Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Definition of Insanity is Broken:
Thoughts on Church Growth and Mission

If you are a church-goer, you have probably heard some version of the following from the acerbic tongue of a Church growth leader at one point or another:

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." 
 "If you do what you always do, you'll get what you have always gotten."

The words are compelling.  The former is even said to have come from Albert Einstein!  The problem is that both of the quotes are empirically false.  Worse, the effect of these quotations and others like them - ironically - is to confuse the Church into positions of deeper and deeper entrenchment with respect to the status quo.  How so?

By all accounts - and on the whole - the Church is in decline.  By definition, decline means that the Church is getting different results; we are not getting what we have always gotten.  If the above statements are true, decline can only be seen as the result of unwarranted departure from the tried and true ways of the past, be they perceived departures from orthodoxy or more mundane day-to-day routines.  Though I am not among them, you will find plenty of present day Christians who are glad to make exactly this case.

Never mind that the more mundane the detail attached to decline the more the case for causal decline begins to feel like superstition, the basic premise remains plausible because the Church is unarguably in decline.  The Church, by standard measures, has seen brighter days.  Church leaders who forget the long-view, or who fall in love so deeply with their Utopian vision of a necessarily future Church (a kind of naive progressivism), ironically find themselves sharing an intellectual raft, so to speak - that is, using the very same logical lines - as the people they decry, the ones who have "always done it this way," the ones who wonder what of their legacy the rest of us have failed to sufficiently grasp, such that we are not now getting what we have "always" gotten.

By appealing to quotes like the above, I believe Church growth leaders over-simply the case for change in such a way as to polarize themselves against people who believe that what they are saying is true.

If another way out of the dilemma must be found, this one seems good enough for me: that the above two quotations are not true.

The clearest challenges to the absolutist "continue to do X, continue to get Y" mindset come from science and economics.  For example, science has taught us that doing the same thing over and over again is not enough to contain a virus.  Eventually, the virus will evolve, mutate, or change such that the current treatment is no longer sufficient.  Many times, the virus will be made stronger by virtue of the adaptation that the treatment necessitated for the continued spread of the virus.  Moreover, the next new treatment will be subject to the same window of limited effectiveness.  Unless the "thing" we are doing is "constantly and rigorously adapt, change, account for unexpected shifts, and learn", we will indeed get very different results from doing the same thing - as dramatically different as life and death.

The second example, borrowed from economics, is the principle of diminishing returns.  Diminishing returns refers to the dynamic whereby each unit of input produces less per unit (or marginal) output than the unit of input before it was able to produce.  Thus, for example, the argument for forty-hour workweeks.  This is why you see the greatest changes early on when beginning a new exercise regiment.  The benefits taper off.  While it is important to note that diminishing returns still produce returns - that is, net gains - there are many instances in which the graph does more than taper off, and the returns on a constant input become negative overall.

I will leave it to future posts to offer a more fulsome alternative vision for change.  I will rely heavily on Lesslie Newbigin and his writing on the Church's mission when I get to that post.  In the meantime, this becomes a case study on the old, old story of extremes assuming the same foundations.  Hopefully, the study can shape the current conversations for change in ways that improvise from the tradition because they have received their training in the tradition, and acknowledge with gratitude where and how they do so.  Oversimplifying the case for the future runs the strong risk of disparaging the past, while forfeiting the compelling, living claims for change animated by the Spirit of God, with eyes and hearts fixed on the most important things, and pursuing those things with love.

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