Once more with feeling: The demise of traditional Protestant congregations has been greatly exaggerated.
Yes, mainline denominations have been losing members for a number of years. Yes, many churches are dwindling in number and resources and even closing. And yes, seeker-driven worship and the emerging church movement and screens and projectors and guitars and drum sets and pastors in golf shirts appear to be the wave of the present and the future.
But despite all that, there are well-established Protestant congregations in America that are vibrant and healthy and still adhering to traditional church structures and liturgies. It can be done.
Phyllis Tickle, in her 2008 book “The Great Emergence,” draws upon the image of a church rummage sale to describe the revolution she sees happening in worldwide Christianity. This “great emergence” follows the pattern of 500-year cycles in the history of the Judeo-Christian story, with the current revolution falling 500 years after the Protestant Reformation.
She quotes an Anglican bishop who has declared that about every 500 years, “the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
What’s interesting is that these “rummage sales”—such as the Reformation and the Great Schism that divided the church between east and west—do not abandon what was there before, but instead break it apart and seek to preserve the best. In an almost Darwinian sense, the fittest traditions get preserved while new ideas merge into the overall narrative.
For example, after the Reformation, the Catholic Church didn’t disappear. It changed and responded to the Reformation, but it was still the Catholic Church. This notion was even more meaningful during the upheaval that happened 500 years prior to the Great Schism, around 590, when Gregory I became pope. Gregory the Great’s claim to fame was establishing the monasticism that would protect and preserve the traditions and teachings of the faith during the coming Dark Ages.
“During those centuries of darkness, and largely because of Gregory’s prescience and acumen, Western Christianity would be held in trust in Europe’s convents and monasteries,” Tickle explains. “Almost all those conservators and pioneering thinkers were Christian clergy, monks or nuns; all of them were educated either in monasteries and convents or as a result of them.”
Many of us who lead traditional Protestant churches believe we, too, are holding in trust important truths and practices of our faith amid the overwhelming rummage sale of the contemporary church.
If we are faithful to the task and follow the best examples of those who have gone before us, we will seize this time to clean, scrub, buff and preserve the best of the traditions handed down to us. Healthy traditional churches will get cleaned up and focused but won’t turn out the lights.
Adapted from “Staying Alive: Why the Conventional Wisdom About Traditional Chruches is Wrong,” by Mark Wingfield, published in collaboration with The Columbia Partnership. Mark Wingfield is associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.