The Great Unraveling
We live in a time of huge change and contested stories. It is a time when even the most basic, taken-for-granted systems of organization seem to be dissolving. All of this is particularly true for those Protestant denominations into which many of us were born and to which many of those reading these words have given their life and leadership. These denominations and their churches, as we have known them, are effectively finished! They must now enter a time of being fundamentally remade.
A great hollowing out is underway that can’t be stopped but is still not believed. Just as Western nations have experienced a hollowing out of their industrial heartlands so the Protestant denominations (See, George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America). Packer describes how generations of people in the industrial heartlands would continue. They expected some change requiring adjustments, even tough moments of passage. But beneath all that sense that change was effecting them in ways beyond their control was an unshakeable sense that their basic ways of life would still be there and available to future generations as it had for them. Yet, in what must have seemed like the blink of an eye it was all gone! Their way of life was upended forever. This is what is now happening to Protestant churches.
In one way there is nothing surprising about all of this. Most people in church leadership feel the unraveling but continue to quietly work faithfully and hard at their roles in the hope that, perhaps, something is going to come along to change things for the better. These are good and honorable leaders working within systems that are imbued with deep and precious traditions. Over the last fifteen years I have worked with many such leaders and have great respect for their love and courage. I have watched the ways many of these leaders have initiated a multiplicity of initiatives to re-form, re-structure, re-organize and remake their churches. Over the last several years there has developed a new awareness that these efforts are not working, something has shifted and these denominations are moving past the place where they can be fixed with all the normal methods and tactics.
Of Taxis and Apps
The reality of this shift came home to me in several ways recently and cast a light on what is happening to the churches as well as pointing the way toward hopeful directions. The first such experience happened in a taxicab on the way to Vancouver airport for a flight to Sidney, Australia. It was a warm September evening, summer was holding on to the very end and my driver was full of exuberance as he talked away to me as we sped along late evening, empty streets and across Lions Gate Bridge into the downtown. What made him especially ebullient this night was that another taxi driver didn’t believe he had a fare to the airport at that hour of the night. A twenty-dollar bet was made and my driver had just collected his winnings. Our conversation turned to the taxi business. Like a lot of other places in North America taxi companies own very expensive ‘licenses’ which they buy, in this case, from the city. On the basis of such licenses, the companies hire drivers who all use the company’s yellow or green ‘cabs’ dispatched from a call center. Each cab driver pays the company of base rate (in this case, $125 per shift) before starting their shift. Out of what they collect in fares they then have to pay for the gas. I don’t know if these arrangements provide a decent living (I tip well) but it is the established way the taxi business works and has been for as long as I can remember.
According to my driver it’s all about to change. The taxi business is about to be upended because someone has created a simple app called Uber taxi. A way of life and of doing business is about to be transformed in the blink of an eye (or the click of an app). Apparently, the app effectively does away with the monopoly of the taxi company through their central licensing. I don’t pretend to know how it works but the app allows practically anyone who meets certain criteria (age, criminal check, quality of vehicle etc.) to drive whomever they want for a certain fee. The app manages all the payments and connections and so forth. The taxi companies are up in arms. They are applying legal pressure to stop the encroachment of the app into their areas. This will probably work for a while but, like the little boy with his finger in the leaking dam, it won’t hold back the changes. The taxi business is about to be reset to zero.
McLuhan, Magazines and Newspapers
Almost half a century ago Marshall McLuhan proposed that a new medium is never just an addition to an established one, nor does it leave the existing one in place. The medium, he argued, destroys, dismantles and replaces the older one. The kinds of changes we are experiencing in churches, like the taxi companies, are not primarily ‘add-ons’ to established organizational or social structures. At the heart of such changes are new mediums that upend existing structures. As with taxi companies so with denominations. This dismantling and unraveling is happening across multiple systems and organizations. The introduction, for example, of recent non-state actors such as ISIS, Bocca Horan or El Kiada suggest that the once assumed dominance of nation states can no longer be assumed. Newspapers and magazines are another example. Michael Harris in his recent book, The End of Absence, describes the rapid loss of print newspapers and magazines with these evocative words: “So the dismantling of magazines and newspaper offices, the vast field of lost writers editors now blogging and bitching from cafes around the world, are not just employment casualties; they’re a symptom of a more profound moral wreckage” (14). Blogging or tweeting from cafes, or cell phones are not just ways of embracing a new way of being in the world they symbolize the ways we tentatively test ways forward as we face the blindness that comes when a world we assumed would always be there is gone. I’m not sure many national or regional denominational staff will find new employment by blogging in cafes but I am sure the wreckage of this world is coming very quickly.
This leads me to the second experience that brought home to me the rapidity and reality of the dismantling. This time it was an article in the New York Times about the role of renewable energy. It caught my attention because I am shortly to publish a book with IV Press (Structures for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church) on the denominational change and in it tell something of the story of Germany and renewable energy. Germany is in the midst of a revolution in the means of energy production that is hugely important for us all. My book describes how denominations and congregations might address their own unraveling by attending to such revolutions of imagination. The title of the NYT article is: Sun and Wind Alter German Landscape, Leaving Utilities Behind (Sunday, September 14, 2014. Vol. clxiii, No. 56,624). Both parts of the title are critical to understanding what is happening. Wind turbines in the North Sea symbolize the sea change that’s occurring. A single blade on one turbine almost equals the wingspan of an Airbus A380. But far more significant is that Germany, contrary to all the pronouncement of experts, is approaching a tipping point were more than 30% of its electricity is being generated by renewables. It’s not just a stunning achievement but signals a massive upending of long established and very powerful utility companies. As the cost of technology for renewable energy (wind and solar) plummet the world of electricity production is being transformed before our eyes. Not long ago the CEO’s of massive, national electric utilities scoffed at the idea that solar batteries and wind turbines could remake the way we produced our power. Today, these same executives are very, very nervous. Suddenly, they’re watching their established, well-designed work unravel. The ramifications are enormous. We are at a point were in some significant ways we may be able to leapfrog fossil fuels. Such a change will and already is devastating established ways of electric production. The German word for what’s happening is Energiewende, energy transition. But as McLuhan pointed out such transitions destroy established orders. Who could have imagined this just a decade ago? This is precisely what is now underway across practically all the established denominations.
In terms of Energiewende, the NYT article suggests that “it is becoming clear that the transformation…will be wrenching…the electrical business is entering a period of turmoil beyond anything in its 130 year history, a disruption potentially as great as these that remade the airlines, the music industry and the telephone business” (6). What is notable about this change is what existing utility companies will need to face. They may well be required to scrap “existing rules of the electricity market and start over” (6). Facing these companies is the question of whether they are willing to fundamentally re-imagine who they are, why they exist and what they do. Will this great Energiewende become a successful transition for them or, like magazines and newspapers, like taxi companies and a growing list of established organizations will they resist, mark time or try to ‘fix’ who they are?
Questions for the Denominations
These questions lie before the denominations. Their long established structures, roles, habits ad practices are not going to survive what’s coming. Developing new ministry plans, grasping onto a new set of indicators or streamlining structures simply misses the enormity of the challenges that lie at their doorstep. This is what we are observing in our work with denominational systems and congregations as we seek to partner with them in reimagining the forms and ways of life that will be needed. I look forward to sharing more with you the frames in which these denominations can address these questions from a radically different perspective when Structures for Mission: Renewing the Culture of the Church comes out this Spring.