They continue to do what worked over a century ago to attract people; it continues to fail.

This entry is part 48 of 118 in the series Diagnosis, Dialogue, Decision: A DMin Project

Prairie DNA shapes the Illinois Great Rivers Conference paradigm. Cultural DNA controls and maintains a homeostasis of traditionalism,[1] preventing church growth by inhibiting the historic Methodist tendency to expediently adapt to changing conditions. Prairie DNA has eleven basic characteristics. First, Prairie DNA operates as a “come structure” focused on attraction. Second, Prairie DNA has an institutional worldview focused on the church building as the place for people to come. Third, it uses events to draw people to the building. Fourth, it seeks to be visible within the community by promoting these events. Fifth, it lowers barriers in an attempt to make the institution more attractive to outsiders. Sixth, Prairie churches experience community in conversations before and after worship and other events. These practices all reflect the customs of the camp meeting era. Seventh, Prairie churches are organized and controlled by a single cell of persons. Eighth, these lay leaders are resistant to new ideas and new people. The old timers will rarely allow the pastor to lead. A classic symptom of Prairie DNA is the conviction that laity in the church know more about Scripture, spirituality and what their church should do than their seminary educated pastor.[2] The goal of prairie DNA is to keep the church as close as possible to the way it was in the days of the second Great Awakening; this is often seen in the choice of songs to sing. In the labeling of generations such as Modern, Postmodern and Millennial, prairie church folk are by preference still living in the nineteenth century or earlier. Ninth, assimilation of newcomers whose primary contact with a church is through a worship service is a challenge requiring a high investment of energy.[3] Tenth, prairie evangelism focuses on a salvation event mediated by a preacher and offered less and less frequently. Wesley’s followers heard evangelistic sermons twice daily and were individually coached every week in the class meeting. On the prairie, revival events are first quarterly, then annually, and finally disappear. Rather than challenging people to practice a disciplined faith in a small group on a weekly basis, prairie churches assimilate uncommitted people. When sin brings suffering, prairie churches try to soothe problems through pastoral care rather than solve problems through repentance and holiness. Finally, when prairie churches are under stress they remain faithful to their DNA and respond by pushing the trend to preserve their traditional homeostasis. They do something to the building itself in order to make it more attractive.[4] They call upon the pastor to do more and lower the requirements for laity in the hope of attracting strangers; prairie DNA has low expectations of laity and high expectations of clergy. They offer more events to draw people in. They make a heartfelt gesture at ministering to community needs. They continue to do what worked over a century ago to attract people; it continues to fail.





[1] The quote is a selection from David O. Kueker’s Fuller Seminary Doctor of Ministry project submitted in September, 2007, entitled Diagnosis, Dialogue, and Decision: A Threefold Process of Revitalization For the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
It is shared here in recognition of its 12th Anniversary along with comments to update and provide perspective on the material. The original project was a Training Manual/Study Guide of three Seminars supported by three chapters of research and an Introduction. The material is available for download at In 2009 it was provided for purchase as a softcover book entitled Designing Discipleship Systems: Christian Disciple Making For Any Size Church, Any Theology through

[2][3] [4][5] [6][7] [8]

All Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, and 1971 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please review the page How and Why We Use Quotes.

[1]Schwarz, Natural Church Development, 46, 28-29. One could argue that self-righteous traditionalism could be called “the leaven of the Pharisees;” cf. Luke 12:1, Matthew 16:6, 11-12 and Mark 8:15.

[2]Schwarz, Natural Church Development, 46, 28-29, identifies the two factors most negatively correlated to church growth as liberal theology and traditionalism. The pattern of appointing comparatively liberal clergy to churches composed of comparatively traditional laity has been very common in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference for more than a century. It has been perceived as a resistance to an educated clergy but not understood as a reason for church decline when the two most negative growth factors are brought together in conflict. Cf. Evers, History of the Southern Illinois Conference, 140-142, 157-160. For a 1968 analysis of this trend, see Rodney Stark and Charles Y. Glock, American Piety: The Nature of Religious Commitment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 213-223.

[3]For assimilation methods, see Michael J. Coyner and Douglas T. Anderson, The Race to Reach Out: Connecting Newcomers to Christ in a New Century (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004).

[4]Church planting consultant Jim Griffith stated that the first action of a “bad DNA” church to the growing stress of membership decline will be to first “do something to the church sign” and then fix up other parts of the church building and grounds to be more attractive. Jim Griffith, presentation, Office of Congregational Development, Conference Office, Springfield, IL, March, 2005.

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