Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Jesus business (Sunday Reflections for August 7, 2011)

Last week I caught part of a BBC radio program about business innovation, including the difficulty large legacy companies have staying competitive and even surviving. One guest interviewed spoke at length about the now commonly heard idea that companies need to know what business they are in. Often they make the mistake of focusing on specific products they make rather than the service those products provide for their customers. When clear about that service, companies can then continually refine their product line, even if it means dropping products the company has long been identified with.
The example he cited where this did not occur (at least not soon enough) was the two American one-time photography giants, Kodak and Polaroid. Kodak assumed it was a company that primarily made camera film while Polaroid’s identity was wedded to its instant picture cameras. Because of inflexibility in their corporate self-images, neither was able to adjust to the revolution of digital photography and camera miniaturization.
This was especially ironic for Kodak because at onetime it had invented a digital camera. Its corporate culture, however, couldn’t figure out what to do with it since it couldn’t imagine a photographic world without film. Like Kodak, Polaroid also possessed many technologies and products which could have been transitioned into the new digital realm but it just wasn’t looking in that direction. If these companies had understood themselves as serving the photographic community rather than as producers of specific products, they could have found the flexibility to pivot with new technologies and popular interests.
The Kodak/Polaroid experience has become an increasingly common one in the corporate world. The long-predicted collapse of Borders was also the result of its leadership being unable to adjust, in this case to the popularity of both online retailing and electronic book readers. For too long it assumed its business was selling physical books in large brick-and-mortar stores, rather than providing its customers reading material however they wanted to get it.
It’s not hard to see where I am going with this. Can you think of a “legacy” business that we are all involved in that is having trouble adjusting to new market and technological realities? For me this radio conversation raised some very practical, pointed and, certainly for some, disturbing questions about the contemporary church.
Just thinking about the church in these terms makes some people squirm and I know there are those who would reject this whole approach. For me, however, the questions are obvious and unavoidable. What business is the church in? Have we identified our self too much with particular products and not with the services we provide? Is our product identity blinding us to resources we have which would enable us to provide new products and services, better meeting people’s wants and needs?
In the past I’ve used the analogy of the church being like a buggy whip manufacturer that has been unable to adjust to the automobile age. What the BBC program made clear is how much such organizations’ problems are psychological. They have a mental block, a blindness, to the new world around them. They can’t imagine the world has changed in such drastic ways that people no longer need or want the products they had successfully offered for so long.
It’s the nature of religion to be about “eternal truths.” Historically, however, we are aware that every religion adjusts to changing times, sometimes radically, or they disappear. When “eternal truth” runs up against new conflicting realities, they are adjusted or forgotten, though that may not be publicly admitted. Those truths become like outdated products a company drops and replaces with more relevant ones.
The single “product” the church has most identified itself with is salvation. The meaning of salvation has often been somewhat fluid but the church has always liked the idea that, whatever it was, it was the only place you could get it. (I heard that notion again just this summer from our synod bishop.) People need what we have and they can’t get it anywhere else. No. That is the blindness that has bankrupted companies and is now sinking the church.
Like the veteran corporate and department heads of Kodak and Polaroid, the church is dominated by people (clergy especially but laity as well) who love what once was. Cameras without film, built into your phone?? Instant pictures on digital screens, not on a piece of ejected paper?? Churches that don’t save people?? Close your eyes, stop your ears, and these crazy ideas will go away. “What has been will always be.” Right.
What’s different about the church’s situation is that it has been in decline longer than any company has existed, at least two centuries. Within mainline churches certainly, most people know the world has changed and the church has not, yet we lack the imagination to think of the church and what it does in a new way.
One example: It’s debatable whether traditional Christian worship has a future, yet the church is unwilling to even consider recasting it in ways to make it more welcoming and relevant. Why can baptism only be the entrance right for church membership? Why not open it to anyone wanting a ritual of community blessing at the beginning of life? And why not do something similar with communion, making it into a meal of fellowship and spiritual blessing rather than an experience reserved for elect few?
The reason such changes are resisted is that both are still too closely identified as dispensers of salvation, a “prize” that only worthy people are entitled to receive. Unfortunately for the church, that “prize” is one fewer and fewer people are interested in getting. They’re not interested in jumping through the hoops the church puts up to get it.
The challenge facing the church is to be willing to throw open its doors and genuinely welcome anyone and everyone without condition. Let people’s needs guide its practice and self-understanding, rather than its identification with its “salvation product line.” Salvation, meaning, hope, new life and all the other ideas Christianity has used over the centuries still have meaning and value for people, but not in the classic, antique forms in which the church has preserved them.
