Recreating the Church -- A Review

Richard L. Hamm. Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007.

It’s no secret – the Mainline has suffered dramatically in membership losses and influence these past few decades. Where once Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Disciple, UCC, American Baptist, Reformed Church in America, and ELCA were the dominant forces American religious life, others have taken place. Whether or not that is to change is yet to be seen.

Richard Hamm offers the Mainline churches a manifesto that calls on these historic churches to essentially seize the day and embrace the future. Hamm writes as one who has experienced all levels of church leadership. He has served as a local pastor, a middle judicatory, and head of a national denomination. Soon he will take on a new role as the first Executive Director of “Christian Churches Together.” So it can be said that this is a person who knows his subject well. The book is written to leaders of congregations, regional bodies, and national bodies. He speaks from his own experience – both the positives and the negatives (he retired early from his second term as General Minister and President of the Disciples of Christ). From that experience he has discerned a new way forward, one that is “missional” in orientation.

He calls for change in the churches, but it is substantive change that he calls for, not just rearranging the chairs on the deck of a sinking ship. He challenges leaders to move from management to mission, from being CEO’s and caregivers to being pioneers and change agents.

At the center of this manifesto is Hamm’s concern for preserving the core values of the Mainline churches in the face of challenges from secularism and fundamentalism. The problem, as he sees it, is that the structures that developed over the years have become obsolete and they prevent the church from adapting to the cultural context in which it lives. By embracing the “missional church” idea Hamm is less interested in quick fixes, but rather calls for long term reinvention of the church so that the Mainline values can be preserved and can influence not just the religious context but the world context.

The choice of the word “postmodern” in the subtitle is key, for this book is written with this changing dynamic in mind. What worked then, in the days before 1968 (and Hamm places the dividing line at 1968, which interestingly is the date of Disciple Restructure). In this postmodern world change will come not via democracy, which has been a hallmark of the Disciples decision making, but through discernment and consensus. It takes longer and is messy, but in the long run Hamm believes it is more effective. Leaders in this new environment must become a “non-anxious presence” rather than an “anxious non-presence.” That is, the way ahead will require of us, a willingness to brave an unknown world while remaining non-anxious.

What makes the way forward difficult, and Hamm is very aware of this, is generational differences. Mainliners have been pretty good about dealing with racial and gender issues – at least at the national levels – but it’s quite clear from counting the “gray heads” in many congregations, that generational differences are what will determine the future. Much of our congregational leadership came of age during World War II and just afterward, and they are, Hamm says, a generation of joiners. They joined churches and lodges, but later generations haven’t followed suite, which is born out in declining numbers in lodges and services organizations as well as churches. So, if the church is to move forward, it must taken notice of these generational shifts. Baby Boomers have made their mark, but the future lies in the Millennials, those coming of age now. This is a generation that is more progressive and concerned about things that Mainliners are concerned about. But their focus is different and they must be attended to.

So, what are the values that the Mainline lifts up? First, there is the witness to the relationship of faith and reason. The mind and the spirit belong together, and this is a hallmark of the Mainline that Hamm sees being challenged by a creeping fundamentalism. Second, Mainline schools educate rather than indoctrinate. They allow freedom to explore and dissent – critical thinking is encouraged. Third, the Mainline perspective encourages the development of a world view that “analyzes reality both in terms of individuals and systems.” Sin, in essence takes on both individual and systemic form, and ultimately it is the systems that must be changed for progress to be made. Fourth, Mainline perspectives seek to be inclusive (though this is always a struggle) of persons, especially women and people of color. With regard to sexual orientation, a matter Hamm doesn’t speak to here, the Mainline is still struggling to know what to do. Finally, in terms of overseas involvements, the Mainline seeks to partner with indigenous people rather than deal with them in colonial fashion.

Our calling is simple – we are called to rediscover our core values and then move from maintenance to mission. We can do this be establishing new congregations and revitalizing older ones. There is no one way of doing things, and so this isn’t a prescription as much as an encouragement to take the first steps to becoming not who we were in the 1950s, but who we are to become by the grace of God today and tomorrow.

This isn’t a long book, but it is an important one. That it’s written by someone who has tasted leadership in all of the churches forms is beneficial. It is an honest book, one that was forged in the midst of difficult times. But, it’s not a bitter book; rather it is a hopeful one. For that reason, it is a book that must be read – and quickly, for there is no time to waste. We must remember, as the author tells us, that this is not a journey to be taken alone, but rather it must be taken with God as the guide and sustenance for the journey.


Gary Aknos said…
Here's the problem... Hamm is a great guy, well read and very articulate... but he hasn't accomplished anything significant and he didn't grow his denomination. The last 30 years have been filled with good people with good words of wisdom but who inevitably talked more than executed. The mainline is full of churches (and church leaders) who have successfully grown their churches but may not be published or hold an advanced degree. Why aren't we evaluating success and putting those clergy who have been successful on the center stage?
I would respond by asking about what makes for success. I think that Hamm's experience provides an important vantage point to comment on what needs to happen.

Yes there are big successful churches, but too often they are built on a cult of personality or professionally run programs that few small to medium sized congregations can ever hope to emulate. So, I'd much rather listen to Dick Hamm than Rick Warren.
Dennis said…
I confess that when Dick Hamm was GMP, I was somewhat disappointed in his leadership, but my perspective has changed since then. When the new mission imperative was announced (including the goal of 1000 new congregations in 20 years) my immediate response was, "What are we going to do with 1000 more stuck churches?" Our denominational stuckness is rooted in institutional structures whose emotional systems are crippled…leaders from within the system can't seem to help but emphasize the system's own preservation as the mission of the institution. By the time anyone has acknowledged it, the institution (whether a congregation, a judicatory or a denomination) has already begun to circle the drain.

It took Hamm a while to figure it out, but I think he's now put his finger on the problem. It's more important to measure the success of an institution by it's sustained viability and by it's ability to work towards its mission than it is to merely look at its size. Size can only ever be one factor among many in discerning an institution's health, and it's never the most important.

What I loved about the recent General Assembly was the fact that the diversity we've been working toward for the last several years is beginning to pay off: we have successful congregations at nearly every point on the theological spectrum, and which bring a variety of worship styles and a new willingness to experiment. This has been a much more playful gathering than any I've attended in 20 years. Some of the anxiety we felt over the shrinking of the church is beginning to subside, and we seem to be letting the public expression of our fait be a fun thing again. Hamm may not be driving the change these days, but his leadership is partly responsible, and I'm happy to have been wrong about him.

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