theory behind revision

In our work with leaders, congregations and denominations across the United States, we are increasingly convinced that a new kind of Christianity—and a new kind of church as its earthly expression—is blooming in our midst. This new Christianity relies far less on structure and institution; it is a raw spiritual expression of a living, boundless God.

As Dan Hotchkiss writes in his book, Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership: “Congregations are vessels of religious growth and transformation—but to be vessels, they need firmness and stability… .  Leaders must continually balance the conserving function of    an institution with the expectation of disruption, change-inducing creativity that comes when individuals peek past the temple veil and catch fresh visions of the Holy.”1 Finding this balance as participants in church today is no easy task. In fact, we must begin a rigorous process of retooling both our heart and our mind if we are to have a future at all.

What is clear is that we cannot count on being and doing church as we do in most settings today. Like the Hebrews in search of a new land, we cannot go back to the church of our upbringing; we must go forward and bring with us the pieces of our past that strengthen us for the future. We must innovate and create the future we seek. Peter Senge says: “Learning from the future involves intuition. It involves embracing high levels of ambiguity, uncertainty and willingness to fail. It involves opening ourselves to the unthinkable and sometimes attempting to do the impossible.”2

This is the journey of today’s follower of the Jesus Way. This is the journey of your church as it finds its way towards new life.

The current structure and shape of church that most of us know in the Mainline is an expression of the 1920s-1960s corporate structure. This structure gave shape to many people’s working lives, and it was only natural that we would adopt it for religious life, as church often mirrors the social structures active in the wider culture. With this shift, pastors moved from being shepherds and teachers to being CEOs: managing staffs, buildings and capital campaigns. The corporate management style became the essential skill of effective church leadership on all levels, from lay leaders serving on committees to pastoral staff directing programs. The net result shifted our collective focus away from the ministry of church to its management.

The subtle side effect of this shift was a decreasing emphasis on the inward spiritual journey of Christians in the Protestant tradition. While our programming and education was world-class, our spirituality began to suffer. This was starkly clear in the 2007 study conducted by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson at mega-church Willow Creek Christian Church.3 When asked if participants of Willow Creek had grown in their relationship with God as a result of being part of the church, a shocking majority reported no significant growth. What appeared to be one of the most successful churches in the world was failing at its core purpose—to create environments where people encountered the living God.

This is the story of too many churches. In order to shift this reality, we need new models, new forms of leadership and a new  experience  of  the  Christian  faith. Our church “vessel” needs more than a  patching  of  increasingly noticeable cracks.  We need a total recreation so that we might reclaim our unique purpose: to connect people to God.

That said, we should be cautious about throwing out everything resembling the church of old. Author and church historian, Diana Butler Bass reminds us: “What the world needs is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection—these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely. We need religion imbued with the spirit of shared humanity and hope, not religion that divides and further fractures the future.”4 Indeed, what we may need are better questions that open us to new ways of being.

Diana Butler Bass explored this and posed new questions in her groundbreaking study (published as Christianity for the Rest of Us, 2006). The study focused on how faith practices are rejuvenating some mainline churches, making it the perfect reading companion for this reVision process.  She found that the focus of our communities must shift to our own spiritual renewal. This insight is instrumental to our path forward.

We are living in the midst of tremendous social and institutional upheaval that is reshaping every facet of our lives, including the Church. We raise this point to say this: the process of reVision will be lost on your church if you are trying to restore your church to its glory days. That is futile.

reVisioning your church will mean opening your selves to a dramatically new future while recognizing that the tools we once used to do renewal work are no longer sufficient for this new age. We are living in the age of Christianity After Religion, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, and we must find a new way to embody and experience our faith in this rapidly changing world.


1 Hotchkiss, Dan. 2009. Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership. Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute.

2 Senge, Peter. 2007. “Foreward,” in Scharmer, C. O., Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. Cambridge: Society of Organizational Learning.

3 2015. REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey Technical Report. Available online here.

4 Bass, Diana Butler. 2012. Christianity after religion: The end of church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening. New York: HarperOne.

