What’s Up with Pastor Todd 4-9-21
Our transition coach Claire Bamberg has recommended we read Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. Nixon and Estock are United Methodist ministers and consultants to churches of many different denominations.
The theoretical framework of the book is called “spiral dynamics,” “a particular theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowen, rooted in the work of Clare Graves” (p. ix). The gist of the theory, as I understand it from the brief sketch in the introduction to Weird Church, is that human history and culture has evolved through a number of stages beginning 250,000 years ago with the stone age, which in human terms was characterized by a “survival mentality.” 10,000 years ago humanity evolved to a tribal stage of “mutual reciprocity.” As we transition from ancient to modern times we see the development of an ego-centric stage, a “code of conduct” stage, a stage of “achievement and personal success.” The contemporary moment has given rise to a shift away from the individual toward a concern for the larger community characterized by various justice movements and concern about climate change. Evidence for further evolutionary stages include a stage characterized by a “value system that can respect all perspectives,” and a stage that “experiences the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit with mystical and intuitive sensibilities” (pp. x-xiii). What makes this evolution a spiral is that each succeeding stage includes the one before. The survival mentality persists even in the stage of “mystical wholeness.”
This framework–“color coded” for convenience–allows the authors to analyze how gaps between congregational cultures and changes in mainstream Western cultural assumptions have resulted in church decline. I had an “aha” moment many years ago when I realized that I had been taught that people don’t attend church because they’re “bad,” when, in fact, many–if not most–don’t attend church because they’re good and they just don’t see church as having any relevance whatsoever to their spiritual lives.
Much of what the authors describe resonates with my experience. The book was published in 2016. I find myself wondering what changes they might make to a 2021 edition. My guess is that they–along with pretty much every other thinker I’ve been reading/listening to over the past 13 months–would say that the pandemic has only greatly accelerated the changes they describe. I encourage everyone to get a copy of the book and read it.
A word of caution. Predicting the future is a tricky business. Organizations that endure go through periods of expansion and contraction. Darwin’s evolutionary insight about “the survival of the fittest” might be better phrased as “the survival of the adaptable.” While much of our work will inevitably be focused on what changes are needed for our congregations to survive, a more powerful set of questions might be, “How can we build our organization’s capacity for change? What behaviors, structures, values can we weave into the fabric of this new project that will keep the “change muscles” of the congregation strong for generations to come?”