Strategic Thinking for the Negative World
The church needs to change. I find this hard to accept. I am a rusted-on, curmudgeonly, conservative, traditional Presbyterian. I do not want to change anything. I’m the kind of Presbyterian that thinks Charles Hodge was a bit loose. But even Christians like me, perhaps especially Christians like me, need to face the fact that the church in the post-Christian West needs to rethink how it does things.
This is not a Rob Bell-style call for a watered-down faith nor Brian McLaren-style attempt to cloak liberalism in emergent church “orthodoxy.” You won’t catch me wandering off the reservation on doctrine or even ecclesiology. As I said, I am a curmudgeonly, traditional Presbyterian.
I am talking about how we organize our institutions. We need to rethink at a strategic level how we operate, how we spend money, how we invest in the future of our institutions, and how we create resilient Christian communities. The world of the twentieth century is passing away and the institutional arrangements that have undergirded the church will need to alter in the face of this.
My motives are not theological — hence my distance from Bell, McLaren, and even people like Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch. They imagined an ecclesial revolution from the perspective of either theological liberalism or a sort of Anabaptist primitivism. They were driven by ideals. The emerging and emergent church types believed change was theologically necessary. I do not agree with this.
I believe that change is necessary because of practical and political reality. It may turn out that some of the ideas I outline below will have some positive spin-offs for discipleship and community, some that people like Frost and Hirsch would welcome. Indeed, some of the ideas are needed for that reason, but this is not theologically necessary, nor are my prescriptions driven by high ideals. They are driven by that thing that every anabaptist primitivist despises: lucre.
I am no prophet. Even worse, I’m a cessationist. But I know that the future won’t look a lot like the past. Here are a few predictions, hopefully, founded upon reasonable suppositions, that undergird my analysis and constructive suggestions:
- The world as a whole is going to get poorer and more dangerous. To see why this is, read Peter Zeihan’s The End of the World is Just the Beginning. We might differ with some of the details in this book, but the basis of Zeihan’s analysis is demographics, and demographics, as they say, is destiny. Demographics concerning the number of workers, tax-payers, potential soldiers, retirees, and people drawing on their pension funds, are set for the next 20 years. So, too, is the number of deaths. Demographic decline is set to swallow the better part of the world. The economic decline will follow fast. And geopolitical and military chaos will ensue. Which will lead to trade chaos. Which will lead to more economic and military chaos. And so on. Add to this the reality that the United States world police force is going to withdraw from protecting the globalist economic trade order with its navy, and it is hard not to be pessimistic. Other outcomes are possible; e.g. during the Black Death, people and communities increased in wealth. But something akin to the scenario Zeihan outlines should be one we plan for.
- Churches will decline in numbers and wealth, mainly because of the demographic shift. Boomers are dying. They built, funded, and shaped the cultures of, the Western church. Boomers are the reason the church is the way it is in an aesthetic sense (bad CCM anyone?), but they are also the reason we have so many privately-funded parachurch organizations and Christian education institutions. They are the reason why churches can afford multiple ministry staff. They were rich, they are rich, and they are … going to take that wealth to the grave. It will be gone before we know it, all of the greyheads that currently make up 50% or more of our churches will disappear, and even if they were all replaced numerically, there is almost no way that their wealth will be replaced. We have peaked, and it is downhill from here.
- Persecution will increase. This should be obvious, given what the scriptures say about the normal mode of operation for the church. We have had it sweet for a long time, but in the West, that is coming to an end. Even if we recede into a form of out-of-favourism, where no one hates us but everyone ignores us, things will be hard. But if it ends up worse, if we are outlawed, if our schools are outlawed, if we lose tax exemptions for churches, if we are actively ostracised from society, then this will impact churches’ operations at an institutional level and also place a lot of pressure on laypeople.
These are the main reasons the Christian church needs to rethink the way it does things. I firmly believe in God’s sovereignty. The Lord reigns, and earth ought to rejoice (Ps. 97:1). Nothing that God plans is thwarted, and there is no event, whether personal or world-historical, that is beyond God’s control (Job 42:2, Matt. 10:29–31). In other words, there is nothing about any of this is out of God’s control, and Christians should not worry.
