As the Rev. Stephen Baden arrived at the Washington National Cathedral for a conference on the future of the church, he carried a burden that other pastors would call “a good problem.” The group of “nomadic seekers” attending an alternative service, called the Bridge, was growing too large for its cozy meeting space in Braden’s First Presbyterian Church (of Elkhart, Indiana).

The Bridge congregation, mostly young, had been meeting in the church basement every Sunday for more than four years, and during that time had grown to 70 or more participants. Two other traditional Sunday services, by comparison, were drawing about 200 “established” parishioners.

“We are increasingly nomadic and rootless as a society,” Braden explained, “and [younger] people are searching for community. This worship is designed to meet that need. We are now bumping into the limits of our space, and we’re trying to decide what to do about that.”

With its use of video and roundtable discussions in place of scriptural readings from the pulpit and age-old formalities, Braden said the Bridge was something of a challenge to a few longtime churchgoers who’d grown up “by the book.” He was mulling over how and when to integrate the two groups last May, when he attended “Christianity for the 21st Century: A Gathering to Envision, Encourage and Energize Congregations,” a conference sponsored by the Cathedral College at Washington National Cathedral. “Christianity for the 21st Century” brought together a Who’s Who of writers and thinkers to raise the issue of what Christianity can (and should) do for today’s first generation of media-savvy, “nomadic” Christians, many of whom are communicating in ways never dreamed of by Martin Luther or Pope Julius II.

Fed by a growing body of new writing, Web sites, discussion groups, congregations, and other resources, Braden’s challenge is being tackled by more and more churches—both mainline denominations and young “upstart” organizations.

“This is an amazing time to be in the life of the church,” declared the Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, dean of the Washington National Cathedral College, in his welcoming address to the approximately 250 conferees. “The spirit is doing something new and remarkable in our lifetime.”

“Many of us are drawn here by a sense of urgency that is closer to exhilaration than anxiety,” said Tennessee author Phyllis Tickle in her conference keynote address. “We stand—and we know it—on the threshold of Something…. And we are gathered here in prayer and consultation in order that we may discern and act faithfully.” Tickle called our time a defining moment in which institutionalized and established forms of Christianity “are no longer sufficiently viable to sustain the whole of the Living Church, either now or over the five centuries ahead.”

“What [new, progressive church leaders] are saying is that the ‘business-as-usual’ church has failed, and we have to do something different,” observed researcher and author Diana Butler Bass. “There is now a big cluster of people who are attempting to do just that, in various ways, within their congregations.”

The Changing Church 

At a time when fewer Americans, generally, are filling the pews of mainline denominations, more of the faithful are asking what is to be done: How do centuries-old institutions oriented around “the Word”—from gospel to doctrine, liturgy, sermon, and even music—respond to the needs of future generations of nonlinear, media-savvy, text-resistant Internet explorers? Can the church welcome and feed the spiritual hunger of this changing global society without sacrificing what is truly sacred? And, finally, could changes in worship and theology, however welcome, create entirely new theological meaning, new alignments, or even new denominations?

Bass, Tickle, and a range of forward-thinking speakers—including Marcus Borg (author of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, HarperCollins, 1995) and Emergent Village coordinator Tony Jones—spoke before a receptive audience of clergy and lay leaders, each bearing witness to contemporary change and where it might be heading.

Completed in 2006, Bass’s research and subsequent writing examined 50 moderate to progressive churches and the approaches that are energizing their parishioners—in contrast to the “prevailing wisdom” of recent times that suggests only conservative megachurches are growing. Progressive churches, said Bass, “made this really interesting move”
in response to the biblical scholarship of the 1980s and 1990s.
“Basically, they’re saying it’s time to go back into the stories,” she said. “Instead of demythologizing them, we need to go back and reapply the integrity of the stories—to understand them as being real, true, and meaningful spiritual stories…. We can understand them, who wrote them, and why, but then something beyond that: there is an attempt to reach toward an ‘essential narrative’ in Jewish and Christian lives.”

Aggravated by what they see as religious rigidity, intolerance, outdated traditions, and political polarization, these members of the faith are intentionally planning and creating their own contemplative communities. They are doing so, apparently, with an enthusiasm and diversity that resembles Christianity’s earliest congregations.

“These people today are very social justice-oriented,” said Bass, “but they tend not to think of social justice in terms of impacting systems or institutions.  They tend to think of it more in terms of a grassroots movement—community organizing and strategies that work from ‘down’ to ‘up.’”

The “21st Century” conference agenda was organized around “best practices” areas inspired by Bass’s Christianity for the Rest of Us (Alban Institute, 2004), a book describing the vitality that has emerged in churches that have intentionally grounded themselves in traditional Christian practices. The agenda included hospitality, contemplation/discernment, healing, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection/formation, beauty, African-American Community Circle, emerging churches, Latino/Hispanic Community Circle, network theory, and the new monasticism.

