The Church’s Constant Evolution: How a Mixed Ecology Shapes Our Faith Today

A mixed ecology - the balance between innovative movements and established structures - has been a constant presence throughout the church’s history of ever-changing practices and expressions.

Alt Text: Faith+Lead | The Church’s Constant Evolution: How a Mixed Ecology Shapes Our Faith Today

Despite claims to the contrary, the church is an ever-evolving thing. God’s people adapt from era to era and culture to culture, and the expressions, traditions, and functions of the church inevitably shift.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” Jaroslav Pelikan wrote – and anything living must, by necessity, change and grow.

But some things persist in the life of the church from iteration to iteration: the active presence of God, and the push-and-pull balance between innovation and structure that we call a mixed ecology.

In this week’s Pivot Podcast episode, hosts Terri Elton and Dwight Zscheile are joined by Jennie Wojciechowski, author of the book Women and the Christian Story: A Global History. A Roman Catholic church historian, Jennie acknowledges that her love of history – especially its social movements and revolutions – manifested long before her love of the church. After becoming a Christian as an adult, even attending seminary and earning a degree in urban ministry, her passion for history continued to propel her towards the subject that remains her area of expertise today: the history of the Christian church, and its social and lay movements in particular. Read on for key points that arose during her fruitful discourse with the podcast hosts.

    • A mixed ecology has been present in the life of the Christian community since the very beginning. This healthy tension between old ways and new, tradition and innovation, structure and exploration, was a necessary and life-giving force throughout each era – and continues to be today.

    • Unsurprisingly, women often took the helm on the more spontaneous, exploratory lay-led movements that sought to meet the needs of those around them outside the rigid walls of a formal ministry requiring ordination.

    • As the Christian community continues the push and pull between informal and formal forms of faith and ministry, one truth becomes clear: there is no perfect way. The church’s truest form – the active and changing people of God – is one of constant motion.

Faith+Lead | Push and pull: The balancing act of tradition and innovation expressions of the church

Lay-led revolutions: how spirit-stirred movements have Enriched the church throughout time

Innovative lay movements have bubbled up organically since the very beginning of the Christian faith, from Mary Magdalene onward. The church could never have grown without the activity and influence of these Spirit-stirred movements. From the deaconesses and Order of Widows in the early church to the lay brothers of Middle Ages monasticism to the spontaneous, lay-led beginnings of Korean Catholicism, church history is rich with fruitful situations piloted by lay people, sometimes completely at odds with authority. 

From day one, lay leaders were involved, and Christianity couldn’t have grown, couldn’t have spread without them.” -Jennie Wojciechowski

A mixed ecology in the church, then, is nothing new. In many ways, it’s how the Christian community has always functioned. There will always be established structures, closed systems, and people who “stay home.” There will also always be explorers, innovators, and missionaries. The people of God need both. We need our local communities to be robust and our establishments to be well-founded, and we also need our revolutions, our Pentecostal movements and Great Awakenings, our passionate non-clergy who simply cannot wait to get out in the world and start making a difference. 

Unsurprisingly, women have long played a huge role in these mixed ecologies. Historically barred from ordination, lay women have continually taken their faith beyond the walls of the church, finding creative ways to lead time and time again. Even the seemingly meek Ladies’ Aid Societies of the late 19th and early 20th century, planning their sewing circles or strawberry festivals, were innately creative, innovative, and daring. With small steps and building confidence, those groups took ownership of fundraising, of establishing boardinghouses for women, maternity hospitals, settlement houses, and so much more. Their action and spirit are yet another example of the invaluable necessity of those lay-led movements in steering and sustaining the life of the church.

a graphic with several examples of bottom-up movements from Church History

The best-case scenario, of course, involves the two sides of the coin working together, the revolutionaries and the “establishment” standing hand-in-hand. How might that apply in our current context? While church attendance and membership may seem to be in decline, there continues to be strong, ongoing curiosity around God and spirituality in our world today, often playing out in unorthodox ways. We need to be paying attention. The two sides of exploration and tradition are continuing the push-and-pull process of balancing out, and we can’t judge how it will play out this time. Faith formation, action that serves the needs of a community, rich relationships, and powerful prayer can all take place outside of the walls of a church: because we are all the church. The church is not merely an institution; it is the people of God, and we are always on the move.

Navigating the tension: the church’s constant evolution in response to societal shifts

For the past 200 years, the American church has been experiencing what Ted Smith calls the Age of Association. Voluntary association with and support of particular denominations and congregations was a natural part of the social order, but this paradigm has been unraveling since the 1960s. We have moved, instead, into something Charles Taylor labels the Age of Authenticity. Individuals have shifted to focusing on self-discovery and self-expression independent of institutions or communities, and the subsequent effect on church membership and affiliation still causes alarm for many church leaders as they scramble to draw the younger generations into the pews.

Faith+Lead | Celebrating Individuality and Self-Expression

In some ways, this seems like an objectively negative situation. There is a dissonance and fragmentation occurring in both our society and the church, as hyper-individualistic thinking impedes any kind of focus on collective well-being and community. Everywhere we turn, we see depression, anxiety, and a lack of connection. Our loss of shared identity, and of community, is a huge part of that.

On the other hand, the Age of Association was a relatively new thing in church history itself. Should church leaders be working so hard to get things back to that model? Probably not.

The church has never been static, and many models have worked over the centuries. We humans love our traditions and tend to struggle against change, but the church is not meant to stay the same. The church is not a building, or a particular system.

It is the living, breathing people of God, who are constantly adapting, growing, and changing – as they should be. As much as we’d like to believe there is a single, ideal form of church, there simply isn’t. There is only God’s presence among us, stirring us up and calling us to be a part of whatever iteration of God’s people we are on this earth in time to witness. Whatever the church may look like now, or in 50 years, or in 200 – all we can say for certain is that God’s vibrant, active presence will still be there, and so will the healthy tension between traditional structures and creative innovation.

The mixed ecology: keep learning!

Join us for next week’s episode, when we’ll be joined by Jonny Baker, author of Pioneer Practice, for a  discussion around practicing Fresh Expressions.

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