Church: Managing the Postmodern Church

A conversation with Dr. Karl Moore, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Management, McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He also taught at Oxford University from 1995-2000. He has worked as a consultant on the area of study called “Change” for several denominations.

Question: Some people think the traditional congregational style of church within a denomination is doomed. Do you agree with that?

Karl Moore: Not at all. Quite the opposite. I think there are few things as useful to a Christian life as a good congregation. I grew up in a couple of different ones and when moving between three countries, I found them a great source of strength, encouragement and friendships. This summer my family and I spent six weeks in another part of the world, and what a delight it was for us to meet other Christians in our denomination and begin to develop friendships and a sense of “oneness.” We believe that the congregation is a great institution. But like many other great institutions, it needs to morph into something a bit different from time to time.

Q: To be successful in the postmodern culture, many institutions are finding it necessary to “reinvent themselves.” To what extent do you think this is true for churches?

KM: Reinvention seems to be the order of the day for our society. Whether it be the way in which families are much more diverse, universities are no longer just for the elite or the voice of the BBC is no longer the voice of Britain.

When we think about the auto industry, we realize that GM and Ford are struggling, Chrysler was owned by Germans, Rover is dead all over, BMW makes “British” brands like the Mini, Jaguar is a Ford and Rolls is German. Stunning changes, yet we largely still drive vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines.

The tension is how do we keep what is the core of the institution — the most continuously valuable bits — and what do we see as something that can flex with the times? I believe Christianity is going through this type of process of discarding the Western/European culture parts to rethink what is at the heart.

The growth of the church in Africa and Asia is helpful in this matter. As the center of Christianity (if not in power at least in numbers) shifts south and east, our brothers and sisters in these countries will bring extremely helpful views on what being “Christ-like” in today’s world really means. Humility and profound willingness to listen and learn will be paramount in this process, which will undoubtedly take a decade or two to fully unfold.

Q: What current management trends are helpful for church leaders?

KM: What we are experiencing in management is the early days of what might be called “postmodern management.” Operating in a turbulent, rapidly evolving environment, leaders must spend less time relying on their own experience from years ago and spend more time listening to the front-line troops.

These front-line employees are often our youngest and least experienced, but their experiences can help us more rapidly realize when key changes are taking place. Strategy-making still lies with those at the top, but input must be gathered from a more diverse set of people.

Humility and listening strike me as Christian values! Though Christians still hold to eternal truths, the fact is that we are generally much less dogmatic than 20 years ago. We simply “know” less than we thought in the past.

We are also making more room for emotion in the workplace. The “baby-boomers” were overly focused on work, ambition, careers and their high need for achievement. At the same time the MBA-ization of business occurred with its focus on analysis, spreadsheets and the numbers. This crowded out the human side of management.

moore“I believe that the leadership style of churches should evolve over time in concert with the changes in how members are led at work. Otherwise we will simply appear to be horrifically out of date.”


Getting this balance is a considerable challenge for business leaders, perhaps doubly so for church leaders. I believe that the leadership style of churches should evolve over time in concert with the changes in how members are led at work. Otherwise we will simply appear to be horrifically out of date and “fuddy-duddyish.” Not that we should follow every fad, but we should change over time to be within the broad direction of management in our particular country. However, the core ideal of “servant leadership” should remain always at the heart of Christian leadership.

Q: The members of the younger adult generation — what some call “Generation X” — are leaving traditional denominations, although they are not necessarily abandoning Christianity. Do you see this as a problem, or just a trend?

KM: This is a troubling trend. As an active member of a congregation, I feel the loss of too many of the younger generation. We would love to have them around. On the other hand, this action is often not done out of a malicious attitude or even out of a particularly bad experience, but rather as simply a much better fit with their lives. They feel that it is a better way of living out their Christian lives.

Perhaps we may question their wisdom and judgment, but I don’t think we should question their sincerity or desire to do the Christian thing. I wish it was different, nevertheless, Jesus is involved and will—and has—turned this to his ends and glory.

Q: How do you define “success” in terms of church leadership in the postmodern world?

KM: Success in the church is about changed lives, people brought into a life-changing relationship with Christ, the Father, the Spirit and a Christian community. Many times this is a qualitative rather than a quantitative thing and thus difficult to measure. This can make Christian leadership more trying at times, but when we are part of the process of Christian growth, it is wonderfully rewarding.

Q: So if there was just one aspect of leadership that you wish you could get across to church leaders, what would it be?

KM: Recently I did a summer leadership series for the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, where I interviewed one CEO a week. After eight weeks of this, I wanted to hear from younger leaders. So I gathered three young university leaders (20, 22 and 30 years old), whom I knew fairly well, to talk about their view of leadership. They were very critical of the “boomers” — my generation. Subsequent interviews with other young leaders have only reinforced this sad thought.

What they stressed at some length was that leaders need to listen more, much more. Not to be so quick to rush to giving the solution, getting it done and dusted.

Younger people often have silly ideas. We did at their age, and to be honest, we still do from time to time. An acquaintance of mine who taught executive courses with me at Oxford worked for the Strategic Planning unit in the Pentagon. It is interesting what the military — or at least parts of the military — do in “after action reviews.” Rather than starting with the General, they start with the newest buck private and let her give her comments. She will have some truly off-the-mark ideas, but she also doesn’t know whose sacred cow she is goring, so she presses ahead to say some insightful things as well. From there they work their way up the ranks. Better listening is my “number one request” to church leaders.

When you have church conferences, what percentage of time is given to listening to those from denomination headquarters? Hopefully less and less. If you want new ideas and things that work, make time — plenty of time — for those in the field and their experiences.

Author: Karl Moore

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