A prevailing myth today is that church attendance is declining because churches and seminaries are not practical enough.
The truth is that church attendance is declining at a time when churches are more practical than ever, at least if we measure the level of practicality by the proliferation of books, workshops and seminars claiming to give ministers practical know-how.
Seminary professors are very familiar with the pressure to give students something that they can put to an immediate use in their ministries.
Professors know that if the practical side of the course is not obvious, sooner or later students will ask about the practical value of the course.
One of the worst critiques a professor can receive is that her or his course is “impractical” or does not contribute to students’ ability to deal with immediate problems in their congregations.
The practical side has its important place in ecclesial life, and churches can disregard it only at their own peril. Ecclesial communities that neglect the practical side of ministry sooner or later will have to face the consequences.
Moreover, church health and outreach can be greatly enhanced by applying practical methods and techniques, as some contemporary mega-churches demonstrate. Effective church programs tailored to people of different ages and backgrounds have done a lot of good, and many of them should continue.
But why have all these practical strategies and efficient programs not been able to reverse declining church attendance?
Some of the roots of the fundamental, and perhaps excessive, reliance on the practical methods lay in the evangelical mindset. Many evangelicals consider it of primary importance to convince people to profess Jesus as their personal savior.
This places significant emphasis on finding efficient techniques to do so, hence the relentless search for the best methods to get people to make such a profession and join churches.
This schema of the basic message plus techniques tends to short circuit some of the traditional Christian practices, such as spiritual formation and theological reflection.
In fact, there is the sentiment that the latter two can stand in the way, for they do not have much of a practical value and tend to muddy the water with turning the focus inward and triggering doctrinal disagreements.
Increasing importance is being attached to know-how workshops, and the need for seminary education is becoming less obvious. But what is the price of such a short-circuiting?
Can evangelicals reverse the current declines by focusing almost exclusively on finding more efficient ways of spreading the simple message and running church programs?
And why are we having these declines in the first place at a time when we are more practical and efficient than we have ever been?
In his seminal book, “Leadership Without Easy Answers,” Ronald Heifetz, senior lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, divided problem situations into two types: technical and adaptive.
The main difference between them is that the former have ready-made technical solutions, and the latter do not.
For example, a technical problem would be a patient coming to a dentist with an abscess, and the dentist determining that the patient needs a root canal done. In this case, the solution is clear and will not require major changes in the patient’s lifestyle.
But if a patient is diagnosed with cancer, the challenge becomes adaptive. Several treatment strategies can be tried, but the solution is not obvious.
Major lifestyle adjustments are required of the patient, and the doctor’s challenge is that of leading the patient through the complicated treatment process rather than of prescribing a technical remedy.
Because there are no ready-made solutions in adaptive situations, the search for strategies involves all the affected parties working out adequate adaptive strategies. More often than not, it is a complex process that cannot be short-circuited.
Even though the craving for technical quick fixes becomes particularly strong in times of significant adaptive challenges, these cravings must be resisted and appropriate adaptive processes need to be brought into the situation.
Is the challenge of declining church attendance technical or adaptive?
By now it seems apparent that it is the latter because the relentless search for the practical in the past decades would have resulted in a technical solution by now had it existed.
But if the problem is adaptive, renewed emphasis needs to be given to spiritual formation and theological reflection, for it is precisely these disciplines that are best positioned to elucidate the precise nature of the problem.
Unless and until the adaptive nature of the challenge is recognized, churches will be caught up in the grip of ever more relentless cravings for the practical and in declining church attendance.
These two tendencies will reinforce each other forming a deadly loop. It is my hope that, by the grace of God, churches will break out of it.
Andrey Shirin is director of transformational leadership and assistant professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies in Arlington, Va. A version of this article first appeared on the John Leland Center’s blog, Theologically Speaking, and is used with permission.