Systemic Problem #3: PRAIRIE DNA
DNA is inherited from one generation to the next. Cultural DNA is information which defines norms and homeostasis for systems. Traditions that used to work persist in systems; the system avoids what will work in favor of tinkering with its own tradition. Tradition, however, is what is left after what originally caused it to be successful has been removed or the world has changed so that it no longer works. Methodists simultaneously built churches and communities in a rural wilderness that no longer exists. It is very difficult to move away from our addiction to our own historic model. When we create new faith communities or attempt to make disciples in existing churches, we can naturally and unintentionally repeat our tradition and history without conscious awareness. It=s true: The more things change, the more everything remains the same.
The traditional, cultural system I call APrairie DNA@ evolved in the Methodist churches
on the mid-western prairies during the 19th century and has at least
eleven common characteristics. First, Prairie DNA operates the church as a Acome structure@ focused on attraction. Second,
Prairie DNA has an institutional world view 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 when rural isolation drove people
to worship events in order to meet human needs for socialization.
In this traditional, cultural system, Achurch@ means Aworship service@ and it is difficult for people to conceive of a church that does not revolve around the weekly worship event. The traditional church attempts to solve every human need and desire through the worship event. The need for evangelism is expressed as a Aneed to reverse declining trends in worship attendance.@ Disciple making is Atwo stepped@ into (1) getting secular people into religious worship events where (2) they can become disciples. Evangelism is primarily perceived as Aradical hospitality@ where we invite strangers and help them enjoy our worship event. Church planting is perceived as successful when an ongoing, sustainable worship event is achieved. Often the discipleship system is little more than conversations before and after worship. We sincerely believe that all the major problems facing the church can be solved if we canAfix worship.@ The cultural DNA of the traditional church is definitely fixated on worship.
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. 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. 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 a call to 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. They call upon
the pastor to do more and lower the requirements for laity in the hope of
attracting strangers uninterested in church; 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
For a full historic treatment of this syndrome as it evolved, see Chapter One: Systemic Problems at www.disciplewalk.com/Resources, pp. 16-28.Prairie DNA does not reflect true AWesleyan DNA.@
Church planting consultant Jim Griffith stated that the first action of a church with Abad DNA@ to the growing stress of membership decline will be to first Ado 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.