Jesus is still one of the most popular and well known figures in the world, but not in the theologically straight-jacketed form the church hangs on to. Rather, people are attracted to him as a real person: inspiring, encouraging, challenging, puzzling, loving, hope-giving, welcoming—all the things that seemed to get people’s attention during his life. The church could do worse than to simply say: we are in the Jesus business. Then be prepared to dump any part of our “product line” that doesn’t contribute to that.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Talking to ourselves (Sunday Reflections for July 31, 2011)

“Why did I do that?” Not only do we all ask ourselves that question, we probably ask it more often than we care to admit. We also probably ask it more often than we even realize. Often the behavior in question is something trivial or just annoying but sometimes it is more serious. “I do not understand my own actions,” St Paul writes in Romans. It is an ancient problem, apparently.
If we think about it long enough, the frequency and apparent universality of this experience gets a little unnerving. “What do you MEAN you didn’t know what you were doing?” If you didn’t know what you were doing, just who is this you that we’re talking about? Is there more than one of you “in there?”
Thinking this way may give us a headache but the research of neuroscience increasingly supports the notion that yes, there is more than one of you “in there.” As reported on MSNBC.com, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes this reality in his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. According to Eagleman there are indeed many voices in our heads:
The only way to understand the brain is as a neural parliament, where you have different political parties battling it out to control your behavior. This can now be measured in the brain with neural imaging. We can see that there are all these competing subpopulations in the brain that are always battling it out. You can call this a "team of rivals," and I think that’s a much more nuanced view of ourselves. You can get a real understanding how it is you can argue with yourself and cajole yourself. When you stop to think about it, you might ask yourself, which "you" is you? It’s all you.
I think this gives us a much more nuanced view of others' behavior as well. We don’t have to fall into this simplistic path of asking, "What are this person’s true colors? Is this person a racist or not a racist?" For better or worse, it’s perfectly possible that there are racist parts of your brain and non-racist parts. You get a much better understanding when you understand that, as Walt Whitman correctly surmised, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
He had the spirit of that exactly right. Freud had a similar idea with the concepts of id, ego and superego. What’s different now is that we can actually measure and understand the processes going on under the hood.
In addition to questioning our own behavior we also question others’ behavior. “Why did they do that?” To this Eagleman says, they may have had “no choice.” Another discovery of neuroscience is that all brains are not created equal. Well of course we may say, but Eagleman is not just referring to mental ability or even personality.
Everyone’s brain is like a unique fingerprint. Every brain is the result of unique genetics and the social environment in which it developed. How we think, behave and react to situations and events is a function of our unique brain. You can probably see we are now teetering on the edge of that trickiest of subjects, human choice and free will. Eagleman doesn’t go down that road, however.
Free will is really about responsibility for our actions, whether to give credit or blame. From his study of the brain Eagleman thinks that’s kind of pointless because it doesn’t get us anywhere. The question rather is how do we encourage socially productive behavior and discourage anti-social behavior? When it comes to criminal behavior, the problem in Eagleman’s view is that we make few if any distinctions. The pathological criminal can only be taken out of society and “warehoused.” There’s nothing else we can do at this point. They are a small minority of the criminal population, however, yet most of the rest are treated the same way.
Nearly one-third of prison inmates are mentally ill and need treatment, though few get it. The criminal behavior of many others can be explained by unique factors for each person. They should be placed in rehabilitation programs that address those factors. Instead, most are lumped together often resulting in criminal and anti-social tendencies being cemented or even made worse.
Charging one’s opponent with “coddling criminals” or being “soft on crime” has become a standard campaign tactic. Yet there is little evidence that having created one of the largest prison populations in the world, our society is actually any safer or more just.
Conservative Christians often assume that the Bible requires us to classify people and their behavior as good or bad and that bad behavior must be punished. In fact, as the Paul quote above indicates, the Bible is actually very aware of the complications of judging, let alone understanding, human behavior.
While the Bible has a great deal to say about social injustice, criminal behavior and its punishment gets remarkably little attention. One could even say the Bible has a rather cynical attitude since nearly every one of its trial or prison stories is a case of abuse and injustice. At the end of Matthew, in the story of the separation of the sheep and goats, the true disciples are those who visited “the least of these” in prison.
Frustration and anger at criminal behavior is understandable but the evidence is mounting that our one-size-fits-all punishment system is accomplishing little and probably making things worse. The developments of neuroscience such as Eagleman reports give us reason to put our emotions aside to ask how we can actually deal with the problem of criminality in ways that would make our society better. While our own behavior or that of our neighbors may surprise us, it is actually becoming less of a mystery. There is profit for all of us in putting that knowledge to work.