The Valley of Death

Michael Metzger

Solar panels are heading into the Valley of Death—again.

The White House is having additional solar panels installed this spring. President Carter installed them, Reagan dismantled them, and George W. Bush reinstalled a few. It’s a start/stop story picturing what plagues innovation: ideas failing to get traction. It’s a problem plaguing the faith community as well. Most of their good ideas never get traction. They instead expire in the Valley of Death.

In October 1977, the Atlantic ran a cover story on the promising field of renewable energy. Joshua Green cited the national debate that had arisen over an essay by Amory Lovins in Foreign Affairs called “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” Lovins argued that the country had arrived at an important crossroads and could take one of two paths—increasing reliance on dirty fossil fuels and nuclear fission or investing in emerging “green” technologies. He dubbed these technologies “the hard path.”

Green technologies faced the hard path of upending existing technologies used by the energy industry. Carter’s solar panels might have been a good idea, but they were a novelty—they lacked institutional support. Joshua Green cited at least 40 green innovations launched in 1977 that had proven their worth but since died. “Venture capitalists can bring an idea from the lab to pilot scale,” writes Green. “Many start-ups have made it this far only to die searching for additional funding. Venture capitalists have a term for this. They call it the “Valley of Death.”1 It’s a sad sequence: ideas are proven but peter out over time because they are not institutionalized.

This is a problem plaguing faith ministries. It dates back to at least Martin Luther’s time. Luther’s legacy was in replacing institutional authority with individual influence. “What made him remarkable was not so much his views about God,” writes Joshua Foa Dienstag, “as his views about humans, their capacities, and their right to judge in their own cases.”2 The Puritans piggybacked on Luther in prizing individual faith over institutional structures. When the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather was asked where the church was visible before Luther, he said it was visible not in open congregations “but in sundry individual members who were persecuted by the church of their day.”3 William James would go on to describe this individualistic faith as not only free from, but inimical to, any “institutional form” that religious experience might take.4

This individualism explains what at first appears to be a mystery in the American faith community: a large cadre of creative individuals but little cultural influence. They convene conferences, compare ideas, and develop concepts or strategies for changing the world. Then they look at one another and ask: “How do we institutionalize this?” The question is an indictment of the faith community’s system and solves the so-called mystery: it operates in a system that lacks established institutional linkages. Culture-changing movements operate differently. Take the 1965 Ford Mustang.

The Mustang ignited the muscle car revolution. The spark was an idea, a concept. Ford product manager Donald Frey conceived of a two-seat roadster. He presented it to Ford’s general manager Lee Iacocca, who liked it. But likability was not what made the difference, it was linkages—the design studios, assembly plants, distribution networks, dealerships, salespeople, and mechanics that constituted the institution called The Ford Motor Company. In other words, Iacocca did not like Frey’s idea and then asked: “How do we institutionalize this?” The institution was already in place, turning Frey’s concept into Ford’s car. The Ford Motor Company created the 1965 Ford Mustang—and it changed the automotive world.

Changing the world requires institutional alignment—overlapping networks of theorists, educators, and practitioners. It’s what Steven Covey calls “production capacity” or what Ford has built—assembly plants. For the faith community to change the world, it has to operate in the same way. Its theorists are academics, or “engines.” Educators are “transmissions,” translating ideas with horsepower to practitioners, who make the products people buy. The challenge is not a lack of creative people but a lack of collaboration. Linking theorists, translators, and practitioners would institutionalize the process of turning ideas into culture-changing items. Without such linkages, most good ideas spawned by faith ministries will expire in the Valley of Death.

Building institutional linkages requires farsighted leaders and wealthy financiers. Hyundai, the fastest growing car company in the U.S., recently built a billion dollar assembly plant in Georgia. Increased production capacity yields increased production. Every effective organization recognizes this. This is why solar panels will only change the energy industry if they get better traction in big energy institutions. The American faith community would probably benefit from convening theorists, translators, practitioners, and financiers and addressing the better question: “How do we build institutional linkages, assembly plants, so that we never have to inquire again about institutionalizing our ideas?” If the faith community never solves this problem, most of its great ideas are unlikely to emerge from the Valley of Death.

1 Joshua Green, “The Elusive Green Economy,” Atlantic, July/August 2009, Vol. 304, No. 1, p. 83.
2 Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
3 Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 11.
4 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings, 1902-1910 (New Haven, CT: The Library of America, 1987), p. 34.


