When my son and daughter cry out, “Dad-di-a!” – voicing the name they crafted just for me – the only conceivable way I can respond is to come. These three simple syllables, offered in absolute innocence and utter confidence, call me home. As their father, I come to them in the hope that my presence may grant them peace in the present and kindle their hope for the future.
I reassure them. Comfort them. Find their dear lovies – two well-loved stuffed bears – and nuzzle them back near the children’s cheeks. Sing yet another verse of our favorite nighttime song, “Silent Night.” (Yes, dear reader, we sing Christmas carols year-round; such is our family). And try to move back down the hall without stepping on that creaky floorboard.
Yet after I tuck them back in and calm their fears, I often grow uneasy.
As a scholar who studies how Christian communities adapt to a shifting organizational landscape, I know far too well how drastically the world of faith is changing. I can comfort them and calm their nighttime terrors, but I cannot forecast what Christianity will mean for my children.
As a scholar who studies how Christian communities adapt to a shifting organizational landscape, I know far too well how drastically the world of faith is changing.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2021 National Public Opinion Reference Survey, “the secularizing shifts evident in American society so far in the 21st century show no signs of slowing.” Beyond growing religious disaffiliation, declining giving, the growth of the “nones and dones” and the power of Christian nationalism, the statistics give rise to a question that is at once more personal and more troubling: What form of Christianity will care for our children?
Much as the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote on the occasion of a child’s baptism in 1944, I know how “by the time [they] grow up, the form of the church will have changed considerably.”
I spent the last five years studying Christian organizations in a post-Christian context. My 2022 book, titled Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World, tells the story of what is possible when communities of faith partner with one another amid the precarity that marks the life of faith. Based on extended fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest, a region that Mark Silk called the “American religious future” in a 2019 story published by the Religion News Service, Adaptive Church considers how innovation and Christian practice can guide faith communities when Christianity finds itself in a marginal social position.
Although my book certainly outlines the practices, organizational structures, practical wisdom and leadership needed to sustain a nimble and adaptive faith, it also tells about the structure of Christianity for our children on the other side: that is, an American Christianity that is decoupled from Christendom.
For the book, I traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest, meeting and speaking with leaders from different institutions that are all impacted by the shifting structure of Christianity. I interviewed pastors, nonprofit leaders, students, college presidents, foundation executives, deans, neighborhood pastors and missional innovators who are working on the growing and cutting edge of Christian institutionality. Although conventional study of religious organizations focuses on leaders in a single type of institution, I studied innovation by looking for the places where people of faith are gathering in new ways, across the silos that inhibit collaboration and community.
When I was done, I had completed 52 interviews, hosted focus groups with an additional 10 national leaders, attended conferences in the region, enjoyed some stunning clam chowder on the Puget Sound and completed numerous red-eye flights between the West and East Coasts.
Innovation in the Pacific Northwest takes a variety of forms, yet these leaders share a need for anchors and belonging. They need a structure to sustain their innovative work. So I sought out centers of collaborative activity where people are connecting around the shared challenges they face. The Parish Collective and Whitworth University’s Office of Church Engagement became imaginative anchors for this work. The mission of the Parish Collective is to connect people to become the church in the neighborhood. The Office of Church Engagement partners with churches and other Christian ministries as they discern how to be church and do ministry, both in the western region of the United States and around the world.
In time, I came to identify these places as forming a novel organizational form, a hub, that anchors religious life in a particular place and spins webs connecting these changing communities of faith. As a practical theologian, I also came to see these convergent spaces as sites where the Spirit of God may be birthing new structures of belonging, and where ecclesial imagination can be renewed.
Each of us, in different ways, builds the communities of faith God calls us to create. But the structure of Christianity for our children includes several features – let’s call them building blocks – that can create space where imagination can live. These seven blocks are resilience, a sense of place, partnership, the way of Jesus, public life, hope and friendship.
