What to Do When Nothing Works Anymore

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Watchduck CC BY via Wikimedi.

If you’re doing everything you’ve always done as a congregation but it’s not working anymore, you may be alarmed, but you’re not alone.

Once upon a time, we all shared a congregational business model that seemed effective and ordained:

  • A single site
  • Branding that identified the congregation as a franchisee of a larger entity
  • Management by volunteers serving on boards and committees
  • Individual affiliation through membership
  • Development of members through Sunday morning instruction, usually by the leader
  • Ministers who had been trained and certified by the national organization as able to consistently deliver the denominational brand
  • A primary focus on sustaining the organization by securing additional members

Over the last couple of decades, however, this model has changed. Now, growing congregations look very different:

  • Multiple sites
  • Branding that intentionally obscures relationship with a larger entity
  • Management by staff, with a few volunteers serving in governance/policy roles and most performing specific, limited, mission-based tasks
  • Individual affiliation through participation and attendance
  • Development of participants through instruction by the leader and by mentors and small peer groups at a variety of places and times
  • Ministers who are recognized by the congregation as having the skills and personal charisma to be their leaders, regardless of the source of their training and certification
  • A primary focus on achieving the congregation’s stated purposes

There’s actually a business school word for what’s happened to us: dematurity. To quote a recent article by management consultant John Sviokla, “Dematurity is what happens to an established industry when multiple companies adopt a host of small innovations in a relatively short period of time.” The net result of these innovations is that the established industry is destabilized, with mature businesses usually disappearing in the process.

Dematurity was described in the 1980s by Harvard Business School professors William Abernathy and Kim Clark.  As they saw it, Toyota’s and Honda’s cheaper prices, superior production methods, and fuel efficiency “dematured” a previously stable and thriving U.S. auto industry. In order to survive, Detroit automakers had to adopt their competitors’ innovations.

The good news is that, while dematurity is disruptive of old ways of doing things, it can also move us forward as we respond to new customer habits and new technologies. For example, in the 1980s most people owned telephones that were located in one or two places in a home. They were connected to the network with a wire and we used them to talk. Today, as a result of the development of 2G, 3G, and 4G technologies, most of us have a whole new set of phone habits–we use our phones now to read books, send text messages, listen to music, play games, do research, follow step-by-step directions, take pictures, record video, and occasionally still to talk.  The old phone industry dematured, but phones didn’t disappear.  Instead, new products and business models were adopted.

Caught off guard

Nearly all cases of dematurity have something in common, at least according to Sviokla: The genuine surprise of industry leaders when it happens to their industry. It is all too easy, he says, to be caught off guard–“to ignore the small changes that appear one by one, to fail to believe they will affect you, and to end up at the tail of the wave, outpaced by competitors who saw the possibilities earlier.”

And “caught off guard” is a perfect description of where most congregations have been up to now – either ignoring innovation or choosing a minor change  to argue about (e.g., screens in sanctuaries) while a revolution has been going on outside their doors.

But, we don’t have to stay off-guard. Like Detroit, we can adopt already-existing innovations and even create new ones.

One way to not be caught off guard is to pay attention to new customer habits. For example, what might it mean for the church that so many church-goers now see Sunday morning as the perfect time to stay home and relax? Are there ways for the church to nurture faith that respect this need for Sunday morning down time? For that matter, are there ways to deliver the church on smart phones?

Different times, different places

Another way to not be caught off guard is to think in terms of lateral competition–competitors who are doing the thing you’ve always done, but doing it in different ways and at different places. In medicine, for example, both family doctors and emergency rooms are being replaced by convenience providers like urgent care clinics that are convenient and cover basic services, minor emergencies, and chronic conditions. What could we create that puts the church out there at dog parks and science centers and 5K runs where today’s parents are gathering with friends to raise their children and create extended family?

A final way to not be caught off guard is to consider new means of distribution. Most of us are aware of the ways in which digital media has dematured publishing and television, for example, by allowing people to read online and watch on-demand. In the same way, Uber has dematured personal transportation by allowing people to use their smart phones to connect their location and destination with a ride provider’s availability. In the church world, in which our primary distribution system has been a building, how might we reshape our content for an on-demand environment so that the believer can easily connect our offerings with his or her immediate needs?

It’s not easy to go through this kind of change, mostly because our assumptions about what’s correct are so ingrained that it’s hard to think differently.  But the way forward is really as basic as asking the kinds of questions Jesus knew how to answer: Who is our audience, what do they want, and where do we go to meet them?

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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