Glorify is a book I never meant to write.
In the fall of 2014 I was taking a research seminar for my Doctor of Ministry degree. One of our assignments was to present our plans for our doctoral project. So, I went with my previously stated intentions and wrote out a lengthy proposal for a project centered on Ron Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership and its application to the church.
If you’ve never heard about “adaptive leadership” before, here’s the quick and dirty version. There are two kinds of fixes: technical and adaptive. Many challenges can be solved by relatively easy “technical fixes”. I like to think of this as the “duct tape approach”. Something is broken? Duct tape it back in place. It will work…at least for a while.
But adaptive challenges are more difficult than that. They require us to take a look at the entire broken system and use creative approaches to fix them. Many of the challenges we try to solve with “technical fixes” are actually adaptive challenges in disguise. Because adaptive fixes take more time, energy, and effort, though, it may be tempting to just try to fix them with the duct tape of technical fixes instead.
I wanted to write about the mainline church and how we, as almost anyone will tell you, are broken. We are losing members. We are losing churches. We are losing our sense of purpose. My project was going to be a practical guide to bringing adaptive thinking to the congregational setting.
But one day in class, while I was sketching out my ideas, a thought came to me: was I attempting to fix an adaptive problem with just another technical fix? Am I writing another book that pastors and church leaders will buy in an attempt to fix things? One that, like most other books, won’t contribute much to solving the problem?
It was while I was pondering this that another thought came: Maybe Jesus is the adaptive fix.
Bear with me. I don’t think we should follow Jesus to save our churches. But I do think that mainline churches have in many ways already put the cart before the horse (or forgotten the horse entirely). We have been so focused on saving ourselves that we have forgotten that someone has already done that. Perhaps the greatest adaptive fix the mainline could make would be to remember its purpose, and build back a sense of itself as belonging to a God of grace.
That fall I wrote a blog about this idea that was later picked up by Still Speaking Magazine. (You can read it here: https://emilycheath.com/2014/09/16/the-next-big-thing-for-the-progressive-church-putting-the-horse-before-the-cart/ ) Not long after that I signed a contract with Pilgrim Press for a book based on these same ideas. The result was Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity, which was just published last month.
From the beginning I knew this was a different kind of church leadership and church growth book. It’s doesn’t follow the “ten easy steps to turn your church around” format. There’s no conversation about whether traditional or contemporary music will get the millennials in your pews, or whether to buy hymnals or project the music overhead. I’m not telling you to run a sermon series on marriage or hang a rainbow banner from your steeple.
You can do all of that, of course. It’s still great stuff. But, in the end, it’s just a technical fix in an age when we need an adaptive change.
One of the statistics I quote in the book says that we mainliners, “have the worst ‘retention rate’ when it comes to our young people; 45 percent, less than half, of our youth continue to claim our tradition into young adulthood. That number dips to 37 percent, or just over a third, when you look at millennials. More and more of our youth are graduating from high school, stepping out into the world, and becoming “nones.”
In other words, despite every bell and whistle we try, we’re losing about two-thirds of the people who grow up in our mainline congregations. It’s not that people don’t know about us. It’s that they know us, and aren’t so sure they want what we are offering.
To put it another way, the technical fixes that mainline and progressive churches have been trying for the last thirty years aren’t working. The kids are alright, but we’re not. And they can see through any facade that says otherwise.
So, maybe it’s time to try something new. Maybe it’s time to eschew the technical fixes of the latest new craze in church, and instead look for something different. Maybe it’s time to put our hope in something a little more long-lasting. Maybe it’s time to stop looking countercultural, and actually be countercultural.
And maybe it’s time to do the kind of adaptive work that only God can help us do.
Glorify will not be the book to help you save your church. But it might just point you towards the one who can.