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.

1 comment:

David said...

My 8yo Kodak digital camera still works great.

Otherwise, great piece.