Suburban Ministry Needs to Leave the Village Culture Behind

When I was Professor of Administrative Sciences, I taught the senior capstone course Strategic Management. I still read the Wall Street Journal and Business Week to stay up with how corporations are changing their strategies for keeping up with the fast-paced changes in technology. For example, it is amazing how much impact Amazon has had on its competitors. It is following a disruptive strategy that is forcing big changes in other retailers. Many retailing jobs are already gone, and more will disappear as stores close and chains retrench.

A similar reorganization is happening in churches.

Strategy comes from the Greek word strategos, the general in charge of an army. The general determines when and where to fight the battle and then positions his troops to the best advantage. That’s strategy. Tactics are how the various units then achieve their assignments.

It has been very frustrating for me over the last 30 years to observe how few pastors and church leaders have any inkling that so many traditional church bodies today are carrying out a strategy developed centuries earlier. Most churches that still value their European heritage are implementing a village strategy. We really need to move on to a suburban strategy for ministry among people who do not know each other and judge congregations by what they experience there.

Ask anyone who has lived in a small town, and they will describe a social culture very different from the suburbs. In a small town every- one knows everyone. To summarize village culture, there is strong pressure for conformity. In a village, the head that sticks up is likely to be hammered down into conformity. The pastor is under strong pressure to avoid conflict in the village. A church member getting excited about his or her faith would stand out and make the others uncomfortable. Hence keep your prayers to yourself. In my father’s day, a pastor was not even supposed to socialize with members of the congregation, lest he show favoritism.

One vestige of a village church mentality in my church body is that we are supposed to expect guests visiting the congregation to check with the pastor before participating in communion. In a congregation with an attendance of 900 with 600 receiving the Lord’s Supper, there’s no way all pastors can know all the people who show up at the communion rail. We still keep an official roster of baptisms.  Until and even into the 20th century, that was the official record of birth that established citizenship. Members going to another congregation are supposed to ask for a transfer, as if a congregation is a club and can transfer your membership to a different branch of the same organization.

Slow-paced village ministry had its place when people lived in rural areas. Half the congregations in old established church bodies still are in small towns. The cities had many close-knit ethnic communities where a village strategy still made sense until recent decades.

Effective suburban churches need to have energetic outreach. Guilt is not a good motivator. Suburbanites expect ministries to be done competently with many program alternatives. They also feel little social pressure, and guilt is not nearly as good a motivator as in village churches. They value their personal time highly and don’t want it wasted.

Strategies are expressed in the way church life together gets organized and what is emphasized. All that together can be described as a congregation’s culture. Changing strategies amounts to fine-tuning the existing culture to be more effective.

A big topic in business schools today is changing a corporation’s culture. Businesses are under immense pressure to figure out how to produce a better product with less cost. Most of this is driven by changes in technology that never seem to end. In my book Your Encounters with the Holy Spirit (2014) I present a chapter on basic business school principles for how to implement organizational changes.

The large growing community churches are putting competitive pressure on traditional congregations. Many mainline churches will stay faithful to their traditional culture, and many likely will die. Those that retain a strong sense of mission will need to focus much more on their unique source of energy—the Holy Spirit.

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