For congregations—particularly congregations of the mainline Protestant tradition—the way forward has everything to do with changing the conversation. Is a third way possible—a way beyond the polarized alternatives of either liberal or conservative, left or right, red or blue, traditional or contemporary, praise or classical? If it is possible, is a third way merely a compromise between extremes, a muddle in the middle, or is it a vital center and a new framing of the conversation?

For congregations that seek such a third way, there are perhaps ten important conversations that need to be deepened and sustained in their ongoing life. These conversations are all contributions to and different takes on the overall effort to change the conversation in ways that nurture an emerging third way that moves beyond the current and tired polarization.

Conversation 1: It’s Not About You

While there are few congregations that cannot stand some improvement, much of what is being faced and experienced by many mainline Protestant churches is not about them. It is about the end of an era, a sea change in the religious ecology of North America and the role of congregations in our society. American Christendom is over. While this may not be news to most clergy, it remains news for many in our congregations. Church leaders need to do a better job of helping their congregations understand what is meant by “Christendom” and what that era meant in terms of church role, Christian formation, mission, and the role of clergy. The end of Christendom means that congregations must learn anew how to do adult Christian formation. Too highly rational or intellectual congregations need to rediscover spirituality. They need to reencounter both mystery and a living God.

Conversation 2: And Yet . . . It Is About You

It is a psychological and spiritual truism that we do not control what life brings to us, but we do have some control over how we respond to what life brings. Christendom was a known world, and for mainline Protestants it was our world. We have lost a good deal. People in our congregations, especially those over 55, are grieving. As we engage in Conversation 1 about what’s changed, and as we do our grief work, however, we are also seeking to discern what God is up to in our new time and to respond with as much wit and courage as we can manage. As we do, we may notice that we not only grieve some aspects of Christendom’s demise, we are also liberated by that death. We are free to embrace the wonderful, liberating oddity of being Christians, of following Jesus in a life more challenging and adventuresome than Christendom imagined.

Conversation 3: A New Heart

The civic faith operative in many of our congregations is not adequate for this time. Just renewing that will not get us headed in the right direction. Something deeper, something more, is needed—a new heart. I have come to think that there are at least four key vessels to this new heart. One is that evangelism starts at home and with us. Before we endeavor to share the good news about what God has done and is doing in Jesus with others, we need to hear it ourselves, in our congregations. A second vessel of the new heart is the message about God. In many of our mainline congregations we talk much of a loving, welcoming, inclusive God. All well and good. But whether God is loving or judging may not be the question. The question, the real one, is whether or not God is living, powerful, vital, and capable of changing, healing, and delivering us. The third vessel of a new heart is Scripture. Is Scripture a kind of archaeological relic or anthropological artifact, or is it the trustworthy mediation of the living God? Too often it seems that the Bible is treated as decorative or as “great literature” (that we haven’t read and have no intention of reading) rather than the truth about who God is and who we are. Finally, to create the fourth vessel of our new heart, theology needs to be deprofessionalized. For a century or more, theology has been limited to professionals, with the consequence that many in mainline Protestant churches are clueless about the core convictions of Christianity and what difference they might make. When lives are transformed by the mercies of God, energy is produced—energy that translates into new forms, mission, and vitality.

Conversation 4: Who Will Lead Them?

During the era of Christendom, clergy tended to have three roles: chaplain, scholar, and part of the authority structure of the town or community. Note that neither “leader” nor “congregational leader” is on the list. Today, however, clergy must be leaders. That is, they must be capable of helping their congregations identify and make progress on their own most pressing problems and deepest challenges. Moreover, clergy must be teachers of the faith and ministry mentors. Both of these roles mean that the ministry is not done primarily by clergy (as in Christendom) but by the people of the church, the members of the congregation.

Conversation 5: Why Are We Here?

What is our purpose? Would we be able to tell if we were fulfilling our purpose or not? I do not think that the purpose of the church is all that mysterious or elusive. It can be adequately suggested, in my view, by responses such as, “Churches exist to change lives,” or “Churches are here to be and make disciples of Jesus,” or “The Church teaches and embodies love of God and love of neighbor.” What is mysterious is the way churches manage to forget or misplace their purpose. Without much thinking about it, many congregations and their members have come to think that the purpose of the church is the comfort and satisfaction of its members. But this seriously distorts the whole venture. The ongoing conversation about purpose and staying “on purpose” is crucial for third-way congregations.

Conversation 6: Let’s Get (Less) Organized

In too many congregations, the way the congregation is organized to do business, and the implicit idea that the best way to get people involved is to get them on a committee, is proving counterproductive. Moreover, the elaborate organizational structures of many congregations are designed more for maintenance than mission—to maintain the status quo rather than respond to new challenges. An alternative to the typical way in which congregations are organized may be gained from the field of “whole systems design,” in which a congregation is thought of less as an organization and more as a system. Unlike the organizational model that often pits one area of church life against another (“more money for music means less for social action”), a systems approach to congregational life requires that each part of the system be healthy because each part depends on every other part for the whole to work.

