institutional church

Church, Go Back to School!

By Rev. Mindi

We checked in over coffee, talking about the start of the year, about what hadn’t been done over the summer. We shared our frustrations about things that were still the same, and celebrated the changes that have been made and places where we saw hope and opportunity.

We weren’t talking about church; we were talking about school.

Over the course of the conversation, as we talked about our admiration for the younger teachers who seemed to be able to adapt and adjust better, who could multitask and understand the differing needs of today’s children, of all abilities, I couldn’t help but think about church and how so many of the conversations we are having in the public education sphere are almost the same conversations we are having in the church world. While a younger age does not guarantee someone is open to change and adaptation, these observations came from parents at this gathering about younger teachers and administrators:

-Technology is seen as a necessity, not a luxury, especially for students with disabilities, and all students benefit from access to technology.

-They use social media as a teaching tool in the classroom, to share the accomplishments of the school with the public, and to connect with parents and families.

-They are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom, even when there are disruptions and distractions.

-They want to know about students’ lives outside of the classroom—culture, family, interests, progress they are making academically and socially.


In contrast, teachers and administrators that are “old school” tend to be:

-Unfamiliar with technology or supports for students with different and unique needs.

-Unfamiliar with social media—even afraid to use it for fear of privacy concerns.

-Using one-size-fits-all models of classroom instruction and behavior expectation.

-Unable to adapt to major changes—want to use same curriculum or method of teaching.

-Struggle with cultures that are different or new to them.

Of course, these are generalizations. Of course, every school is different, every administrator and teacher is different. However, public education in the United States is changing, and these conversations are eerily similar to the conversations I have with my colleagues in ministry.

There are plenty of factors that make a comparison between the church and public school a different one. However, in this conversation with parents, I heard many familiar themes:

-Struggle of an institution stuck in patterns of the past.

-Administrators unable to think outside of the box and try new ideas, or even see the reason for doing something in a different way.

-Teachers not being paid enough to live even near the communities they teach in.

-Not enough resources to go around.

-Access to technology lacking.

-Buildings in dire need of updating, but can’t due to lack of funds.

-Struggle of educating students in a rapidly changing multi-cultural community.

-The number of students on free and reduced lunch rapidly on the rise.

Change “Administrators” to “Administration Board” or whatever your governing body is, change “teachers” to pastors, etc. You get the idea. Our communities are changing with new immigrants and cultures and the number of families at or near the poverty level is on the rise.

What I see that is helpful in this comparison is that change is possible. As part of this group of parents, I am seeing significant change in our school district towards inclusion of students with disabilities. Younger teachers are being hired who are able to multitask and maintain their presence of authority in the classroom. More resources are being invested in technology, including an app for parents to keep up with what is going on at their child’s school and in the district.

At the same time, teacher salaries are low. Teacher turnover is high in the state of Washington, where I live, and more and more teachers are leaving public education altogether. Bonds are not passing at the local level and so buildings are falling into disrepair, and resources are stretched thin. Every year, there are teacher positions that are unfilled by a permanent teacher and instead filled by a substitute, sometimes for the entire year.

The conversation is all too familiar. All too close to home. What can we learn, and what can we do differently?

"We need all kinds of thinkers."

by Rev. Mindi

My husband and I had the opportunity to hear Temple Grandin speak last week. Temple is, of course, probably one of the most famous people with autism that we know of today, but as Temple shared, many also suspect people such as Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had undiagnosed autism. Albert Einstein did not speak until the age of three, and Steve Jobs had few friends and was socially awkward as a child and youth.

While Temple has contributed much to our more current understandings of how people live in the world with autism, I was reminded that she is one person, with one set of experiences, and that as parent of a child with autism our experience and our son’s experience is different.  Her experience has taught her that sometimes the rest of us try to make it too easy and we don’t challenge our children enough. Perhaps there is some wisdom in that; maybe we do make it too easy at times. However, I am again reminded that is her opinion from her experience, and that we knew little about autism when she was a child. While we still don’t know as much, we do know that intensive therapies such as speech-language and behavioral therapy can go a long way in helping a child with autism achieve access to education as “typically developing” children do today.  We have had to think differently about how we care and educate children with autism, and we are continuing to do so.

