Reinventing the Church

by Donald E. Messer

Donald E. Messer is president and professor of Practical Theology at The Iliff School of Theology. Prior to 1981 he was president of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota for ten years.  His books include: Unity, Liberty, and Charity: Building Bridges Under Icy Waters (1996), co-edited with William J. Abraham; Calling Church and Seminary Into the 21st Century (1995); Caught in the Crossfire: Helping Christians Debate Homosexuality; co-edited with Sally B. Geis (1994); and A Conspiracy of Goodness: Contemporary Images of Christian Mission (1992).

This article was written for Religion Online March 3, 1998.


The church’s structure often seems to have lost its original purpose. New church styles sometimes result in forgetting cardinal values and forsaking critical vision. For example, a church that abandons its youth programs, abolishes its campus ministry, and abrogates its commitment to higher education probably shouldn’t be surprised when young people don’t find the church useful in providing shade or substance to their lives.

A cartoon portrays two young men sitting in the sun, wearing their baseball caps backward. One bright young man remarks to the other: "Somebody ought to invent a cap that would give a guy some shade."

When we think about the challenges of the present and future church, we may want to contemplate this image. Like baseball cap that has been reversed, the church's structure remains but often it seems to have lost its original purpose. A new style sometimes means forgetting cardinal values and forsaking critical vision. For example, a church that abandons its youth programs, abolishes its campus ministry, and abrogates its commitment to higher education probably shouldn't be surprised when young people don't find the church useful in providing shade or substance to their lives.

In what ways does the church have its cap on backwards? What needs to be done to put it right? In this brochure, I am going to suggest some ways for thinking about these questions so that we can move the church towards a future where it once again meets the needs and the purpose it was created to fulfill.

 A Theme Park Church

Many people feel that when they enter most churches they are experiencing a time warp similar to that imagined in Michael Crichton's book and Stephen Spielberg's movie, Jurassic Park. For them it is like hearing a fanfare of trumpets followed by a sonorous voice announcing: 

Welcome to Jurassic Park Denomination. You are now entering the lost world of the pre-historic past. Our tour begins in the board library. Here we notice two rare species. First the board member always pushing for more exegetical sermons from the Old Testament, the bron-Torah-saurus. Next to him you can see this creature's rival, the board member who likes lighter sermons, the triceratopical. On the right you can see the board member who loves to study the end times, velocirapture. Next, we proceed to the church kitchen. Here we find a board member who loves grazing at potlucks, socials, and outdoor picnics, the barbequesaurus.(1) 

Add to this "lost world of the prehistoric past" some of the dinosaur-type thinking by which we in the church sometimes address contemporary personal, church, and social issues, and you can understand why predictions flourish about the decline of the church and the demise of denominationalism. What Bill Easum has written about local congregations can be paraphrased to apply to the church at every level.

  Like the dinosaur, they have a voracious appetite. Much of their time, energy, and money is spent foraging for food, so that little time is left to feed the unchurched. . . . Food is everywhere. But many refuse to change their methods and structures to minister to people where they are in ways they can understand. Like the dinosaur, their necks are too stiff or their eyes too nearsighted. . . . Congregations must deal with their stiff necks or their nearsightedness, or go the way of the dinosaur.(2) 

We continually may need to ask ourselves whether the church needs to be reinvented or whether it is simply a matter of rediscovering the church's original purpose, mission, and ministry. Or more likely, is it a matter of creatively blending rediscovery and reengineering so the church can meet the urgent personal and social concerns of the 21st century? 

Trends in the Present and Future Church

  We have to be realistic about the state of the contemporary church, even as we hope toward a revitalized relationship in the future. For purposes of stimulating discussion, let me suggest eight trends evident in the present and future church, with particular attention to the United States.

