"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better."
- Dorian Scott Cole

Transformation Article: Beginning

Copyright © 2009 Dorian S. Cole


Transformation of the church means that the church, and the individuals within the church, find and understand their mission within the community, and that mission changes as the community changes. Our mission is as dynamic as life itself, always changing in its complexity. What does it take to create a vital and lasting religious community? Churches that spend their time arguing and refusing to change typically die. Churches that have a sense of purpose, and are alive (passionate), usually grow.

What does it take to create a vital and lasting religious community? In the coming pages and coming months, I will tell you what I have learned.

Note that I said "religious community." This applies to all religions, not just Christianity. It applies to all forms of community, not just a specific church building and its congregation. Perhaps the community could be a TV church, or perhaps an Internet related movement.

What I am not referring to is building a mega-church, or a large TV ministry, or a specific movement that is passionate about a single cause. These may be elements of the Church, that is the body that represents the teachings of Christ on earth, but these are exceptional elements, not the primary elements of which the church is composed.

What I will describe in coming weeks are:

The birth and death of communities

I agree with Bill Maher's conclusion in his movie, Religulous. The movie is a half-hearted attempt to find answers about religion, and discredit both the religion and the believer. I don't recommend it unless you are against understanding things and are simply looking for barbs to throw at others. Maher's interview style is the typical style seen on cable news and radio talk shows where the interviewer doesn't listen, and bullies his way into the interviewee's answer with his own brash counter argument or interruption, as if the only opinion worth listening to is his. When Maher did allow people to speak, he usually cut the interview at the moment where they either looked stupid or didn't have an answer. When he finished his assassination of religion, he concluded with, "Religion must die."

Religulous. Director: Larry Charles. Written by: Bill Maher

I agree, religion must die. This happens to be part of the cycle of various aspects of religion. It is part of the transformation process of meeting new realities. For thousands of years, religious groups within Christianity, and other religions, have sprouted, lived, and died. Sometimes they gave birth to other movements. Sometimes they transformed from within, allowing some aspects to die and other aspects to be born. Sometimes it happened so gradually that most people didn't even realize that it was happening.

Christianity is a major religious movement, but it constantly transforms from within. Each decade, new questions arise and are dealt with, causing shifts within the movement. Not everyone agrees so there remain schisms within Christianity.

The Catholic Church, which formed after AD 300 into a major organization within Christianity, changed many times over the centuries. Each pope reflects on certain current issues and sends encyclicals or other statements on what the church believes and how it should conduct itself. For example, birth control was one of the major issues dealt with, which was a marginal issue when the Catholic Church formed. Another example was the reading of the Catholic mass in Latin, which changed to native language. Latin was spoken by the Romans, but died after their rule ended, and congregations do not understand Latin, so the sacred knowledge became exclusively the realm of priests, which was inconsistent with the founding of Christianity.

Reformers, such as Martin Luther in the 15th. Century, saw practices and teachings within the church that were not in keeping with the teachings of Christ. For example, the Bible was only produced in Latin, church leadership often was the result of political favors, and people could literally purchase the right to mistreat others. Luther represented the zeitgeist of the times and people, and with popular support of some people and other reform leaders, he sparked reforms that created the Protestant Revolution. Protestantism became another major movement within Christianity.

In the 19th. and 20th. Centuries churches had passionate arguments that split congregations over philosophical things like free will versus determinism, and post-millennialism versus pre-millennialism, and more practical things like when and how people should be baptized, and whether people should speak in tongues, and should the King James Version be the only version of the Bible in use. Somehow these issues seemed big enough at that time to split churches.

Things change. Many of the 19th. Century churches died, and their issues died with them. Today we have new issues. How we resolve those issues will have some impact on which churches live and which die.

The trends we live and die by

We would all like to be able to look into our crystal ball and see which churches are going to die. No one can predict that because it depends entirely on what people do. But we can get some good indications about which are set on a course to live or die, partly through statistics, and partly through knowing the characteristics of those churches that live or die.

Things changed radically for religion in the 1960s. People felt a new sense of freedom, religion came under attack from larger groups in academia than ever before, and mainstream denominations began to experience negative growth. That decline continues today even though criticism from academia has declined. Today, 25% of churches will fail.

Since the 1960s, churches have been preoccupied with growth. At first we read books about making our church the new mega-church. And now we read books on just keeping our church alive. We worry that people are transferring to more fundamentalist denominations. We worry if we are relevant. We worry if our teachings are too pedantic.

We worry if we have lost our way (our message), and become too worldly. We worry if we haven't kept up with new media (electronics, projectors, new music), or if we have too much emphasis on new media. We worry if we are in the wrong location. We worry if committing huge funds to building a new location will end with un-payable debt. We wonder if building new churches will end with expensive empty buildings. We see the signs of our times and we worry.

The membership transfer that we thought was happening, isn't happening. Statistics didn't give us the full picture. There are always churches from which members transfer. People like or don't like the new pastor, or the old pastor. One has a better youth program than another. One has better programs than another. Some pastors are better at recruiting people, while others do little in that arena. One has better music than another. Churches continually evolve and change for better or worse, and people change from one church to another.