But what I took away from Temple’s speech was that “We need all kinds of thinkers.” She thinks in pictures. She did not do well in math, especially algebra, but she is known for her incredible, creative designs for cattle farmers because she drew them out in elaborate detail.  She sees things in pictures. While many of us start at the top with a large concept and work our way through a problem by breaking it down into smaller pieces, she starts with the smaller pieces. She thinks differently. And many people living with autism do. Steve Jobs , as she shared, started by dreaming of an interface that was easy to use. He didn’t start with trying to figure out how to develop the software to do it—he left that to the engineers.

In the church, we need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers who dream of the church differently, out-of-the-box, along with the people who work on the ideas and ministries that help us to move into the new church concept. All too often, we are still working from the old concept, and we expect the pastor to do it all. We are not working out of the box, we are instead looking at the old concept of church and breaking down into smaller pieces: Christian education, outreach, programs, Bible Study, Youth ministry, etc. I have seen way too many churches think if they just hire a new Youth Minister everything will change for the good, or if they just try a new program for Young Adults they will change. But the truth is they aren’t looking for that kind of change—they are looking to fix one small problem without seeing the larger picture: the church they once knew is dying. Or dead. Or just completely outdated and irrelevant. And the pastor often gets blamed when the change does not occur (as expected).

We need all kinds of thinkers. We need dreamers and imaginers and organizers and planners. We need to go back to vision and purpose: who do we imagine God desires us to be as the church? Are we fulfilling that dream and vision, or are we fulfilling a plan of the past, an old model that doesn’t mean the same thing anymore?  How can we think out of the box in this world, today?

More importantly, how can we use all kinds of thinkers? How can we bring in the doubters and the strugglers, the ones who don’t know (and perhaps don’t care too much) about our denominational identity along with the cradle churchgoers? Or, to think even more outside of the box, how do we go out and be the church with all of these?

We need all kinds of thinkers. This isn’t easy to do, but we need to let go of the old models of programs and staff configurations and even building maintenance to move into a model of being the church as Christ’s Body. The church, since even the early days, has been challenged to think outside of the box. In many ways, this isn’t something new. It’s just time to dream it up again, and to include the dreamers who might think about church differently than you. It’s not enough to include a token young adult or youth on a committee; a church needs to engage communities of youth and young adults and actually desire to build a relationship. It’s not enough to say “Let’s have a program for young families to get them into the church;” a church needs to think outside the box and look at the greater picture: are we really a child-friendly church? Are we welcoming of children who may cry or run around? Do we provide child care? Do we care if children eat all the cookies at coffee hour? And are we welcoming of non-traditional families? How do we include families whose children may live with another parent and only attend on occasion?

It’s time to think outside the box, and to do that, we’re going to need some help. We’re going to need all kinds of thinkers.

Rethinking Routine

By Rev. Mindi

As a mom of a child with special needs, I understand the importance of routine, stability, and predictability. It’s comfortable, it’s familiar, and it’s simply what one knows. But over time, even the routine needs a little mixing up now and then, because what ends up happening is not the routine you first established, but a second routine that emerges. This second routine creeps up on you out of nowhere. One day you have activities scheduled out—a good healthy mix of physical play, one-on-one learning, quiet time, therapies, etc. You bring in music and reading and flashcards and the latest technology. But over time, quiet time turns into putting-on-a-DVD-so-mom-can-take-a-shower, music time turns into putting-on-Steve-Songs-because-it-makes-my-child-happy, physical play is going-to-the-park-and-running-while-mom-checks-her-emails-on-her-phone, and so on and so forth. There are some things still established: regular appointments with therapists, regular play groups, etc, but other things fall through the cracks over time. The second routine emerges accidentally, without thought, and while it resembles the intentions of the first, it is not the first.

