Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Upside-Down Triangle: a model for the 21st century church

(friends, let me offer a disclaimer that this post is deeply wonky. If church systems talk is what you want, read on. Otherwise, I'll be back to your regularly scheduled programming soon).

With increasing demographic evidence that the church is in transition, it has become quite popular in recent months to wonder aloud about how the church is going to survive in the twenty-first century.

I seem to get asked a lot just what I think the church is going to look like in twenty, thirty, forty years. I can only guess that I am asked this question because I am a unique specimen: a twenty-nine year-old systems-driven mainline Protestant minister. The median age of my colleagues is 55. It is clear that the church is going to look different in the coming years, if only because over half of the active clergy in the United Methodist Church will be forced into retirement in less than 17 years.

We're entering a season of unknown unknowns, and it is certainly anxiety producing. And if change within the church were not enough, the world outside the walls of the sanctuary is changing, too. There is a massive upheaval in the ways in which we interact with one another, and while I have no idea what the world will look like in ten years, I'm quite convinced that the digital revolution--and the societal implications that stem from it--is not going anywhere.

So we are left with the difficult business of figuring out how to be the church during a time in which a) the current structures within the church are not working, and b) the current structures outside the walls of the church are changing faster than they ever have. It is enough to render you useless with anxious indecision.

This brings me to that which I think will be the most important shape for the church in the coming years:

This is, of course, an upside-down triangle. I have been thinking about the upside-down triangle ever since several of my North Georgia colleagues and I spent some time with Mike Slaughter a couple of weeks ago. Slaughter talked about his model for leadership at Ginghamsburg Church. Rather than the traditional top-down model, with committees at the bottom and the pastor on top, Slaughter thinks of his leadership in the church as being at the bottom of the triangle, pushing ideas and encouraging servants up and through the top of the triangle, so that the witness of the church is multiplied rather than being filtered down (and filtered out) through committees.

This model of leadership is vastly different than most churches I have witnessed. So many pastors, (legitimately) fearing lack of control, cling to the model with the pastor on top. After all, in the United Methodist Church, we call senior pastors "pastors-in-charge," and everybody knows that the person in charge sits at the top and peers down.

The traditional model seems to have worked great in an old paradigm of church where corporate hierarchy reigned supreme, but it does not match a culture that is more and more decentralized. The digital revolution has changed power dynamics so much that rather than some orderly, streamlined system of power, we are dealing now with something that looks more like this:

I like clear lines of responsibility more than most, but clear lines are not the hallmark of human interactions any longer. We are dealing with networks now, and while networks have their own challenges, the good news (as anybody who has used the internet knows) is that networks harness energy and use it far more efficiently than top-down leadership.

While lines of authority are not as clear in this model, by no means does it remove hierarchy altogether. One reason I'm proud to be a United Methodist is that responsibility and authority are important to me. I have great respect, for instance, for the authority of the Bishop; I find supervision to be vital. The upside-down triangle does not replace authority, however. Rather, the model inverts authority to maximize its power! After all, the triangle still has, at one end, a singular point, an authority. The challenge in our modern context is figuring out how to leverage that authority.

The place that pastoral authority is most clearly leveraged, of course, is in the sermon. The sermon is the one time during the week that there is only one voice speaking, at least aloud, and it gives the pastor a unique opportunity to drive the vision of the church through the proclamation of the Word.

The old model of the sermon was certainly used in this way, in that the preacher began the sermon by offering a point, and then expanding that point to offer applications. Basically, the preacher told people what the Bible said and then told them what to do with it. This model of sermon looked something like this:

and it worked in a context that understood top-down authority, as the model is predicated upon being told what Truth looks like (the "point") and what ought to be done about it. But modern contexts and networks being what they are, it is no longer the case that something is deemed true just because it is spoken. Something is true because, for better or worse, the hearer hears truth within it. The congregation needs to be convinced. I am reminded of Howard Thurman's notion that "something is not true because it is in religion. Something is in religion because it is true."

Fred Craddock takes the traditional model and turns it upside down, so that it looks like this:
where the preacher begins at the top with stories ("particular applications," he calls them) and then narrows until he leaves the congregation with the point. There are several benefits to this model. First, as as been noted, the model has the benefit of "convincing" the congregation of the particular truth, or at least offering examples that show its authenticity, before driving the point home. This upside-down ("inductive") method of preaching recognizes the unique value of networks and the inherent authority of the listener, empowering the listener to "go along" with the preacher as the preacher journeys from particular applications to a specific truth.

Even more than this, this inductive method recognizes that the world is decentralized: that while authority comes from God, it is not centered solely on the preacher, and it does not come without the difficult work of demonstrating authenticity.

The world is lived in multiplicity: a multiplicity of opinions, a multiplicity of truths, a multiplicity of options. Authenticity is especially important in a world where anyone with a blog (even me) is a pundit. I can find anyone who espouses any opinion, and quick.

We live in a world of multiplicity, and the preacher's job is to leverage the upside-down triangle by moving from multiplicity (the top of the triangle), slowly narrowing until he or she reaches the point of the sermon. The point, of the sermon, of course, is God.

The two upside-down triangles work in tandem. In leadership, you start from the bottom (the leader), pushing up through the ranks until the vision is multiplied and expanded. In the sermon, you start from the top (the multiplicity of places where the ranks already are) and narrow and scrape until only the authentic is left.

New societal norms dictate new church models. This does not mean that the church must bend to every whim of the world. But it does mean that the church must take seriously the ways in which humans interact, lest it become even more irrelevant. This is not a low-stakes game, after all.


  1. Good thoughts Dalton. Thanks for bringing this model up for conversation. We often talk about how our smaller churches aren't always run by the committees or clergy but by a matriarch or patriarch who is the one in control. Our larger churches often have multiple folks who are influencers. It seemed to me we have considered this bad. But the model of networking actually leverages these people if we remember to invest in the messiness of relationships. Thoughts?

    I love your comment, "The point, of the sermon, of course, is God." In this model, we as clergy have to take it farther in our lives to remember that in large measure, the point of our lives is God. Trying to get us reoriented however seems to be a growing challenge.

  2. Hey Dalton. I loved the post. We are thinking of using an inverted triangle as our church logo for multiple reasons, and this article just added since really good reasons to the list. Would you be open to a conversation some time about this visual concept?