How do churches evolve? Can orderly patterns be found in the midst of apparent chaos?
The cyclical process of birth, growth, breakdown, and disintegration was a perennial theme in ancient philosophy, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks. Jesus of Nazareth introduced a new element in the sequential process: resurrection. We are not caught in a deadly cycle but life goes on in ever new forms. The paschal mystery.
Sometimes people forget the paschal mystery when it comes to the institutional church. They wander blindly amid breakdown, oblivious about the need for change, forgetful that Christian life is about rebirth and hope for new life.
Church history tells the story. Once the institutional church has reached a peak of institutional organization and vitality, leaders often succumb to the temptation to be self-centered, self-protective, and self-righteous. Bishops become lords and pay lip-service to the Lord. It happens to pastors and theologians as well of course.
When too much organizational success at the top clogs the brains of church leaders, the institutional church tends to lose its socio-cultural momentum and starts to decline. Membership drops. Young people move out. Churches are closed. Bankruptcies spring up and schools collapse. (How many merged parishes and closed churches are there in your region?)
An essential element in this religious breakdown is a loss of prophetic flexibility. When ecclesiastical structures and behavior patterns become so rigid that the institution can no longer adapt to changing conditions, it will be unable to carry on the creative process of critical reflection and theological and institutional adaptation. It will then break down and begin to disintegrate.
Whereas growing and developing churches display variety and versatility, those in the process of disintegration show uniformity and a lack of inventiveness. Loss of flexibility is one of the institutional church’s capital sins.
More than a few years ago, while thinking as a young man about the Second Vatican Council and change in the Catholic Church, a friend gave me a copy of Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As I read Kuhn’s book, my brain began to vibrate. It still vibrates.
Kuhn introduced the concept of a paradigm. He observed that as long as a paradigm explains most observed phenomena and solves the problems most people want solved, it remains dominant. But as new understandings of reality begin to contradict it, the paradigm succumbs to increasing doubt. As these problems multiply, it is thrown into crisis.
Today of course one thinks about issues of gender, sexual orientation, freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, and a church still burdened with a nineteenth century corporate style as we move forward in the third millennium. I think as well about overcoming biblical and theological ignorance that has warped our understanding of authentic Christianity. (I cringed recently when a young ordained minister reiterated from the pulpit that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. Not true. That fallacy was created by (misogynist?) Pope Gregory in the sixth century. Mary of Magdala was one of Jesus’ most influential apostles and witness to his being raised from the dead. She was not a prostitute.)
When a new paradigm is articulated, a broad paradigmatic shift occurs. People of course – usually the people down below — make the socio-cultural change that results in the paradigm shift.
Change in the Catholic Church in fact has most often come from below – from courageously prophetic people at the bottom of the Catholic pyramid.
Catholic Church change most often has followed a three-stage process of development:
(1) Changed understandings lead to changed behavior, which is condemned by church authorities.
(2) When the condemned behavior persists within a large group of believers, church authority allows it as an experiment.
(3) As the experiment becomes actually widespread practice, church authority goes back to the doctrinal and disciplinary drawing board and then canonizes the change as simply part of good Catholic practice.
What’s my point?
If we want genuine church reform, it is pointless the wait for top administrators to make the changes because they probably are a big part of what needs to be changed, even when they smile and say popular things.
We need to be part of, to animate, and to support prophetic people and prophetic movements. We need to encourage and support, for instance, Catholic high school students and their parents when a man or woman teacher in a Catholic school is fired because of a same-sex committed relationship. We need to support and encourage those women who are now in fact women priests. We need to encourage and support those men and women who are exploring new forms of ministry and pastoral life, in lay ecclesial movements.
We need to protest unacceptable behavior as well, when no one else seems to protest. Why for example, is Robert Finn, the convicted criminal and now resigned Bishop of Kansas City still allowed to preside over the priestly ordinations of seven deacons on May 16 in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese?
This is not an awkward situation. It is a disgrace. Is there not even one of those men about to be ordained who finds it objectionable?
A strategy for change
People need to organize and develop a plan for effective change if there will indeed be a paradigm shift. I offer a six-step program:
(1) The formulation of a goal: people affected by or concerned about a bad church situation need to set a goal, a desired and realistic outcome.
(2) Clear communication: The goal formulators need to communicate their vision to others, beginning with those most affected by the root problem and expanding to a greater community of concern. Email, Facebook, telephone calls, articles in newspapers, public meetings, parish council meetings, and neighborhood discussion groups are some kinds of very effective communication.
(3) Organization: Once the goal vision begins to attract more supporters, some form of organization is required to manage the group and implement a plan.
(4) Goal adaptation: As the new vision gets broader exposure, it can grow and change. Quite often an initial vision is incomplete, especially in its practical details. Some accommodations may have to be made, for instance, to broaden the appeal of the vision.
(5) Socio-cultural transformation: Once the movement has gained enough support within the society, the thrust shifts from communication to implementation. People start doing what should be done. (Years ago I was part of this process in my SW Michigan diocese when it came to receiving communion on the hand, fiercely condemned at the time by the local bishop. I recall one diocesan event when Cardinal Dearden was present and distributing communion on the hand in our local cathedral. The local bishop walked over to him and reprimanded the cardinal saying “we don’t do that in my diocese. Dearden smiled and said “that is your problem,” and then continued to distribute communion on the hand. I know because I was standing in front of him.)
(6) Establishing a new behavior pattern: Once the initial shift – the transformation — has taken place, the next stage is to establish the new vision as the new but constant practice, which basically means institutionalizing it in various ways. This of course will be fine until, in view of the signs of the times, new goals must be set!
Life goes on……..step by step…..stage by stage. Resurrection.