This is what I believe happens often in our churches.  The first routine that was established: the worship service, the education programs, the outreach opportunities, the fellowship events—these were all great ideas and worked well at the time. But over time, the routine has slipped away into finding a program for our kids and filling teaching positions with volunteers that are reluctant to step up, dropping away from outreach unless someone can come up with a new idea, reducing fellowship to coffee hour and doing the same order of worship that we’ve done for the past forty years.  At times we manage to shake up one thing—try moving the Sunday school hour, try contemporary music instead of traditional hymns—but we haven’t looked over the whole routine.

When I realize as a parent we’ve gone into the second routine, I try to go back to the beginning—not to the first routine, but I try to go back and see where things started to slip up and look at the root of routine change. It may be that the first routine set up was too rigid, too structured. It may be that what once worked for my son (such as a particular CD) has become boring and he won’t pay attention any longer, or a certain system for communication isn’t working any longer. We have to rethink how we do that part of the routine, and in rethinking that part, I may have to rethink the whole thing.

As a church, it may be it’s time to rethink the whole thing. Is worship really the central part of who we are? Do we still count attendance by how many are sitting in the pews on Sunday, or do we think of all the people we’ve reached out to during the week (which also leads us to ask the question, should be concerned about numbers anyway)?  What is our goal, our purpose, our vision? If it is to share the message of God’s love through Jesus Christ, is that best done through a worship service on a Sunday morning, or through volunteering time at a food pantry on Saturday afternoon? Does Christian education have to take place on a weekly basis in classrooms or Children’s Church, or can it take place alongside parents and other adults volunteering, or at a playground, or at a coffee shop (or ice-cream parlor—I used to do my Baptism classes at a local frozen yogurt shop!)

What is your church’s routine? What was its original intention, and what does it look like now? Is it time to rethink your routine?

Becoming Unchurched

By Rev. Mindi

When I was in seminary, I remember attending denominational events for seminarians and new pastors in which we talked about the “unchurched.”  Questions were asked in workshops and seminars about how we were going to reach the unchurched. Friends were being called to positions such as Ministers of Outreach whose primarily function was to seek the unchurched and somehow get them to come to their church.

Though the language may have changed over the past fifteen years, from referring to those who don’t go to church as the “unchurched” to the “nones,” the terms we use are all based on old, and often false, assumptions. We assume that the “unchurched” have never been to church and just don’t know what it is we have to offer.  We assume that they don’t know anything about the Bible, God, Jesus, or church.  We assume that the “nones” have no spiritual or religious background and were not brought up with any traditions and that they are out there, lost, and in need of what we have to offer.  Notice that there are an awful lot of assumptions made in this paragraph about the church, and the last, big assumption, is that we have what others are looking for. 

Okay, wait, there is one more assumption: we assume that in bringing people from the outside in we are doing the best thing for them: to make them “churched.”

We want others to conform to us. We know what’s best, because we’ve been doing it this way since before we can remember.  This is how you are Christian, this is how you do church.  If you are on the outside, you are not churched.

It’s time to become unchurched.  It’s time to remove the divisions, that somehow those on the inside have it right. Becoming unchurched doesn’t mean that those outside have it right, either, but rather we are removing the distinction of inside vs. outside, churched vs. unchurched, spiritual vs. religious.  It is time to take off the lens of church that we see everything through.  It’s time for us to do our part to break away from the old assumptions held deep within the walls of the concept of church.  It’s also time for us to stop assuming that people who aren’t in church or affiliated with a local institution of faith are not spiritual, are not religious, and are lacking something in their life.  Maybe it’s less about what we have to offer and more about what we can learn from listening to each other.

Let us become unchurched.  Let us listen to other’s stories and share our stories.  Let us focus not on bringing others in but on breaking down divisions.  It’s not about closing doors and emptying buildings as much as it is removing the barriers that have been put in place.  For there is no Jew or Greek, nor slave nor free, neither male nor female; neither is there church or unchurched, spiritual or religious, haves or nones; for all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Practice of Stewardship

I’m going to begin by saying I don’t have the answers to this. I’ve been thinking about this since I started at this church in September, even before I began, and still haven’t come up with an answer.

