Church ruins in Tuscany.

Photo by Shaiith

Is the church collapsing?

June 19, 2023 

The verb “to collapse” has caught my eye this week for its prevalence in the news. My hat is off to this fine word for its versatility in describing the specific way in which certain kinds of things fall apart. Cryptocurrency markets, dams, and buildings all collapsed in just the past few days.

I’ve heard the term used to describe failing banks for years. More recently, I’ve heard it employed as a noun signifying what’s happening to the climate — “Climate Collapse” — as rising temperatures change everything and cut a path of destruction across the whole planet. The word is elegant in its efficiency and terrifying in its significance. I wonder both about what will collapse next and how leaders can foresee and prevent further catastrophe.

First let’s consider the nature of a collapse: it involves gravity, which can’t be altered, but also bad choices in light of gravity’s power. A structure collapses when it’s insufficiently balanced, too heavy in the wrong places, or both. A structure can’t sustain itself if it’s too complicated because faulty supports will escape notice because overwhelmed monitors miss them. An object can collapse only partially and still ruin the whole, for a collapse destabilizes everything within it and around it. When a building collapses from the third floor down, no one will want to move into the fourth floor.

Institutions collapse all the time, but we don’t always identify that which caused the collapse correctly, as it’s never just one thing. Consider this example:

I recently chaired a group at my church that made recommendations to redesign the staff and lay leadership structures through which our church carries out its ministries. Our task force began with an analysis of what was and was not working, and it became evident quickly that the biggest problems with the structure as it was related to weight, complexity, and imbalance. These three factors were conspiring, however quietly, to threaten the collapse of our institutional infrastructure.

We had too many leadership roles for a congregation of our size, and some of those roles carried too much responsibility for one person. Good people were saying no to ministry opportunities because they were burned out, or because they could sense that the structure they were invited into was teetering at the edge. They didn’t want to climb aboard that which was in danger of collapse.

Our church required a structure that was simpler and involved fewer people. We needed to provide more support for all leaders and a more even distribution of work. We needed to hone our mission and strategic plan as our guides to focus energies and to fight our own well-meaning tendencies to engage in magical thinking that ministry will just happen without a healthy organization carrying it out. The work was hard but meaningful and strengthened our community’s foundation.

But it wasn’t easy. No one welcomes change that seems like it’s happening for no reason, any more than they welcome bad-tasting medicine when they didn’t know they were sick. Because few understand that weight, complexity, and imbalance result in collapse, they are loath to make or allow changes to that reduce the load, simplify the structure, and ensure that responsibility is thoughtfully distributed and shared across many participants.

Is the church collapsing? The answer to this question both soothes and troubles me… because it’s yes and no.

Governments, banks, buildings, and markets collapse regularly and seem to be doing so at an alarming rate in our culture of fast-moving change. Here is the question that haunts my dreams: is the church collapsing? The church I love? The church, whose leaders I have long devoted my career to nurturing?

The answer to this question both soothes and troubles me… because it’s yes and no.

Yes, the church is collapsing insofar as it embraced practices like those of governments, banks, and markets in order to survive, and in order to influence the cultures of its various eras. In its understandable attempts to keep up with the Joneses, it made lots of mistakes, as the Joneses embraced imperial power and all the ugliness built into it. The Joneses weren’t all that worthy of imitation, as it turned out. The church needed to adapt to survive, and some of its mimicry of democracy and markets was good. And some was bad, including democracy’s and markets’ fragility.

What is not fragile within the Christian movement is the Gospel. Jesus came among us and taught us that God is love. He said that, when all is said and done, life and love triumph over death and hate. His message was controversial and countercultural in his day, and it’s still a hard sell now, and we get it wrong… often. But we can find hope and consolation in faith in the un-collapsability of life and love. Nothing — NO-THING — else is too big to fail.

But here’s the problem: I already indicated that there’s no such thing as a harmless partial collapse. C.S. Lewis described the experience of adult conversion to Christianity as living in a house as it’s being rebuilt. Anyone who’s lived through a major renovation can tell you that such an experience is unsettling, disruptive, stressful, awful.

The church as I know it — from my mainline, progressive seat — has partially collapsed, and I have chosen to live in it. For me, this means constant disruptions and unpleasant surprises. Partial collapse calls for rebuilding while knowing that the collapsing is still happening, possibly faster than we can attack with wood and plaster. My faith in God’s love doesn’t form a protective shield over my head or the heads of those I invite into this house.

Recently, a building collapsed in my city of New Haven, CT. Some workers poured cement into one of the new building’s floors more quickly than the other workers could spread it around. The cement broke through the web of andirons that held the floor together, and everything fell through. Four people remain in the hospital and would probably not love the fact that I’m borrowing their suffering for use as a metaphor. But the metaphor just can’t escape comment: when we go too fast, take on too much, and aren’t on the same page with our partners in mission, collapse is bound to happen.

People who write about leadership in Western culture have long debunked what some call a “ladder theory of progress.” Ladder theories are all about excelling and reaching, even when doing so calls for climbing over others on the way up. Ladder theories fail to take balance and distribution into consideration. They lead rampant capitalistic competition, which in-turn leads to disparities of wealth, which in-turn leads to oppression.

Good leadership today calls, therefore, for heightened attention — now more than ever, in an age of systems collapsing right and left — to evenness, balance, and groundedness. Groundedness, in the case of the church, in the Good News of love and life that God created and that we human beings, therefore, can’t destroy.

Rev. Dr. Sarah B. Drummond is founding dean of Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School and teaches and writes on the topic of ministerial leadership.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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