Whenever I am speaking about mission and the church today I usually give the example of Kodak to make a point. This is a story that most of us know well.
Who Killed Kodak?
A few years ago the Kodak company made the news because it filed for bankruptcy. People were sad to see such a well established, trusted and loved business die but no one was surprised. A Forbes article entitled How Technology Killed Kodak a Forbes article said this:
This is just evolution, of course, though it’s a sad day for workers and others effected by the announcement. It’s never fun to see an icon of American enterprise fade or file bankruptcy. Of course it’s not really technology that killed Kodak. We killed the film manufacturer. We chose to use digital cameras instead of film. We found the SD cards and USB cables far more convenient. And so we killed the company through our neglect and Kodak didn’t know how to respond or how to respond in time. Maybe they can restructure and return once again to some new days of glory.
Then there were also articles examining what led to the company’s demise. Complacency and lack of innovative thinking in the management and leadership were two critiques made of the company.
So who killed Kodak? Was it technology? Or was it bad leadership? Or was it us as we moved on and neglected Kodak?
Improving or Adapting?
I use this story to illustrate what happens when an organization fails to understand the times in which it exists and as a result quietly fades away or as in the case of Kodak makes the headlines because of its demise. It seems to me that what was going on with Kodak is that instead of listening to the changing times and adapting, they attempted to improve what they were already doing and this proved to be futile. When I read that “no one was surprised” by the fall of this global giant, it saddened me because it seemed to me that some people were aware that the organization was in trouble, but for whatever reason, the change that was needed did not happen in time.
Of course, I’m thinking about applying this illustration to the church here.
Some time ago when I was speaking at a leaders gathering, a leader came to me and asked me what he should do about his church context. He said that church finances were dropping and staff had to resign, fewer people were coming to the church and most of it was transfer growth. His church had disconnected from the local neighborhood and was clearly struggling. He told me that most of the leadership were focused on improving existing structures and programs.
The history of this church was that in order to stimulate activity, leaders initiated programs and events in order to bring numerical and spiritual growth. But this was not working anymore. However, the church kept doing what it had always done only with increased fervor and better technique. The leader I was talking with was exasperated because he could see that the church had moved beyond the point of minor tweaking and instead needed to embrace deep change. I hear this kind of story often.
It saddens me that some people see the need for change in the church, yet God’s people keep doing the same thing as if minor tweaking will stop the decline of the Western church.
Four Postures for a Changing Culture
Alan Roxburgh in his book Introducing the Missional Church outlines four postures the church can have regarding where it stands in the midst of a changing culture.
Churches begin with great energy and expectation. A number of people with a big vision work at cultivating the new church. But over time the dynamic changes. The church gets more focused on its internal life and the neighborhood changes. Often the members of the church and the local community grow more dissimilar.
People in the church develop a fortress mentality. Their aim is simply to survive in the midst of a changing world. For this church change means going back to the way things were before all the community change occurred. “Faithfulness to the end” is a typical slogan in this church.
A developmental church believes it can grow and reach people in the new space by improving on what it is already doing. This attractional perspective focuses on producing programs and content that attract people to the church. The social system inside the church is one that assumes most of what they are doing is right, but it’s just not being marketed well. (For more on the tensions between attractional/attractive and missional read my blog here.)
In other words, this is a social system that doesn’t see the need for questioning its assumptions and ways of functioning. The developmental church believes the issues of mission and ministry are solved by improving and building on the basic paradigm out of which it already operates and doesn’t even recognize its assumptions until they are pointed out. Better strategy, events, programs and marketing is a focus of this church.
A church in the transitional phase recognizes that no matter how much it improves what it is doing, no matter how attractional is becomes, the context has changed so much that people won’t come to church anymore. Transitional implies being in between. It describes a church discovering that it has to get out beyond its own walls.
After a period of experimenting failing, learning and experimenting again, a transitional church discovers that, like missionaries in another culture, if they are to be a witness to what God is doing in the world, they need to focus continually on engaging their changing contexts and the people of their communities. They know they will be continually adapting to the communities and people where they live. It is not about being trendy or catering to the culture but about being missionaries in their neighborhoods shaping the gospel in the forms and language of the local people and remaking church structures and social systems around the context rather than abstract notions of church drawn from a previous point in history.
Which Posture Does Your Church Take?
My view is that the Church needs to accept that deep, foundational change is needed. We need to take a transformational posture as outlined by Roxburgh in order to thrive in the times that we live. It is too late for tweaking and instead, it is time to transform. We do this not because we want to be relevant or innovative for its own sake as if we are like any other organization. We think about transformation because the Spirit of God is whispering to us new things about the church in the West.
So it genuinely puzzles me when people declare that the missional conversation is “over”. The practitioners that I speak with regularly, are still wrestling with serious yet basic questions about the identity and role of the church today. My view is that we need to keep having this conversation about the missional church which encourages us to think about our identity. Granted, it will need to take different twists and turns in order to avoid calcification, however, it is still a relevant discussion for today.
Franciscan priest Richard Rohr says,
I believe that the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into…liminal time. Instead, religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old “normal” can occur. Much of my criticism of religion comes about when I see it not only affirming the system of normalcy but teaching folks how to live there comfortably. Cheap religion teaches us how to live contentedly in a sick world….A good minister will always open up larger vistas for you, which are by definition risky, instead of just “rearranging the deck chairs” on a sinking Titanic.
So what are we as church leaders doing?
Opening up large views of the reign of God for people or are we rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship?
More and more, thankfully, I see people doing the former! I will talk about this hopeful activity in future articles.