How do we practice stewardship better with limited resources?

Facts: few people give 10% of their income anymore.  I know I don’t, and can’t, with the amount of student loan debt, healthcare expenses and other things that have been added into my life. I’d like to give 10% and strive to get closer to that amount, but I can’t right now. 

In larger congregations, traditional stewardship campaigns may work, but I bet they don’t work as well as they used to.  While you may have a greater pool of people who can give ten percent or more, it’s not the same as it once was.  In smaller congregations, the pool of course is much smaller.  And there are income demographics to take into consideration.  I currently serve a small church, with most folks on a fixed income (retired) or two-income households that still struggle to make ends meet.  Most young adults in my congregation still live at home and/or depend upon their parents for childcare or other help. 

So what are our options, as income shrinks and operating expenses grow?

Some churches have opted to sell the building.  This is a great option for those who can go through the process.  It is difficult.  So many have memories that intertwine “church” with “building” and it is hard to let go.  I have now seen a number of congregations who have sold their building and moved into rental situations or have purchased much smaller, more efficient buildings for their ministries and they are thriving. Still others are meeting in more communal settings such as malls, schools, community centers, and bars.  Operating expenses are down, plus they have a nice financial cushion for the period afterwards.

For churches that aren’t in commercial locations, however, this can be a challenge.  Crunching the numbers, it may not be a great financial decision in the long run—short-term needs will be met, but longer term needs are set aside. 

There is, of course, the option of renting space. Most churches (in fact, I think all of the mainline Protestant churches I know if in the area) rent space to other groups.  We already do so.  What happens then is that one owns a building one cannot use except for the previously reserved times and dates.  As ministry is moving back out of the building and into the community, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but churches end up in the tenant/landlord business which isn’t always good business or good ministry.  I have seen some great models of this relationship where the church building has become more of a community center.  It can work, but it can be difficult as well.

I think, however, the question still needs to be asked of stewardship.  What does stewardship look like in the 21st century? Is it always about tithing or giving money?  What else does stewardship mean?

I have always thought of stewardship as taking care of the gifts God has given us.  Gifts such as finances, but also our time, our prayers, and our gifts.  Stewardship needs to have a holistic approach.  Those who cannot give much financially maybe give more of their time. We all know that one person in the church who does so much—they aren’t always the biggest givers financially but they are the biggest givers of themselves.  There are also those you know who are praying for you and the church.  They are giving much of their spiritual gifts and energy.  We need to find ways of cultivating those gifts and honoring those who give out of what they have.

But we still need to talk about money, and it’s not easy.  Some are repulsed by the thought of churches talking about money, especially pastors talking about money from the pulpit.  This hasn’t changed—if anything, it’s become more difficult as the gap between the rich and the poor increases.  There are those who cannot afford to give and those who don’t believe they should have to give because they can afford it. 

As I stated before, I don’t have the answers.  But I do believe we have to change the way we think about stewardship.  It’s beyond money, and yet still includes money.  It is beyond the giving of our individual gifts but it includes all that we can give, individually and collectively.   It involves the questions of how we use our buildings and whether it’s time to rent or sell our buildings.  It also involves the question of what is our purpose and vision and are we needed anymore?  

The questions about continuing on or closing are also difficult.  My small church is choosing to continue on, casting a new vision and generating new ideas and dreams for the church.  There is a lot of great energy here.  And yet, a church twice our size decided to close due to dwindling numbers.  Are we fools for thinking we can go on? Or are we dreamers with a lot of faith?  I think we may be a little of both. 

How are you addressing stewardship in your congregation?  How are you rethinking your ministries?  How are you rethinking the purpose of having a building?  How are you rethinking your church? For newer congregations, how are you addressing stewardship?

The Church Won't Die (But Our Unhealthy Attachment to Institutions Must)

The Telegraph and Its Plunge into the Abyss

The telegraph … pretty good piece of technology that.[1] In the 19th century, telegraphy allowed for the transmission of information over a great distance by using electrical impulses and some wires. An amazingly important innovation.