But we should plan and we should be strategic. And note an important distinctive of what I am doing here: note the lack of theology. My reasoning is pragmatic. We will almost certainly have fewer people, less money, and therefore far fewer resources taken as a whole. Even if we don’t get squeezed by civil governments for more taxes or get the rug pulled some other way, we will have less money. Those darker possibilities need to be prepared for, too. But the even best-case scenario is not a good one, and the plausible scenarios are even worse.
In short, we need to consider changing. The church needs to change to survive and thrive. To use Nassim Taleb’s concept, we need to make our churches antifragile in a world that will despise us and possibly hate us.
Key Ideas for the Church in a Dangerous World
What should we do? How should we respond to this possible, perhaps plausible future? This is where things get uncomfortable. For a Presbyterian who is wedded to traditional denominational structures, theological colleges, and other such niceties of Protestant Christendom, this is hard. However, these prejudices are also a strength, because I am going to posit some models which could work even in traditional denominational structures.
I believe in the Presbyterian polity. You might believe in episcopacy, or something different. You might not really care about church polity. Let me again emphasize that the ideas below are not meant to make you think of (once again) Mike Frost and Anabaptist primitivism. They should make you think of keeping the ecclesial scaffolding you already have but changing the building inside the scaffolding.
To properly understand my prescriptions and ideas, on top of the basic assumptions about the future outlined above, there are two ideas that readers should grasp.
- Ecclesial institutions will need to be lean.
- The church, in its organic form, will need owned space.
Put another way, the institutional church will ideally operate with less real estate, whilst the organic church needs more. This may seem contradictory, but there is reason behind this.
An Institutional Church that is Lean
In the first instance, the institutional church is, at this point, a big target for people who hate Christ and his Church. And it has a big target on its back — property. Property makes the church more vulnerable. The church is more vulnerable to being inflexible, to be unwilling to adjust to the environment around her when she is laden with sanctuaries, seminaries, and office buildings. These are blessings when things are going well. These could be blessings when things are not going well.
But my sense is this will not be the case moving forward. They are a target. People who hate God and what Christians stand for can get at us via our property through legal avenues. Who is going to be targeting the church? Well, the same people who are chasing us now. Activists from left-wing groups, but possibly governments as well. This woke revolution is not just going to blow over. This is one reason to make the institutional church leaner.
But there is another one: mission. Buildings can be a vehicle for mission, certainly. But into the next age of the church in the West, I believe they will be a barrier to mission. They will create big legal and financial headaches for an institution that is under siege, and they will burden the church’s mission.
The church in the developing world offers a model. Where there is a high level of difficulty in establishing a local church ministry, churches grow and multiply when the church is lean. Churches grow and multiply when they use a model that is focused on homes and is, in turn, replicable. It is low on staff, low on overheads, and big on house churches with local pastoral leadership. It is a house church which, when it gets too big, plants a further house church with a new leader.
This model solves two big problems for ecclesial ministry: real estate and manageability. Real estate is expensive, but from hereon it will also be a target. The second problem is the difficulty of managing big institutions. If you change the model, you don’t have to purchase any real estate, and you don’t have 3 or 4 (or 25) staff managing tens, hundreds, or thousands of attendees and volunteers.
There are two big upsides to this. Upside #1: on the real estate front, you remove the big property-shaped target on your back, and become much more difficult to keep track of at a regulatory level. Upside #2: you are forced to grow a strong local, face-to-face ministry, a ministry run by lay leaders rather than (expensive) professional staff. Put differently, the church becomes harder to get at and has a model that encourages effective face-to-face pastoral care and discipleship.
An Organic Church that has Owned Space
In contrast to the lean institutional church, the big idea here is that the organic church (the church as God’s people dispersed in the world in their various vocations) should have “owned space.” Michael Anton’s summary is helpful: “All animals seek to master their environments to the extent that they can, and the nature of man, or man at his best — the highest man — is to seek to master nature itself… space is owned when it is mastered or controlled.”
What does this have to do with the future church? Aaron Renn explained this best here and also here. For those of you who prefer video, watch this. In short, Renn points out that for conservatives generally, and Christians in particular, owned space is crucial:
If you don’t have owned space, if you live or build on space owned by others, then you are putting yourself in a highly disadvantageous and vulnerable position, subject to cultural eviction and spiritual homelessness.
It’s notable how little owned space conservatives have in any domain. This can include physical space as well as social and cultural space. One of the biggest problems faced by conservatives is that they exist almost entirely inside space owned by others — legally owned in many cases, but as importantly socially and culturally owned.
