You And Your Church Are Conservative and Liberal

At this point, I feel like I’m in a Geico commercial when talking about the high change environment of Christian congregations – “Everybody knows that,” is the typical response. I’m hoping that now we can move on from the problem to the adaptive challenge: How do we lead healthy, effective, mission-focused change in congregations?

This was the discussion in the last session of our cohort recently. Each of these denominational ministers are highly interested in helping churches adapt to our post-modern context, while remaining faithful to the gospel as they interpret it. We approached adaptive change from a variety of perspectives, but perhaps most interesting (at least to me) was the observation captured in the chart above. Churches embrace change all the time. It’s just that they tend to give themselves permission to explore, question, or experiment in certain areas of church life, but not others. Let’s explore the quadrants above.

Quadrant 1 – Conservative Theology and Conservative Methodology
These churches tend to avoid questioning their theology, holding to conservative or sometimes even fundamentalist views. They discourage thinking or conversing outside the theological boundaries. At the same time, they approach the way they do church conservatively; meaning, they preserve orthopraxy as it has been done over time. Stepping beyond the accepted norms in thinking about faith (theology) or faith expression (methodology) are generally discouraged.

Quadrant 2 – Conservative Theology and Liberal Methodology
This quadrant describes many big box or contemporary non-denominational churches (painting with broad strokes now). Other denominationally based churches find themselves here too. They are very liberal in their approach to being church. In fact, they will do almost anything to reach the lost or unchurched. They will adapt nearly everything about how they function if it makes them more culturally relevant, allowing them to bring in wandering souls. Simultaneously, they do not tolerate much deviation from their theological viewpoint. Questioning or exploring belief systems, with the possibility that other answers may be valid, is generally discouraged.

Quadrant 3 – Liberal Theology and Conservative Methodology
These churches invite disciples to explore their faith questions. Sometimes they will say things like, “you can come here and not have to leave your brain at the door.” They practice big tent theology, welcoming people with varying theological viewpoints. Simultaneously, they are often very strict about their orthopraxy. They do worship a certain way, discouraging deviation from the order thereof. Sometimes they become fundamentalists when it comes to views on doing church (especially worship). They see other ways of worshipping, or reaching unchurched people as not only different, but as spiritually “less-than” or even heretical. Questioning these practices can lead to great emotional disturbance among them.

Quadrant 4 – Liberal Theology and Liberal Methodology
This may be the quadrant with the fewest churches. It seems that most churches are conservative AND liberal, rather than uniform in their approach. When a church is in this quadrant, theology is open for exploration while seeking relevance in methodology is encouraged. These churches have an extremely high tolerance for ambiguity, while also finding the ability to hold together as faith communities. Questioning most everything is not only encouraged, but is a strong value of these faith communities.

There are so many pathways this way of viewing church can lead. What are the factors, variables, dynamics which influence where a church finds itself? Can a church shift around on this chart depending on changes in its environment or is this static (like basic personality)? And what kind of people are attracted to each kind of church? Does that question even have answers? So many questions; so few answers.

What brought up this discussion in the first place was the challenge of Christian leaders to lead effectively. “Change tolerance,” is one dynamic we assess when considering what level of productive change a congregation needs or wants. Understanding these quadrant tendencies can help us predict where tension around change is likely to arise and where change tolerance is likely embraced. What else might this chart tell us?

We would love to hear your insights….