The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Change or die: Evolution is a fact of life

Institutions might think themselves eternal, but evolution is their life — and failure to evolve their death.

Don't believe in evolution? Look at churches. Better yet, look at personal computing.

It took one generation — 34 years — to go from the first mass market PC to what is now called "the end of the PC era," as signaled by Hewlett Packard's decision to jettison its hardware operations. In that exciting era of technological advances and transformation, the PC evolved from a huge stand-alone box with a tiny screen and minimal capability to a slim box with ever larger screens, massive processing power and vast data storage capacities, all connected by the Internet.

Software and communications tools kept pace, a display of market economics at its best. New products created new markets. Those markets, in turn, demanded better products. Weak competitors fell to the wayside, while strong competitors prospered. The workforce adapted.

Churches went through a similar era of growth. The Episcopal Church, for example, grew from 1 million members to 3.2 million between 1925 and 1965, before change-resistant leadership set off a 46-year decline. All mainline Protestant denominations saw the same cycle of growth and decline, and now evangelical churches are entering the decline stage. Christian institutions — hospitals, seminaries, colleges, camps and conference centers — that once prospered are, one by one, closing or dropping church affiliation.

Evolution is a relentless force. Now that the Internet has enabled mobile computing via smartphones, tablets and cloud-based apps, the desk-bound PC seems like a ponderous dinosaur.

What happened? This is where the PC story gets instructive for churches.

In short, people's needs changed. They valued mobility more than power, especially when only a small portion of that power was actually being used. They valued the Internet's use-it-anywhere capability, even if apps ran more slowly. Put another way, the things PCs were able to do better and better turned out not to be what people wanted. Who needs a Ferrari to drive a mile for coffee?

The needs, lifestyles and human dramas that provide the context for Christianity have been changing too. Some of it has been logistical. Suburbanization changed lifestyles, families with two working parents saw Sunday as family day, children's schedules got more complex, and schools replaced churches as neighborhood centers.

Some of the evolutionary drive has been emotional. Belonging to an institution matters less than it used to, and people's questions have changed. Attitudes toward tradition and authority have changed. In an age of ideological extremism and dysfunctional government, people are withholding their trust, even from churches.

People want faith as much as ever, but not by way of sitting dutifully in a pew.

In both PCs and religion, the future belongs to those who sense the shifting needs and who are motivated to keep pace. In the PC world, only Apple has managed to do this. In churches, the winners are megachurches that read the trends and adapted.

Mainline churches now are sensing the need to adapt. After four decades of over-my-dead-body resistance by traditionalists and longtime members, mainline denominations are trying to find more promising ways to serve a radically changing world. Some are succeeding. Most, I'm sorry to say, have leaders who see no need to adapt to anything, and their days are numbered.

Evolve or die — it's a fact of life. 


Posted at 5:20 pm (U.S. Eastern) 9/27/2011

I admire a person who carries a message in spite of a societal policy of "shooting the messenger". However, you have touched on the need to evolve without mention of the need for a rock to stand on in stressful times of shifting sands.

We, in the western world, are in the midst of shifting quicksand that threatens to take down much of what we have come to expect as our due in a secular world. The result is that many have isolated themselves from contact with neighbors, community and a practiced faith in Christ. Many have shifted to a self-centered accumulation of material wealth. When we do find ourselves in need of a "rock", we are too busy fighting the sand problem to even look for that rock-solid refuge of faith in Christ.

Parents fail to attend church or educate their children about God and Christ under the guise of giving them "choice". When they become adults. What choice are our children given if they are oblivious to the faith option?

Sadly, I believe that we are far down the path to loss of much of the material world that we have come to assume was due us by divine right. So then where do we look to find that rock?

If the Church evolves under misguided outreach simply seeking larger numbers, does the Church not risk being swept aside like the sands when people are looking for a rock of stability and support? I grant that evolution is necessary, otherwise services would still be in Latin, Greek, or Aramaic, and largely symbolic. The lesson that we should learn is that we must strive for relevance and communication, but not at the loss of the rock that is Christ. That type of congregation risks becoming solely "entertainment". Too many congregations have failed to meet this test in striving for ever bigger crowds. Those crowds disappear in times of stress when sheer survival overwhelms the desire for entertainment.

Maury Clark,

Hobart, Washington

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February issue


Embracing diversity