Renn’s case study of owned space success is Douglas Wilson’s Christ Church in Moscow, ID. They have strategically built up a portfolio of properties, businesses, and institutions that make them difficult to push around. And one key is that this portfolio is predominantly not owned by the institutional church. It is the organic church, people who attend Christ Church, who run these businesses, run the schools and college, own the real estate on the edge of town that is being bought up at record rates, and so forth.
Now, I differ from Renn insofar as he advocates for the institutional church to own property as well. This strikes me as a strategy that made sense up until now but needs a rethink. Nevertheless, I think Renn is correct that owned space is crucial for churches.
The New Church in a Dangerous World
These two ideas, lean institutions and owned-space matter as we think about the church from a strategic perspective.
We want a lean institutional church to avoid unwanted attention from governments and unwanted adverse legal action from enemies. We want a lean institutional church to encourage local, face-to-face ministry and pastoral care. A lean church means fewer overheads, less property, less worldly worries, along with (ideally) a stronger network of worshipping communities with dispersed leadership.
We want a buff organic church, one which has owned space, to give Christians an economic and financial infrastructure that can support resilient Christian communities in a dangerous age. I believe Christians will be more maligned in general, less likely to succeed professionally due to prejudice and politics, less likely to be wealthy, and less likely to be participating in professional classes. Owned space means more Christian businesses, more property investment, more parish schools, and more homeschool co-ops. It means more opportunities to contribute to the community in general that can provide an organic basis for outreach and evangelism. It can also provide a buffer for those who lose their job in the public service or the law firm or the public school, because they are found to be a bigot. It means more of what Rod Dreher describes in The Benedict Option — Christians looking out for one another in a world where they are on the fringe.
So what does this look like? I’ve hinted at particular prescriptions, but in this section, I want to flesh this out. I have a particular model in mind, with some rough financial figures. I suspect that these ideas won’t ever be tried until there is an urgent, acute crisis and a sudden change is necessary. But I want to start a conversation and get leaders thinking strategically.
Remember, I have in mind a church that currently exists within a denominational structure, even one as inflexible as Presbyterianism or Episcopalianism. The idea is to take an existing church and alter it so that it can be lean, effective, and build owned space. The goals are to make the institutional church cheaper, more agile, and more effective, whilst making the Christian community more resilient in the face of hostility and change.
So, what is the plan? Sack your pastors and sell your buildings. That’s the basic outline.
My model is my local church, which is a Presbyterian church with around 250 attendees, 3 full-time ministers, 1 part-time ministry worker, and 2 part-time admin staff. The annual budget is something like AU$600,000 (around US$400,000). So let’s take that as our basic starting point. Remember that the aim is to get this church to be lean, and be ready to get strategic with its “owned space.”
Step 1: Reduce the operating budget to free up capital
This involves something unpleasant. Sacking almost everyone and selling up. Reduce staffing to one (1) minister, and then a casual admin set up. The staffing budget goes from $400,000 down to $150,000 immediately.
Step 2: Sell the building to build up capital
Sell, sell, sell. Get rid of that asset that is also a liability. The budget reduces again, because buildings cost quite a bit to maintain, and the working capital situation improves again: say $2 million, at an estimate.
Step 3: Restructure everything
Given that you’re already reeling from Steps 1 and 2, you will be alarmed to learn that this step is the really crazy one. A church of any size can run with a single minister, whose core role is teaching and leadership training. And I believe a church can run without a building. Many of us attend these churches — I attend a church plant that has no building. So obvious this can be done.
What do we do without the extra ministers and buildings? It’s simple, but not easy. Devolve corporate worship into homes three Sundays a month. All members are attached to a house church, and each house church taps into the minister’s teaching/preaching. Each house church is also led in worship, pastoral care, and some teaching, by an elder. The fourth Sunday (worry about any 5ths later) sees the church hire a hall, set up their own mobile sound system, and have a bangin’ worship service in person with all 250+ people, with the sacraments administered each time. (Leave aside the question of sacraments on the other Sundays — that’s a separate issue.)
This model satisfies the Lord’s Day Metric: all are meeting with others for corporate worship on Sunday, and all are sitting under the teaching of the minister via a video or audio, or an elder if that becomes possible or necessary. I’m no advocate of the kind of online worship that many churches defaulted to during the pandemic. Granted, this online version was sometimes necessary given the circumstances. But I am not for a second thinking this is what we should all be doing permanently. The Lord’s Day is for worship with real people in a shared space.