  First, clearly the church in the United States has been disestablished. Initially, the churches lost legal establishment with the U.S. constitution. In response they attempted to "Christianize" American culture. But by the 1920s such cultural establishment had failed. And, finally, the third disestablishment became evident since the 1960s when Puritan culture was shattered and the mainstream Protestant churches continued to lose their religious dominance.(3) Martin Marty comments that "the old dreams of renewing old Christendom, which means gaining or regaining power to run the show in the 'my kingdom is of this world' fashion, have largely passed from Orthodoxy and Catholicism and Anglicanism and Mainstreamism to the kinds of evangelicals whose foreparents were opposed to Christendominion."(4)

The right-wing Christian Coalition currently is flexing its political muscles. Roman Catholic bishops exercise influence on certain issues, but not in relation to welfare and capital punishment. Mainline Protestants seem to be apathetically powerless in contemporary political processes. We seem to be in retreat from public life and witness.

Second, "brand name loyalty" certainly has diminished in the United States. People don't automatically purchase Fords and Chevrolets like they once did. Their commitment to political parties--Republican and Democrat--tends to be thin. Likewise sticking with the family "brand name" denominations has also disappeared dramatically. Studies cited by Robert Wuthnow "show that 1 in 5 persons switches denominations at least twice, and 1 in 10 persons switches thrice or more." (5)

  Third, a new ecumenism, therefore, has been emerging at a local congregational level. The ecumenical movement as defined by merging denominations and the work and witness of the National Council of Churches has been floundering, but ecumenism at the local level has flourished. Denominational "brand name" identity has been slipping from the horizon while local church communities of mixed denominational heritages has been dawning. The ecumenical movement has further reason to celebrate, since one of their goals has been to remove old hatreds and antipathies. Relatively little negative feelings toward persons of other denominations are revealed through contemporary polling.

  Fourth, denominations, however, are not disappearing. The vast majority of Americans still use denominational labels to help define their religious identity. Many churches, of course, especially of the "tall steeple" variety wave their denominational flag only rarely! One pastor described the weakening ties between the large membership church and the denomination in these terms:

  The relationship of the large church to the denomination may be described as a commonwealth status. We bear the name, but in small letters; we fly the flag, but not too high; we give allegiance to the crown, but not unequivocally; we respect its laws, but observe some with benign neglect.(6)

Fifth, national church hierarchies and bureaucracies are less than powerful and influential in relation to local churches. Illustrative is how the percentage of funds actually going to national church agencies has declined. The decline of support for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., for example, has been dramatic. In 1946, 11 percent of all denominational giving went to central boards and agencies. By 1969 it had declined to just less than 10 percent and by 1982 it was down to only 5 percent. News stories in recent years indicated further sharp cuts in the Presbyterian funding of national agencies, resulting in a $7 million budget slash and staff reduction of 25 percent at the denomination's Louisville headquarters.(8) United Methodists keep 80.8 cents of every dollar for their local church, 14.5 cents to their jurisdictions and annual conferences, and send only 4.7 cents to the national and international church. This trend is shared by most other denominations.

  Sixth, local churches are increasingly in danger of becoming the object of mission rather than the agents of mission. National agencies, originally created to do ministry on the frontiers no one local congregation could touch, are now being asked with their limited resources to provide services to local churches. A turn to a new form of congregationalism even among connectional churches means limiting funds available to extension ministries, such as those previously provided through campus ministries, scholarship programs, and so forth.

  Seventh, denominations are nearly paralyzed by internal theological and political polarization. The division of so-called "evangelicals" and "liberals" appears so pronounced and profound as to prohibit progress in many areas of the church's life and work. National studies reveal that the "population divides itself almost evenly between these two categories, with various gradations of extremity and moderation in each. . . . Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, and Roman Catholics all have about equal numbers of religious liberals and religious conservatives among their members." Increasingly, Christians within denominations no longer can communicate or tolerate one another.

Eighth, the future ain't what it used to be. Cataclysmic change has swept the globe in recent years, as the Cold War has subsided, new technologies of communication have been developed, and a global economy has emerged. A hundred years ago, 34 percent of the world's population was Christian. In the year 2000 it is anticipated that 34 percent of the population will still be Christian, but the center of gravity has shifted from the so-called "First World" to the "Two-Third's World."