Beyond the crumbling confines of Christendom, I encountered communities of faith who display remarkable resilience. The unusual shape and plasticity of this building block allows it to fit into any space to move creative and collaborative work forward. These nimble and adaptive communities of faith, however, do not cling to prevailing organizational structures; rather, they imagine life beyond them.
Each of us, in different ways, builds the communities of faith God calls us to create. But the structure of Christianity for our children includes several features – let’s call them building blocks – that can create space where imagination can live.
My interviews and travels throughout the Pacific Northwest bore witness to how congregations, educational institutions and denominations still play a vital role, but they serve more to catalyze the resilience that the life of faith requires. Like buoys that direct safe passage through perilous waters, these standing institutions point to the path forward, but the resilience that sustains leaders may come from beyond the institutions they serve. It comes from friendships. Neighbors. Reading groups. Classmates. Partners in ministry. Each with its own history, these deeply rooted connections are carrying communities forward. At their best, existing structures create space for something new to emerge, and then they help it mature.
“It’s been a hard year,” one pastor shared with me nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in March 2020, he was supposed to get on a plane for a two-month sabbatical. Yet even though the demands of his ministry drew him deeper into caring for his community, he still talks about how his “hope will emerge again in a greater way.”
Insofar as a Christianity exists for our children, it will be birthed from and carried by a similar spirit of resilience. Even when our faith communities feel poised on the edge of precarity, resilience invites us to keep building.
A sense of place
Christianity for our children is local, marked by the particularities of cities, neighborhoods, schools and community enterprises. Like a mural that tells the story of a city, this building block is engraved with the local history that gives faith meaning in relation to a particular place.
I observed leaders and communities recovering the power and possibility of place. The (re)turn to the local represents more than a boutique expression of Christian faith. Small churches, megachurches, mainline congregations, church planters, ecclesial entrepreneurs and nonprofit ministries are all gathering around the particularities of place. “More than changing what we do, we first need to change how we see,” writes Tim Soerens in his 2020 book Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are.
And in the wake of mounting polarization – which people regularly noted in our interviews – individuals are recognizing that a sense of place provides a unifying dimension that can ground an ordinary ecclesial existence. This dimension is far from novel, as a form of Christian expression, but the recovery of local wisdom is counteracting commuter models of suburban Christianity and the fragility of digital discipleship.
In the wake of mounting polarization – which people regularly noted in our interviews – individuals are recognizing that a sense of place provides a unifying dimension that can ground an ordinary ecclesial existence.
The power of place anchors an adaptive church across these faith communities in the Pacific Northwest. And I saw this in more than one sect of Christianity. People are turning to a sense of place from across the disconnected silos of the body of Christ. I observed denominations partnering across the challenges they share in cities. Mainline pastors gathered in response to a mounting ecological crisis. A national parachurch organization centered place as a missional imperative.
Missional ministers found creative ways to serve in the place that surrounds them. Although the contextual center for each initiative leads to spectacular variation, the fundamental commitment to place remains the same.“Not everybody goes to church, and not everybody goes to work, but everybody lives in a place,” one leader shared with me. When place becomes the organizing principle underpinning mission and ministry, a new social imagination becomes possible, one that invites my children and others to encounter the mystery of God right where they are. When we hold the building block of a sense of place, we’re invited to imagine structures that enable faith to be(come) neighborly.
To understand the building block of partnership, consider people and communities who model relational fidelity. This block is covered with the names of companions, co-laborers and colleagues, all of whom are building structures to sustain our shared work into the next generation. Building with the block of partnership invites us to imagine how we can build together.
Partnership can also be forged amid crisis. The period covered by my research spanned the pandemic. While this crisis introduced unprecedented challenges for communities of faith in the region, it did not fundamentally alter the structure of the challenges they faced.
When place becomes the organizing principle underpinning mission and ministry, a new social imagination becomes possible, one that invites [all of us] and others to encounter the mystery of God right where [we] are.
