Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: People ask why I earned a second doctorate. It’s not because I had the time, or the money. It was because I had a passion to understand “church change.”
When I began my research I found there was a little research on how to change a church without losing its orthodoxy or its status quo members. This article about Bill Leonard, one of the main historians of the church today, warns that change is something we can no longer ignore. Change is upon everything – including the church. And, we must understand how to undertake it without compromising our theology or our traditional members.
I explain how to do that on the website http://www.8steps4change.church. But before you go there, read this overview of Bill Leonard.
Churches must learn to adapt to ‘permanent transition,’ Leonard stresses
by MARV KNOX, Baptist News, 6/30/22.
A documented change
Leonard cited research documenting the transition. For example, 29% of Americans are “nones,” claiming no religious affiliation, an increase from 16% in 2007. Conversely, the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christians declined from 78% to 63% across the past 15 years.
A Lifeway study found 4,800 U.S. churches closed in 2019, he said. And the median U.S. church attendance fell from 137 to 65 by 2021.
… This is doing what we used to call evangelization,” he continued. “How do we live it and how do we give it out — not only by our words, but by our actions?”
In addition to understanding their congregational and gospel identities, churches must grapple with their ministry, asking, “What is our calling in Christ in our community and beyond?” he said.
This involves assessing current ministries, but also evaluating ministry changes that need to be made, adjusted or even discarded, he asserted. Churches must ask, “How do we understand, engage and incarnate that ministry in our congregation and beyond?”
… In that that regard, they can take cues from 19th century Methodists and Baptists, whose membership exploded, especially in the American West, the historian said.
“Leaders ‘back East” worried not about secularism but about barbarism,” he recalled. They wanted to bring a Christian presence and moral identity to the Western frontier, and they (adapted) their evangelistic methods to match the needs and ethos of western pioneers.
They succeeded wildly and carried the methods into the 20th century, when those approaches became “less and less effective in communicating the gospel,” he said.
The challenge for the church today is to relinquish old methods of sharing the gospel that are declining in effectiveness and to think creatively about how to adapt its presentation of the gospel to the culture, he stressed.
Considering how the church will adapt to permanent transition, Leonard affirmed that God is ahead of the church and prepared for what is new. He quoted New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan: “God is ready. It is not that we are waiting for God; God is waiting for us. The present kingdom is a (joint project) between the human and divine worlds.”