People of other major religious persuasions no longer live in distant countries, but are literally our neighbors in a shrinking global village. A new age of globalism and pluralism has dawned and the canons or norms of culture have indeed changed. Unfortunately, instead of embracing this new racial and gender inclusiveness, and endorsing the richness of gifts God has given every people, culture, and religion, communities of faith often retreat into homogeneous and seemingly safe havens. The church must prophetically teach and preach a global theology that will swim against the tribal tides of our time. The future ain't what it used to be!(10)

Rediscovering the Church's Purpose


If the future is that dramatically different, then do we need to reinvent the purpose of the church, or, like the baseball cap, do we simply need to readjust it so we can discover anew its fundamental purpose? Over time, many definitions of the church have been expounded and experienced, but I believe we need to rediscover that the purpose of the church is to increase the love of God and neighbor. As H. Richard Niebuhr told us 40 years ago:

  When all is said and done the increase of this love of God and neighbor remains the purpose and the hope of our preaching of the gospel, of all our church organization and activity, of all our ministry, of all our efforts to train persons for the ministry, of Christianity itself.(11

Multiplying and magnifying the love of God and neighbor remains the fundamental challenge of the present and future church.

Pentecostalism, for example, is sweeping the world much faster than any other brand of Christianity. Its focus on praising and loving God, however, often does not seem to result in more love and justice for neighbor. In countries like Guatemala where Pentecostalism has displaced Catholicism in political power circles, the oppression of the indigenous peoples and others has only increased. Motifs of individual success and miraculous events permeate reports from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Love of neighbor seems to be highly selective in the contemporary church. Love of enemy appears almost non-existent. Often we prefer people most like ourselves. Sometimes we are particularly hostile to certain groups. World-wide, when the gap between the rich North and the poor South has never been greater, both evangelical and mainline churches seem to have turned in on themselves.

Mission programs and missionary outreach have suffered declines in giving, often in the name of doing more in the local neighborhoods. While loving your neighborhood certainly needs to be commended, what often happens is less giving outside one's own faith community and a maintenance, rather than a mission, mentality prevails. Even the Southern Baptists are cutting back on their world-wide mission programs. What one Southern Baptist leader said could be echoed in almost every mainline Protestant denomination: "People and pastors who never wanted to give beyond their local church now use optional giving as an excuse for cutting back their commitments to global mission and ministry."

Though both mainline and evangelical faith communities in the United States claim to be encouraging a love of neighbor, neither side rarely speaks to the other, much less do they demonstrate any love for each other. The street signs along the avenue populated by evangelicals and ecumenicals most often read "Intolerance Boulevard."

An unmistakable challenge to the church remains how to encourage this love of God and neighbor in such a way as to be sensitive to all the voices within the community of faith, yet to speak the "truth in love" to all parties, right and left. Tough questions must be asked if we are to discern and determine whether we have become ideological captives of one type of political correctness or other.

A renowned liberal scholar of world religions, Houston Smith, recently challenged mainline churches. He claims that "it's been a long time since I've heard the words `supernatural,' `miracle,' or even `revelation' in a mainline church or theological colloquium." Smith challenges us by asking:

  If churches do not present people with a momentous alternative reality to the one that bombards them every day, why should people complicate their already harried and fragmented lives with another institution? Mainline churches are good at good works and social action, and pretty good on community formation, but parishioners can fill these needs in other ways. (12)

Responding to this inquiry, Randolph Nugent, General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, suggests:

  There is truth in Professor Smith's words. Nevertheless, on matters of social justice, the performance of good works, caring for the abused, the focus of the church is to work with the least and those who are less able to care for themselves. . . . But no one else has the specific command of the Great Commission, or the awesome responsibility of embodying God's saving Word and the redeeming grace of God in Christ. That is our mission and ours alone, and . . . [we must] make that crystal clear to all whom we touch . . . (13).

