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.