“What’s wrong with organized religion?” That’s the question I addressed at a recent conference organized by Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois. For nearly 30 years, Willow Creek has been one of America’s most progressive churches, and since 1999 it’s been running an annual a seminar for church leaders from around the world. The “Leadership Summit” features innovative pastors as well as non-church speakers. This year’s roster included Carly Fiorina, Bono, Tony Blair, Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva, and a slightly nerdish business school professor.
So there I was, in front of 7,000 preachers and laymen, with another 60,000 or so by satellite. I’m used to flashing my PowerPoints in front people who are richer, smarter and more powerful than me. But this was the first time I had to face a stadium’s worth of folks who were probably more virtuous than me. It wasn’t so much a case of Daniel in the lion’s den as Gary in the Christians’ den. (By the way, I donated my small honorarium to charity).
Obviously, no one dragged me on stage in chains. I went for two reasons. First, I believe that religious institutions, like other sorts of organizations, need a management reboot, and I know a little bit about how to make this happen. My hypothesis: the problem with organized religion isn’t that it’s too religious, but that it’s too organized. And second, I believe that the “church” (in the broadest, ecumenical sense of the word) plays an essential role in constructing the moral foundations of a democratic society—a view advanced 147 years ago by that famous French tourist, Alexis de Tocqueville:
“Champions of freedom…should hasten to invoke the aid of religion, for they must know that without morality freedom cannot reign…”i
Let me expand for a moment on this second point.
Obviously, you don’t have to be religious to be moral, and beastly people are sometimes religious. Yet despite the claims of neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, religion has, on balance, curbed rather than exaggerated the human propensity for evil.ii Yes, terrible things have been done in God’s name, but for every tyrant and terrorist who has claimed a divine warrant, there are thousands of faithful souls whose selflessness and benevolence has helped to make the world a more just and tranquil place.
At the heart of every faith system is a bargain: on one side there is the comfort that comes from a narrative that suggests human life has cosmic significance, and on the other a duty to yield to moral commands that can, in the moment, seem rather inconvenient. I believe we should be grateful for every individual, whether deluded or not, who willingly agrees to be so constrained. For while there are some who share a two year-old’s belief that we’d all be better off in a society free of moral strictures, most of us realize we wouldn’t much like a world in which our neighbors (and our bankers) were unprincipled knaves.
Of course, in an ideal world, others would treat us charitably even when we stick it to them; we could take advantage of their goodness while not being very good ourselves. But this doesn’t scale. When that sort of one-sided selfishness becomes the norm, life gets brutish for everyone—a spiritual tragedy of the commons.
The fact is, society is made more hospitable by every individual who acts as if “do unto others” really was a rule. And contrary to what you might believe, evidence suggests that, on average, “religious people” really are nicer—in practical feed the hungry, clothe the naked, sorts of ways.iii (And if you’re one of those generous folks, you’re undoubtedly embarrassed by the minority of believers who are quicker to judge than they are to love).
Critically, morality is only one generation deep, so unless we want our children to live in a bleak world, we must replenish the stock of spiritual capital we inherited from our parents and grandparents. In theory, at least, churches are allies in this effort.
So that’s why I went to Willow—and the experience was like a day-long group hug. Good golly, what a bunch of, well, nice folks they were. Which made it even tougher for me to deliver my kindhearted, bareknuckled rant.
Fact is, organized religion hasn’t been doing too well recently, at least not in the developed world. (And as we’ll see, what ails “the church” probably ails your organization as well.)
Here’s some of the disquieting data I shared with my ecclesiastic audience:
–Since 1990, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled, and the number of people who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has quadrupled—this according to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey (as quoted in Newsweek magazine.)iv
–The same survey reveals that two-thirds of Americans believe religion’s influence is waning in our society, and just 19 percent say it’s growing. And the proportion of Americans who think religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems” is now at an historic low of 48 percent.v
–On an average weekend in 2005, just 17.5% of the population attended a Christian church service, down from 20.4% in 1990. And this downward trend has been accelerating. If it continues, only 1 of 7 individuals will be attending church regularly in 2020.vi
–In 2006 there were 91 million more Americans than in 1990—and 70 million of them were under the age of 17. Yet over this time frame, church attendance stayed flat.vii
–The Christian “brand” has also taken a beating, particularly among young people. When polled, around half say they have a neutral view of Christianity, but among those who feel more strongly, the ratio of negative to positive views of “Christianity” and of those who are “Born Again” is 2:1. And when asked about “Evangelicals,” the ratio of negative to positive jumps to 16:1.viii
Not surprisingly, pastors often blame secular forces for these trends—the problem in their view isn’t “the church” but “the world,” or more specifically . . .
–A consumer-driven society where the size of someone’s paycheck counts for more than the quality of their character.
–The near infinite number of distractions in our media-saturated culture which crowd out time for spiritual reflection.
–The deeply cynical view that young people have of large institutions—a view that lumps big religion together with big business and big government.
–The growing and reflexive skepticism of anyone who claims to have “the truth.”
While these realities have undoubtedly played a role in the recent “de-churching” of America (and in the much-advanced secularization of Europe), I don’t believe this is the whole story, not by a long shot—and I took pains to explain why.
Yes, church attendance may be lagging, but nine out of ten Americans still claim to have faith in a spiritual being—a number hasn’t changed much over the past two decades. And only 9% describe themselves as neither religious nor spiritual. Interestingly, though, nearly a third say they are spiritual, but not religious. In other words, though Americans may have become less religiously observant, they haven’t become any less spiritually inclined.
