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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Imagining a New Model for the Church

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When we church people talk about “what it means to be “the church,”  we use lots of grand Scriptural and theological language. But our actual model for the church—both our image of what church is supposed to be and the way we organize to make it happen—tends to be based on more commonplace ideas. Perhaps it’s time to imagine a new model for the church.

When we talk about the church, we church people often say:

  • the church is the body of Christ
  • the church participates in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely
  • the church is “one holy catholic and apostolic church”
  • the church seeks to make disciples of all nations

No matter what version of church we champion or reject, if you watch how we actually organize church work, you can see that most of the time we think of church as a “membership” organization with a basic set of components:

  • a building or space of some kind that is designed to gather people in and set them apart
  • shared rituals designed to remind people of their history with God and of God’s ongoing presence in their lives
  • known rules and procedures meant to help the group make faithful decisions

Even though churches do reach outside themselves to do good work—taking up special offerings, going on mission trips, giving homeless families a place to stay, or participating in Habitat builds—they tend to be focused on what happens inside.

People think of their church as “who we are when we’re together, usually in a building, doing the things church people do—hearing God’s Word, singing in the choir, attending meetings, making decisions, sharing food.” Our confessional language even supports this interior view—Presbyterians, for example, like to say that the true church is wherever “the Word of God is truly preached and heard, the Sacraments are rightly administered, and ecclesiastical discipline is uprightly ministered.” (Book of Order F-1.03)

Life in the Marketplace

Over time, especially in a competitive environment, this model of the church has evolved to the point that churches today, no matter what they say about their mission or God’s call, have come to behave like other marketplace organizations that cater to their customers.

The customers—also known as members—in turn measure their church’s success by the staff’s performance as customer service representatives, hired and trained to meet their needs. Even congregations that are known for their political focus or their intentional outreach to non-believers still expect their staff to be excellent at meeting members’ needs.

Unfortunately, the culture is now shifting around us, and we can tell by the empty pews that our model isn’t working as well as it used to. In response, churches often find themselves employing a quick-moving succession of ministers, Christian educators, youth leaders, and musicians, many of whom burn out or leave in search of easier work because it’s easier to blame staff for being poor customer service reps than it is to question the underlying model of the church.

Thinking Differently

But what if the model has run its course? Perhaps we’ve arrived at a time when we can begin to think differently.

What if, for example, we reverse the flow of support so that the primary focus of the church’s work is the lived behavior of each member rather than what happens in the sanctuary? What if staff are seen as trainers rather than care providers, and members are seen not as customers whose needs must be met (hard not to think of Rumpole and She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed!), but as the church’s customer service representatives who meet regularly for training so that they can effectively portray the story and values of the church in their world?

This kind of model, which essentially returns to an earlier meaning of the Greek word that we translate as “disciple”—a learner who listens to and watches a leader to become more like them—would make everything that goes on in the building be more about training for life than about finding spiritual support:

  • Going to church might be more like learning a sport than like going to a play—working out different muscles, putting in the reps, doing something again and again until muscle memory replaces intentional thought.
  • Members, children, and youth might spend their time questioning, studying, practicing, or even role-playing what it means to follow Christ rather than being entertained, comforted, or “filled.”
  • Worship would still be a time of reverence, ritual, and awe, but it would equally be a time of preparation for taking the gifts of the Spirit into homes and neighborhoods in a regular reenactment of Pentecost.
  • The metrics for success would not be membership or attendance or even engagement but the much harder-to-count examples of how God is at work in the community through the lives of the people who are being trained at this church.
  • The church’s brand identity would be found in the lives of members rather than in the rhetorical skills of the preacher or the magnificence of the music or the building,

As an alternative model of the church—what I’ve described here— this is an act of imagination. It has the possible advantage of appealing to younger generations who are used to training and attracted by service, but I haven’t tried it yet. I feel sure that most of the congregations I work with would have a hard time releasing the model they know. We are at a point, however, when alternative models are necessary. The church needs to adopt new ways of being faithful and let old ways go.

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.

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