In 1687, physicist Sir Isaac Newton published a book called Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. In this work, Newton shares three observations related to bodies in motion. The laws of motion as they are known, state the following:
- Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it.
- The relationship between an object’s mass m, its acceleration a, and the applied force F is F = ma.
- For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Generally, people are introduced to these laws of physics in school or college. However, I think that it would be good for seminarians and church leaders to study them closely as part of our training to work in congregations.
I would like to share my thoughts on these three laws and how they can be translated into congregational life. Each one of these laws helps pastors understand our congregations a bit better. It will also help congregations understand themselves a bit better. A better understanding of our own congregations will, hopefully, bring us to healthier relationships, ministries, individuals, and communities of faith.
Because there is so much that can be said of each one of these laws, I will divide this essay intro three shorter essays expressing my understanding of how these laws affect our congregations and how to best address each one of them.
First Law – State of Inertia
The first law states, in lay terminology, that any object in movement will stay in movement unless there is a force to stop it. Conversely, any object in state of inertia – or of rest – will stay unmoved unless there is a force that will make it move. Sounds familiar?
Churches tend to stay in the state in which they are. More often than not, people pay attention at how the mainline churches continue in a state of inertia. Since there is no force that will move these congregations, they tend to wane and decline. Every now and then someone new will come through the doors. Sometimes these new visitors will stay, but often they will leave soon after discovering that the congregation is not ready to embrace them or to allow them to bring their ideas and passions.
Those who stay do it more often than not because they feel secure in a steady environment. Perhaps, the reason they come to church in the first place is because they are looking for a place where they can feel comfortable. This comfort is sometimes expressed in a state of inertia. Nothing is expected of the new members – with the exception of “blending in” with the culture of the church. The feeling of security and stability comes from not having to move or to be innovative. We can come to church and pray, sing, listen to a sermon, and share cookies afterward like our ancestors have done for only God knows how long. There is a feeling of security and comfort in old traditions. These are the churches with scholarly pastors in robes or business suits, thousands of church meetings to discuss the next business meeting, and one-hour long worship services so predictable that you need not come on Sunday to know at what minute you are suppose to be singing the opening hymn.
On the other hand, we have churches that are always “on the move.” Experimentation, innovation and modernization are usually the operative words for these congregations. Every worship experience is different. Every week there is a new experience to have. New members are always welcomed and they come in throngs. Each new member is encouraged to develop their own ministries, their own small groups, their own spaces of worship or of exploration. More often than not, these “emerging congregations” as they are usually called, will attract people of my generation and younger – the so-called Gen X, Generation Y, and the Millenials.
Everything around us moves at the speed of light. Our generation expresses thoughts in 140 characters or less in Twitter. Texting has replaced boring phone conversations. Emails are often used to engage in discussion, although it still “so-1990s!” Facebook has replaced human interaction. Ideas float left and right and any outsider will feel dizzy with all the movement that happens both in the lives of these generation and in the churches that attract us.
Frequently you will note that the only steady members of the congregations that attract these generations are the pastors. The congregation, however, has changed every few years. Yet, the pews – or rather, the theater chairs that have replaced them – are so full that everyone looks at them as the prime example of successful ministries.
The Law of Inertia has important implications for the churches. Let us take a look at each type of church.
First, those churches that are in the state of rest will stop growing at a healthy pace. As I stated, these congregations tend to dwindle at a faster rate than others. Mainline churches are usually part of this group of congregations. Traditions die hard and people are not fond of bringing innovation or trying new things. The consequence is that these churches become almost irrelevant to the communities in which they are established. Stepping into their services on a Sunday morning is like traveling back in time for most people.
Younger generations will find the services at these type of churches boring, irrelevant, old-school, and even disconnected from reality. Social action and justice – which are often talked about in these congregations – are not in touch with the realities of the younger generations. These younger generations live in a world in which racial integration is a reality, gay and lesbians can marry in several countries and states of the USA, and women are often in the pulpits. Truly, our churches have to continue working for social transformation and being willing to take bold stands on issues of social justice. However these churches of inertia have replaced these actions for true spiritual formation and experiences.
If recent research is to be trusted, younger generations are longing for spiritually but not religious experiences. These experiences cannot be achieved with old traditions and regular business meetings. It also means that making the services all about social justice makes the younger visitor feel like what they are doing in their daily lives is not enough. Keep in mind, that these are the people who are marching, demonstrating, getting arrested and beaten by the police as they try to change the systems of oppression we live in. When they visit a congregation it is often because they are looking for an experience of the mystery that they cannot explain; seldom do they come to know how and why Jesus threw the moneychangers from the Temple.