The model also satisfies the Unity Metric: all sit under the same teaching and can join as one unified congregation each month. All of this with one minister and no building. The elders are all keyed into the central vision and doctrine of the church and will be as united and enthusiastic as they would be under the old arrangement. But they are dispersed on most Sundays in homes.
But what about those elders (I hear you ask)? They need to be trained. And there may need to be more of them. A church of 100 would probably need 7–10 house churches, meaning it would need 7–10 elders. That might be a lot of elders for a church of that size. These are men who can be pastoral, can teach if need be, can deal with discipline issues directly, and are on board with the vision and doctrine of the church. Men need to step up and be trained. And that job will fall to the minister, and perhaps the denomination as well. These men would need to be dead on in terms of theology and the pastoral skills needed for this setting. I envisage something like an elders’ meeting each month as a session, plus a training meeting or two each month as well. Maybe they could work through a doctrine course, get trained in pastoral care, or read a good book together.
If this could be done (and note that we may be forced into this eventually), we might be left with no building and smaller Lord’s Day meetings. But the upsides could be big, too. I think this model would result in deeper relationships between attendees, more accountability, more potential for leadership development, and a greater potential for expansion. (This model can multiply itself quite easily.) People might even find they are more connected, more attached, and more attracted to this kind of church. Our normal Sunday meetings should be a bit weird for outsiders, and these will be similarly weird. But a house is a house, and people sitting around in a house are not that strange. It may actually be easier for newbies.
One important final point is that this model does not undermine polity. For Presbyterians, we still have teaching elders and ruling elders in this model, and there is no reason for this devolved church to not be a part of a presbytery, general assembly, or synod. The same surely goes for Anglicans and Lutherans, who can still place themselves under the care of a bishop with this model. Baptists and Pentecostals can do what they like anyway, so this will work just fine for them.
Step 4: Use that freed-up capital
Here is the hardest part. I’m not a lawyer and don’t know exactly how this ought to work. But stick with me.
We now have a church that has $2 million in the kitty. What to do with that? Why, put it in a trust fund of some sort that is not the church’s. And you might also recall that we have reduced the church’s budget from $600,000 to something closer to $200,000. Let’s make it $250,000 just to be sure. That means that there is $350,000 that was previously being given to the institutional church that is no longer needed by that church. Where to put it? In the trust fund that is not the church’s.
Continuing giving at the same level would take discipline and concerted effort. But if it could be done, my model church will have $3 million in this kitty after three years. By year ten, $6 million. That’s a lot of money, and it is now available for use by the organic church. That’s the idea anyway. This trust will have the purpose of doing something like this:
- Provide gifts, grants, and loans to church members for starting businesses;
- Provide start-up capital for Christian education institutions;
- Provide the church with funds as needed;
- Provide a legal war chest to help the church and its members deal with the inevitable legal battles that will come with Christian faithfulness;
- Offer financial aid to church members who have lost their livelihood because of their faith or church affiliation.
There could be other purposes. What kind of legal structure should be used to oversee this? I don’t know, exactly. But something like a trust with sound governance might work. The idea is that the institutional church forgoes the larger part of its budget to free up the organic church to increase her owned space footprint.
This is strategically significant. The church will need owned space in the dangerous, fragmented age to come. It needs to have spiritual resilience, which I think can be satisfied with Steps 1, 2, and 3, and it needs financial, legal, and social resilience, for which this final step is crucial. What I am advocating approximates to the common property of the apostolic church described in Acts 2. In this model, the organic church will have a limited but substantial common purse.
In an age where we are likely to be hated, targeted, institutionally weakened, and financially poorer, such an approach could provide a safety net for what will be a vulnerable community. It could allow the church to thrive in the face of social and economic exclusion, and political hardship. It could provide a way for Christians to support one another and extend the church’s reach in their locales. It could be the way that the church faces the realities of having to be an alternative, Benedict Option-style community, one that will have to function outside the mainstream of our pagan society.
This is also an approach that can allow the institutional church to continue to operate without collapsing in a financial crisis. Other implications flow out from my strategic reasoning, including some big questions about things like theological seminaries and denominational bureaucracies. But if we focus on the local assembly of believers, this model could sustain the church into a future with fewer resources and more dangers.
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