Right-Brain Future

Michael Metzger

In 1983, General Motors tried to reinvent the car business. In the late 1980s Alan Webber and Bill Taylor tried to reinvent the Harvard Business Review. In both cases, a culture asphyxiated innovation. In GM’s case, many lost their work. This is a stone cold reality that faith communities must face as many try to innovate. The odds are that most are institutionally incapable of innovation—but many clergy will lose their jobs trying.

GM was very successful in the 1950s and 60s. But “nothing fails like success,” cultural historian Gerald Nachman wryly noted. Financial success turned GM into a left-brain culture. Left-brain cultures are good at preserving old paradigms and programs, what Clayton Christensen calls “sustaining technologies.” This is fine when organizations are hitting on all cylinders. But when they slump, as GM did in the 70s, left-brain cultures fail. In GM’s case, they tried to innovate by building several lines of cars from the same platform. The result was bland brands and equally ugly cars.

GM next launched Saturn, a five billion dollar gamble in innovation. It took seven years for the first Saturn sedan to roll off the assembly line. Too many GM dealerships viewed Saturn as competition. Corporate leadership bowed to demands and investment money was steered away from Saturn. The models went stale. Labor relations soured. Left-brain cultures are institutionally incapable of innovation. GM’s asphyxiated innovation.

The Harvard Business Review is another example. Alan Webber and Bill Taylor were editors at HBR in the 90s. When their boss took a short leave, they published innovative articles such as “Judo Economics,” “You Just Got Fired,” and dozens of other stories beyond the typical fare served in the magazine. When the boss returned, Webber and Taylor were told to return to form. They wanted to innovate and lost their jobs.

But Webber and Taylor made a pioneering pair. They created a new publication called Fast Company. A prototype was completed in 1993. The magazine was launched in 1995 with an innovative take on business. The cover declared the magazine to be the conveyer of “The New Rules of Business.” Inside were stories like “Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy,” and “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant.”

At the magazine’s tenth anniversary, Webber said that he and Taylor ultimately left HBR because the magazine just kept saying the same things over and over. “If you use the same words to describe the world, you’re sending the message that nothing’s changed. Change the language, and you change the way people think.” But language is merely a lagging cultural indicator—it does not change the game by itself. It is indicative of the way individuals and institutions see reality. The process of change requires right-brain organizations reframing reality and then developing appropriate language. Language always follows. So what does this have to do with faith communities?

There’s a great deal of research indicating that most of the innovative types and right-brain thinkers left the church a while ago. This became apparent in a 1996 survey conducted by the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change. They surveyed the leading segments of American society—social scientists, artists, educators, the military, athletes, politicians, media personnel, journalists, and others. Researchers found that only three groups—military, athletes, and business managers—regularly attend church anymore. For example, 46 percent of military officers and 35 percent of business managers were regular in church attendance.1 This segment is statistically significant since it represents engineering-type people mostly drawn to left-brain cultures.

The same survey shows dramatically different numbers for those drawn to right-brain cultures—media, educators, social scientists, and artists. Only four percent of those in the movie industry attend church weekly. It’s the same for television—four percent. Only nine percent in news media attend church weekly. In academia it’s 10 percent. Most of the innovative, right-brain thinkers are no longer attending church.

The challenge for faith communities is that they’re facing a precipitous drop in the percentage of Americans who call themselves Christians, along with declining attendance numbers.2 More than ever, they need innovation. Since 1990, researchers at Trinity College have conducted one of the nation’s largest surveys of religion. Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent. The number saying they have “no religion” is the highest ever—15 percent.

The stone cold reality is that left-brain cultures are a liability when it comes to innovation. These cultures are not bad—they’re simply not equipped to do it. Left-brain cultures rearrange existing programs; they rarely jettison paradigms. It is similar to saying 3+2+1 is an innovative way of adding 1+2+3. The sum remains the same. No matter how well intentioned, the system doesn’t allow for true innovation.

This isn’t a rebuke; it’s reality. Over 400,000 GM jobs have been lost since the 60s. Clayton Christensen calls innovation a “disruptive technology.” It upends existing paradigms and programs. When Robert McNamara ran Ford Motor Company in the 1960s, he assumed Americans still had a Great Depression mindset. He thought they wanted mundane, reliable cars. Ford sales slid. When McNamara joined the Kennedy Administration, Lee Iacocca was promoted and immediately innovated. The 1965 Ford Mustang changed the automotive world and ignited the muscle car revolution.

The American church needs right-brain innovators who can lead it back to historic orthodoxy. But let’s not kid ourselves. In rare cases, left-brain leaders will move on (as McNamara did), opening the door for innovators. But most left-brain people won’t step aside. Instead, the right-brainers will be silenced or sent packing. Left brainers don’t realize it is impossible to squeeze the ancient “four chapter” gospel into a “two chapter” church culture. Cultures promote, permit, or prohibit innovation. That’s reality.

In his bestseller A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink says, “the future belongs to designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers—creative and empathetic right-brain thinkers” who exhibit “the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative.” In every faith community there are right-brain Iacoccas. They’ll either be promoted and play a part in upending existing paradigms, or they will lose their jobs. Since the American church is not hitting on all cylinders, her future might very well depend on promoting these right-brain thinkers.

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1 Michael Novak, Business as a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 1996), pp. 43-45.
1 Michelle Boorstein, “15 Percent of Americans Have No Religion: Fewer Call Themselves Christians; Nondenominational Identification Increases,” Washington Post, March 9, 2009; A04.

