Too Big To Fail?

Michael Metzger

“Chill, dudes,” chimed the cheery dinosaur. “We’re too big to fail.”

When institutions become “too big to fail,” they inevitably fail. “Too big” is a faulty frame. It guarantees an organization’s ultimate failure, including Wall Street and Main Street institutions—and even the institutions of marriage and the church.

“Too big to fail” is relatively new in the American lexicon. It’s the younger brother of “bailout,” a nonexistent word until the federal government rescued the Chrysler Corporation in the late 1970s. Rescues became routine when Continental Illinois Bank faced insolvency in 1984 due to unwise lending practices. The federal government settled on a $4.5 billion bailout causing Congressman Stuart B. McKinney of Connecticut to claim: “We have a new kind of bank. It is called too big to fail.”1

All sorts of institutions have since joined the “too big to fail” parade, including AIG, Citigroup, GM, and Chrysler (once again). In the case of GM, the federal government—taxpayers—bought a 61 percent stake. It is now 26.5 percent, but this is not a long-term financial fix. It’s a feint, redefining a failing institution as an entity that should last forever.

“Whenever immortality becomes the central objective of an organization,” writes Al McDonald, Chairman and CEO of Avenir Group, “its demise is inevitable. Concern for the self-perpetuation of the institution and the preservation of the status quo is the greatest idol that any institution will face.”2 The reason is simple: “too big” institutions lose sight of their raison d’être. The road to idolatry is not as straightforward however.

Institutions invariably follow a life cycle described by Max Weber as “routinization.” The sequence is: vision-movement-monument. William Durant, for example, started GM to create cars, not to save jobs. When “too big to fail” institutions begin to lose market share, they lose sight of their goal. They then spend increasing amounts of time revisiting strategy, recasting vision, and reworking the plan—all the while spending “more time in self-deception and rationalization,” McDonald warns.3 It’s a veiled idolatry leading to “deception and disaster for the organization.”

One deception is how bailouts are essentially subsidies. It’s government passing the plate to postpone the pain of inevitable failure. This doesn’t staunch the bleeding, so subsidies spread. American taxpayers will shell out $7500 for every Chevrolet Volt sold, for example. We’re conceding the Volt is not competitive but GM is “too big to fail.”

A second deception is that no earthly institution lasts forever, including marriage. Jesus said there is no marriage in heaven. It is a temporal picture of eternity, the union of Christ and the church. God extinguishes this candle as eternity dawns. If marriage becomes redefined as a lifestyle choice, it begins to go out of business. This dynamic applies to the church, which is also not eternal. It is a picture of the body of Christ. The church’s earthly mission is to bring shalom to the world. If the institution is redefined as a “personal relationship with Christ” or a “safe place,” it will go out of business.

This is a hard truth for many faith communities to swallow. In his monogram to Good to Great, Jim Collins says the not-for-profit social sector—hospital, churches, schools—confuse input (revenues) with output (performance).4 For-profit companies flourish by connecting revenues to performance. If a coffeehouse serves lousy coffee, it is soon out of business. Markets are ruthlessly efficient. Social sector institutions such as the church operate largely outside market forces. If they perform poorly, or lack meaningful ways to measure performance, they can remain in business by special pleading and passing the plate. But they are merely postponing the inevitable. They will fail.

Deception leads to disaster, writes McDonald. Believing they are “too big to fail,” churches and denominations are then unable to weigh whether their time is up. “Regardless of what a branch of the universal church accomplishes or how close or far it is from Christ’s purpose, it is easy to think that God Himself will assure its continuity forever,” warns McDonald. “This is a catastrophic presumption.”5

The ruinous effects are manifested in the Methodists, for example, the largest U.S. denomination in the mid-19th century.6 Success bred insularity. Methodism shifted from shalom to creating parallel Christian sub-cultures, or safe havens against all manner of evil. “Hollywood had been founded in the 1880s by Methodist Temperance advocates who banned liquor and, twenty-five years later, the movies,” writes Scott Eyman. “Neither ban worked.”7 Methodism has been in steep decline ever since.

