By Denis Fortin … Should a church change over time?

In 1995, George Knight published a book whose title caught attention—The Fat Lady and the Kingdom. It was obviously not politically correct, nor very considerate, but the point was made, nonetheless.

Could a big, institutional church still claim to fulfill the mission of the kingdom of God? The title indirectly pointed to the fact that our church has changed over the years. We have become “fat” with the excess weight of institutionalism.

Knight’s book was a collection of ten articles or presentations he had done in the five or so years before its publication. All had to do with Adventist identity and relevance. Sensing the church was at a crossroads, 150 years since the Great Disappointment (in 1844), the book sought to address many current issues and offered some suggestions. The book sought to open up some possibilities as Adventists contemplated an uncertain future.

The book was published 26 years ago, but I find its evaluation of the institutional church still relevant and its message still daunting. The implied critique of church institutionalism in the title was deliberate. Have we become too big to fulfill the mission of the kingdom of God? Can a big institution remain committed to the ideals and motivations of earlier generations, of those who dreamed and built the movement? Does a big church become too focused on perpetuating itself? Knight feared that this was a very real threat in the mid-1990s.

What about now? Is this still a threat today?

Of all institutions in modern society, churches are among the most resistant to change. The impulse to remain faithful to tradition is very strong. In fact, it is almost impossible to resist this impulse. “Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith! We will be true to thee till death,” sings the familiar hymn.

One threat in particular is the church as an institution, the way it functions, how it follows a predictable routine of procedures, practices, and methods. Think about your local church and your local conference. How predictable are their monthly and annual schedules of board meetings, retreats, camp meetings, youth meetings, budget planning, etc., etc. Any good elders, pastors, and conference administrators have their calendars filled many months in advance with meetings, official committees, and assemblies. Each of these events requires planning and preparation. Our church is a well-lubricated institution with anticipated timelines.

While a well-functioning organization is certainly a blessing of God and an evidence of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, here lies the main concern as well. The institution does not really need much divine intervention any more to run smoothly. Someone has said that if the Holy Spirit were to be withdrawn from most of our churches, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference.

In one of his chapters, Knight introduced a model of church institutionalism borrowed from David Moberg, a sociologist who studied the church as a social institution in America. After studying the life of many churches, Moberg offered a theory of the life cycle for a church divided into five stages. Knight used this model and compared it to our church. The findings were candid and alarming.

Moberg’s life cycle of a church begins with Stage One, the incipient organization. This is the stage when a religious group starts its experiment and emerges on the religious scene. The excitement is palpable, and people join this new movement with much enthusiasm and fervor. It has a clear mission, shapes its beliefs, affirms some standard of membership. According to Knight, this first stage is easily recognizable in the first twenty years of the Seventh-day Adventist movement, from 1844 to the formation of the General Conference in 1863.

The second stage of this life cycle is the formal organization stage. At this stage in the life of a church, its leaders formulate their goals to attract new members and develop their beliefs to preserve and propagate what they see as orthodoxy. The group begins to develop its own symbols and rituals. Their lifestyle and behavior make them stand out from the surrounding society. They may even establish some parallel institutions like schools and hospitals. Again, this stage is easily recognizable, according to Knight, in the period of 1863 to about 1901 in the Adventist church. We honed our conference and General Conference governance system. We established colleges, sanitariums, publishing houses, and all kinds of societies to accomplish our God-inspired mission.

Stage Three is maximum efficiency. The church organization has become more efficient, and leaders are successful managers. All the various parts of the institution make progress, growth by good management is easily observable, and statistics show progress. The mood is upbeat, and the sky is the limit. For Knight, the Seventh-day Adventist church reached this stage between 1901 and about 1960. This was the “full-steam-ahead period” when we established a presence and duplicated our parallel institutions in dozens of countries.

By the time a church organization reaches Stage Four, it is well into formal institutionalism. A kind of bureaucracy has been well established, and leaders are more concerned with guarding their own interests than maintaining the earlier dynamic intentions of stages one and two. Stability and continuity are primary, not upsetting the apple cart. Whatever worked in the past and works now is not to be tampered with. Knight believes that our church reached that stage sometime in the 1960s. If a church enters that stage it has two options. Either it stems the tide of bureaucracy and institutionalism by doing some radical reorientation of its objectives, structures, procedures and policies and somehow goes back closer in time to stage three, or it nonchalantly edges its steps toward the last stage. This is the crucial moment and perhaps a point of no return.

The fifth stage is the disintegration stage. The over institutionalism, formalism and bureaucracy produce the unintended indifference to the needs of its members—the institution matters more than the people. This situation causes people to lose confidence in the church. People leave the church. For those who stay, there is often a lack of wholehearted commitment. The denomination will continue with career leaders with vested interests and with a membership admiring the good old days. Knight believed that back in 1995, some geographical areas of our church had already reached this stage.

Moberg’s study and Knight’s essay point to one constant factor: whether we like it or not, all churches—whether at the local congregation or the denominational level—change over time. As a church ages, its leadership and processes are routinized and bureaucratic structures increase. Structures or programs put in place to address a problem are kept in place even after the problem is solved or is no longer an issue. As time goes, the number of needless structures increases and over time they themselves become a problem. The over institutionalism and formalism of a church may be the causes of its disintegration (Stage Five). In some ways, this is an “institutional disease.”

Back in 1995, Knight said, “Nearly everyone seems to agree that radical administrative and institutional reorganization, consolidation, and reform are imperative, but few appear to be willing to put their best judgments into action. The result is that a great deal of money and effort is expended in defending the existence of the status quo when these resources might better be used to develop new structures and methodologies to reach the movement’s original goals.”

In reality, the level of institutionalism we have reached in 2021 is an indication of our success, but it can also be an indication of secularization, of routinization, of no longer really needing the Holy Spirit to function smoothly.

Can we stem the problems inherent in an aging church? Yes, certainly. While a church may naturally follow a pattern of unperceived changes over the years and not realize that it is progressing from Stage One to Stage Four and inching toward Stage Five, to reverse this trend, a church has to consciously become proactive to change this pattern if it wants to remain relevant to the original mission of the kingdom of God. It requires leaders, lay and church-employed, who are willing to evaluate constantly and critically a church’s goals and to bring church structures and programs into line with these goals. But this suggestion, in itself, almost sounds too institutional, too mechanical, too management-by-objectives.

The underlying point though is that a church that does not change and adapt to new cultures and environments will become likely irrelevant. And the reverse is just as possible. A church may become focused only on itself rather than on a world to save.

The greatest need of the institutional church will always be to depend on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and sense the direction He is taking the church. To be open and sensitive to this guidance is the best solution.

— Denis Fortin, PhD, is professor of historical theology and former dean of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary of Andrews University. He serves also as teaching pastor of the One Place Fellowship on the campus of Andrews University. Email him at: [email protected]