Appreciative Inquiry

In the 1980s, David Cooperrider introduced the world to a concept he called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). The core of AI is the belief that organizations are strengthened when they focus on what is working rather than dwelling on what is not. AI is more than a process—it is a way of seeing and engaging the world that encourages us to imagine what might be and create what should be in our communal lives. As a positive system approach 5, AI is a valuable framework for the reVisioning process. AI encourages you to ask questions that uncover insights, meaning, revelation, passion, history and potential. Because of the high value we place on AI, we have adopted these principles for the reVision process.  We believe AI can help move your congregation forward in positive, healthy ways.

The thesis of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is that an organization, such as a church, shapes its present and its future by its conversations. AI is a process that is organized around four “D’s”: Discovery, Dream, Design and Destiny. Mark Lau Branson, in Memories, Hopes and Conversations, wrote about using AI in congregations. In this work, he uses an adaptation of AI that uses four “I’s” instead of “D’s”: Initiate, Inquire, Imagine and Innovate.

Every step in the AI process sets aside discussion of congregational deficits and takes up questions that will reveal  the  positive  aspects  of  the  congregation.  The questions of AI are designed to reveal the life-giving forces  that  fuel  the  congregation  today  and  yesterday. One key component of the AI process that has informed our revision process is the summit, which gathers insights from members on these life-giving forces, so future work can focus there rather than on deficits or shortcomings. This framework of inquiry and gathering can engage as many members as possible in a group process of careful listening, conversation and prayerful discernment that happens over time.

5 Branson, Mark Lau. 2004. Memories, Hopes, & Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry & Congregational Change. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute. p. 24.

Changing Ways for a Changing Landscape

I am a bureaucrat. I am a bureaucrat in a model of church fully invested in and supported by institutional loyalty, authorization, and oversight. My model of the church, however, is dying. …
I used to be concerned about that. I care about the church—and I draw my income from it. I have— you might say—something at stake in this. I am not concerned any more. While I count myself among those who care about the church, even as a bureaucrat I’m not interested in keeping something alive after it has outlived its capacity to serve the purpose for which it was birthed in the first place.

Meet church 3.0.

Church 3.0 – the emergence of an entirely new way of being church in a postmodern world. It was a discovery that not only lowered my anxiety about the need to preserve Church 2.0 at all costs, it helped me to understand that version 2.0 will only continue to appeal to people the way that 8 tracks and VHS recorders still appeal to people long after better technologies emerges on the market. There may continue to be an appeal to some, but the percentage of market share is going to diminish. The number of franchises needed to move the merchandise is also going to shrink considerably.

To translate that, and to be perfectly clear about what I am saying: as we enter more fully postmodernity, the need for church 2.0 as a model is going to decrease dramatically, and those who invest in the infrastructure that supports it are going to close a lot of their franchises—i.e., churches. There will continue to be a market for the product—but at a greatly reduced market share. … We’re going to close a lot of churches in the coming decade.

How does this bureaucrat feel about that? Hopeful. …

Living rooms, bars, coffee shops, and city parks have become the loci of cohorts and tribes and families and groups – not congregations or churches – assembled to remind each other of each person’s inherent worth and value. Community is built, assembled, affirmed, and deployed in places where additional expenses are not wasted on opulence and extravagance.

Postmodern communities of faith are flexible in every way imaginable. Statues of Buddha sit alongside crosses. The Koran is read and explored beside the Bible. Groups self-select and identify according to perceived need and according to the value of the experience. They meet in homes, bars, forests, classrooms, chapels, coffee shops. What is consistent within this flexibility is a genuine pursuit of the sacred and a recognition the sacred can come from surprising places. Postmoderns don’t want to eliminate any possible means by which the sacred can be experienced. They want to eliminate stale rituals that no longer feed the spiritually hungry. …

I trust this expression of the faith to be as authentic as mine—and to ensure that people everywhere will come to know that they are loved, valued, and respected. That is all I need my church and my religion to do or be. It is enough.
— John Dorhauer, President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, grasps the new realities in the landscape of the mainline church, originally posted on The Blue Yarn.

