Paul M. Zulehner

Visions for the Church

Orientation in times of Church Reorganisation

Translated by the author together with Rod Pritchard-Smith and Sr. Helen Plum SSND

Patmos Publishing


Paul M. Zulehner, Dr. phil., Dr. theol., is one of the best-known sociologists of religion in Europe. From 1984 until his retirement in 2008 he was Professor for Pastoral Theology in Vienna. In his numerous publications, he deals with topics of the sociology of religion, church sociology and pastoral theology.


Scepticism, disappointment, renunciation: the situation of the church seems more volatile than ever. Paul M. Zulehner, however, is convinced that it is not the church that is in crisis, but the changing times demand a reshaping. In a run through the history of the Christian Church and Culture, he shows that Christianity has often come to crossroads, at which renewal and departure were necessary.

The key to rebirth he sees in powerful visions. In the gospel and in art, in poetry and myth, he finds stimuli which encourage finding new pathways. With this book, Zulehner gives Christians incentives for a church committed to the future. Meditating, true to life and practical, his vision calls for a „resurrection“ of the church. Live!

“Today, perhaps we have so much discontent in some parts of the worldwide church, because we lack motivating visions. Structures are indispensable for the incarnation of a vision in history. But they are not a substitute for visions. The present church reorganisation concerns more structures than visions. We speak more about money than God. Of course Churches have to make structural adjustments. And, only if these are done, the Churches start thinking about visions. As Saarinen teaches – we should look at things the other way round.”

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Visions for the Church

Church reorganisation: An introduction

The nostalgic retro-temptation

Need for visions

Liveliness of an organisation

Vision’s weakness

About the power of visions

Everyone is gifted with visions

Unspent Visions of the Church

Orpheus and Christ

Maturing into cosmic Christ

The Descent of Christ into Hades: Of what do we believe God is capable?

Becoming like the father


Basic processes of Church life

The Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet

And Sarah laughed

A gender just Church

The star of the vision

About the author

Informations about the book


Publisher Information

Visions for the Church

Church reorganisation: An introduction

The Viennese stand-up comedian Helmut Qualtinger told the following joke featuring “Herrn Travnicek”: “I don’t know where I’m going, but that way I’ll get there quicker.” Similarly, it was formulated pointedly within the “sixty-eight Movement”: “When they didn’t know where they wanted to go, they increased their labours.” At present, a similar thing is happening in some Church communities.

The Church is not in a crisis, even when there is still so much discussion about a Church crisis.1 It makes no sense to hold the Second Vatican Council responsible for a crisis which doesn’t exist.2 As so often in the past the Church is going through a deep reorganisation of its structure, which is to be expected from time to time.

There has been a transformation of the culture over the last few decades – a culture which prides itself on being modern or even postmodern. The various Churches have difficulty in keeping pace with cultural change. There is a temptation not to take part in the changing modern culture and to bunker themselves in a silently disappearing past. The former times are praised, mostly by the Lefebvrians who call themselves The Society of St. Pius X. They look longingly back to how the Roman Catholic Church was before the French Revolution. This was before the beginning of modernity with its deep respect for individuality, human rights, equality for women and religious freedom.

The nostalgic retro-temptation

The prophet Jeremiah preaches in the name of Yahweh against such longing for the past. The people had been deported to a foreign culture, to Babylon. Nostalgic prophets dreamt of a speedy return to the past and the abandoned home: Jerusalem. Jeremiah vehemently scourges these nostalgic prophets as false and warns the people insistently:

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,

for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord.

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise to you and bring you back to this place.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

(Jr 29:8–11)

For the next 70 years, however, God had other plans for his exiled people:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.

Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

(Jr 29:47)

Today, are the Churches not living through such an interval of 70 years’ exile?3 If so, a new pastoral mode is needed as well as a new social structure for the new era. This means that today God expects from his Church a profound reorganisation, and this in a modern culture, into which God himself has led her. In the midst of such a reorganisation the Gospel is understood more deeply thanks to the Spirit of God.

The Church is responsible for proclaiming the Gospel, which through the power of God’s Spirit has brought so many fruits in the course of its two-thousand-year history, particularly in Europe.

Need for visions

In the required reorganisation of the Church there is a dangerous temptation. Experts in the development of organisations warn against “more of the same”, unimaginatively carrying on just as before, even though everyone suspects in the word of German politician Erhard Eppler, “If we continue like this, we will no longer continue.” All developers of organisations urge caution.

If in the course of the reorganisation of the Church there is a shortage of means and the number of people (members, Churchgoers, volunteers, ordained) shrinks, then it often happens that the business goes on without change. Experts call this “downsizing” Church business on “low flame”. One then says fewer priests, therefore bigger pastoral areas and less local Sunday masses. It is also said that since people drive long distances when they go to discos and supermarkets, why should churchgoers not also drive a long distance to Sunday mass. Theologically this is questionable.

A “Church self-service” is expected from the individual Church members, for families with little children (have you already bundled three children into a car?), for the old, for the sick in need of care and for those who are handicapped. A Church for the mobile healthy ones without children comes into being! The proximity to the people is given up in favour of the maintenance of an expiring form of the Church.

With such structural measures the phasing out of the conventional Church shape cannot be prevented. Some rather fear that such measures even accelerate the decline. Vitality is lost. It would be exactly this vitality which could express itself in a new form of the Church. However, one which perhaps we do not now know, but which God will bring into being.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

(Is 43:18f.)

The prophet Isaiah asks this in God’s name.