Presenters and participants shared their ideas in essays, affirmations, manifestos, bullets, and broadsides, each speaking with a mix of questions and answers, authority and doubt. The work at hand was very much a work in progress. Many wondered aloud about the role of their own and other denominations, the ways of their parishes, and their own personal paths to the future. The sense of calling to new work was strong, and often with the question: What does
God require?

“Beware of anyone who tells you they know where it’s all going,” said Todd Guinn, a United Methodist youth ministry director from Wichita, Kansas.
During the short term, at least, it doesn’t take much imagination to see fatigue from the decades-long rise of conservative politics and religion. The response of Christian “tolerance” became an easy-to-spot conference thread. To strike a blow for tolerance, Eric Elnes, the young pastor of Scottsdale (Arizona) Congregational United Church of Christ, was moved to walk from Phoenix to Washington, D.C. Elnes told conference participants about his 2,600-mile hike, which he took with a handful of supporters in 2006, launching their “CrossWalk America” campaign. The group left Phoenix in April that year with their statement, “The Phoenix Affirmations,” calling for people of faith to give greater attention to issues of peace, poverty, tolerance, and environmental care.

Blogging and videotaping the whole way, Elnes and his colleagues marched their message through many Southern “red state” districts. They were astounded, he said, at the support they found there, desp
ite their open call for interfaith understanding, a respect for science, inclusivity for gay/lesbian members, and opposition to the “commingling of church and state.”

“There is a huge hunger out there for just this kind of faith,” said Elnes. “Over and over, people told us, ‘I thought I was the only one.’ It was the big refrain we heard all along the way.”

Progressives’ tolerance being what it is, there was little hint of conferees calling for any “destruction of the temple.” Most speakers recognized change as inevitable and, indeed, already happening from within—a wealth of reforms being nurtured in traditional sanctuaries, the faith’s “old growth forest,” as Bass and others called it.

At least one presenter, however, turned from the “old-growth trees” metaphor and proposed another. Tony Jones spoke of the nonhierarchical horizontal growth that is occurring—of the kind powered by the Internet—less like trees, he said, and more like rhizomes, the creeping underground system of web-like strands emerging from decentralized nodes.
“Rhizomes follow no predetermined or predictable routes to growth,” he told his audience, adding that such growth “is dispersed and dissimilated.” New interpretations of Christianity are “springing up and then connecting with each other” in unexpected ways, all the time, he said.

Jones and a group of like-minded friends have, for about a decade, worked to define their own Emergent Village, recognizing their sense of Christian fellowship, innovation, and a hopeful outlook for the future. Jones said emergents are very comfortable with the paradoxical relationships (as between faith and science) that seem to threaten other congregations. He also colorfully described emergent skepticism of certain traditional forms (tabernacles, denominations, and formal seminary education) and outright rejection of others, notably the politics of right versus left.  “We think this is a false script,” Jones told conferees. “I look at ‘left’ and ‘right’ like two boxers coming out for the last round. They’re too tired to fight, leaning on each other, holding each other up.”

The Search for Definition 

With so many authors around, it was natural to see the conference as the struggle for appropriate language to capture the moment. New communication systems disseminate positions in greater quantity and quality, with increasingly rapid and wider distribution than ever before. Videos, podcasts, blogs, and e-mail all contribute to tomorrow’s body of work and are being issued many times faster than it takes to compose and print this page.

Yet, with all the reserve of the parish priest (as many of them were), conferees examined and assessed the institutions and edifices that Christianity has built across the centuries. For many, the goal was being more intentional about Christian service in one’s community and throughout the world.

“Take seriously that you chose to be a part of this conference,” writer Marcus Borg told his listeners. “And [take seriously] how intentional you are being about your own Christian life.”

The Portland scholar and book author went on to describe a “tale of two Christianities,” examining the conflict between contemporary change and
resistance to change—both theological and political. Borg sketched the two sides, one embracing the “belief-centered paradigm” and the other the emerging “transformation-centered paradigm” embracing a human understanding of Jesus’s life and work as “grounding” for ongoing personal and social change.

“The transformation-centered paradigm is not an accommodation or reduction of the Christian tradition to modern thought,” said Borg. “Rather it is neo-traditional…a recovery, a retrieval of what was most central [to the faith] before the collision with modernity.”

The transformation-centered paradigm has profound implications for how progressive leaders are “doing church” today. These leaders are rearranging the sanctuary furniture and installing video screens as they find new ways to empower members of their congregations. They are introducing new welcoming rituals, more tables of discussion, and even alternative ways of structuring session meetings.

