Friday, February 01, 2019

Transforming Churches: Shifting the Paradigm

What do you see?
The first time I learned about paradigms and paradigm shifting was through Joel Barker’s book on the topic. Barker helped us to see that if we can shift the way that we look at something, we can change our entire perspective on the subject.  He used optical illusions as an illustration of this concept.  If you look at something once, you see it in one particular way, but if you concentrate, you may see something new.

Barker also pointed out that this idea applies to business.  Those who started laying tracks and placing locomotives on them thought they were in the railroad business when actually they were in the transportation business.  One approach led to a dead end; the other opened up new possibilities.

The same is true of the church.  Hans Kung and David Bosch applied this to the work of the church through two millennia. Building on their work, we can identify seven major subdivisions or “paradigms” of western Christian history.

  • The apocalyptic paradigm of primitive Christianity.  This approach to doing church was based on the expectation of the imminent return of Christ.
  • The Hellenistic paradigm of the patristic period.  What do you do when the Messiah doesn’t return? You start finding a way to use the dominant culture of the day to share your faith.
  • The medieval Roman Catholic paradigm.  The church assumed the role of purveyor and protector of culture and civilization, providing stability in changing times and legitimacy for civil authority.
  • The Protestant (Reformation) paradigm.  Although this movement changed the face of Western Christianity, the Reformation initially did not bring as many social changes as one might think. Church continued to be tied to the secular ruler, providing mutually credibility for each.
  • The modern Enlightenment paradigm.  The role of faith evolved in light of the rise of rationalism and the scientific method.  Western thought and methodology birthed the modern mission movement, often with secular support.
  • The emerging ecumenical paradigm.  This was relatively short-lived but encouraged denominational mergers, interfaith dialogue, and a search for common ground among Christians.
  • The Postmodern paradigm. This is the era of the disestablishment of the church and the relativism of truth and authority.


In every case, the shift was neither neat nor immediate, but changed the face of Christianity.  We can learn from these attempts to make the gospel relevant to the prevailing culture.

First, the church is always in the process of being reformed. Things move along at a healthy rate until a time of decline sets in.  At this point, someone comes in with a new idea that rejuvenates and refocuses the church.

Second, the new idea usually comes from the margins of Christianity.  Whether the innovation was monastic orders, the establishment of hospitals and orphanages, the birth of missionary societies, the Sunday School movement, or the use of radio and television as a means of propagating the faith, the innovator was often criticized by the established faith community.  Of course, once their approach was successful, it was embraced by the institutional church.

Third, the strength of the Christian church comes not from building an institution but in embracing an organic approach to discovery, ministry, and growth.  Change is not only to be expected but embraced.

How does this apply to church transformation?  A healthy, growing congregation knows what is essential to its faith and holds onto it while experimenting with new possibilities to engage with its culture.  Failure to do this leads to stagnation and death. By embracing change, the church provides the Spirit of God to work in its midst.



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