What can we learn from John Dorhauer’s insights as we strive to renew an existing church?

When done intentionally, a renewal process like revision can move your church toward this new age by stimulating the genuine pursuit of the sacred that marks Church 3.0. To do so, the internal spiritual development of your leaders and congregants is crucial.

Bill O’Brian, the late CEO of Hanover Insurance, provides a critical insight as we wrestle with how to engage church renewal. In conducting organizational learning projects, he observed that the success of any turn-around effort depends on the interior condition of the intervener. What counts is not only what leaders do in their renewal efforts and how they do it, but also their interior condition, or the inner place from which they operate and the source from which all their actions originate. 6 While this seems intellectually obvious to those of us in the “church business,” few of us in ministry live this with any compelling conviction. We are inheritors of a gnostic impulse of modern culture—one that tries to and often succeeds in compartmentalizing our minds, bodies and spirits. If we are to renew any church, we must renew and reunite our own interior spaces.


6 Branson, 2004.

Theory U

Otto   Scharmer, business professor and author of Theory U, argues that  we cannot meet the challenges of renewal if we do not first change our own interior condition. In order to do this, leaders must develop within themselves three capacities: an open mind, an open heart and an open will. While that sounds like a  slogan—and we would probably all claim those capacities at times—this is a call to renew or reinvigorate them. We have all been shaped by a form of church that is facing a decline in market share. The natural reaction in a renewal process for some in your church is to draw on the same comfortable tools, ideas and experts that have guided us in the past. But that will only re-create the church of yesterday.

In every age, leaders search for the best questions of that age to help them understand the age in which they live. In our age, the questions fall along the lines of:

•   Who are we meant to be?

•   What are we here for?

•   What do we want to create together?

While these by themselves don’t seem particularly unique, the way we now approach them is reshaping our collective experience. We now recognize that while strategic planning might provide useful framing in some settings, the challenges of this age of church require new vocabulary, models and processes.

Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity After Religion, offers similar questions:

•   What do I believe?

•   How should I act?

•   Who am I? 8

Borrowing again from Otto Scharmer, we sense that rather than churches seeking renewal through a “left-brained” planning exercise, what is needed is a deeper plunge into the very soul of the cause. The goal is to reach a point of “presence-ing” or connecting to the Source for the answers to the questions. 7 We are on a vertical journey inward that cannot be skipped, downplayed or ignored. Leadership in this age invites us on a “Grail Quest” into the deep interiors of our own souls where we also meet the Sacred. From there, we begin to see the light sketches of a new picture of our future.

From there, we see the authentic needs of our own hearts as we open ourselves to the authentic needs of others. From there, we “work out our salvation” in creating the world we seek.

Therefore, our work of reVision must be guided by these new questions:

•   What is yearning to be born this day?

•   What vision is God casting in the world?

•   How will your community be a part of it?

Of course, we can answer these questions on an external/material/superficial level, but our

experience  is that  the most lasting transformation  comes  when we  ask these questions from deeper places of knowing. The challenge is, how do we invite, persuade, and motivate an entire community to take this internal journey and risk  transformation?

As you approach these types of questions during your 90 days of spiritual practice, it will be important to remember that we now live in a dramatically different age than the one that gave birth and life to your church. The chances are good that your church was started sometime before the 1980s, in an age when Christianity and American nationalism were still so intimately connected that vast numbers of people attended church out of patriotic duty and social pressure (or at least they reported attending church whether they actually went or not). Church was the thing you did on Sunday morning, and it had little impact of the other six days of the week.

