Church Darwinism: Is it Survival of the Fittest?

Engaging in several conversations over the past few days I find myself asking if the church is falling prey to the cultural assumption that only the “fit” will survive the theological, ecclesiastical, institutional and biblical shifts of American Christianity, specifically main line denominations (since that is my context).

What is a “fit” church? In my experience the perception is that a healthy church is one that is financially self-sustaining, is birthing more than it buries, and has the ability to employ educated clergy to lead. Its seems that relationships, spiritual practices, or the many ways the faith community reaches in and out to experience and share God’s presence are not factored in to the equation.

What are we left with if “Church Darwinism” continues to consume congregations no longer considered fit by denominational standards?

It seems like we will be left with the mid-size to larger congregations who have enough of an endowed nest egg to perpetuate their existence of counting dollars, numbers in the pew, and years of theological education. I realize that is a harsh statement when good ministry can and does find its way through faithful people in congregations of all sizes, but it does not diminish the lack of concern for congregation struggling to be faithful in the midst of many challenges.

I am meeting with leaders (for those who need the distinction they are ordained and lay leaders) in a region of Michigan populated by very small communities and even smaller churches. They are having trouble calling seminary trained clergy to their congregation because of the geographic isolation and the lack of funds to financially support such an educated person. This group is trying to be creative, think of ways they can celebrate God’s presence in their midst with or without a seminary trained pastor. The resistance can be overwhelming when higher governing bodies deem their creativity to be out of line with the rules of the denomination. That the hoops they must jump through are part of our denominational and intuitional identity, without them we would be reducing ourselves to nondenominational churches with no connectionalism.

Why aren’t we connecting? Why is there such a large disconnect between these congregation who don’t feel like they are living up the expectations for what it means to be “fit” and those denominational leaders who would rather see them fight for survival than faithfulness.

I have more questions than I do helpful insight how to move forward on this. When well meaning people ask how they can help, I don’t have any answers. I am watching, listening and praying…


  1. Hi, Melissa!
    I was interested to see that you used a quote from one of Fanny Neuda's prayers on your blog and thought you might want to know more about it. The title of that prayer is "On the Approach of Childbirth," and it's from Neuda's prayer book, "Hours of Devotion." Originally written in German in 1855, it was the first book of prayers to be written by a Jewish woman for women. It was a best seller in the German language and also translated into English in 1866, so you probably found an 1878 copy! I have adapted Neuda's prayers into poems for today's readers. My book is titled "Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda's Book of Prayers for Jewish Women." You can read more about it on my Web site:
    With Blessings,

  2. Thanks Dinah for the information and for the book recomondation I will check it out!

  3. This is a very good topic for discussion and we should resist any Darwinian views at a Presbytery or higher level. We have discussed this within our church. I think we should want to see vibrant and spiritually aware churches of all sizes so as to give opportunity to serve the most people, as needs will vary. My grandparents in Racine Wisconsin and Sterling, IL were very comfortable with their larger congregations [although those congregations may not have proven to be totally "fit" after all, as I am sure both went through substantial decline after my grandparent's era.] But others will want an atmosphere smaller in number which I personally think allows members to be closer in their relationships to one another. The soul of the congregation probably looks far different than its ten year statistical profile.
    Fred Overdier

  4. So we have congregations jumping through hoops on one side...and pastors jumping through hoops on the other. You think with all that aerobic exercise, we'd be a healthier denomination.

    Small rural churches are "fit." So are many other small gatherings of Christians who may not be able to afford seminary-trained and debt-laden professional clergy.

    More flexibility is needed, and a reclaiming of a connectionalism that is less about polity and more about the movement of God's Spirit among us.

    Thanks for the post!


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