Beyond that, the statistics that suggested that there was a steady transfer of congregations to the new community churches or the fundamentalist churches, have now been clarified. Fundamentalist are more conservative and therefore slower to accept change. Their churches were much slower to embrace birth control, so their congregations tended to lag behind non-fundamentalists in growth reversal and decline. Fundamentalists are also better at hanging on to their members.

Decline has started for fundamentalist churches; they are declining as a percentage of the US population, and if they follow other's trends, their numbers may be half of current numbers when the US population stabilizes in another 30 years. Community churches follow the same birth to death cycle as other churches. See The Great Evangelical Decline, at (http://journals.democraticunderground.com/DeSwiss/821) and Myth: Liberal theology caused mainline decline at http://www.philocrites.com/archives/002307.html.

What also has to be considered is the "halo effect" from the year 2000. The halo effect refers to the effect on speeders by the proximity of police cars. As speeders approach a police car, they slow down, and the overall effect on traffic goes on for miles, and then traffic and speeders increase in speed again. In religion, around the year 2000 has been all of the hype since the late '60s about the end of the world. People get more religious when times are more frightening. It is continuing today as the 2012 "end" occurs for cyclical calendars, such as the Mayan. Does it signify the end, the Age of Aquarius, some other significant change, or is it just mathematics and physics? After 2012, people are likely to get significantly less religious.

Churches get their most growth in the first few years of their birth when passion is high. After a few years they stabilize, and at some point begin to decline. This has been shown to repeat in studies of church growth from 1900 through today. For more on church growth, see The American Church Research Project, at (http://www.theamericanchurch.org/), and American Religious Identification Survey, at (http://www.americanreligionsurvey-aris.org/)

Today, while most people believe that there is a higher power, or are not sure (agnostic: God is unknowable), only around 1% are actually atheists. But significantly, around 27% do not expect to have a religiously affiliated funeral. This indicates that 27% of people are isolated from a community that believes in God. Perhaps this is because of the excesses in religion, or personal experience (pain), or a need for individual control, or for image...

We worry about our young people. We should. Sixty percent of young adults leave the church and don't return, nor do their children ever come. They have not lost interest in spiritual things, they just don't find anything they need in the church. They look to become independent from their parents and live their own lives. They are more interested in exploring purpose at this point in their lives and it is a time of exploration. They want to make contact with others like themselves.

Which churches will die?

The churches that likely will die are the ones that aren't successful in their mission. Most often they refuse to change, and most often they spend a lot of time in divisive arguments. Every church has a different mission, but the following are characteristics of churches that do succeed and grow:

  • Have a sense of purpose, and are alive (passionate).
  • Are progressive (such as having Web sites, technology)
  • Are involved in their community.
  • Are youth oriented.
See The Hartford Institute Facts on Growth at http://fact.hartsem.edu/Press/churchgrowth.htm.

The first question that has to be asked about your own church is, are you a closed society, or are you open to the world? Churches tend to become social clubs where the members know each other and associate in groups. We get very comfortable with the way we do things. We speak a language that others don't understand. When churches go very far in this direction, they are only somewhat open to new people and new ways of doing things, but they prefer the comfort of each other and don't go out of their way to allow new people into their midst. In this type of church, the members are likely to die off faster than new members join.

The second question is, are your members likely to invite new people? Churches supposedly grow by word of mouth. In reality, most Christians associate in their daily lives with small groups of people. Those people either go to some church already, or are unlikely to come. Many of us don't meet very many new people, and religion is one thing that we seldom talk about. According to a study by the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, 44% or more of people's friends already attend the same place of worship, and over half share their faith with their friends. Less than a third share with strangers, which is about the same amount of people who do volunteer work in the community. There seems to be a correlation with those who are community action minded and those who reach out to others with the message.

While churches supposedly grow by word of mouth (inviting others), this is probably most true for new churches. In my experience, the formative years of a church are the years in which people are likely to talk to other people about coming to church. After that, the nature of the experience changes from newness and growth to the daily grind of living the experience of life and religion. Normal growth occurs because of increases in the population (congregation's children) and religious people moving into the area. Growth through evangelism is more typically done through pastors or youth pastors who are very good at meeting and inviting new people.

The third question is, does your church have existing programs that interest new people by serving their needs? If not, does it have enough people to start these programs? If people come, can they find an internal program, or a community outreach program in which to contribute their time and skill?

Fourth, are your members spiritually stagnant either from lack of opportunity or from Bible study that hasn't kept pace with their spiritual growth? Does your material for teaching, preaching, and leader development challenge your people or just repeat the same old stuff? Do the opportunities for service give people new learning experiences and help to develop leadership, or are they the same mundane things they have always done?

Fifth, does your church know its message and its mission? In the message, transformation of the individual is the work of Christ's message in an individual. The person is transformed from someone who is unaware of the power of forgiveness and likely isolated by a load of guilt, who has poor relationships with others, and who has limited opportunities, into a person reconciled with God who has dropped a load of guilt, has improved relationships with others, and who has much larger opportunities for a richly rewarding life. Through the individual, society is transformed. The mission of the church is as big as the collective of the transformed individuals, and as specific as the individual and group missions within the congregation.