Church consultants Tom and Sam Rainer define a “healthy” church as one with a “conversion ratio” of 20:1 or better; that is, it takes twenty or fewer congregants to bring in one new member during the course of a year. By that modest standard, the pair estimates that only 3.5% of America’s 400,000 churches are evangelistically fit.x
“So,” I asked my audience, “is it the gospel that has become irrelevant or your churches? Is the problem God’s message or your methods?” (By the way, to a committed pastor, those are rhetorical questions). The data are clear: People still have spiritual needs (even narcissistic postmoderns), but the church has been growing less effective in filling those metaphysical voids.
With that point nailed down, I laid out the rest of my argument.
Organizations lose their relevance when the rate of internal change lags the pace of external change. And that’s the problem that besets many churches today.
And guess what? A lot of secular institutions are in the same boat.
Think about General Motors, Sony, Motorola, United Airlines, AOL, Yahoo, Sears, Starbucks—how have these companies been doing in recent years? Not too well. And not just because of the recession, but because they got stuck in the mud; they fell in love with status quo.
Their employees were prisoners of precedent, locked in jails run by the custodians of convention.
So as church leaders, you shouldn’t feel too sorry for yourselves. Your problem isn’t unique, and it isn’t materialism, atheism, skepticism or relativism—it’s institutional inertia. And if it makes you feel better, it’s not entirely your fault. Like leaders everywhere, you’ve been mugged by change.
After 13.4 billion years, the pace of change has gone hypercritical—at least on this planet. We didn’t ask for this, but we have to deal with it. Today we live in a world that seems to be all punctuation and no equilibrium, where the future is less and less an extrapolation of the past. And our conservative, hierarchical organizations aren’t up to the challenge—they’re simply not adaptable enough.
In this environment, you’re either going forward or backwards—but you’re never standing still—and at the moment, a lot of organizations, churches included, are going backwards.
Historically, business leaders and church leaders didn’t have to worry about fundamental paradigm shifts. They could safely assume that their basic business models would last forever.
In the case of church, this meant loyal pew-warmers who would show up every week, sit passively through the same unvarying church service, drop $20 into the plate as it passed, and politely shake the pastor’s hand as they headed off for lunch.
But business models aren’t eternal—and their mortality rate has been rising. In industry after industry we’ve witnessed profound paradigm shifts . . .
–In retailing there’s been a shift from the suburban shopping mall to hypermarkets to online retailers.
–In pharmaceuticals there’s been a shift from drug discovery to drug design based on genetic information.
–In the car industry from combustion engines to plug-in hybrids and all electric vehicles.
–In software from packaged apps you install on your computer to apps that reside in the cloud.
Of course there’ve been paradigm shifts in churches as well, with the move from small community churches to mega churches to multi-site churches, the emergent church, home churches, and whatever follows that. (Click the links for examples of each).
Most organizations, though, end up shackled to one business model—and when it atrophies, so does the institution.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to organizations as well physical systems. Over time, visions become strategies, strategies get codified into policies, policies spawn practices, and practices become habits. That’s organizational entropy—and it’s why success is usually a self-correcting phenomenon.
And it’s also why the hard thing—the really hard thing, isn’t inventing a brilliant strategy, but reinventing it!
Given all of this, the most critical advantage a church (or any other organization) can build is an “evolutionary advantage”—an ability to constantly morph and adapt.
Sadly, it usually takes a crisis to set an organization on a new path.
For example . . .
–It took a $14 billion swing in earnings back in the mid-1990s to convince IBM’s leaders that the company should become less product-focused and more service-focused.
–And only a near death experiment could compel GM’s leaders to do what they should have done years ago and sell off a number of under-performing divisions.
Moreover, it’s usually necessary to decapitate the old leadership team before an organization can embark on a new course. In other words, fundamental change in large organizations happens the same way it happens in poorly governed dictatorships—belatedly, infrequently and convulsively. And that’s pathetic. It shouldn’t take the organizational equivalent of a deathbed experience to spur renewal. We need to change the way we change.
Over the centuries, religion has become institutionalized, and in the process encrusted with elaborate hierarchies, top-heavy bureaucracies, highly specialized roles and reflexive routines. (Kinda like your company, but only more so). Religion won’t regain its relevance until church leaders chip off these calcified layers, rediscover their sense of mission, and set themselves free to reinvent “church” for a new age.
Doing this is going to take a management revolution. Back in the first century, the Christian church was organic, communal and mostly free of ritual—and it needs to become so again—as does every organization, public or private, large or small.
So, how do you “decalcify” an organization? Great question, and one I dug into with all those goodhearted pastors. But this blog’s already too long, so until next time, a couple of questions:
But for now, two questions:
First, what do you think is wrong with “church?” And what would you do to change it?
And second, what are the forces of inertia that keep your company from changing as fast as it needs to?
i Alexis de Tocqueville (trans. By Arthur Goldhammer), Tocqueville: Democracy in America, New York: Library of America, 2004, p. 12.
ii For the other side of the story, see Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity?, Washington D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2007.
iii Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares, New York: Basic Books, 2006.
iv John Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek, April 4, 2009.
vi David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008, p 36.
vii Ibid., pp. 35-36.
viii David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009, p. 25.
ix American Religious Identification Study quoted in John Meacham, “The End of Christian America,” Newsweek, April 4, 2009.
x Thomas S. Rainer and Sam S. Rainer III, “Surprising Insights,” Outreach, January-February 2007.