Denominational restructuring won’t work; local churches must innovate (COMMENTARY)

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Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich

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(RNS) Rather than "rearrange the deck chairs," denominational task forces could look boldly at what isn't working: Sunday worship, large facilities and an inward focus.

  • Frank

    Sunday services seem to be working just fine.

  • Byron

    Sadly, we are doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We have aging baby-boomers speaking to themselves and not engaging culture. Oh, we’ll talk about it, and it makes us feel good, but what is happening? Not much.

    Corporately, The Episcopal Church, if it could swallow it’s pride, would find those Episcopal congregations who are doing well and find out what it is they are doing.

    I imagine it is true visionary leadership.
    A sense of real purpose
    A commitment to engage their local communities.

    I suspect that it has little to do with “we do liturgy well.”

  • Karen Eberhardt

    I so much agree. I have been a member of a small church for many years and what keeps us together is the ministries that everyone takes part in. It is so clear that ministry is so needed and so many of our churches think they can just give money once a year and they have done their job. Would love to hear more on FBI. Thanks for the space to comment.

  • Thank you so much for this! I wrote something similar in response to the TREC report ( and was feeling like the lone voice in the wilderness until I read your piece. It seems to me that not only TREC, but many of the commenters, are focusing on too narrow a set of issues to make a real difference. We need to engage a larger conversation and I am so grateful that your words are getting some needed traction (at least, I hope so!).

  • Three large revolutions at work: 1) institutionalization (Tom speaks of large structures used less and less) Also national structures struggling; 2) professionalization: do we need seminary educated clergy in every congregation, professional catechists, musicians, religious education coordinators? and 3) conceptualization: rethinking our theology so we speak in vernacular: atonement, redemption, spirituality, liturgy, worship, sacrament….. We are caught up in these revolutionary movements.

  • Plus the Internet, which is doing something to our culture comparable to the invention of printing.

  • The national and regional church offices will be slow to realize that the true power of the church is in the local congregation. It was always that way, but in the past the national entities were conduits for the types of communications that local congregations could not do.

    Enter the internet.

    Now the congregation can do much more themselves. They can choose their mission projects and see their mission dollars at work—not just support infrastructure for causes that have been identified and approved by central authority. They can develop and circulate their own resources. They can engage with followers daily—not just on Sunday morning.

    Among the few purposes of a regional or national entity is to insure leaders are adequately trained and doctrinally acceptable. They are lagging behind in this because they are still supporting an outdated model of Church.

    Much of the tension between parish and regional bodies today is because the local churches know things have changed and that we can no longer meet the expectations of the past. This is not to say we cannot still do great things in our communities and in the world. Today, “two or three gathered” can make a huge difference—yet we are still judged and measured by ancient standards.

    There is another role central groups could play. They could facilitate all of the congregations, institutions and agencies within their organizations in working together instead of competing with one another for development dollars and control, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

  • Barbara Snyder

    My question is: why would anybody belong to the church at all if it weren’t for worship? Certainly not for the sake of good works; we can all do good works through literally thousands of volunteer organizations. Not for the sake of friendship; we all have friends already. Not for politics; I had no problem at all figuring out my politics before I joined the church.

    No, we’re here for the sake of our faith lives – and our faith lives depend on worship. So before you go mucking with “Sunday worship,” it would probably pay to consider that the people you already have might leave if you mess that up further. How about experimenting with “Tuesday worship,” instead? If you come up with something great: fantastic! We can all adopt it once you do.

    And what, while we’re at it, are tiny, failing, aging congregations supposed to do about “grappling with the problems of a society in freefall”? That sounds like kind of a major thing, to me; what exactly is the game plan, there? Is it grannies on picket lines you’re thinking of, or what?

    BTW: I hate that “audience” thing. People are actually singing, learning, praying, etc. We like to think of it as “participation.”

  • Barbara Snyder

    P.S. Here’s some “Sunday Night worship” that gets 500+ young people every week in Seattle – the most secular city in the country:

    Something to think about, maybe?

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  • Diane

    I read your article in the blog the other day. Been thinking…the Christian message is simple and I would be willing to share my conversion and witness to anyone who would listen, but unless the Holy Spirit is prompting, empowering, magnifying it goes for naught. I think we need to be involved and learn to listen to what the Holy Spirit is leading us to do. Seems like the TREC, although creating a new employee chart, which businesses do all the time, I am looking for more. Do we do it by service to others? The focal in my opinion should be Do you need God in your life? God in your life makes all the difference. The Good News is true……for anyone.

  • Judith Gotwald

    Small churches CAN be a force. Our small church (less than 20) publishes on the internet. Churches around the world read our website and use worship resources we post. When a Pakistani church was bombed, killing hundreds, last year about this time, we raised awareness. Our denomination was paying little attention to this tragedy. Readers 600 miles away were moved to collect clothing for the many orphaned. We worked together long distance to get the clothing to Pakistan. We are now collecting blankets for the first Christian orphanage. We have had a similar influence in other countries. No grannies on picket lines. Just grannies with computers. And we still value worship, faith, and community. These spur our activities. We wouldn’t be nearly as effective if we were not united in faith.

  • Thecla

    Brava! Exactly so.

    As for “not working”…first there was theological revisionism: on the assumption that what used to be called Modern Secular Man rejected supernaturalism. So Bishop Pike ridiculed the Trinity as a “committee god”, Bishop Robinson announced that it was just as silly to believe in a God “out there” as it was to believe in one “up there” and Bishop Spong, in his 12 theses proclaimed that theism (=df belief in God) was not only false but completely out of the court. No one was impressed. Then there was liturgical revision. Revisionists were convinced that they could bring the Young People flocking back by using contemporary English and pop music. Neither Young People nor anyone else was impressed by these clergy’s simulated, sanitized, and perennially outdated version of the idiom of youth culture.

  • Gerry

    “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”(‭Galatians‬ ‭1‬:‭10‬ ESV)

    I’m a firm believer in sound biblical teaching. You can have the greatest worship in the world but if your church is not focused on presenting the gospel then your church is an will continue to shrink.

    This is why most non main-line evangelical churches are growing.

  • Good stuff here.1- It really has to be local. 2-Gathering in community to praise God must be the core of everything. (“A Royal Waste of Time” by Marva Dawn.) 3. I’m challenged well by “The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community” by Sparks, Soerens and Friesen.

  • srod

    Completely agree.

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  • Thank you Frank. I like traditional Sunday morning service to help me begin my new week in the mission field.