As the world expanded in the wake of post-Reformation exploration, the telegraph became “the” way business got done. It was efficient, and could be accomplished at a reasonable cost. The market horizon for telegraphy seemed endless, the need for it inevitable. Western Union became a powerhouse.

After some years, however, a guy named, Alexander Graham Bell came along and invented the telephone. This new technology could carry not only electric pulses read as Morse code, but voice. Pretty slick. In fact, Bell offered to sell the technology to Western Union for $100,000–which, in inflation-adjusted dollars is roughly 2 million dollars. A small price to pay, one would think in retrospect, to own a soon-to-be monstrously profitable technology.

Western Union declined the offer, doubling down on telegraphy as an inevitable technology. Seen through the eyes of the context of the latter half of the 19th century, Western Union’s refusal to buy in on telephony makes perfect sense.

Who would need such a thing? The market for the information conveyed by the telegraph was primarily upscale. Merchants and traders used it as a quick and efficient means of sending data and information over long distances.

Besides, there was already a heavy investment in the technology. What would they do with all that ticker tape?

Since telephony differed enough from telegraphy, there would need to be a heavy front-end investment in a completely new infrastructure. New cables. New ways of organizing the information that flowed through the cables via switchboards. New workforce of people to operate those switchboards.

Moreover, Dediu points out that figuring out a way to monetize it would take a completely different pricing model. You couldn’t just charge by the word anymore. So, how would you charge people for it?

Taking into consideration all the perfectly good reasons for not taking Alexander Graham Bell’s offer, Western Union’s decision to stand pat in the face of technological innovation makes sense . In 1876, you could understand the president of Western Union saying that the telephone was “nothing but a toy”–a remark he would soon come to regret.

We know the rest of the story, if only in its broadest sense. The telephone went on to displace the telegraph–not only in new domestic markets, but also taking over Western Union’s primary market–merchants and traders.

What happened?


Disruption Theory. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? In 1995, a Harvard economist, by the name of Clayton Christensen, published an article entitled, “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave.”

In the article, he and his co-author, Joseph Bower, put forward a new theory of business and technology that better tells the story of how businesses adapt (or fail to adapt) to technological innovations. The theory goes something like this:

Company A is a small company with scarce resources. It takes existing technology and rearranges it in some innovative way. Initially, the innovation is too small and too obscure to be bothered with by bigger, more well established companies. Company B, an industry giant, knows about the innovation, but figures it won’t work, or company B can’t spare the resources to devote to such a small project; so, company B ignores the innovation.

Meanwhile, company A is working to perfect its innovation, which starts out pretty clunky and costly–and appeals only to a small emerging market. As company A gets better at its innovation, company B starts getting worried and decides to go after the upscale portion of the market. This market proves to be too small.

Company A continues to get better and better at creating and marketing its product, pushing company B into smaller and smaller upscale markets–until one day company A overwhelms the industry titan, company B–pushing it further into irrelevance.

Does the Church Need to Worry About Disruption?

In a word, yes.

Hang in there with me for a moment. Recently, [D]mergent has hosted a sometimes spirited conversation concerning the future of the institutional church. There have been provocative statements about how we ought to let the institutional church die, which have been met with a strenuous defense of the institutional church.

By way of disclaimer, I will say that whether I agree with the arguments or not, I certainly understand the passion that prompts them … on both sides of the issue. More about that in a moment.

I would like to suggest, however, that we name that over which we are fighting. The current debate about the viability of the institutional church is a technological one.

This is important to get right, so let me be clear: The church is a community of people called by God to equip disciples for the in-breaking of God’s reign. By this definition, the church is a conceptual truth that followers of Jesus are constantly trying to embody in particular ways and in particular places. It is the “embodiment in particular ways and in particular places,” over which there is an argument–not over the “conceptual truth.” That is to say, “the church” and “the institutional church,” while they sometimes overlap, are not the same things.[2]

In other words, the institutional church, as we have known it in the West, is a technological innovation, a strategy, a delivery system. It’s important to point out that when I say “institutional church,” I’m referring to a whole host of things, from organizational structure (local, regional, and denominational) to programmatic emphases, from its status as a cultural “player” to its role as the dominant religious voice.