Reinventing the Church's Mission

Another challenge facing the present and future church is how to rediscover or reinvent our mission and ministry. What needs to happen in the remaining years of the 20th century, if Protestant "mainline" churches are not simply to be "sideline" communities of faith in the future? Or worse yet, to go the way of the dinosaurs?

Reinvention language reflects much management theory and church jargon. Restructuring efforts dominate many a church agenda. Everybody seems to love talking about paradigm shifts. Trust of all institutions and their leaders--be they governmental, business, or religious, appears exceptionally low in the United States. People are demanding change and accountability and leaders are responding by attempts to reinvent or reengineer our institutions.

It may be helpful to discern our mission and ministry by, at least, investigating some of the theory propounded by reengineering theorists. Two questions, in particular, jumped out at me while reading about reengineering.

Question one was "if I were recreating this company today, given what I know and given current technology, what would it look like?" If we were in charge of recreating our denomination today, how would we change it? More specifically, how would we change our own small part of the church's organization? Many of us, I fear, are so acculturated in our systems, or are so dependent on its benefits, that our imaginations are crippled beyond our own realization.

The second question that leaped out of my reading was "why do we do what we do at all?" (14) This key question can easily be overlooked in our attempts to restructure. Faster, better, and more cost efficient tend to be the watchwords of remaking a church organization, seeking to survive with fewer resources. Probing the query "why do we do what we do at all?" presses deeper theological questions. By asking "why do we do what we do at all?" we prompt the possibility of demanding new beginnings and searches for new models of organizing our mission and ministry.

Two Tools for Reinventing the Church

There are two tools which come in handy when reengineering any institution: a "case for action" and a "statement of vision." These serve as a wedge to help persons "get unstuck" from where they are, and as a magnet to attract them to a new idea for the future.

A case for action

The action case should be a "concise, comprehensible, and compelling" argument that persuades people why an institution must be changed or reinvented.

If I were for a moment to imagine what my own denomination--United Methodism--might include in a case for action, I think it should incorporate into its declaration that:

We are alarmed that our denomination has been losing 245 members a day for more than 20 years, an aggregate of 2 million persons.

  We are distressed that our church is neither evangelistically reaching out to new persons or nurturing our own youth and friends, as evidenced by the fact that 42% of churches have no constituency rolls, 60% no confirmation or membership training classes, and 38% did not receive a single new member by profession of faith last year.

  We are shocked to discover our church has lost a sense of mission and seems unwilling to financially support long-term missionaries or adequately undergird the work of reaching "the last, the lost, and the least" in Christ's name.

  We are appalled at the church's retreat from social justice activism, its withdrawal of funds for ecumenical witness and work, its diminished commitment to higher education ministries, and its dwindling stewardship.

  We are aware of other religious groups that are growing in numbers and influence, both in the United States and around the world. But we are convinced that our understanding of the Gospel is more comprehensive and in the long run more beneficial to people than what more zealous missionary merchants are offering in Christ's name.

  Unless we change quickly and decisively our beloved denomination will slowly die and we shall be remembered as the pallbearers, if not the executioners, of United Methodism.

Now that scenario may be too overstated, and is certainly not comprehensive, but it provides at least a sample of what a case for action might look and sound like.

 A statement of vision

  For reengineering theorists, the vision statement must identify "what we want to be," thereby depicting what we seek to become, how we intend to operate, and what kind of results we hope to achieve. This requires a degree of "artistry, because a vision is an image without great detail."(15) A familiar yet powerful example of an vision statement is John Fitzgerald Kennedy's, "We will put a man on the moon in the next decade."

My hunch is that there would be greater consensus within most denominations about how the church is broken than on how it should be fixed. Thus the possibilities for reaching agreement on a case for action remain higher than the probabilities at this time for us to create a vision statement. Both, however, are imperative and indispensable. Formulating both a "case for action" and a "statement of vision" are continuing challenges if we are to increase effectively the love of God and neighbor in the world.