The churches of inertia, unfortunately, do not provide for the spiritual needs of Gen Xers, Generation Yers, and Millenials. What young person has the time to come to three meetings, two worship services, four demonstrations, one fund-raising dinner, and any other church activity in a week? Church for the younger generation is about finding a safe space to connect with the mystery of God. It is also a place to find community, not over budgetary discussions, but over a cup of tea or coffee or even a beer, while at the same time expressing our doubts about God and religion. Contradictory? Yes. But so is life!
Second, the churches in motion have the problem of never being able to find roots for their movements. These churches are more likely to be mega-churches, independent congregations or mainline evangelicals.
It is common for churches in movement to ignore the needs of the aging population. As the baby boomers age and their parents have even more and more needs, the churches in movement have decided to completely ignore them in order to provide for younger people. Most of the emerging churches do not provide for the security and the stability that senior people need in order to have religious experiences that are meaningful for them.
This is not to say that older adults are not fond of movement, but rather that movement for these particular generations needs to happen at a pace that is healthy for them. Too much movement too fast is not what helps the spirituality of the older adults. Tradition helps these particular generations feel connected to their past and histories. Systemic planning – i.e. committee meetings – are places where older adults feel more comfortable, knowing that they have a starting point as well as a clear vision and goal in order to use their gifts for ministry. Finally, predictability gives them the confidence that they do not have to always learn some new language and always being on the move; they have already done this in their lives and it is now their time to rest and to reap the fruit of their many years of labor.
Churches in motion also tend to forget about the life transitions that all human beings go through. With perhaps the exception of marriage and baptisms, it is rare to find a pastor in one these churches who understand the importance of providing good care during life transitions. More often than not, these churches do not provide good ministry of accompaniment to the elderly or the sick, and very rarely are they prepared to lead meaningful funeral and memorial services. The most common understanding is that youthful energy and health will last forever.
Rarely do these churches engage in serious theological discussion. It is most common for them to stress the mystery and the spiritual. When the Scriptures are used, are usually to answer the question “what does this have to do with me?” and rarely on how are the Scriptures to help us transform the world around us. These churches have a very clear “market” and they do everything in their power to sell their product to this particular sector of consumers. In fact, these marketing strategists are at the core of the churches in movement.
Certainly, all these aspects are generalizations. There is not one single congregation that has all of the characteristics I am sharing here. However, I believe that it is good for leaders to assess where in the spectrum the churches we serve fall in order to provide better pastoral leadership.
As stated before, what I have shared are generalizations. It would be foolish of me to assume that there is a “one size fits all” solution to counteract the Law of Inertia. However, I see a possibility in the way in which Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have dealt with tradition and innovation.
The Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have allowed people to both hold on to tradition while at the same time provide for a deep spiritual experience that is individual. The movement towards innovation happens gradually. Members are encouraged to participate, yet there is a deep respect for the tradition of the elders and their wisdom. At the same time, these elders and leaders are open to innovation because of their own personal experiences of the mystery of God (most evident in their theology of the Holy Spirit.) And this interaction between younger and older generations in leading the church helps create an environment in which the community provides for care for each other at all times, regardless of age. The integration of the younger generations and the older generations happens organically, not forcefully as it is often the case in inertia churches and absent as it is the case in churches in motion.
Passion is as important as talent in their communities. You need not have a degree in music in order to sing in the choir, nor do you have to possess a degree in theology in order to engage in teaching and preaching at the church. Generally, committee meetings happen in the context of a specific need and not just for the sake of meeting. Worship is the central aspect of live in community, not business meetings. Instead of four committee meetings a week, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have three or four worship experiences a week. The “target” audience for these churches is anyone who is not yet one of them, thus there is no need to define the product to sell in order to sell it. Anyone has the possibility of belonging!
Again, these are generalizations. I have expressed elsewhere my concern and unease with Pentecostal and Charismatic theology and worship, and I am open about these feelings. I have also expressed my love and attachment to the mainline Protestant tradition. But I am also critical of churches that stay in their state of motion or inertia for the sake of it, whether they are mainline or emergent. I believe that the future of the church lies in knowing how to keep a balance between movement and rest.
In the next essay I would like to explore the second Law of Motion, and look at what would be the healthy speed in which a church should move in order to affect healthy change.