Transformation of the church is related. Transformation of the church means that the church, and the individuals within the church, find and understand their mission within the community, and that mission changes as the community changes. Our mission is as dynamic as life itself, always changing in its complexity.


Churches are religious communities. They are like-minded believers who meet together for mutual learning, support, and for discussing and finding solutions to the various issues that face them. Religious groups have met this way forever. Christianity began and spread like wildfire through developing new communities of believers. These communities had little in common with other communities. They had different local issues to grapple with. They had different religious backgrounds. What they had in common was their belief in the power of Christ's message to transform and unite.

We have to understand in the local church what a community is.

We have to understand, as the world changes, new approaches to community. Some email discussion lists have become communities that function in the same way as a local church. They discuss and find solutions to the various issues facing those individuals in their local communities. They sometimes include learning opportunities. They sometimes bring together isolated individuals. They sometimes offer anonymity from people in the community that are negative. They also offer great flexibility regarding individuals' time and travel constraints.

TV ministries also sometimes offer a sense of community. They offer interactive ways of reaching out to others, especially by those who are isolated by disease, distance, the inability to find a church they can support or attend, etc.

Some Web sites emphasize the spiritual, and de-emphasize religion. Are they a venue for supportive communities?

Other media, such as FaceBook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, and religious media sites such as Tangle, also offer ever-evolving ways of staying connected in communities.

Are these new ways of forming community, opportunities for unique ministries to those 15 - 25 percent of the American people who have no religious affiliation, and for those 60% of young people who leave the church and never return, nor do their future children?

Next: Transformation: Community - the history and today.

Yours in Christ,

- Dorian Scott Cole

Author's Books

The Prophetic Pattern: Discussion Guide for Ancient and Modern Prophecy

Are we all going to die on Friday, December 21, 2012? My new book critically examines that question. Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing. Description.

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On Friday, December 21, 2012, are we all going to die? Are there really signposts to the world's end? Does modern prophecy really merge with ancient prophecy? Will all of the Christians suddenly disappear? The answers may surprise you.

Millions of Americans are anxiously waiting for December 21, 2012 to see if the world will end. Despite the fact that signs seem to be everywhere in all ancient and modern prophecy and even science, the major sign pointed to by both Daniel and Christ is overlooked by prophecy interpreters. And interpretation of modern prophecy overlooks intent. Like a scary movie, prophecy is great fun until it starts affecting people's lives.

This book explores how to distinguish the intent of various types of prophecies and oracles, both ancient and modern. The five chapters in this discussion guide are rich in information, providing one legitimate point of view, and are intended to encourage discussion and additional research. A ten meeting discussion group is the minimum recommended.

Subjects to explore include:

  • History, and the situations surrounding prophecy
  • Types of prophecy
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  • Are faith and prophetic belief blind?
  • Societies that go bad - are they destroyed?
  • Social change - saving ourselves
  • The challenges of the 21st.Century

Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing.

About the author: Dorian Scott Cole is an independent, cross-disciplinary scholar with education and experience in psychology, philosophy, religion, language, visual semiotics, and technology. He is a licensed minister with a mainline denomination with full time pastoral and counseling experience. His education in religion and psychology was through a state university (IU) followed by independent study. Other books and publications: Ontology of God, How to Write a Screenplay, Writers Workshop Script Doctor, www.visualwriter.com, and www.onespiritresources.com.

Reading type: Mainstream, nonfiction.

Ontology of God: The voices of the ancients speak.

My recent book, Ontology of God, looks at what we can learn through the ages regarding the history of several aspects of religious development as affected by the ancient societies they were in, including law, mercy, and love. Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing. Description.
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Echoing through time are the voices of ancient people telling us about God. From Mesopotamia and Egypt 5000 years ago, often from even earlier oral traditions, every civilization has been inspired to tell us about God. Their voices vary widely and even conflict. Is there a common message that they thought was so important that they had to pass it on? In this book, the ancient voices speak.

This study follows the thread of the basic religious concepts of law, mercy, and love that are prominent in many religions. Major religions around the world are investigated up to the launch of the Common Era when most religions had been developed, including religions that later developed independently such as the Mayan.

These are messages refined by the fire of experience through the ages. The repeated messages collectively bear the tests of validity.

This study also looks at the many methods we use to try to understand God and religious literature. Is the nature of God reflected in what he asks of us? The premise is that it is.

By understanding the nature of God, perhaps we can filter out the many competing voices that tell us that God stands for such things as the murder of innocents and destruction.

The very nature of religion is illuminated in the light of the voices from the ages. But is ancient religion a path that we have lost, or does history hammer out newer voices to bear the truth of new experience as people try to understand their relationship with God?

Available in print and ebook formats from various sources. Secure credit card purchasing.

About the author: Dorian Scott Cole is an independent, cross-disciplinary scholar with education and experience in psychology, philosophy, religion, language, visual semiotics, and technology. Other books and publications: How to Write a Screenplay, Writers Workshop Script Doctor, www.visualwriter.com, and www.onespiritresources.com.

Reading type: Mainstream Scholarly Specialist

Distribution notice:

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