Tod Bolsinger has a powerful metaphor for what the Western church is facing today. But it tells us that few see the situation the Western church is facing.
Bolsinger is former Senior Pastor of San Clemente (CA) Presbyterian Church and author of Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory. He recounts the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition to frame our post-Christian situation. The expedition assumed the unexplored west was exactly the same as the familiar east. It wasn’t. Lewis and Clark had to adapt in uncharted territory.
Bolsinger says churches have to adapt to the reality that “the world in front of you is nothing like the world behind you.” He felt this during his time as pastor. The changing world had brought his church “to a new place where we would need a new strategy.” What got them here wouldn’t take them there. Bolsinger had adapt—quickly—just as Meriwether Lewis wasted no time once the brutal facts of his situation were clear.
This is where the Lewis and Clark expedition is a helpful frame. The expedition faced miles and miles of snowcapped mountain peaks. They had no trail to follow. Food was scarce. Winter was coming. Their lives were at stake. Everyone felt a sense of urgency.
Harvard Business School professor John Kotter says the first step for leading organizational change is having a sense of urgency, what he calls a “gut-level determination to move . . . now.” According to Kotter, 50 percent of organizational transformation endeavors that fail do so because the leaders did not have an appropriate sense of “true urgency.” Lewis and Clark did. They didn’t have the luxury of forming a committee to study the situation. If they did, they’d soon die.
That is what’s happening to most churches today. Studying… and dying. Few pastors recognize our post-Christian world (and how the church is in exile). Bolsinger says our post-Christian situation poses questions churches must answer: Why do we exist as a congregation? What would be lost in our community if we ceased to be?
Here’s another: Do we feel a sense of urgency about all this? Bolinger led a two-year study for his denomination’s national council, urging changes. The council considered the report… and did nothing. Most churches strike me as rather relaxed about exile—if they even see it. They pray, ponder, process… and do nothing. Why no urgency?
I’m not talking about being hasty or careless. My sense is most faith communities are left-brained. The left hemisphere has no direct contact with reality. For most churches, “post-Christian” is an abstract concept—like quantum physics. They don’t feel it in their gut. They’re not facing unforeseen mountains. They feel no sense of urgency.
Yet if present trends continue, by 2030, 75 percent of the US population will have written off church and Christianity. If churches hope to ever be taken seriously by these folks—mostly well educated, urban, and influential—the church has got to pivot now.
It took the Sons of Judah three years just to learn the language and literature of Babylon. It took them many more to be taken seriously by Nebuchadnezzar’s courts. Only then could they bring flourishing to the city. The entire time the Jews were in Babylonian exile was 70 years, the amount of time Thomas Kuhn says it take for a cultural paradigm shift. With social media, it might take less. But the point is, we have to get going… now.