A Tale of Three Paradigms

Once upon a time, Christians in the United States rushed to build church buildings anywhere and everywhere they could — especially close to other churches who didn’t quite worship God the right way.  There was a flurry of competition, with new “independent,” “non-denominational,” “alternative” groups joining the mix each and every year.  We Christians were so successful with our building and expansion that building became our focus.  Spreading the gospel gave way to spreading a particular “brand” of the gospel which then gave way to spreading as much of our brand of the gospel as possible.  Another way to phrase it is that “institutional establishment” evolved into “institutional expansion” which resulted in a commitment to “institutional preservation” — which is where we find ourselves today in our mainline Protestant churches.


But an interesting thing began about 50 years ago — a competing and very different paradigm emerged.  Following the Korean War and the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. went through a series of huge and traumatic culture-shattering events.  Civil Rights riots, assassinations of two Kennedys and a King, the Viet Nam War, the Summer of Love, and Watergate are a small sample of these events.  Race, gender rights, alternative lifestyle choices, war protest, loss of confidence in government, and a dozen other factors made people a little less trusting of institutions (including the CHURCH) and a little more committed to finding truth and meaning for themselves.  From this fertile shift emerged the Jesus movement, the New Age movement, EST, Transcendental Meditation, exploration of Eastern religions, drug experimentation, and a multi-million dollar self-help industry.  Self-fulfillment, self-actualization, and a healthy measure of self-indulgence moved people away from traditional structures to a hodge-podge of experiments and alternatives.  The roots of this paradigm grew in a soil of “spiritual exploration and investigation,” and now exists as a hunger for “spiritual enlightenment.”

But that’s not all.  Around the world, missionary movements have borne fruit, and Christians around the planet are taking responsibility for their own futures.  No longer do Africans, Asians, South and Central Americans look to the U.S. for their spiritual guidance and support.  We are standing at the threshold of a “global spiritual awakening” — one that will move the gravitational center of the Christian church out of the Northern and Western hemispheres deep into the Southern hemisphere.  By the end of this century, Christians in the United States will comprise a slim minority of Christians worldwide.  We are experiencing the birth of this global awakening paradigm.

So we live in a time of three connected, intertwined, but distinctly different and competitive paradigms:  institutional preservation vs. cultural spiritual enlightenment vs. global awakening.  What a fabulous and exciting time to be a Christian… and a troubling and frutrating time to be locked into institutional preservation!  There are a few distinctive differences between these three paradigms.  Among them:

  • institutional preservation depends on getting people to come to us — to join our churches, lead our teams, pay our bills, teach our classes, etc.  Spiritual enlightenment requires that we leave the comfort of our churches to go where the people are — to meet them where they spend their time, anytime, anywhere, and with whomsoever is there.  Global awakening requires partnership and a willingness to let others make decisions and set priorities.
  • Institutional preservation is all about boundaries — “our” church, “our” pastor, “our” ministries, “our” mission, etc.  It is grounded in establishing a reputation, a “brand” if you will.  Spiritual enlightenment is all about membranes — information, time, energy, resources all flowing freely where they will do the most good.  Global awakening is an acknowledgement that the direction and power of the church is relocating to the South.
  • Institutional preservation is about loyalty — getting and keeping  “members.”  Spiritual enlightenment is about going where the Spirit leads, and there is no disloyalty in breaking from one fellowship to join another.  It is growing more and more common to find people who worship one place, are part of a small group in another place, and work on a mission initiative with yet a third.  Global awakening requires that we put our membership in the body of Christ ahead of our membership in a denomination or church.

There are a lot more differences, but the bottom line is that the more heavily one is anchored in one paradigm, the less flexible and responsive he or she is to the other paradigms.  It’s a God and Mammon thing.  You cannot serve the institution and be fully present to the enlightenment culture at the same time.  Churches, conferences, and agencies dedicated to preserving The United Methodist Church as it is will be less effective making disciples and transforming the world, because they are keeping their treasure in a different place — and where the treasure is, there you find the heart also.  We’re not even ready to consider the global awakening paradigm, unless of course we can engage it on our own terms in our own way.

I have used the analogy before, and I use it again at the risk of making it irrelevant, but the institutional preservation paradigm is the dock, the spiritual enlightenment paradigm is the boat (no longer moored to the dock), and the island the boat is heading for is the global awakening paradigm.  The United Methodist Church — and all mainline churches — stand at a critical juncture.  Currently we have one foot in the boat and one foot on the shore.  Our future depends on which way we will finally lean, consigning ourselves to remain on the shore, or courageously risking all to sail into the future.

7 replies

  1. This is a sublime assessment of where we are as a movement. Is there a larger forum where this is being explored? Are our bishops aware of this? Discussing this?

    • I have no idea whether the bishops are addressing the issue as I have laid it out. I find it hard to believe they aren’t addressing it in some form, since it is happening to us as we speak…

  2. This is a wonderfully helpful model. Why don’t we hear more about it? It helps explain the lame, self-serving nature of things like Re-Think church, as well as the growing disatisfaction with the institutional church. I wish one of our magazines, like Circuit Rider, would ask you for a full length treatment. This is important information that helps describe the future of our church. Thanks.

  3. I’ve never seen this before. Is it published anywhere? It is really insightful and a helpful model that explains a lot about where we are. May I have permission to use this in my local church?

    • By all means, share this with whomsoever you will. (And the only place it’s published is here.)

  4. This is one of the best, most helpful descriptions of leadership I have ever seen. I am going to use it in the business classes I teach this fall. Thank you for something to practical and so helpful!

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