 Three Models for Reinventing the Church

  The work of creating both a case for action and a statement of vision for the future has already begun in earnest. Persons, caucuses, and various conferences have diagnosed the "dis-ease" of the denomination in various ways and spelled out their remedies for restoration of health, if not for life everlasting. As I have suggested, there is the growing possibility for finding some consensus on a statement for action, but many denominations are rather strongly, if not bitterly, divided in terms of a common vision, which makes genuine reengineering nearly impossible. Running the risk of being over-simplistic, let me sketch at least three emerging models for reinventing the church, using my own United Methodism to illustrate this typology.

  Revitalization. The champions of revitalizing the status quo believe what is wrong can be corrected and what is good could become better. Not everyone is convinced of a crisis. Oh, sure, some change is needed but nothing dramatic or drastic.

Advocates of this position sometimes argue that it is simply a matter of getting better stewardship results. Or they focus on the ills of the clergy and suggest that if seminaries produced better pastors, all would be well. Sometimes the blame is placed on the pastor saying they need to "sacrifice" more.

Champions of the status quo typically have too much to lose if the system is changed. Some local churches prefer a chaplain that will minister to them in the hospital or at funeral services; they really are not interested in dynamic programs that might attract new and diverse members from the community. Likewise, persons serving beyond the local church may fear the consequences to their authority and influence if major change were to occur. All of us, I suppose, are somewhat hesitant about endorsing radical change, since we don't know where the Holy Spirit might lead us. It is always easier to image what we might lose than to envision what we might gain. Thus the seduction of the status quo may become our "fatal attraction"!

Reformation. A second stance of renewal or reformation argues for major improvements in the denomination. Champions of this position are persuaded of the genius of United Methodism, agree that it is broken but are confident it can be fixed, if only the system is appropriately managed. Reform, not revolution, and renewal, not reinvention, are the key perspectives of this model.

Traditionally this has been the approach of the United Methodist Council of Bishops. The Episcopal Addresses at each General Conference reflect both their assessment of the problems facing the denomination and their plans and hopes for addressing these dilemmas.

The total quality management (TQM) movement within the church also falls within this second category of reform and renewal. It presumes that the general character and structure of the denomination is valuable, viable, and vital. It needs reformation and renewal, but certainly the demise of denominationalism and the crisis facing our congregations don't justify radical revolution or reinventing the church. Total quality management advocates within the church believe TQM provides "breakthrough thinking", but generally it supports incremental improvement.

Thus to argue for reengineering United Methodism is somewhat different from arguing for total quality improvement within United Methodism. The former could be far more revolutionary, while the latter reflects more of the spirit of reformation.

The question which must be faced, however, is whether God is calling us to reengineer the church, or whether reform and renewal are more in keeping with God's will.

Reengineering. Complicating our efforts at reinvention of United Methodism is our deep division regarding a common vision as expressed through various polarized positions. The case for action and the vision statement as envisioned and enunciated by the "conservative" Confessing Movement and the "liberal" Methodist Federation for Social Action do not exactly converge in consensus, except that both are strong advocates for revolutionary reengineering, in contrast to those arguing for revitalizing the status quo or renewal by making incremental quality improvements. One reengineering pattern embraces the devolution philosophy that believes power ought to be returned to state and local levels. In American political life, devolutionists like Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress have sought to dismantle government agencies, return welfare to the state, reduce taxes, abolish affirmative action, etc. Religious devotees of devolution now are convinced that national agencies should be reduced or abolished, board membership quota systems for gender and race eliminated, apportionments made optional, itineracy changed, and more power be returned to the local level.

