When will the NZ church realise that it has reached its best before date. When chocolate reaches its best before date it is still ok, there is no risk of vomiting or other health problems when you eat it. However the chocolate has lost its quality, it may lose colour, flavour and scent. It needs to be regularly sniffed and visually inspected for mould and other impurities. One of the problems is that if you ate the chocolate yesterday and it was good it is easy to assume it is still good today. Our memories of how it was overtake the reality of how it is today. We can miss the reduced quality of what we are eating because our brain overlays the memories of yesterday.
I believe that the NZ church reached its best before date long before I first realised that its quality was lacking in the early 2000’s. It had ceased to be a church for the new century and neglected the visual and scent inspection for being past its best.
The faith as presented when we first embraced it and the style of church that existed when we first encountered God, will always speak louder to us than other expressions of our faith and church.
We are in danger of letting the memories of its power, relevance and impact cloud our ability to accurately assess its power, relevance and impact in 2016.
Disruptive theory can provide a few hints that may help us move forward. The theorists state that established companies get caught in a customer facing system; that makes it very difficult for them to establish new markets. In a similar fashion the church is hampered by having to serve, be supported by and promoted by people who may be stuck in a certain model – the model of faith and style of church from when they grew the most in their own faith. The value structure is always going to be inward facing to serve the existing attendees. Opening up new markets, or sharing our faith with those not already in the church is always going to take more energy and resource in a different direction than the pull of the existing attendees allow. The church is in danger of over-providing for existing members and ignoring the opportunities of opening up new markets.
Although many churches have realised that they have reached their best before date and are increasingly irrelevant to society, they often fall into the trap of pursuing relevancy. Churches have systems and structures that are slow and cumbersome and not ideally suited to the fast changing society in which they live. By the time a church can respond they are followers rather than leaders, and the trends have moved on. Becoming relevant as I see it practiced by many churches involves reading societal or cultural trends and copying them. Relevancy will always lead to adopting superficial trappings that are actually already past their best before date.
Disruptive theorists found that in order to experiment and explore the new, established companies needed to form new companies that were entirely separate and in some cases even in different cities. The separation of the new and the old addresses some of the problems that the pull of upholding the established order creates. Firstly the theorists argue that new markets are essentially unknowable, market research doesn’t work because the market hasn’t been created yet. This makes it very hard to explain to the establishment exactly what you are doing or trying to achieve, it is like trying to explain to a coffee shop customer in 1970 that you want to start offering Venti-Decaf- Trim- Caramel Macciattos. Instead of responding to articulated needs (another trap the church so easily falls into) perhaps innovation for the church means creating the need and teaching people how to articulate it.
Secondly creating a new organisation allows innovative companies to create systems and structures that are flexible and quick, and to create the necessary culture of experimentation. Existing systems in the churches are designed around the established way of doing things; particularly the dividing things up into committees and responsibilities. This limits innovation as it needs to fit into an existing area to be supported.
Thirdly setting up a new organisation separates the innovation from the pressure to perform that comes from the establishment. When you remember a church of 500 and attending evangelistic events where hundreds made ‘decisions’ to follow Jesus, your reminiscing and stories can be deflating and unhelpful for innovative ministries that need to be able to celebrate the success of growing from nothing to 15 regular attenders and perhaps 2 people considering following Jesus.
As a church we cannot continue to be blind to the changes and challenges before us, we all need to be aware of the power of our memories of yesterday to limit growth today. The way forward is not just about allowing growth on the margins of our established, struggling churches. It is about identifying those who can lead innovatively then intentionally and creatively allowing them to spin off where the Spirit leads.
What makes you aware that the church has reached its best before date? What innovations are you excited by, and what has enabled them to thrive?