However, the institutional church is a way of doing things; it’s not the things themselves.

In certain times and places the institutional church has been enormously effective at trying to accomplish the conceptual truth of the mission of Jesus’ followers. So effective has the institutional church been, in fact, that for years it has seemed like the only way (or at least the only proper way) church could be done. The institutional church achieved over time an air of inevitability.

Because of some important shifts culturally and demographically, the institutional church’s air of inevitability has seemed less certain of late. While it’s dominant role has been under assault for some time (the decline of mainline denominations is but one indication), questions about the longterm viability of the institutional church have become increasingly pressing.

That the discussion around the institutional church be framed as a matter of technological innovation is important, it seems to me, from the standpoint of understanding not only the passing of certain forms, but of adequately accounting for the emotions attached to the discussion.

If you had spent your whole life invested in the technology of telegraphs, it should come as no surprise that there would be feelings of anxiety when someone announced a potential technological replacement.

“I did all of my business over the telegraph. Are you saying my life’s work was a waste of time?”


“My daughter was married, and I heard about it by telegram. I can’t describe my feelings of joy when first looking at that announcement–which I still have in a shoe box. A phone call couldn’t have lasted like that.”


“We’ve got all these huge buildings dedicated to the telegraphic dream. What do you expect us to do with them? My father was the architect who designed them?”

Or, on the other side:

“What did the telegraph ever do for me? I never sent or received a telegram.”


“I went to school, spent a lot of time and money, wracked up debt learning to become a telegraph operator–and nobody will give me a job. Why should I care what happens to the telegraph?”


“The telephone is so amazingly superior to telegraphy, I just can’t understand why anyone cares what happens to Western Union.”

To both sides the comments of the other sound either hopelessly cold or hopelessly irrelevant:

“You just don’t understand how inadequate the telegraph is. I’m only telling you the way it is.”


"You just don’t understand what a great technology telegraphy is. I’m only trying to give you the benefit of my experience.

But here’s the thing: The institutional church is a tool, as is whatever comes along to challenge it. It’s possible to argue about the superiority of the tools, while acknowledging that the primary reason the tools exist is to do a job that will always be larger than the tools used to do the job.

Rules to Remember

Tools change

(Just ask Alexander Graham Bell’s industrial heirs about the prospects for landline telephony today. In fact, even the replacement for landline telephony–i.e., cellular telephony–is experiencing challenges to its newfound dominance from texting and social media.)

Arguing about the tools shouldn’t be mistaken for doing the job

(Talking about hammering isn’t hammering unless it results in actual nails being pounded.)

The job is the important thing

(People need what the church has to offer. If, as it seems in many ways, the institutional church is approaching the limits of its usefulness, we need to concentrate on finding new ways to deliver the conceptual truth of the church.)

The institutional church, as we know it, isn’t going to die any time soon–if at all

(There continue to be important expressions of the conceptual truth of the church that happen within the confines of the systems of the institutional church. These expressions should be celebrated until such time as they no longer accomplish their purpose. We need to be careful about being dismissive of things that do the job, but that fail to fit the new model.)

The church belongs to God. We’re all just trying to make sense of it in the places we find ourselves.

Tell me what you think. Leave a comment. Send an email. Call me up on the phone. Send me a telegram (actually, that would be pretty cool. I’ve never gotten one before).

  1. Horace Dediu offers a nice rehearsal of the history of the telegraph and its eventual displacement by the disruptive technology represented by the telephone in this article. I’m grateful for his insight, on which I depend for this article.  ↩
  2. I want to be clear that I know the value of the institutional church. Without it we wouldn’t have (or at least have in the same way) such amazingly important innovations as hospitals, schools, aid agencies, ecumenical initiatives, etc.). I have both benefited from and contributed to the systems that comprise the institutional church’s position of dominance. Consequently, I take no joy in reflecting on its demise.  ↩