People > Everything Else (adapting your leadership and ministry philosophy to change)

By Nick Bogardus

Christianity in America is about to become a distinct minority group. A PEW Research study earlier this year contrasted the marked increase of “Nones” in America. A full 23% of Americans are Nones (up from 16% in 2007) while Mainline Protestant denominations lost 5 million adults over the same period and the Catholic church lost six people for every one that it gained. The bright — distinct — spot was the increase of conservative Evangelical Protestants (at 62% up from 60% in 2007).

The data gets starker when looking at the Millennial generation. 30% of Millennials are Nones, as opposed to 23% of the general population. Additionally, 56% of today's younger millennials (born 1990-1996) call themselves Christians, even though the vast majority — about eight in ten — were raised in religious homes. As sociologist Christian Smith has proven in his work and this data reflects, Christians are not passing on the faith to the next generation (see his book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults).

Christianity in America is about to become a distinct minority group and the landscape is changing faster than many churches and Christians can adapt.

How you lead your church, your team, and the volunteers in your church begins with understanding of the nature and setting of your work. My question is how can we adapt our ministry philosophy, in a way that is biblically faithful, in a time when we will have less resources than ever? 

I believe there are unchanging truths and principles we must never relinquish. But I also think there are ways we can adapt by learning from the world around us. Since the Apostle Paul used the Roman infrastructure to spread the Gospel, Christian missionaries and churches have adapted an unchanging message to their changing circumstances. Consider Luther and the printing press, Methodist circuit riders, Billy Graham’s use of amplification, the proliferation of TV and radio programming, and now the use of the internet to distribute the Christian message. 

Side-by-Side Adaptation

The cultural forces that drove those kind of adaptations drove changes in other areas of our lives as well. In his memoir, Lt. Col. John A. Nagl writes, "Alvin Toffler, the author of Future Shock, suggests that there have been just three revolutions in all of human history — the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions. Each of these three revolutions has led to profound impact on almost everything humans do, including how we wage war on each other” (Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice, 136.).

My proposal is that because we have both been effected by the same cultural forces (and their increasing speed and complexity) the church can learn helpful lessons from how the military has adapted from conventional conflict to having an effective counterinsurgency plan. 

People > Everything Else

Allow me to illustrate one of the parallels by giving you a brief list of how both the church and the military have poorly responded to change.

  • Throwing money at the problems
  • Thinking technology will solve the problems
  • Business as usual’ that lacks understanding and empathy
  • Theological/ideological compromise
  • Complicated solutions’ used to attack complex problems

What does this have to with leading volunteers? One of the consequences of having less resources than ever is that churches will be more volunteer-driven and less staff or pastor-driven. Look at the list above again; what solves problems better than money or technology? People. What can show understanding, empathy, and solve complex problems? People. The future of the church is orthodox, adaptive and people-centered (as it has always been). My hope is to help you lead your teams into the future by holding to Gospel-centrality and biblical ecclesiology while learning how we can adapt on our mission from how the military has adapted to theirs.

“The Subversive Church: Saints & Dissidents”

Some of the questions we will answer during my session are:

  • How has the American church and military adapted to change over time?
  • What are some failed ways that both have responded to change?
  • What are the marks and goals of counterinsurgency?
  • How can the church create a strategy that combines lessons from the military’s adaption and maintain biblical fidelity?
  • What specific tactics can church’s implement as they adapt?

Hope to see you Louisville for The Soul of Eldership.


Recommended Reading:

The Sling & Stone: On War in the 21st Century by Col. Thomas X. Hammes

The Generals: American Military Command from WWII to Today by Thomas E. Ricks

Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory & Practice by Lt. Col. John A. Nagl

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City by Timothy Keller