Buzz easily becomes a bastard.
In the 1970s, GM’s market share was slipping. Diesel fuel was cheap, so GM got buzzed about diesel engines. It slapped diesel parts on Oldsmobile’s V-8 engines. It was a bastard design with disastrous results. We might see the same result with the release of James Hunter’s To Change the World. It might create a buzz with many churches, slapping certain words like “faithful presence” on their existing programs. The results will be inglorious bastards.
“Bastard” sounds disgusting, but it’s the correct diagnosis. “Bastard” means “illegitimate coupling.” To understand why this is likely to happen in the modern American church, it is wise to remember what happened in that colossus of American institutions—GM.
In 1946, worldwide output of automobiles amounted to 3.9 million units, with the U.S. accounting for 80 percent of the total. GM was so dominant it’s legendary chief Alfred P. Sloan boasted: “When GM sneezes, America catches cold.” GM ignored Toyota and Honda as relative pipsqueaks—their auto imports accounted for only 15 percent of U.S. sales in 1970. “GM initially figured that the Japanese would be stuck in a niche of small cars… as customers grew out of their small car phase of life,” writes Joseph White.1
In the 1970s, GM’s market share was slipping. GM heard the buzz for diesel and attempted to quickly bring an innovative diesel engine to market. But they continued to operate inside their mental model and simply slapped diesel parts on Oldsmobile’s 350 V-8 internal combustion engines. The head design and head bolts were not able to withstand the higher cylinder pressures and temperatures of diesel use. This led to catastrophic failures of the engines. It was an inglorious bastard.
By the early 1980s, the decline at GM was becoming obvious to all. Jim Harbour tried to show GM’s executives the efficiencies of Japanese factories. The productivity gap was startling. It was so disruptive that GM’s president barred Jim Harbour from company property. Another GM executive, Alex Mair gave detailed presentations on why Japanese cars were superior to GM’s. He set up a war room at GM’s technical center with displays showing how Honda devised low-cost, high-quality engine parts. GM debunked the data as too disruptive and treated him as an adversary rather than an ally (Mair’s “war room” might have been an unfortunate metaphor).
It is instructive to note that 15 percent of Americans now say they have “no” religion.2 Some churches ignore this trend while others figure it will remain a narrow niche. A few are alarmed, mostly because research indicates this isn’t a phase of life, it’s a growing fact of life for younger generations.3 Forty percent of the 16–29 year-old segment of the U.S. population no longer checks “Christian” to mark their identity. Faith communities are foolhardy to ignore this trend. But they don’t have to repeat GM’s error—seeing trends and then being trendy. This is the risk with the release of To Change the World.
To Change the World introduces a better model for the church—calling for a “faithful presence within” culture. Christianity Today editors call it one of the most significant books ever written. As faith communities begin to buzz about becoming a “faithful presence,” many will strap Hunter’s paradigm to their programs. What many fail to realize is the design of how they engage culture will not able to withstand the tensions inherent in “faithful presence within.” They will create inglorious bastards.
For example, “faithful presence within” means seeing the public square as more than the political sphere. It means recognizing politics is downstream—not unimportant but not upstream, either. “Faithful presence within” means the church doesn’t go ga-ga when a pastor opens a session of the legislature in prayer. We forget that, once legislators get down to business, the pastor is politely asked to leave. “Faithful presence within” means developing a new language of politics, inside our definition of reality, with an accurate assessment of human nature, so that we’re taken seriously. But that’s not all.
“Faithful presence within” means the church embraces the reality that ideas don’t necessarily have legs, or consequences, unless tied to powerful individuals, images, and center institutions. This is not a battle of worldviews and winning debates.
“Faithful presence within” means the church embraces the reality that cultures are not changed from the bottom up. This is not a battle of merely winning individuals and leading missions of mercy. It is changing the structures and institutions in society.
“Faithful presence within” means the church doesn’t see power as “taking over culture” but using power on behalf of others to enact shalom. Power is for seeking the wellbeing of others, for others, not ourselves. It is love.
“Faithful presence within” means the church embraces the reality that we live in an unprecedented age. The solution is not to return to the ancient church as the end-all, but rather to glean what we can from many ages. It means embracing a better definition of reality and an accurate assessment of human nature, recognizing that every church age gets some things right and some things wrong. “Faithful presence within” is not simply strapping a few new ideas to the ministry model of the modern American church. That would result in inglorious bastards and catastrophic failures. “Faithful presence within” is not tweaking the engine. It is replacing almost the entire engine.
Like GM, this will be difficult for the American church to accept.
This is the dilemma in genuine innovation. It is disruptive, writes Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen.4 The larger the institution, the larger the church, the greater the resistance to innovation. That’s the nature of innovation and reality. “Faithful presence within” is a paradigm shift; it is not a new program. It upends existing programs—it doesn’t improve them. Like GM, faith communities can lose sight of this important distinction and create inglorious bastards. They won’t however be innovative.
1 Joseph B. White, “How Detroit’s Automakers Went from Kings of the Road to Roadkill,” Imprimus, February 2009, Volume 38, Number 2.
2 The study was conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment.
3 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UNchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
4 Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (New York, NY: HarperBusiness Essentials, 2002).