Adaptation or Extinction

February 13th, 2012
Image © Writing Program PTW | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

When Darwin visited one of the Galapagos Islands, he found a finch that had a strong curved beak perfect for cracking the shells of seeds, this bird’s primary food. Then Darwin traveled to another of the islands and found the same finch but this time with an elongated, more probing beak which was more suited for the food of that area, the nectar from flowers. On his third island he found the same finch but now with a beak which was a compromise in size, shape, and strength of the other two, and was best suited for insects, the primary food source on the third island. Churches are like the finch. Churches are one species, Christian, however like the finch that live on the Galapagos islands, local churches must find variance/adaptations to survive. Let me explain.

Many folks who attend worship every week are not sure why they keep coming to church. These folks are “cultural Christians” as identified by Gabe Lyons in his book The Next Christians. Perhaps the local church feels familiar and comfortable like a favorite pillow or winter coat. The deeper meaning for the gospel, the urgency of our task, is lost as we “play church” rather than “be the church” (Cecil Williams). In Darwinian language, we Christians have forgotten what kind of bird we are. We are followers of Jesus Christ. How can we invite persons to a transforming church when we are not sure of our own species, of who we are, and not fully committed to being all that Jesus calls us to be?

When we have a starting place for self-definition, knowing our species as Christian, it is time to complete self-definition by naming the purpose of Christian churches: to create disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This is who we are. Our purpose defines us.

Congregations must find their unique role in making new disciples for the transformation of the world. The emphasis here is on “unique.” Living into our uniqueness is like a Galapagos island finch growing the beak that best suits its particular island’s food source. Darwin calls this variance or adaptation. Far too often we have looked at other churches of a different size, geography, lifespan, and culture and tried to duplicate what has been successful in their context. (Or, alternatively, denigrated them because what they do would not work in our context.) We find their uniqueness is not appropriate for where we find ourselves, and what our assets as a church might be. Mainline Christian denominations have been in decline because we have not practiced our variance. Like a finch with a curved beak struggling to drink nectar, we have not adapted to our environment. Mainline Christian churches are in danger. Mainline Christian churches are headed for extinction unless local churches mutate in unique ways to make new disciples for the transformation of the world.

Darwin says there is intense competition for limited resources. There are lots of finches out there trying to survive. The most fit finches, the ones that have the best adaptation (variation/mutations), will survive. Mission statements, vision, purpose and journey statements, or simply an answer to an outsider’s question “tell me about your congregation” are the means to identify unique variance/adaptations of any given local church. Often times we can see slogans printed in bulletins, on web sites, of even on the walls of the local church itself. Travis Park UMC in San Antonio lives out “Unconditional Love and Justice in Action.” Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., aims to “build a community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians.” Glide, in San Francisco, proclaims itself “A radically inclusive, just and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.” First UMC Phoenix works to live out their uniqueness by “Uniting our lives with God’s Dream for the World.”

Contrast these 4 unique local church visions with “the friendly church in the heart of the city,” or “growing, serving, reaching.” If a vision statement can apply to hundreds of other generic local churches it fails to provide the uniqueness, variance, adaptation, or mutation necessary for survival. Natural selection says “In harsh climate, nature will choose who will live and who will die.” I would offer up that today’s world where persons proclaim themselves spiritual but not religious, believers in God but not church goers, local churches are in a harsh climate.

Lastly, everything local churches do must come from our self-definition, our purpose for being. As we mutate or demonstrate variance from other local churches, not in self-definition but in the uniqueness of expression of our common self-definition, then we must practice alignment. Alignment helps us remember who we are and who we are becoming. Alignment means that everything we do relates back to our self-definition and unique variance. At every First UMC Phoenix finance meeting we ask “how do our financial decisions align with our purpose and vision?” If the activity is not clearly aligned then it does not need to be done. If an outside group wants to use the church facilities, we ask “Is this in alignment with our purpose and vision?” We local churches do many things because “we have always done it that way.” Put everything to the alignment test and if it should fail the test, stop doing that activity. If enough of our activities do not fall into alignment then we will inevitably learn the harsh truth of natural selection. The local church, as we know it, will become extinct.  


The authors' upcoming book, 10 Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What You can Do About It, will release April 1, 2012. Order now.

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