In the past, American Protestants have had two different kinds of church cultures. They emerged out of the colonial First Awakening of the 1730s-40s. One side emphasized religious emotions as the essence of being a Christian; feeling the love of God was most important. The other side taught that the heart of true religion is right thinking; emotions are fickle and often lead one astray.
Historically since the Reformation, pastors of established mainline churches were university educated. It is no coincidence that the Reformers were a university professor and a sophisticated lawyer. Pastors in my heritage were and are taught by professors lecturing them. I know that the majority of Bible studies in our churches are lectures to the members by the pastor. No one else could be trusted to have the right knowledge.
The problem with one-way lectures is that they are absolutely the least effective way of communication, especially if you want to change someone’s behavior. Job behavior is shaped much more by informal communication with those around you. On-the-job training is so effective because you learn by doing. Worker effectiveness is shaped much more from these two sources than from the formal job description given to you.
For two millennia Latin-based primary schooling taught grammar, logic and rhetoric. You learned rhetoric by mastering grammar and logic. The prevailing assumption was that good rhetoric will persuade others to change their behavior. If you could just explain clearly, others will do accordingly. If you just got your doctrinal propositions right, believers would understand and behave accordingly. If you just gave children the right catechism, they will understand what they should do and do it.
How foolish this assumption seems today in light of discoveries in motivational and educational psychology.
Today in Protestantism the two kinds of cultures are blending into the expanding non-denominational community church movement. They have become competition contributing to the decline of denominational churches.
Leaders of mainline churches do not have to change their distinctive theology to stabilize and grow in the future. But they can and should change their assumptions and fine-tune some of their practices.
The first assumption to go is that leaders can continue to depend on family loyalties to gain young adults. Clearly, the behaviors and beliefs of young adults are changing in American society, in a direction away from their parents’ values.
The second assumption to go is that leaders can fashion their church culture solely on their beliefs and values. They need to pay closer attention to the behavior part of their church culture. Established churches are now in competition with non-denominational congregations, where participants base their involvement not so much on beliefs but on what is happening in the congregation and in their personal lives. Doing well against the competition has to be a major factor in shaping traditional ministry practices. Mainline leaders have to pay more attention to “what works” in attracting future participants.
In business terms, traditional churches have depended on theological engineering. We need to get better at church marketing. Read about how Paul thought as a marketer in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22.