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  1. Mike, what immediately strikes me is HOW organizations like Campus Crusade DO survive Death Valley: the “ideas” of CCC live on in the young college-grads that become their full-time staff. No more new staff? No more CCC. The “idea adherents” BUY-IN by raising their own support. That hundreds do it at a time greatly increases the mutual motivation that they need to finish the job. Also, very importantly, the “message” of CCC requires the personalization of the idea: “People must go out to share the gospel” becomes “I must go.” The message is simply put and able to be simply acted upon. Anything that’s not simply put and able to be simply acted upon won’t get traction and go forward. And if it doesn’t generate new staff, “the idea” – no matter how useful – has only got a very, very long shot at surviving the illness, death, or retirement of its originator. Theorists, translators, practitioners, and financiers go where the success is already proven: they buy-in where buy-in has already taken place. They look for a sure bet.

  2. I’m not quite sure I follow your train of thought Dave. CCC is an institution, which enables ideas to continue on. Whether you like the ideas or not, CCC is a great example of what Mike is talking about. Most staff are translators learning from theorists (seminary professors) and helping to mentor/train up the practitioners (students).

    Most people that were once directly involved, had a positive experience, which in turn would lead them to support the ‘institution’. About 5% join staff while the other 95% would likely consider it a ‘sure bet’ to invest in (support staff and/or the ministry).

    Sure CCC has it’s issues that this blog would speak too, like having a truncated two chapter gospel or genuinely overcoming the sacred/secular divide. But I don’t think CCC lacks the institutional capacity to further ideas, which even you seem to agree with.

  3. Perhaps one obstacle to ‘institutionalizing our ideas’ – and pre-building assembly plants to ‘produce’ them – is that changed lives (and the kind of world change I believe you’re speaking of) do not readily spring forth from the equivalent of institutional assembly lines. Making identical Ford Mustangs is rather different than – um ‘making’ (?!) – a man, woman, let alone a community of potent faith.

    The human element is always a wild card.

  4. Perhaps not as wild as you imagine, Marble. The human element, as you put it, is called human nature, which has proven proclivities and tendencies, observable in everyday experience as well as in the testimony of scripture. Second, don’t confuse form with function. The assembly plant analogy is not a picture of uniformity (identical products) but of functional capacity to make various products. Sociologists seem to agree that a changed culture involves overlapping, dense networks of institutions that include and culminate in institutions similar to what we might metaphorically call assembly plants.

    Dave: Like Andrew, I had a bit of trouble following your argument… on many levels. If CCC ideas “live on” primarily in CCC staff, CCC has a problem, as I doubt that CCC exists to be a self-perpetuating institution. I would call your attention to an early 1990s study that indicated close to 100 percent of ex-CCC staff no longer shared their faith with sort of regularity after leaving staff (which raises all sorts of questions about “CCC ideas living on in CCC staff”). Second, your argument makes all sorts of assumptions about what constitutes success – with nary a mention of institutions. Third, the point of academics, theorists, and practitioners working together is that no one institution has all three. CCC for example has few if any recognized academics who are taken seriously by the serious actors in the wider world. Nor does CCC have practitioners, as serious practitioners are businesspeople or educators, or artists in the wider world that are (again) taken seriously by their peers. CCC staff are not their peers. This of course raises the question, as Andrew does, whether CCC has translators, as that requires a “four-chapter” gospel and an accurate assessment of human nature (not an Enlightenment view). You be the judge as to whether CCC’s literature reflects this understanding of the gospel and human nature.

  5. There’s so much to answer here, but I’ll try to be brief. In the first place ~ and this is relevant to our discussion of faith communities ~ so I’m glad you raised the comparison: solar panels have very limited production quality. If they were better than you imply, they would be in more use. They’re not better, so they’re not in more use. No matter how wealthy the financing or integrated key linkages might be, they can’t make a bad product better. 40 green innovations died in 1977? They probably deserved to die. I raised CCC as an innovation that has become an institution. You forget it started as an innovation, your logic above begins with it being an institution (by the way, NOT learning from seminary profs ~ the other way around has been the case). Nearly everything they did or have done they have modified and modified over time and what worked institutionalized beyond its borders. And its innovations got further modified by others beyond its borders. Vastly larger than any other similar campus ministry, your average “contemporary” church worship service is a “spin off” from your average CCC weekly meeting. CCC graduates outnumber IVCF & Nav grads by immense multiples, that’s why I think I can say that the 95% who don’t go on staff (or maybe 99%) have changed American church life for better or worse to look a lot like something CCC has influenced. I think your main point is that to change the world, you need integrated linkages, not smarty-pants individuals who really can’t do it on their own: agreed. Bill Bright found those linkages, and CCC continues to this day to innovate like crazy and take advantage of linkages to expand itself ~ and maybe too well for their own good ~ it might cost them new staff as it favors certain things to the detriment of other things. If the American faith community seems to lack linkages to bring exciting new Mustang muscle-ideas to the market for mass-use/production, maybe it’s because it doesn’t really have any exciting new Mustang muscle-ideas that are worth anything. Mike, to clear up a misunderstanding, I’m not saying CCC has theorists, translators, practitioners, and financiers: Those people come to CCC, and/or use its products and innovations. How do you think they’re so well-funded? You’re former staff, you know this. They have produced and innovated and drawn in theorists, translators, practitioners, and financiers for 50 years. 10 years after the fact what were CCC innovations do in fact die out, but they do in most cases with anything in any field or endeavor. But not before being in use by great numbers and being modified by great numbers. I’m an “enlightened fan” of CCC and former staff so I’m not tooting their horn to win brownie points with anyone: I simply am trying to see the organization from the perspective you’re raising. As for your saying that “CCC does NOT exist to be a self-perpetuating institution,” I’d have to disagree. Not that there’s anything drastically wrong with that, but they are definitely dependent upon continued existence. When I say CCC ideas live on in CCC staff, they do so AS CCC staff, not after the staff are not staff. Yes, former staff share Christ formally a lot less after staff life. Change the profession and time management, what do you expect? That should be the case. But I don’t see how it has anything to do with our discussion. Lastly, I agree, CCC’s literature does not reflect your understanding of the gospel and human nature: why? You think your understandings are simplified and easy to pass along? They’re not. Your four-chapter gospel is a nice small number, but as an innovation, it’s not easily transferable. It’s thoughtful work, and useful, and meaningful, but it’s not easily transferable. And I know you know how important that word is.