I asked pastors and community leaders before and during the pandemic to describe their central challenges, values and practice of leadership, among other things. When I followed up with one pastor in Feb. 2021 (still in the shadow of the pandemic), I asked whether these challenges still faced him and whether he could identify others. With marked enthusiasm, he responded, “Absolutely. The only one that’s a lot less of a challenge right now is partnership.”
Assuming a plurality of forms and expressions, partnership pulses – like life-giving blood – through an adaptive church, animating every aspect of mission and ministry.
Although the forms of partnership will no doubt vary, the structure of Christianity that our children will encounter will be grounded by a more connected common life, one marked by an array of partnerships and creative, collaborative connections that bind our young people’s lives to the work and wisdom of others.
I often encountered the imagination underpinning such connections in the stories people told me about those who gave meaning and connection to their lives and ministry. Many could not tell me these stories without mentioning the impacts on their own children. Some talked about the power of mentors; others reflected on how their young children have acquired the language of faith; and still others told stories of their adopted children.
Often introduced as an aside, these deeply personal narratives expressed a question many others shared with me: Who will come alongside our children to accompany them in their life of faith?
And in turning to a more interconnected way of life, these individuals are betting on the winsome witness of the people and communities that surround their children. As one leader shared with me, “We’re better together.” Rather than building alone, they’ve committed to build together.
The way of Jesus
On their own terms, the first three building blocks of Christianity for our children could describe a civic organization just as readily as an adaptive church. Yet the wisdom that births this type of resilience, in the form of local partnerships, finds its soul and source in the life of Jesus. This statement cannot be proven. However, we can only build new structures after we have imagined what it is like to live in them.
In Adaptive Church, I first describe the structure of collaboration and community that is being constructed on the other side of Christendom. Then I consider how imagination and a sense of possibility together direct adaptive change, in light of the reality and promises of God.
One interviewee described five values that motivate her work: centered on Christ, having a place, collaborating across differences, linking across neighborhoods and finding ways to be a gathered community. Emphasizing the first value, she concluded: “We’ve got to really stay deeply rooted in identity as Christ followers.”
While Scripture speaks of Christ as the cornerstone of the church, this building block functions more like the mortar that holds together other misshapen blocks. It structures Christianity for our children by combining the cohesion and inspiration required for imagination to form and flourish.
As a result, the wisdom of an adaptive church invites us into a particular way of life, one that combines resilience, partnership and a sense of place to offer a way of life that is not predicated on position or power. Insofar as my children come to know and follow the world-changing Gospel, Christ is the key to an adaptive church.
Faith is lived in public. My research shows how people of faith in the Pacific Northwest turned to local partnerships amid the pandemic, when the lights of so many congregations went out. These existing partnerships, forged long before the crises of that moment, provided safe harbor for many leaders and communities to pursue creative renewal.
One pastor described to me how partnerships with other congregations and ministries across the city created deep roots to continue mission and ministry. Other ministry leaders noted how their ecclesial imagination could not be separated from the particularities of place; the nature of these partnerships demanded that they live out ministry in public. This public engagement has taken a variety of forms: ministries gathered to support immigration reform, garden boxes planted for the neighborhood, Christian social enterprises that seek to enrich local economies, educational institutions learning how to be good neighbors.
In each case, the public engagement that marks Christianity for our children goes beyond political activism or any personal pietism that is taken to the public square. Public engagement becomes a way of life in which the Good News goes public: drawing all of us, right where we are, into the mission of God. Even when being Christian is not the norm – as it is in the Pacific Northwest – this way of life invites winsome witness wherever one calls home.
The sixth building block, hope, is like that child’s block that gets kicked under the couch: it is essential, but it can also be hard to find.
The structure of Christianity for our children is ultimately marked by hope. I want to be clear here, however, about the nature of this hope. The hope of Christianity for our children lies not in an idealized return to cultural prominence or in the courting of political power. In many ways, the supposed golden age of Christianity was one of mass inequity and complicity. Nor is hope found in protecting and preserving privilege for bodies like my own able, White, male body.
