On Growing the Mainline Church: Wisdom from Darwin, Einstein and Picasso

You might have heard of the comic book superheroes, The X-Men, but have you heard of the X Club? In the late 19th century the group met for dinner once a month in London. Members won the prestigious Copley and Royal medals for scientific achievement. Two were knighted. They were scientific superheroes.

And what was their superpower?

The X Club applied insights of Charles Darwin to society and religion, exploring what it meant to claim that species competed for space on the planet. As Darwin put it, "As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence." Herbert Spencer, an X Club member, summarized Darwin's theory of natural selection with the now-familiar phrase "survival of the fittest."

I entered ministry in 1988 when the Presbyterian Church (USA) had nearly 3 million members. Now there are 1.5 million. The Pew Research Center discovered that for every person who joins the mainline Protestant church today, 1.7 people leave. The United Church of Christ projects an 80 percent decline in membership by 2045. David Roozen, a scholar at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, told a gathering of religion writers that "at least one-third of members in more than half of mainline congregations are 65 or older. Half of [these] congregations could lose a third of their members in 15 years." Only 45 percent of those raised as a mainline Protestant continue in the church as an adult.

I am not the first to draw attention to such statistics. But the impact is real. Very few of my colleagues serve a growing church. I've observed among church members and pastors a steady progression through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. People now quip, "Would the last mainline church member please turn off the lights?"

But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of our death has been exaggerated.

I believe the mainline church can adapt, change and survive. Smithsonian magazine points to the pink salmon as a species that has successfully navigated dramatic changes in the climate. Steady increases in water temperature have resulted in some salmon now migrating two weeks earlier than they did 40 years ago. Genetic and migratory research data reveal adaptability has enabled some pink salmon to be more "resilient" and to survive.

This is the mainline church's pink salmon moment.

Survival, in other words, is possible, but I think we need to shift our thinking from teleology to teleonomy.

When I was in seminary, professors suggested we view life through a teleological lens. The word teleology comes from the Greek telos (end or purpose) and logos (teaching). The idea that life is governed by end goals and purposes was put forth by Plato, Aristotle and Kant. Aristotle pointed to an acorn and said its telos was to grow into an oak tree. Similarly, I was taught that God created the world with a purpose or goal in mind and in time a "new heaven and a new earth" would appear. The outcome--life's end purpose and goals--was pre-determined.

In 1958, biologist Colin Pittendrigh proposed teleonomy as a contrast to teleology. The word combines telos with nomos (law) and refers to the influence natural laws have on our life and world. Teleonomy maintains that events are not predetermined, but instead are evolving. As biologist Ernst Mayr observes in Scientific American, "Darwin's theory of natural selection made any invocation of teleology unnecessary. From the Greeks onward, there existed a universal belief in the existence of a teleological force in the world. . . . Darwinism swept such considerations away."

Fate, in other words, is in our hands. As Michael Shermer writes in Why Darwin Matters, "Natural selection is a description of a process, not a force. No one is 'selecting' organisms for survival or extinction."

So what "process" leads to our survival or extinction? In On the Origin of Species, Darwin explains it this way: "[N]atural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life."

The auditorium at the Metropolitan Opera in New York seats 3,800. But it is typically only two-thirds full. The Met collects, therefore, only 66 percent of potential revenue. Twenty years ago, it collected 90 percent. The decline has led to staff cuts and budget deficits.

The New York Times was so alarmed by this development that they invited reporters to, as Darwin might, scrutinize the situation and underscore the good, reject that which is bad, and look for ways to improve. In other words, the Times pulled together an X Club to suggest ways the Met could adapt, change and survive. Their ideas included:

1) Give young operagoers "not just the best seats at cheap prices but also steep discounts at the intermission bar."
2) Perform when young people are available, such as Sunday afternoons.
3) Have festivals or educational series.
4) "Consider marketing the matinee of a full-length opera to families, too, with clap-all-you-like rules and affordable snacks at intermission."

This past spring, inspired by The New York Times, I called together my own X Club and invited leaders in the arts, business, and non-profit worlds to brainstorm how my church might evolve and compete for space on the planet. The church I serve has about a thousand members and has grown over the last decade--between 1 and 3 percent every year. But I am keenly aware of two nearby megachurches that steadily draw away our members. My X Club suggested that my church:

1) Create a signature summer festival to increase visibility in the community.
2) Expand the church's social media presence and meet people where they are--typically on their phones.
3) Partner with the art museum, the botanical garden, and non-profits that serve the community to share resources and increase church visibility.

The list of ideas was inspiring, but also, I must admit, exhausting. How would I find the time and energy to mount new initiatives? Then I read Steve Lohr's New York Times article "G.E., the 124-Year-Old Software Start-Up."

In 2009, General Electric Co. CEO Jeff Immelt realized competitors such as Amazon, Apple, and Google were threatening the future of GE, so he believed GE needed to evolve into a software company to stay competitive. Immelt set the lofty goal of becoming a top- ten software company by 2020. Over the past five years GE has rolled out a number of initiatives toward that goal, including the development of a new operating system, Predix. The shift has brought out skeptics, including technology experts from Silicon Valley. But as Immelt describes, after gazing into a future of slow decline and contraction, he recognized there could be no Plan B. "It's this," he said, "or bust." To spark its evolution, GE has allocated financial resources and recruited software engineers from Amazon, Apple, and Google. GE now markets its process with whimsical TV ads coining the word "digidustrial."

Will GE's plan work?

No one knows.

But its pluck and determination is to be emulated. The simple truth is that whether we are a species or an organization, we live on a planet that's constantly changing and evolving and where, whether we like it or not, the fittest survive. As Matt Ridley writes in The Evolution of Everything, "The flywheel of history is incremental change through trial and error, with innovation driven by recombination. . . . [T]his is also the main way that change comes about in morality, the economy, culture, language, technology, cities, firms, education, history, law, government, religion, money and society. . . . Embrace the general theory of evolution. Admit that everything evolves."

If the pink salmon can evolve, so can the mainline church.

It's time to form own our X Clubs, set lofty goals, have no Plan B, and acknowledge "it's this or bust."

I believe our demise is in no way predetermined. But let us see our situation through the lens of teleonomy, not teleology. Let us roll up our sleeves and claim our place on this beautiful, wondrous, and ever-evolving planet.
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In my next post I'll explore the wisdom of Albert Einstein and how to grow the mainline church.