be to continue to evolve as the environment changes—not always by asking big questions or adopting big goals but by continuing to spin off many tiny changes.
I could be wrong. Perhaps there is another Martin Luther or Martin Luther King Jr. on the church’s horizon, poised to post another 95 these or announce another dream. But as Adam Gopnik says about society in his book A Thousand Small Sanities, “Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities.”
The church of the future may emerge, not from a single big idea, but from the accumulated wisdom of “an infinity of small effects” initiated over time. There is a time crunch, of course—a species that does not evolve fast enough may not survive. But the truly elegant solution, the one filled with iridescent, light-catching crystals like those of the giant clam, may be the one that emerges slowly as we create a thousand small new ways to absorb light and spread it out.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.