  6. It is generally acknowledged that culture is formed through the reinforcing synergy of ideas, images, institutions, and items. Culture is a public reality that shapes our private lives. And this public reality is created and reinforced by an overlapping network of five institutions: the academy, art, media, entertainment, and advertising. Collectively, these are the “reality-defining” institutions.

    Production capacity, as Mike here describes it, involves close coordination between those who create ideas, translate ideas, and use ideas. Our success is limited because we then to focus on individuals instead of institutions, and when we focus on institutions we fail to work strategically or collaboratively. Most Christian ministries would do well to strengthen their ties in two directions — first and foremost with serious academic institutions, such as for example the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia and secondarily with businesses and business leaders who are creating tangible products and services. Initially, we need to see the value in working together so that our strengths complement each other and thereby further production capacity. Doing our own thing without an overriding commitment to collaboration in both these directions is a crippling weakness in the faith community. Identifying the problem as Mike has here is a first step in a new direction.

  7. Just ‘cuz this seems like a worthwhile conversation I’ll add more. John, I agree. And Mike is always posting valuable thoughts and ideas toward this end. Institutions ~ like CCC ~ can tend to have such heavy weight like a Jupiter or Saturn that they draw everything in toward themselves, and even the best theorists, translators, practitioners, and financiers can’t help themselves: they see a kind of success that’s safer than innovation and they pour their resources in that direction for lack of any other direction. The same things you said are needed, John, already have happened with CCC and will continue for a while. When it comes to CCC, the tie-in is with the local church and conservative seminaries and substantial financing by wealthy individuals. That’s not a business tie-in in an overt way or sophisticated secular university tie in like with UVA, as you mentioned, but it’s enough to fuel the machine: the local church is HUGE institutional support to CCC. It’s a complicated picture but there’s no doubt it enjoys wide enough cultural support, even though that wide-ness is limited to the evangelical bubble. It’s just a really big bubble! That cultural protectedness tends to perpetuate the good and the not-so-good of the institution. Witness auto manufacturing: when I was a kid, adults said Japanese cars were junk. Now it’s the other way around. The insititutions of American car companies continued to absorb our investment: we bought in because we believed. It seems like feeding the flesh became the downfall of managing that belief (over-paying the unions & execs, etc.: poor business practices). Japanese companied prevailed making a better product for the right price at the right time. In some sense there’s nothing mysterious about success: do the right thing and eventually you’ll be proven right. It just won’t happen overnight, as Hunter and his picture of institutions rightly depicts things. Failure is rarely an overnight thing either: if CCC is destined to slide because it doesn’t do the right things, it will be slow. But sure, nevertheless. I find my own teeny tiny universe of limited success has one important factor: I’m not visibly tied to the “institution of evangelicalism” and I’m not clearly tied to the institution of the university ~ but I am shadowing it closely. Creating a never-before-kind-of- identity-in-behavior makes it easier to be effective but much more difficult to garner partnership. We will head to Death Valley if we never figure out how to do the overlap Mike and John describe. How to do that without losing effectiveness: that’s the question.

  8. Dave, keep up the good work. The Cambridge Roundtable is a unique opportunity to openly discuss ideas and perspectives that have little traction within the wider academy. It is a salon experience at its best.

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