The same dynamic is seen in other denominations. In her 1990 presidential address to the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Helen Rose Ebaugh argued that Vatican II caused an extraordinary shift from shalom to a highly personalized faith. A “selective Catholicism” resulted where individuals pick and choose aspects of doctrine and practices.8 The ruinous effects are seen in the 850 Catholic parishes that have shut down nationwide since 1995 according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research. Megachurches claim to be growing but it’s largely an illusion. Growth is mostly Christians transferring from other churches.9 The truth is “the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane,” writes University of Virginia professor Robert Louis Wilken. “And the decline is likely to continue.”10

When Henry Kissinger asked Chinese leader Chou En Lai whether the French Revolution of 1789 had benefited humanity,” Chou reportedly replied, “It’s too early to tell.” It’s too early to tell how long the institution of Western Christianity will persist. Defined by a truncated “two-chapter” gospel and an Enlightenment take on human nature, it cannot last. The best hope for renewal, or innovation, is what Clayton Christensen calls “creative destruction.” The new GM CEO seems to understand this.

Dan Ackerson, 62, is GM’s new CEO. At a recent meeting with his executive team, he interrupted an arcane discussion that energized GM engineers. “See this can,” Mr. Ackerman said, picking up his Diet Coke. “It’s a consumer product, GM has to start acting like a consumer-driven, not engineer-driven, company.” The same goes for the church. It cannot claim to be “too big too fail” and pass the plate, pleading for its continuance. The church is not forever. But it is the hope of the world when it starts acting like a shalom-driven institution.

1 Gary H. Stern and Ron J. Feldman, Too Big to Fail: The Hazards of Bank Bailouts (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), p. 2.
2 Alonzo L. McDonald, “The Grand Inquisitor Lives—Idolatry in Organizations and Management,” from No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age, ?edited by Os Guinness and John Seel? (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), p. 137.
3 McDonald, Inquisitor, p. 147.
4 Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great (Boulder:, 2003), p. 5.
5 McDonald, Inquisitor, p. 136.
6 Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776 – 2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ and London, 2005), pp. 177-178.
7 Scott Eyman, Empire of Dream: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2010), p. 67.
8 Finke and Stark, Churching, p. 262.
9 William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001).
10 Robert Louis Wilken, “The Church as Culture,” p. 2. The original version of this article was delivered as the Palmer Lecture at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.


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  1. So what does it take to wake denominations, and churches, to the reality of the situation? I see many in my generation that see the writing on the wall with denominations but are frustrated in their attempts to lead the change needed to retool for the future. Many times the failure is related to the fire with which they pursue change, causing them to leave and start their own institution that will need to die off in forty years or so.

    Maybe a better question is this: Do you see a need for denominations going forward? Do we need them to retool?

  2. Mike,
    You have probably written on this before, but I’d appreciate it if you could explain this further for me, “The church’s earthly mission is to bring shalom to the world.”

  3. Tim: Shalom is the mandate given to Abram (Gen.12) to be a blessing [shalom] to the world. It is the same mandate given to the Jews in the Babylonian exile (Jer.29). It is to seek the well-being [shalom] of all, or to love our neighbors, the Great Commandment. Jesus said this is the church’s mission on which “all the law and the prophets depend.”

    Matt: Your question is daunting, in light of the fact that institutions, while necessary, almost always opt for sustaining technologies and reject disruptive ones. Hence, they practically guarantee their failure over time. Retooling can be done, but retooling is essentially renewal and renewal requires disruption. Not easy.

  4. Mike,
    Do you think that some institutions (aka “churches”) today are taking their eyes off of the goal of sustainment and prematurely opting for retooling? I’m thinking of churches that take on the so-called Acts 29 movement that breaks them apart into smaller groups wherein the leadership may have questionable credentials in terms of spiritual maturity. At the same time they are eliminating “traditional” American forms of discipling and growing the body like Sunday School and shared church meals. They also seem to be losing the older demographic and their maturity of life experiences.

    In other words, without pointing out the failures of some traditional US churches that were too inwardly-focused, do you see anything that is lost in this present popular change in church focus?


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