Carol Howard Merritt: Nurturing creative church cultures

How can we nurture innovative cultures in our congregations and denominational structures?

I overheard a governing body official say, “Why would we plant churches? We’re closing churches every year!”

Unfortunately, this sentiment can be prevalent in our denominational structures. It needs to change. Mainline denominations are in a crucial place. Many of us have small churches in rural areas with members who are over sixty. There’s nothing wrong with a small, rural, retired membership -- in fact, there are many wonderful things about that trifecta! Yet, when we think about our long-term future, we realize that our congregations were formed in a particular society to fit the needs of a specific generation.

When a church can’t make the transition to reach a new generation, it eventually comes to the end of its lifespan. In the next two decades, we’ll be revitalizing existing congregations, closing some congregations and planting new communities. We can use the valuable assets and resources from closed churches in order to start churches for a new generation.

But doing so demands a great deal of creativity.

Some of you might think mainline bureaucracies tend to squelch innovation more than foster it. Sadly, that can be true.

Yet as Christians, we know how to do this. We’ve been closing and planting congregations for the last 2,000 years. And our governing cultures have adapted in order to meet changing needs on the horizon.

How can we do that today? How can we nurture innovative cultures in our congregations and denominational structures?

Perhaps we should look to the tech industry. This article might give us some clues. I’ll riff off a couple of points and translate them to our denominational structures, as we imagine what a fruitful ecclesial culture might look like.

We can allow freedom in the details. We’ve inherited rich traditions. And we’ve also passed along a whole lot of empty customs. What’s the difference? As Diana Butler Bass points out, customs are the things we do year after year “in accordance with precedent.” In contrast, traditions have historical grounding. They’re linked to “a more ancient and universal source of authority and meaning.” Customs are the ways in which we cut our communion bread, what time the service takes place and what our buildings look like. Traditions are the act of receiving communion, gathering for worship and setting aside a sacred space.

As we develop innovative cultures, we’ll need to let go of many customs and allow freedom in the details. If we’re going to allow a new generation to form communities, a lot of our customs will need to be thrown out or changed. And that can’t be done if the innovator is subject to endless bureaucratic nit-picking.

We can encourage trial and error. My dad was a rocket scientist. At the end of his life he held nine patents and generated countless ideas -- including the trash compactor. He also left my mother with stacks of drawings detailing machines that never quite worked and a garage filled with failed invention models.

Was he a failure? Of course not. You have to allow for a lot of error in order to achieve success. Scientists understand this.

So do business owners. About 95% of small businesses fail in the first five years. Does that mean we ought to put an end to starting businesses in our country? Of course not. We understand that start-ups often fail.

Governing bodies berate themselves over failed church programs, but we should encourage more trial and error in our church structures. In our area, half of our intentional church plants succeed. So why not plan for that? We can start two new communities, encourage trial and error, and know that within a few years, we’ll have one.

We can pay attention to location. We might roll our eyes at spiritual communities springing up in young urban centers. “Hipster churches,” we snicker.

Yet, new generations navigate to these neighborhoods for good reasons: they have access to green transportation, richer diversity, stronger community, or an economy that can support two careers. These things also should be important for our churches as we think about where we start new communities and nurture innovative cultures.

We’re closing churches. But just because one body comes to the end of its life doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story. It just means that we’re heading into a time of great creativity. We need to start nurturing innovative cultures now.