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8 thoughts on “Right-Brain Future”

  1. I think we may have missed the point. The percentages of ‘right-brainers’ that attend church were still minorities! And conveniently left out of the percentage analysis were the athletes, which are definitely not dominated by right-brained, conservatives.

    I believe this is not about how we package the message. It is about values. The fact is today the majority of Americans believe the values of the church are antiquated and narrow-minded. Most have become more comfortable with the moral relativism that the post-modern civilization today embraces.

    The implication of your article is essentially if we communicate our ‘conservative’ value system using an updated vehicle, that value system will regain favor. I am not as confident.

    At the risk of arguably using a less than stellar example, I would like to remind your readers of one of those musician-type’s journey with Christianity. There is no one more left brain and counter culture that Bob Dylan. He is a perfect example of someone who has spent his life searching for the truth. In the 70’s that search led him to fully embrace the Christian faith. So much so he produced many albums with that theme out front and direct. Slow Train Coming is just one example (and one I recommend).

    Now one would think the man who brought protest music to the fore-front of pop culture could effectively impact the public perception of Christian values in at least a small way. In fact, he was effective shunned by the same culture who embraced him a decade before. It was the same vehicle that transformed American society in the 60s – only the message sent (values) was different.

    So what is the answer…I really don’t know. How does a formally majority view that has lost favor over the centuries gain ascendancy again?

    I think the philosophy of this blog is heading in the right direction. I just don’t know if right-brain/left-brain is the whole answer to the challenge.

  2. Interesting post. One thing I would add to the idea that left-brain cultures are good at preserving and refining what is already established is that we might profitably examine that question from the vantage point of efficiency.

    Following your line of reasoning in terms of left-right characteristics, I would suggest that cultures driven by the GM mindset and bureaucracy were deeply imbued with an idea of efficiency that was rooted on assumptions of stability.

    Within the walls of the factory, getting better and better at established processes makes sense and those efficiencies allowed the manufacture of enormous quantities of vehicles. But closed-space efficiency almost always comes at the cost of resilience and adaptability within a wider landscape of dynamic change.

    If I was shoeing horses at the dawn of the automobile revolution, I would be in a cul-de-sac of efficiency if my response was simply, “We need to build horseshoes more cheaply, more quickly, and we need to shoe more horses in less time with fewer people.” In fact, that wouldn’t be the solution at all.

    The trouble is that we often fail to perceive when the pressures we face are of that kind – pressures that are there because we need to make a very definite and lateral move, rather than a refining what we already know.

    Our current short-term, quarter-to-quarter growth focus economically sometimes feels like that – we make the numbers (less so these days) but quite possibly do so at the expense of being irrelevant in the long-term when the game changes.

    The cultural and human suffering that comes from making these substantive misjudgements is significant and, as a result, merits our sustained attention.

    My parting question: What means of change are acceptable when we see/experience/lead in settings where we know that such misguided approaches are deeply entrenched?

  3. Chris, for the sake of clarification, right brain = creative, etc (not conservative) & left brain = rational… so Bob Dylan would be right brain (a poet)

  4. Interesting discussion, but I personally believe that we as the church spend too much time in ” post play” discussions and in trying to anticipate how to move the ball further down the field to make the play we forget to listen to The Coach. God Himself is The Inovator of not only our time but all time and I think we complicate what needs to happen for His church to continue to grow. I believe if we would humble ourselves, and stop trying to come up with the answer and ask God what the answer is, then actually do what He says, I think the church would know explosive growth.It’s His church, He will will grow it in His timing, But I believe our posture needs to be different as we wait for the “next play”

  5. and then when we are given the next play, then our creativity and thinking can facillitate how it is played out, but the initial plan Must come from God Himself. I am a dreamer and right brained,and love to come up with the solutions for problems, but just worry that we are trying to ‘be the savior’ of the church with our solutions instead of looking to follow The Savior.

  6. Maybe we need to study the techniques developed by the Wycliffe ministries as they translate the Bible into a language that has not developed a written form.

    The struggle is similar. One needs to develop an understanding of both to convey values that have no equivalent in the target language. We make the mistake of speaking English to an audience that hears Urdu

  7. Part of the problem in framing this concept is in the definition of Church. These studies have defined “attending church” as a Sunday morning affair alone. Mike, as you well know connecting Sunday to Monday means church attendance is one part of the whole. The other 166 hours in the week count.

    There are a myriad of ways to innovate, one is reformation (what Iacocca did), one is newformation (what Webber and Taylor did). This is a dance that has been going on since Paul left with his band of right brained entrepreneurial friends to innovate new expressions of church all over the known world. The conversation isn’t simply about right brained vs. left brained it is also about sodality vs. modality (in the history of the church sense) or risk vs. security or even “church using its four walls as a reference point” vs. “church using the four chapters as a reference point “.

    I would argue that the worst thing a church could do would be to have all the creative types rejoin their ranks. The form wouldn’t even begin to resonate (and perhaps this is where you are going).

    Rather give them permission and promote innovation on the fringe, to start new things and develop new expressions of church. Show me the fringe and I will show you a vision for a transformed culture! These new forms will reengage all their creative friends with hope because they will be speaking a language based on a culture that had been in existence both in their vernacular and in their molecular make-up.

    This is a terrific article and the beginning of an exciting conversation!

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