Conversation 7: Taking on Adaptive Challenges

I find useful the distinction leadership expert Ronald Heifetz makes between technical problems and adaptive challenges. The latter, in my view, require intrinsically spiritual work for they involve loss, risk, and the changing of hearts and minds. The former tend to a problem/solution frame, and typically experts or authorities are called upon to do the work. Once purpose is in place, congregations and their leaders need to ask, “What are the adaptive challenges upon which we need to work and make progress in order to more fully realize our purpose?” Adaptive challenges facing many congregations include learning how to do adult Christian formation, or how to work with God to make Christians, how to make the shift from board culture to ministry culture, and how to move from stewardship as meeting the budget to growing congregations of generous people.

Conversation 8: The Church and the Public Square

What is the role of the church in the public square today? Is it possible that we might play a role that is neither triumphal nor tongue-tied but rather speaking forthrightly and acting resolutely as a voice in the public conversation? In line with the general theme of this article, the church and its leaders must find a way to speak that does not simply say, “I agree with that” or “me too” to the Republicans or Democrats, to the left or right, but speaks Christianly and theologically in ways that are provocative, compelling, and faithful.

Conversation 9: Death and Resurrection

There are some congregations where death is not the worst thing that can happen. It may even be the best thing that can happen, because without a death there can be no resurrection. Some congregations of the historic mainline will be able to make the shifts necessary to become churches of a third way and experience new purpose and vitality. Others, however, will not. In some situations, congregations and denominations need to be about the work of death and resurrection.

Conversation 10: Where Do We Start?

With so much work to do and so many conversations to be had, where do you start? For many congregations, focusing on “purpose” will be a good place. If that’s the case, keep in mind that arriving at a reasonably clear, theologically sound statement of purpose is only half the battle. Congregations not only need a clear and compelling statement of purpose, they also need a sense of purpose. The two are related but different. A statement of purpose puts the big idea into words. A sense of purpose gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you going in the face of challenges.

Wherever you start, it’s important to hold together two qualities that don’t always go well together: urgency and patience. This work, recognizing that Christendom is over and yet the need for the church and gospel is not over but, if anything, more acute, means we can’t wait. We have to get on this right now. We have to work to become new congregations with a great sense of urgency. And yet we must be patient. We must be patient with each other because this is tough, demanding work. We must be patient with our leaders as they learn new ways and as they struggle to acquire new skills. We must be patient as old structures give way and we don’t quite know what the new ones are. Doing this work means that we don’t have the answers in advance. We are learning as we go.

Like the Hebrews who were learning what it meant to be Israel during their long journey in the wilderness, like the church in the Book of Acts learning what it meant to be church, we are in a time of new learning. As we change the conversation we shall come to see this new time not as a time of inevitable decline or disarray but as a new time of learning, of deepening faith, and of a great and godly adventure. 


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog   

Abridged from the Summer 2007 Congregations article, “Changing the Conversation: Nurturing a Third Way for Congregations,” copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to  



AL310_SM What’s Theology Got to Do with It? Convictions, Vitality, and the Church  
by Anthony B. Robinson 

In order to be healthy and to have a deep understanding of its identity and mission, a congregation must answer the question, what do we believe? Robinson offers in-depth chapters on the essentials of Christian theology, which congregational members can use as jumping off points for discussions of sin, the Trinity, ecclesiology, the role of Scripture, and more.

AL412_SM Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All  
by Landon Whitsitt

In Open Source Church: Making Room for the Wisdom of All, Landon Whitsitt argues that Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that anyone can see and edit, might be the most instructive model available to help congregations develop leaders and structures that can meet the challenges presented by our changing world. Its success depends, he demonstrates, not on the views of select experts but on the collective wisdom of crowds.

AL372_SM Lost in the Middle? Claiming an Inclusive Faith for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical    
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner

There exists a deep and broad population of Christians who feel the labels of “liberal”and “evangelical” both describe their faith and limit their expression of it. By working to reclaim the traditional, historical meanings of these terms, and showing how they complement rather than oppose each other, Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner stake a claim for the moderate Christian voice in today’s polarized society.    

AL381_SM Found in the Middle! Theology and Ethics for Christians Who Are Both Liberal and Evangelical 
by Wesley J. Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner

As a follow up to Lost in the Middle?, Found in the Middle! offers a foundational approach to the theology and ethics that undergird a congregation where moderate Christians can thrive. Wildman and Garner serve as helpful guides on a quest for a humble theology, an intelligible gospel message, a compelling view of church unity, and a radical ethics deeply satisfying to most Christians with both liberal and evangelical instincts. 


Spring/Summer seminar at Andover Newton Theological Seminary 
June 6–July 1, 2011
Tony Robinson 

Robinson, Tony Congregations all across North America are trying to find their way in the new post-Christendom, post-modern landscape. Join Tony Robinson, author, teacher and consultant as we seek a third way between the right/left extremes and culture war issues. Participants will learn about cultural context, developing mission and vision direction, empowering leadership, governance right-sizing and engaging key adaptive challenges.  


Take a break from summer with one of these events:  

peers,larry July 18 –20:  Finishing Strong, Ending Well    
Presenter:  Larry Peers, Alban Senior Consultant 
Location: La Casa de Maria
Retreat Center, Santa Barbara, CA     


epperly,bruce August 30–September 1:  Nurturing the Spirit  
Presenter:  Bruce Epperly, Alban Author
 Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, Asheville, NC 


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