Institutional Religion: The Old Structures Don’t Work

Every few years, the Pew Research Center releases new data on religious affiliation in the United States as part of Religion and Public Life study. In May 2015, the statistics showed the continued increase in the number of people in the United States with no religious affiliation. Since the last survey taken in 2007, there was a 6.7% increase in the number of people in the United States who consider themselves to have no religious affiliation. The total is 22.8%. The group of people with no religious affiliation is the second largest grouping in the study, with the largest being Evangelical Protestants at 25.4%. The only two groupings which had an increase in numbers were those with no religious affiliation and non-Christian religions. (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/)

There’s long been a misconception that Evangelical Protestant churches, which are largely conservative, are growing while mainline Protestant churches, which are largely liberal, are diminishing. The actual situation is demonstrated in the statistics from the Pew Research Center. Over the last ten to twenty years, Christian churches in the United States have been loosing members no matter the brand or theological orientation. At the same time, the category of people that continues to grow is those who consider themselves non-affiliated.

There are many reasons for the declines in church attendance. Among them are the repeated scandals related to child-sexual abuse, double-standards on sexual behavior, financial abuse, and the use of churches for political purposes. While these issues have shaped the public view of church within the United States and led to erosion of moral authority once held by religious leaders, I believe that these issues are actually symptoms of a much larger problem in Christianity. For example, while childhood sexual abuse has occurred far too often within religious settings, most church goers do not attend congregations where this problem has occurred.

Instead, I think that the problem facing Christianity today has more to do with the organizational structure of institutional religion. Institutional Christianity has maintained a basic organizational structure in which clergy hold great power and influence and congregants are relegated to being much like sheep who follow along. Even in local churches known for participatory structures commonly called “congregational,” the congregational votes taken largely ratify the decisions made by others. The only real vote one can make is with one’s feet by walking out the door. That’s indeed what many people have done.

In most Christian churches, hierarchical decisions shape the life of the church. In more conservative denominations, like those which are Evangelical or Catholic, the hierarchical decisions are generally about theology and dogma. Adherents are told what to believe and what their religious and spiritual priorities should be. Liberal and progressive denominations allow for much more discussion of theology and dogma and often encourage questioning faith as an essential aspect of religious life. But these congregations often mandate social concerns and what priorities and projects members should participate in. As one colleague of mine recently quipped, “For decades, we told congregants which products to buy and which to boycott; which causes to support and which to advocate against; what activities help create the realm of God on Earth and which were part of the systemic oppression of others. Is that really any different from Evangelicals who insist that everyone must have a “born again” experience to be saved?”

Part of the problem at work in Christian churches is confusion over management versus leadership. Many local church pastors are primarily managers: they take existing policy and procedures (including beliefs and dogma) and implement them. Yet, most people look for leaders: individuals who can inspire them with a vision for living and equipping them to make their own decisions. Denominational structures tend to reward good managers and to punish leaders who threaten the structure.

More significant is the shift that’s occurred in American culture since the 1950’s and 1960’s. Increasing emphasis has been placed on autonomy, personal decision making, and participatory forms of organizational structures. Growing, innovative corporations emulate the dynamic structure of companies like Google while the rigid structures of corporations like IBM have faded away. This pattern of organizational structure and expectations influences how people view religious institutions and other groups in society.

Shifting to a more dynamic, participatory model for churches are key for the future of institutional expressions of Christianity. Congregations that have the best chance of continuing into the future are those which are community focused and highly participatory. It’s this community-focused participatory model for local churches that’s discussed in my new book, Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations. The ways of organizing and structuring churches in the 1950’s simply don’t work any longer just as they don’t work for corporations. New ways of being vibrant communities are essential for the future. While Contemporary Churches examines this in depth, next week, I will explore this topic further by considering the importance of authentic experience in communities of faith today.

© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Institutional Religion: The Old Structures Don’t Work

  1. Thinking that re-organizing the structure of the church will save them from dying is like trying to revive the stream train by replacing the press gases by a iPad to show the values. Nothing really changes.
    Christ promised ‘greater things than I did, will you do’. How? By understanding his real teachings. They are in the Letters of Christ. Once the church starts teaching those, churches will fill up again, because people will hear words filled with truth instead of the echo of past believes.
    Then a high-speed train will be on track!

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