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Mainline churches in a post-denominational era

By Rev Dr Kevin Ward

One of biggest social changes of the past 40 years has been the loss of local community. Prior to the 1960s, a substantial part of life took place in local communities. The mainstays of these were married women. Most of them lived within the confines of the local community with their children during the week, sharing it with their husbands on weekends.

Married women began entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1960s, and the significance of the local community began to decline. As families bought a second car shopping, business, entertainment, leisure all began to be done outside of the local community. As local communities became less significant, so did local community churches. Many left the church altogether.

The flow started in the mid 1960s, and has not yet ended. Geographical communities are giving way to networks of interest. People do not relate to others in the same place but to individuals with similar interests from much further afield. Increasingly sociologists talk about community “across space” rather than “within place”.

This has implications for church as the traditional parish structure was based on this. Church was made up of those who were born into in the local community. Increasingly people do not identify with those communities anymore. They are mobile and belong to communities of people of their culture, or with similar interests, concerns and preferences – communities of choice rather than birth.

Consequently having standardised churches established on a geographical basis trying to meet the needs of all in the local community with the same menu is by and large not workable anymore. There is still a place for some “traditional local churches”. But alongside these we need to develop a whole variety of diverse, culturally and socially specific congregations that people join from a wider geographical area on the basis of personal preference.

If society now consists of a mosaic of fragments or niches then we must do church in fragments and niches. We need to have two basic approaches, while maintaining a reduced number of local churches.

One is larger churches with several different congregations in them. Research indicates most large churches in the United States are multi-congregational rather than multi-service. The second is smaller niche churches that have incarnated the gospel for particular socio-cultural groups. These could include:

(1) Older (post 55) adults brought up in the Christian tradition to whom traditional style is helpful.

(2) Baby boomers (early 40s to late 50s) who are churched and often prefer a more charismatic style.

(3) Baby boomers who have left church but who have an increasing interest in spirituality and religious questions. A more reflective and open ended approach using traditions eclectically is helpful.

(4) Young families who are often a mix of boomers and GenXers. They prefer a highly active participatory style.

(5) Young adult GenXers who are in the mid 20s and often up to the late 30s. A high proportion of them are unmarried. They have no children, do not relate either to the charismatic or the family centred styles, and prefer their own creativity.

(6) Today’s youth culture. Those under 25 who show many differences to adult GenXers.

(7) Other ethnic groups, who often have a variety of groups with many of the above issues in them.

Previously diversity in the church was expressed through different denominations. These, however, offered the same menu at each outlet. Today’s context demands a different kind of diversity. While keeping faithful to some of the core elements of its tradition, each needs to develop a diversity of styles at a local level, and these rather than being determined solely by geography need to be determined more by the culture of the network they are based around

While recognising this need for diversity it is also important that we work on ways to express our unity. Cross fertilisation and contributions from those who are different is important. Larger churches need to work on ways different congregations can come together at times. Niche churches need to see themselves as part of a bigger whole (‘the church’) and do things beyond the resources of their own community.

(This is an excerpt Kevin gave at the Forum of Uniting Congregations on October 13th. For a full text of the talk email Kevin at: