Churches and denominations are being buffeted by momentous social change—and many good church people are in denial about, or are resisting, what is happening all around them.
For example, recent Barna Group research suggests that “many of those outside [of] Christianity, especially younger adults, have little trust in the Christian faith” or in churchgoers. They view Christianity as homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, not accepting of others, and confusing. Worse, many Millennial and older churchgoers “share the[se] same negative perceptions” (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters [Baker, 2007], pp. 9-32).
And Duke University’s 2015 National Congregations Study report on “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America” revealed that:
- Most churches are small and getting smaller; “the average congregation in America is down from a median of 80 participants in 1998 to 70” or fewer today.
- “All congregations are aging, but white mainline congregations are older,” and are aging faster.
- Mainline Protestant denominations are losing members; meanwhile, the number of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and “nones” in the United States has grown precipitously since 1998.
- “Congregations are less connected to denominations.” Churches’ “financial contributions to denominations have been in relative decline since 1998.
- Many full- and part-time paid pastoral leaders are second-career. Sixteen percent of pastors serve more than one congregation; 34% are bi-vocational. Nearly 14% of congregations are led by unpaid pastors.”
But it’s not just the church that’s changing; dramatic transformations are occurring within even the most stable and conservative of American institutions—and their traditional patrons and defenders are struggling to adjust to the new realities.
Consider the proud tradition of U.S. naval aviation. Since World War II, American aircraft carriers have patrolled the world’s oceans, and aircraft flown by Navy and Marine pilots have owned the skies.
But on May 14, 2013, for the first time in history, an unmanned jet aircraft was successfully launched from, and recovered on, the
deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush. Weeks later, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the Navy’s newest fighter jet, “‘the F-35 almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Navy will ever buy or fly’” (Brendan Stickles, “Twilight of Manned Flight?,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2016).
The U.S. military is rapidly adopting remotely-piloted aviation technologies. Why? Because unmanned drones can perform the same missions that manned jets, can—and can do them “more cheaply, more quickly,” and with greater safety. Meanwhile, Navy pilots and others who are heavily invested in manned flight—are struggling to understand what’s going on.
Or consider how Millennial leaders are impacting the armed forces. Many military officers born after 1980 are not willing to sacrifice career satisfaction or their desire to do meaningful work to a military culture that emphasizes credential-seeking, bureaucratic hoop-jumping, and promotion-chasing. For Millennials, an emphasis on careerism and rank progression irrespective of social relevance violates the very essence of who they are.
Millennials are also less inclined to exhibit institutional loyalty for its own sake, or to stick around for a 30-year military career if they do not like what they are doing; indeed, talented-but-bored Millennial officers will simply leave military service for “more lucrative and fulfilling” civilian work (Rafiel Deon Warfield, “#Leadership [Hashtag Leadership],” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2016).
Recall also the base realignment and closure (BRAC) processes and debates of the 1990s. Repeated efforts by the Pentagon to close nonessential or cost ineffective stateside military bases were met with fierce resistance, both from nearby military towns that did not want to give up the economic benefits they were deriving from the bases—and from generals and admirals who were not ready to stop fighting the Cold War. A pastor colleague has noted pointedly that the popular resistance encountered by the BRAC process was not unlike the difficulty churches are having today in instituting change and giving up their expensive-to-maintain but mostly empty buildings.
Or think of the 2012 bankruptcy of the Eastman Kodak Company. Kodak had been a blue-chip company, a member of the Dow
Jones Industrial Average that “employed [over] 65,000 people, and was dominant in its market.” But Kodak was rigid. In 1978, a young Kodak engineer patented the digital camera, but Kodak considered it “a disruptive technology that would cannibalize its primary profit sectors—film and development. Kodak could not reconcile” these competing technologies. It “failed to adapt to its consumers’ changing habits” (Brendan Stickles, “Twilight of Manned Flight?”).
Finally, consider how American electoral politics, and the Republican and Democratic Parties, are changing. This year, two of the leading presidential candidates were political “outsiders”. Curiously, the appeal of these candidates was trans-ideological: supporters of the Democratic outsider candidate said that they would consider voting for the Republican outsider candidate, and vice versa. Little wonder that party leaders did not know what to make of these candidates, and spent much of 2016 trying to disqualify them.
What accounts for this reticence on the part of institutions and their leaders to embrace innovation? In 1962, physicist-historian Thomas S. Kuhn wrote, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that science does not advance in a linear way based on the straightforward accumulation of facts; rather, it develops in fits and starts, as a result of changing circumstances and possibilities. Scientists retain their established “paradigms” for a long time; they have to be confronted with numerous “anomalies” that cannot be explained by “normal science,” and even then, they are reluctant to replace their old paradigms with newer ones that account for those anomalies. Thus, “paradigm shifts” are largely non-linear and irrational.
According to Kuhn, the scientific theories, ideas, and norms preceding and succeeding a paradigm shift are so different that they are incommensurable—the new paradigm cannot be explained or understood in terms of the old paradigm, and vice versa. A paradigm shift does not merely revise one theory; it changes everything—scientific perspectives, definitions, rules, and truth itself. The old and new paradigms represent completely different worldviews. Scientists defending different paradigms end up talking past one another.
I suspect that churches are no more likely to embrace innovation than Navy fliers are to welcome unmanned aviation systems, or
political parties are to embrace outside candidates, or scientists are to adopt new paradigms. It is not that such organizations do not want to innovate; they cannot innovate. There is a reason Kodak did not take advantage of digital cameras, and there is a reason churches are losing members.
Everywhere I look, advocates of innovation and defenders of tradition are talking past one another.
As a pastor, I am endlessly amazed by this. How is it that we readily anticipate signs of growth and development in our children and grandchildren (and indeed, we’d be alarmed if they did not develop physically, cognitively and emotionally), and most of us would be quite willing to change our diets and lifestyles after a doctor’s diagnosis reveals a life-threatening disease—yet we do not want our churches to change, ever and in any way?
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.