Not-For-Prophet

Michael Metzger

Hire a prophet.
Profits are like breathing, says Max DePree, former head of Herman Miller, Inc. They aren’t the goal of business. They are, however, pretty good evidence of whether or not an enterprise is alive. Prophets are another indicator of health. That’s right – prophets. Marshall McLuhan said every institution needs something like them.

McLuhan (1911-1980) was a media expert who regularly consulted the likes of IBM, Westinghouse and General Electric. He repeatedly challenged conventional management clichés regarding how people behave and change. For example, when businesses don’t get the preferred results, they ratchet up intensity (McLuhan called this “heating up”). Yet intensity only induces rigidity, not malleability. Passion hardens our mental models. That’s because we become most comfortable with familiar environments (what McLuhan called “Media”) and don’t want to change.1

McLuhan’s solution was “integral awareness” – the ability to confront what Jim Collins calls “the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”2 Integral awareness makes us aware of our “rose-coloured glasses” and the inefficacy of many management clichés.3 But the real genius of McLuhan was describing how we become integrally aware. The key is to create an appropriate “anti-environment” within the organization itself. This is why, for example, the University of Southern California has become one of the premier educational institutions in the United States.

Since 1991, USC President Steven B. Sample has provided what he calls “contrarian leadership” for the school.4 A contrarian leader explodes many comfortable views of leadership and suggests unconventional ways to change behavior. Among his counterintuitive lessons: The best leaders don’t bother to keep up with the popular media and the trades. Sample provides an “anti-environment” within USC. So why don’t churches and businesses see the need for contrarian leadership?

Any church in America would be healthier with a few contrarian voices. Numerous surveys indicate that churchgoers lie, cheat, steal and watch pornography as much as everyone else.5 Only a few churches are growing and they do so largely by churchgoers transferring from one church to another.6 These indicators point to the uncomfortable fact that “the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue.”7 But to see these trends requires an “anti-environment” in the organization. This is exactly what prophets provided. Unfortunately, as Jesus pointed out, the brutal reality is that “no prophet is welcome in his home town.”8

Welcome or not, prophets ought to be part of the warp and woof of local churches. God intended church leaders “to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.”9 Prophets were in the mix from the start. Their contribution helps us achieve “integral awareness” – an idea drawn straight from the Bible. “Integral” comes from the Hebrew word “tom,” meaning to see all of life as part of a seamless fabric – the good, bad and ugly. “Awareness” is the biblical idea of “conscience” – to see our entire life and our current reality without kidding ourselves. Prophets serve as the “anti-environment” that pricks the conscience and prods self-awareness in order to produce behavioral change.

When Ernest Hemingway was asked to identify the essential ingredient required for a great writer, he replied: “a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”10 Great companies and churches need the same thing. Yet both have historically been not-for-prophet institutions. Prophets provide a built-in, shockproof crap detector. Maybe businesses and churches ought to hire a few.

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1 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (New York: McGraw Hill), 1964
2 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t (New York: Harper Business, 2001), p.13
3 Marshall McLuhan and Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science, (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press), 1988
4 Steven B. Sample, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, (San Francisco: Jossey–Bass), 2001
5 C.f. W. Bradford Wilcox, “Conservative Protestants and the Family,” in A Public Faith: Evangelicals and Civic Engagement, ed. Michael Cromartie (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003)
6 William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001).
7 “The Church as Culture,” p. 2, by Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. The original version of this article was delivered as the Palmer Lecture at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.
8 Luke 4:24
9 Ephesians 4:11-12
10Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York: Delacorte, 1969), p.3

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