Beginning around 1890, denominations built massive bureaucratic structures, modeling themselves after American businesses, complete with corporate headquarters, program divisions, professional development and marketing development, franchises (parish churches), training centers, and career tracks. ... As with other corporations of the same vintage, church executives became too distanced from the regular folks; managers (i.e., pastors) grumbled about pay, benefits and working conditions; creativity was strangled by red tape; expenses began to outrun income; and huge facilities need to be maintained. Faith increasingly became a commodity and membership roles and money the measures of success. The business of church replaced the mission of church.
— Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion

The task of the twenty-first century Christian leader is to rediscover the ancient/future mission of the church. What is clear is that people do not want us to provide them with more information about God.  What they long for is what they intuit is missing from their lives.  They need an experience of the Divine, of mystery, of the “Other.” If your church is to have a compelling vision and future, it must get this one piece right. Unless the leadership who undertakes reVision understands the true need and longing of the contemporary soul, this process will have little impact. The mission of the church is to connect people to God in ways that they can touch, taste, and feel, in incarnational ways. To do this with authenticity, we must first ground ourselves in the experience of the sacred. We must get in touch with our own interior spaces. That is the only way to renew the church. The success of this journey depends upon your own spiritual development and attunement to the Spirit.

We must be open to seeing the new things God is doing with us and through us. First, we must open our minds to new possibilities for understanding faith, belief and religion. Next, we must open our hearts to the authentic struggles, hopes and dreams of the world around us and within us. Finally, we must open our wills to new ways of being faithful that respond more authentically to our mind and heart. If we are able to do this, we will open our intellect, emotion and intention to the new possibilities that we would have missed otherwise.

How do we do this?  We begin by opening up to God in new ways. The hardest part of living in this age of radical change is that it requires from us more intimate interior work than in any age since the Industrial Revolution. To lead in this age, you must be more than skilled and talented. You must also be self-aware, emotionally intelligent, intuitive and willing to face extraordinary internal fears, all while dealing with external stress of decreasing budgets, attendance and passion.  Some would suggest that we must learn to lead from the “other side of our brain.”

Along the way, according to Scharmer, you will face three enemies: The Voice of Judgment, the Voice of Cynicism and the Voice of Fear. 9 We know these enemies all too well. It is helpful to recognize that these operate on individual and global levels, as well.

The Voice of Judgment is that small voice inside your head that tells you that you have no business leading a church through a renewal process. You aren’t smart enough, and you certainly do not have the experience as a leader to offer guidance on this journey. This “voice”

blocks your ability to have an open mind. Julia Cameron, in her book, the Artist’s Way, describes this voice as our “censor” that prevents us from acting from our most creative spaces. Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, the Voice of Judgment slithers around in your open mind, scaring you into believing that you are incapable of navigating this season of change in church. It resides in your left brain, the logical cortex that demands categorization of the world and helps us most in survival situations. So when we say “open mind,” we actually mean opening more of the right side than the left. In our European-dominated North American culture, we overvalue the left brain and undervalue the right brain. Yet, existential experiences are always registered and recognized in the right side of our brains. Once you give the Voice of Judgment power in your thinking, you close yourself to miraculous possibilities. Those at the margins of our society who have long lived and loved God have plenty to teach the dominant culture about opening in this way.

The Voice of Cynicism blocks your ability to have an open heart. This voice convinces you that the church is declining too fast anyway, so why should you invest your time and energy in trying to turn it around? The Voice of Cynicism allows you to emotionally distance yourself, closing your heart from becoming vulnerable to possibilities like failure and ridicule. Too often this voice masquerades as sophistication or objectivity.

The Voice of Fear may be the strongest of the three; it certainly prevents many of us from achieving greatness. The Voice of Fear paralyzes us and blocks our open will. Because it immobilizes our power and impact, fear is probably the greatest stumbling block to God’s work in the world.  It might manifest in a fear of change, a fear of killing your church, a fear of being ridiculed, a fear of death, the fear of failure or maybe even the fear of success. Fear makes us “hold on” when all signs tell us that we should “let go.” This is the problem with the Voice of Fear: it prevents us from letting go of what is so that something new might come. Renewal is impossible if, individually or collectively, we are controlled by the Voice of Fear.

7 Scharmer, 2007, p. 14

8 Bass, 2012.

9 Scharmer, 2007, pp. 42-43.