Another reengineering model favors significant change, but tends to believe that the devolution model ultimately will be destructive to the mission and ministry of the church. Instead of championing a more inclusive church, it will lead to more exclusiveness. National agencies need to be reengineered for effectiveness and efficiency, but not destroyed because the global mission of the church cannot be accomplished solely by independent local entities. Unnecessary structures and costs need to be eradicated, not in order to reduce apportionments, but to ensure greater funding for urgent missional and educational endeavors of the church throughout the world. Changes at the local church level and in itineracy are imperative.

All three of these models--revitalization, reform, and reengineering--tend to overlap in actual discussions about how national or local churches should be reinvented. Efforts at reinventing the church, however, can never be simply a management discussion. Fundamentally, it must be transformed into a theological discussion, because we are talking about God's church and our task is not simply to organize it in any way we please, but for us as a church to join in God's liberating and loving initiatives in the world. We seek to reinvent the church so we may be more responsive to God's way and will in the world.

 Our Vocational Challenge

  Our vocational challenge is to join in God's liberative and loving mission and ministry in the world.(16) Instead of reminiscing about a nostalgic "good old days" in the life of a particular congregation or denomination, let us think affirmatively about what the future holds for the church.

St. Augustine once said that "hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and the courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."(17) Christians need to go beyond acrimony and anger about what is wrong with our churches by demonstrating creativity and courage in envisioning a new future.

In the same Augustinian spirit, George Bernard Shaw once declared that "some [people] see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not."(18) Visionary church leaders focus not primarily on the issue of why, but on the possibilities of why not. Therefore, may the children of hope--anger and courage--serve as catalysts for change as we explore new alternatives for the church in the years ahead.

Faithfulness to the historic traditions, scripture, theology, and experience of the Christian Church calls us to be pathfinders in the twenty-first century, sharing a vision of what the future of the church should be, and what values should triumph. Remember the words of Robert Frost, who wrote:

  Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

I took the one less traveled by,

and that has made all the difference.(19)

  Our challenge is to reach beyond the past and present and choose the road "less traveled by," hopefully making "all the difference" in the next millennium.





  1. "The Jurassic Church Comes of Age," by Eutychus, Christianity Today (Fall 1993.
  2. William Easum, Dancing with Dinosaure: Ministry in a Hostile and Hurting World (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993) p. 15.
  3. "Series Foreword," by Milton J. Coalter, John M. Mulder, and Louis B. Weeks, editors, The Presbyterian Predicament: Six Perspectives (Louisville: Westminister/John Knox Press, 1990), p. 9.
  4. Martin Marty, "An Apology is in Order," Context, October 15, 1995, pp. 2-3.
  5. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 1998), pp. 88-89.
  6. Cited by Virgil V. Bjork in an unpublished document entitled "Large Membership Church Issues," August 5-7, 1986.
  7. Wuthnow, pp. 98-99.
  8. "Time to Tighten Purse Strings," Christianity Today, October 4, 1993, p. 48.
  9. Robert Wuthnow as quoted in Coalter, et al., editors, p. 35.
  10. See Donald E. Messer, Calling Church and Seminary Into the 21st Century (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), esp. pp. 53 - 71.
  11. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Purpose of the Church and its Ministry: Reflections on the Aims of Theological Education (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), p. 39. Niebuhr actually said "men" not "persons," but for the sake of his intent and inclusiveness I have made the substitution.
  12. Huston Smith in Trinity News, from Trinity Church, New York City, quoted by Martin Marty in Context, October 15, 1995, p. 5.
  13. Randolph Nugent, "21st Century Mission," 1995 Annual Meeting, General Board of Global Ministries, October 16, 1995.
  14. Michael Hammel and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (New York: HarperCollins 1993), p. 31.
  15. Ibid., p. 154.
  16. See Messer, pp. 124-125.
  17. Augustine quoted by Robert McAfee Brown in Context, vol. 24 no. 3 February 1, 1992), p. 3.
  18. This quotation is often attributed to Robert F. Kennedy. In fact it was said by Shaw.
  19. From "The Road Not Taken," in The Poetry of Robert Frost, ed. Edward Connery Lathem (Orlando, Fl.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979).