about the slowness of mainline denominations to use new technologies, and
therefore, continuing to lose members and public attention.
An email came a few weeks ago that criticized the slowness of mainline denominations in using new technologies, such as podcasts and other forms of new media, for communicating. The writer said our counterparts in evangelical organizations are not only quick to do so, they get a leg up when it comes to public awareness because they are first.
This was followed by a note from a former employee of our agency who said the communications agency where I work analyzes, then develops a plan, antes up financial resources and, hopefully, years later does something. He was kind enough to say it would probably be good. But, he noted, in the interim individual pioneers plunge forward and innovate. He cited, for example, the development of inexpensive, do-it-yourself podcasts by individuals, a technology which is already well-established.
There is truth in both critiques, but the truth has as much to do with organizational life than theology or willingness of individuals to confront change.
Innovation does not come to established organizations until they face a crisis that threatens their future and forces them to change. IBM, Ford, and most recently, General Motors, are but a few recent examples. But, I’d speculate that turning these big organizations around is a lot like being at the helm of an oceanliner trying to make a sharp turn. The vessel wants to continue straight ahead, driven by its own momentum.
I’ll bet the executives at GM have had multiple discussions about tinkering with a few things here and there, altering this or that, and thinking that minor course corrections would trim course just enough. But the continuing slide downward didn’t slow with this tinkering. The iceberg still looms ahead. It’s only when it comes into full view that the realization comes that the ship is faced with a full-blown crisis. If they continue to lose market share the company will cease to exist. It’s that stark.
IBM was in this predicament a few years ago and had to change radically. Change didn’t come easily. The corporation was seen by employees as a cradle-to-grave secure workplace. This benevolent corporate environment wasn’t necessarily the cause of the dilemma, but it made change very difficult. Basic corporate values were put to the test. But, in addition, much of what IBM was producing had to change in order to serve emerging needs of its existing customer base and develop new product lines to reach new markets.
This meant changing the culture. It meant developing space for innovative, untested ideas. And it meant determining what to stop doing.
I’m reading and hearing a lot of discussion about the need for mainline denominations to change or die. Mixing my metaphors, researcher Lyle Schaller wrote “the ice cube is melting,” to describe the plight of mainline denominations. There is much–declining membership, failure to replace exiting members (by death or inactivity), aging population–to build the case for this alarming viewpoint. The iceberg looms ahead. Awareness is building. Basic values are being put to the test. New ways of behaving to meet new needs are called for. Innovation, risky or not, is required. And we must figure out what we must stop doing in order to do new, appropriate things.
I know I’m writing organizational theory here, not theology. But the reality is, the change that is required today challenges our values and much more. It requires us to look at every part of the organization, evaluate it and reform. Theology informs how we do this with integrity, compassion and conviction. Besides this, it is, hopefully, the glue that holds us together in community. But I doubt it alone will be the change agent. Turning the ship will require considerable effort in many areas. I’m interested in what you think. Does the iceberg loom ahead? Is the crisis in view, or is this just alarmist hand-wringing? Let me know what you think.