Liveliness of an organisation

Martin F. Saarinen – an American born in Finland – researched the question of what makes a (Methodist) parish vital.4 He concluded that Church communities and organisations go through a life cycle. This starts with birth, continues through childhood to youth to reach adulthood. The organisation then gets old: It runs through the phases of maturity, aristocracy, bureaucracy and finally dies.

This is the first painful insight of his analyses: Organisations are “born” but they are at the same time also mortal. This includes Church organisations, such as parishes, spiritual movements or orders! Once there was a blossoming Christianity in Asia Minor and North Africa. The European areas of Czech Republic, Estonia or the former East Germany also had a strong Christian culture5, before they became during the era of communism atheistic cultures with an aggressive stance towards the Church.

Saarinen clarifies that young organisations also have to grow and transform into adult organisations. Above all, organisations are born from the strength of a vision.

Take the example of Jesus: What he did and what he spoke was the vision of a world, in which God’s dream of creation can be realised. “The Kingdom of God” was the name of this vision. To implement this vision in history, he inspired people with it – the Church’s childhood! The Jesus-movement started. It was not just any community but a “vision-community”. As a town on the mountain it should be a light for others (Mt 5:14) and healing like salt (Mt 5:13); clearly showing how people live when God’s love for people and the love among one another spreads.

This youthful vision-community grew. The Constantine shift of 313 had linked Church and state closely together and accelerated the growth of the community. The persecuted Church of the catacombs was now transformed into a State-Church; this again became a “people’s Church” culturally deeply established in the population. This quantitative growth was admittedly at the same time a qualitative weakening. As Silvanus of Marseilles wrote in the fifth century:

“And you, Church, have got weaker by your increased fertility, have sunk back by the increase and have lost vigour. Certainly: You have sent the members through the whole world which although has the faith in name, however, no faith strength and you started to get rich in numbers but poor in faith; you got further with respect to the body, but your spirit atrophied.”6

This condition characterises the large Christian Churches to this day. Even though there are many Roman Catholics and Protestants, there are few Christians.7

Different roles have developed in such times of quick growth. While the clergy gained power the lay-people were weakened in intense fights.8 The ordination of the one became the subordination of the others. A fundamental pastoral schism emerged.9

What was very decisive were the closely interwoven shared tasks between the different managers in the church and the state. The structures of the Church with its dioceses and territorial communities corresponded to the structures of the Roman Empire – the Church had “incarnated itself structurally”.

In the Middle Ages something similar happened. The complete living environment of people was structured by the Church. The people were obliged to celebrate the mass in their parish, to pay the tithe, to be married, to baptize their children and to bury their family-members. The term for this relationship with the parish was “Pfarrbann”.

The “old” orders, ie. the Benedictines and Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Jesuits, played an important role in strengthening the Church as a relatively independent institution. This social structure of the Church has dark and light sides. Europe owes the Church its institutions for education and hospitals as well as the development of an effective state administration; but on the other hand, there were the Inquisition, the colonisation of other continents and religious wars.

The Jesus-movement was fully adult in that phase since it had trained an administration compatible with its vision. The administration of goods, money and members were well regulated.

The four elements which help an organisation to grow were shown clearly in Saarinen’s study: the community, the programme, the administration and all three interwoven with the strength of the birth-vision. Community, programme and administration must always be tested by the vision and rub against each other and develop themselves. This birth-vision forces the Church to continual development and purifying, sometimes also to radical conversion and to penitence, to a confession of its guilt as made by John Paul II at the beginning of the third millennium to the displeasure of many in the Church.

A strength of the Christian Churches is its determination not to be shaken at its original birth-vision. This is held tightly in its charter – the Sacred Scriptures handed down faithfully thanks to the definition of an untouchable canon. Of course these sacred texts have a history of reception, carried by God’s Holy Spirit. This remains obligatory for the development of the Churches. However, it mustn’t be prevented from developing further in different cultures and times. This is not the case at least today where the Constantine epoch, characterizing the destiny of the Church for centuries, has come to an end, while mankind is coming together – a unification constantly threatened by fear and therefore by violence, greed and lies.

Getting old: Weakening of the Vision

According to Saarinen, the ageing of an organisation starts precisely when the strength of the vision declines. It is, he notes cheerfully, a popular time for anniversaries. The jubilant communities of the Church look back (such as married couples, members of religious orders, priests, organisations) and are pleased about the strength of their vision at the beginning and what it has become.

After the vision the programs become old if they are not updated early enough. What remains is a community which is well managed, self-satisfied but ageing at the same time. If the community is also lost, the administration only rules with its structures and paucity of vision. It is then often only all about money, hardly about God. A dying Church body is managed successfully. Its end: organisational death after a creeping, silent implosion.

Renewal and resurrection

The life cycle of individuals is irreversibly placed between birth and death. Not so that of organisations. These have the possibility of obtaining what they lack and gaining new vitality and strength. Renewal is possible in every phase of life and age.

If an organisation is in the phase of “maturity” in which the strength of the vision declines, then it needs to regain vision. If it is an “aristocratic community”, in which vision and program are missing, it requires an update of both. According to the bible, the miracle of a resurrection from organisational death is possible.

An example of the renewal of the vitality of a community is offered by “Servant John”. He lets the risen Christ tell to the community of Laodicea in Asia Minor:

And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:

“I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot.

So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.

I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

(Rv 3:1422)

We can learn a lot from the analysis of Saarinen. Primarily a powerful and moving vision must stand not only at the cradle of every organisation. This is and remains the guarantor of its liveliness in its further development as well. When its strength weakens, the organisation ages and loses little by little what it needs for the life in space and time: community, program and administration.