Church is being reinvented. So are technology and education. And all for the same reasons.
Facebook just started moving Google’s cheese with its launch of Home. An army of upstarts in Silicon Valley is challenging the hegemony of Microsoft. Nothing is staying the same; disruption is the path to prosperity.
The reason: the marketplace is highly dynamic. New needs emerge. New products stimulate new needs. New entrants want to make a difference right away. Problems and opportunities multiply faster than bureaucratic pillars can respond.
In education, new technology such as online learning is ramping up tension between bricks-and-mortar institutions and students seeking affordable education.
Many church leaders continue to believe that reinvention is an optional choice they can or cannot make. They think they can control the pace of change and shape its outcomes.
Those attitudes are delusional. The reality is: reinvent or die. The pace of change is driven by external factors, not by earnest deliberations and visioning exercises. As Jesus himself found, we have no control over outcomes.
What does a reinvented church look like? Take your pick. Depending on the constituency being sought, it can take many forms, thus confounding cultural stereotypes of organized religion.
The reinvented church can rent space in a strip mall, university or school. Not as a temporary way-station on the road to erecting an edifice, but as an ongoing solution to inflexible and costly overhead.
It can create satellite operations, such as the congregation in Manhattan whose 5,000 young adults meet in four separate locations at four separate times on Sunday.
The reinvented church can downplay Sunday morning altogether. Meet instead on weeknights and Sunday evenings, when young adults are more likely to be available.
Or don’t gather at all, in the sense of the whole congregation being together in one place. Focus instead on a network of small groups and house churches, which nurture strong relationships and are what Jesus himself envisioned.
Or focus on a tech version, like Oklahoma-centered LifeChurch.tv, which has 15 locations around the country plus an online church.
A reinvented church can go intentionally small. Some house churches have no desire to grow, to depend on clergy or to join denominations. They meet, talk, worship, pray, sing and provide mutual care.
Many traditional congregations are trying to reinvent themselves by going hybrid. They offer a standard Sunday morning service — but go way beyond it with additional offerings, alternative styles, small groups and satellite presences.
Even staid denominations are open to reinvention efforts. The United Methodist Church in Atlanta, for example, allowed and now encourages a start-up called Sacred Tapestry that meets in a strip mall and takes the form of a coffee house serving brunch.
Reinvention touches everything. Clergy become communicators and organizers. Small groups provide pastoral care. Worship has a leader walking the aisle or leading an on-stage combo, not an organist seated at a bench. Classes deploy online tools. Evangelism uses social media, not doorstep conversation. Mission projects matter more than parish history.
Communications promote networking, not institutional needs and offerings. Vestments that set clergy apart give way to jeans and sport coats — whatever says we’re in this together.
None of this is exactly new, but the willingness to experiment and to reinvent seems to have swept into most corners of the Christian enterprise in America.
Congregations that cannot push past an older generation’s loathing of such reinvention are likely to wither away.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
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