Start-ups are motivated by possibility and imagination. They’re not just reacting to what’s going on around them, they’re forming what’s going forward.
Start-ups are interested in perfecting one or two things that they’re doing, while dreaming of that one next thing. They’re not trying to be everything to everyone, becoming bogged down in propping up the part of their enterprise that is flailing.
Churches should behave like start-ups. All churches, not just new churches.
Now, I get it…you don’t like comparing a church to a business model. I don’t like the comparison much, either. But let’s not pretend that we don’t have something to learn here. Churches *should* excel at implementing metaphor to everyday life (looking at you, parables), so let’s metaphorically explore this, OK?
Start-ups respond to imagination; establishment responds to fires. If you don’t spend more time on what you can do than what you used to do, you’re not responding to imagination. Big establishment brands have just that: a brand. But they’re constantly having to try something new to keep the brand and keep the edge (think New Coke). They’re constantly putting out fires to maintain the status quo, instead of starting new fires of inspiration.
“Thing kingdom of God is like yeast,” Jesus said, “which leavens the whole loaf.”
The yeast starts a fire in the loaf, and try as it may, the loaf can’t help but react.
Be the yeast, young grasshopper…not the loaf.
Instead of trying to keep the brand, though, why not just make innovation and imagination part of the “brand?” Google has successfully done this (so far), as has Apple. It is possible to change the narrative, but you have to respond to dreams rather than fear. Which brings me to my next point…
Start-ups dream and have faith; establishments fear. Once you get power, you long to stay in power. Once you become the biggest, your quest becomes about staying the biggest. One of the terrible things about being a start-up is the uncertainty factor of the future. But if a start-up moves into the establishment phase, they quickly learn that the uncertainty factor never fully leaves, it just changes into fear: fear that you’ll lose market share or newness or what have you.
And so the trick, then, is to ignore the uncertainty altogether and rely on innovation and potential as your main motivator.
This doesn’t mean you don’t heed advice or warning signs in a failing endeavor. If anything, leaning on potential and dreams will hopefully spur you to do some due diligence and research before setting out on the next new adventure you undertake. But when big establishment thinking entrenches a system, it becomes about big conservation strategies, big consolidation efforts, and big risk-aversion…which leads to big death.
Jesus said that we are to give of ourselves for others (Matt 16:24). Which might mean that the current decline of the church might just be a sign that we’re starting to understand what Jesus means. I’m not saying that size is indicative of discipleship (though I’ve made a claim smelling like that before), but I am saying that if we’re failing to risk on reaching out because we’re afraid it will change things and change us (and our church culture/habits/etc.), then we’re probably adopting fear rather than faith as our motivating impulse.
Start-ups make history; establishment protects history. Well, sort of.
Look: the history of your church is important. Your church has done a lot of good in the neighborhood. It has changed peoples lives. It has provided a spiritual home. Perhaps it has been a change-agent in the footsteps of Jesus for your community. None of that can or should be denied.
But if your church is going to continue to do good in the neighborhood, to change lives, to be a spiritual home, to be a change-agent, it can’t be trying to lift up its past as some sort of golden-age of life. Every living thing has a life cycle. But if you want to hasten a demise, start pining for the past.
Start-ups don’t have hang-ups about the past because they don’t have one to be hung up on. No matter how long your church has been at the corner of First and Fairbanks, every day it has a ministry opportunity that was not present yesterday, and so while it has a past, it also has tons of potential futures. That is what you focus on, by God.
Look, I have the unfortunate lot in this work of being stuck in the post-boom years of churchgoing. I call it unfortunate only because so many people lift up the 50’s as the standard of how churches should be and operate in America. If you look at the 50’s, where civil religion and the church walked hand-in-hand post World War II, you’ll see an anomaly, not a norm, when it comes to church participation.
If you want a norm, check out church attendance from the 30’s. There’ll you’ll see kind of a plumb-line.
And, can I be honest? While church attendance in the 50’s and 60’s may have been high, poll folks around my age and ask them if they think the society they’ve inherited is utopian. Turns out that church attendance may not directly correlate to societal health.
Churches of the mainline: hold on to your past loosely and embrace the dreams of the future. Innovate. Explore. Jesus calls this out of you more than anything because it’s what we need now more than anything.
In other words: be the yeast, not the loaf.
Thanks for writing again. I hope you find time for it as you move back to your regular schedule. You have a thoughtfulness that can effect people’s lives for the better. And think how different the world would be if Paul had been too busy preaching and couldn’t find time to write.
Scott: thank you for these words. Sometimes we need a kick in the seat to get back in the saddle.