Rather, the hope for and from an adaptive church is a hope in which new structures of belonging reconfigure the power that has inhibited transformative ways of being together.
When I gathered a group of Pacific Northwest leaders for a day of conversation, hope carried forward our common work and conversation.
The hope for and from an adaptive church is a hope in which new structures of belonging reconfigure the power that has inhibited transformative ways of being together.
More than a year into the pandemic, folks were tired and still pretty disconnected. The Northwest was also a region that had more severe lockdown policies than elsewhere. We met during Holy Week 2021 – one of the darkest Holy Weeks in recent memory – yet participants spoke of the hope that guides their work forward. Without diminishing the reality and complexity each of them knew so well, they shared how hope buoyed their work at the edges.
“I feel like there are more hopeful reasons to believe in the local church than ever before,” one attendee shared. “But of course, that all depends on where you look. I feel like there are so many spots of hope out here in the Northwest.”
Similarly, the story of an adaptive church kindles hope for a Christianity for our children — because on the other side of this great unraveling, when Christianity in America detaches from Christendom, new structures of belief and belonging are possible. Hope fuels the imagination: forming an adaptive church, quickening a sense of adaptive possibilities, and inviting people and communities to imagine what God is already doing in the ordinary spaces that surround the life of faith.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
I join my voice with the witness of so many others to affirm that God’s ongoing activity – through the structure of Christianity that is taking shape in a decoupled Christendom – is bending imagination toward hope for my children and for others.
When I started my research in the Pacific Northwest, my first son was a toddler, and my daughter was gestating. Now we recently welcomed our second son into the world. In the time between, a vision for Christianity for our children was also gestating.
Whenever I traveled for my research, I carried a small figurine from my children and snapped pictures of it throughout my research. Woody from the movie “Toy Story” joined me on the ferry across the Puget Sound. And Woody’s trusted companion, Rex, became a frequent flier.
My children were never far from my mind. Even though we build with Legos instead of wooden blocks, we still spend much of our days at home six inches from the floor.
The preceding six blocks – and the simple toy a father carried in a bag full of books – call to mind that single name, “Dad-di-a,” that draws me home. They also represent a defining feature in the structure of Christianity for our children: friendship. These simple playthings are like friends to my children. Similarly, the alternative Christian structures I encountered on the other side of Christendom, decoupled from Christianity, are made possible by the abiding friendships that enable people to dream and hope and build together.
One leader in Portland, Oregon, shared, “These are my friends, these are my good friends, people that I’m growing in trust and love for.” Another participant, noting a long history with a friend, explained, “I’d consider him in the circle of some of my best friends. We’ve known each other a long time.”
For the first six blocks to provide a meaningful structure of Christianity for our children, the final block, friendship, is an essential condition of the new, collaborative and imaginative possibilities that are rising on the decoupled side of Christendom. Just as the life of faith becomes possible only because God first calls us friends, we can only begin imagining the structure of Christianity for our children in the company of friends. Only then can we build these structures together, crafting contextually rooted responses to God’s call in our lives.
Just as the life of faith becomes possible only because God first calls us friends, we can only begin imagining the structure of Christianity for our children in the company of friends.
When combined, these seven blocks invite each of us to imagine and build structures of belonging right where we are, trusting in God and in those we get to call friends.
Although the faith my children will inhabit is changing drastically, our children’s form of Christianity can still become a structure of belonging, one in which they find a friend in the life of faith. And the world they will inhabit has a capacious generosity that can hold the fullness of their curiosity — even if they navigate this particular relationship as a “critical friend,” the term Steve Taylor uses to describe his relationship to the faith communities he studies in his 2019 book First Expressions: Innovation and the Mission of God.
Building Christianity for our children invites all of us, young and old, to reimagine how we can receive the wisdom of an adaptive church as our way of life.
Amid the twilight of Christendom, we can now rest.