“We look like a regular church,” said the Rev. Graham Standish, referring to his Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, “but we’re handling matters of leadership in a more prayerful way…. We have moved away from the evangelical toward genuine discussion of what ‘God calls me to do.’”

Standish, author of Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace (Alban Institute, 2007), has served Calvin Presbyterian for more than a decade. He says his tenure there began with an appeal from members of his session to “help the congregation grow spiritually.”

Since that time, the session has shelved Robert’s Rules of Order in favor of an agenda that more closely resembles a worship service, with leaders engaging in study, discerning prayer, and personal sharing before turning their attention to the business of the church.

“There is more exploration and brainstorming,” said Standish. “We are searching for something that resonates…. It’s more organic [than the traditional approach].”

While the Pennsylvania pastor addressed a group of participants on the subject of healing, the Rev. Roy Terry was in another circle, leading a discussion on hospitality. Pastor of the Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Naples, Florida, Terry is a man who loves welcoming people—and he’s watched his congregation become one of the most diverse groups you can imagine. Terry has worked to open his church to all, making it a place where the homeless sit down with the well-to-do, and where grandparents and teenagers might enjoy the same music.

“We just try to tell people who we are without putting on airs,” he explained. “We try to make it safe and cool to be who you are. This is not for everybody,” Terry admitted. “People either come in and say, ‘This is great!’ or they leave.”

“And quickly,” added Cornerstone parishioner Steve Hart with a smile.

Hart defined Cornerstone’s goal as being to “change the conversation of the public square so that when we talk about moral values we’re talking about biblically authentic moral values. Scripture calls upon us to care for the poor and the sick,” he said, “to be peacemakers and to be good stewards of the planet.”

The true work of Cornerstone, Terry added, is “being intentional about who we are as a people of faith.”

In his nearby presentation on reflection/formation, the Rev. Paul Hoffman began by humorously paraphrasing an old administrative “dictum” on recruiting church members: “It was: ‘Get ’em in, make ’em members, get ’em envelopes, collect the pledge, and call it good.’ ” he smiled.

Hoffman—who, along with Elnes, Standish, and Terry was a contributor to From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations (Alban Institute, 2005), Diana Butler Bass’s book about 12 revitalized congregations—has been pastor of Seattle’s Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church for more than 11 years. Early in his tenure, he and his leadership decided to come up with a new catechumenate class, a year-long process of group discussion and contemplation that allowed new members “to settle in and feel safe.”

“We do not talk about membership anymore,” said Hoffman. “We talk about discipleship and participation…. It’s about formation, not information. It’s about discipleship, not membership.”

The class has no set curriculum, Hoffman explained. Meeting regularly, members’ progress is punctuated by small public rites that allow the congregation the opportunity to pray and
participate in the group’s spiritual journey.

“We are forming them in the faith by responding to the questions they bring,” he said. “We are going from offering a series of hoops for people to jump through to a series of welcome mats.” Hoffman said he not only has seen attendance double during his time there but has also experienced a congregation whose participation has deepened.

These were just a few of the “21st Century” conference participants whose work illustrates Borg’s “transformation-centered paradigm.” Their constituents are often the unchurched, the seekers, and the “nomads,” who are being raised in a world that is, for the most part, very different from that of their parents and grandparents.

“So the challenge for a congregation is this,” said Braden in an interview after the conference. “How do you integrate the established Christians with the nomadic pilgrim Christians? The way we’ve done it is to establish an emergent community within the established community. For some long-established churches in decline, it may be their best hope to create a new, emerging congregation. For some pastors it would be challenging…but I thoroughly enjoy the Bridge worship, just as I enjoy the traditional worship.”

“We’re at the edge of cultural change that’s affecting all these institutions—in politics, the media, the arts,” Bass observed. “Some of these institutions are navigating change well. They are doing it with grace and creativity, and in such a way that they’re going to be around for at least a little while longer. They’re making it into a new world.”


Questions for Reflection 

  1. Consider the qualities of Borg’s “belief-centered” and “transition-centered” paradigms. What elements of your church are distinctly “belief-centered” or “transition-centered”? (Consider making separate lists.)  
  2.  Consider the characteristics and needs of “nomadic seekers,” as described in the article. What are some alternative ways these needs might be met by contemporary or future church leaders?
  3. What does it mean, in your mind, to be a largely “transition-centered” individual or church? Does such an individual or church ever complete the transition? If so, to what?
  4. If this is, as many are saying, a time of transition for all Christians, what does the church of the 21st century ultimately look like? What will it do, and do differently, as it responds to different human and community needs?
  5. Consider and list the qualities required of a leader to introduce elements of the “transition-centered paradigm” to his/her “belief-centered” congregation, and vice versa. List the qualities required of each congregation to listen to, and accept, the ideas of the other.