11.14.2008

Creativity crisis?

Wandering through Kelly Fryer's sites the other day I found an insightful article digging around under the drive for conformity in the ELCA and many mainline churches. You can see it in the endless conversations about sexuality (Is anyone listening to them any more?) which put off change -- or even a decision -- until everyone can agree (or at least a supermajority can impose its will). But you also see it in our discussions -- or lack of discussions -- about What is the church? How do we organize for mission? What does ministry look like post-Christendom?

Kelly notes that its natural for threatened people and organizations to look for confirmity in the name of unity. The US did it after 9/11. And the mainline is under attack. We're declining, our message isn't connecting, we've lost the ear of the culture (and even some of our own members) to evangelicals and what Brian McLaren calls "radio orthodoxy."

It's natural to want to get everyone on the same page, to build an illusion of strength amidst the chaos. But it's wrong. It's an example of what Seth Godin would call the fallacy of going after "most people." Most people in the US rarely if ever go to church. Most people who go to church are not Lutherans or even mainliners. Most people want to be accepted in their diversity, not forced into confirmity. And this leads to the problem. Trying for comformity in this atmosphere leads to a church that tries to play it safe, and most people can do that on their own. The few who want to believe something and take a stand don't want to, or can't, conform.

I don't know when Kelly wrote this article, but it was before the global financial system melted down. The tendency to turn in, protect and bureaucratize that she describes is only going to get worse as money gets tighter, giving goes down, bills go up. Which makes her even more right that this conformity impulse is the wrong response for these times:

It is, I think, a natural impulse to pull in the reigns or slam on the brakes when you feel threatened. And I can't even blame all the people at every level of the denominational institution & within our congregations who end up doing this. But it is exactly the WRONG thing to do. What we need more than ever in the mainline is the freedom to experiment, the permission to make gigantic messes trying new things, and the encouragement to respond to each new context with open minds and creative spirits. We need flexibility, not conformity. We need innovation, not institutionalized sameness. We need faith enough to risk going in directions we've never gone before - even multiple directions at the same time! - not a fear-based clamp down on anything and everyone new. (emphasis added)


We're running a corporation with no research and development department. There are no new products in the pipeline (don't blow a gasket, I don't mean we need new religions, but we aren't doing so well re-casting the Gospel in our changing contexts). When the product that you have isn't selling, the answer isn't to make more of it. Just ask the auto manufacturers. And there is no bailout rescue plan for us.

Imagine if we let go of the natural desire for conformity and ran some experiments. What if we released some people to try new ideas and models to see if they can thrive and even co-exist along side (not in or under) the predominant model? What if we could look at other ways of being church not as threats to our own beliefs and preferences but as just other ways of doing the same work together with different people? The conformity model says we're weakening and these emerging ideas would weaken us. I think it would make us all stronger, and better.

2 comments:

Mark D. said...

Good post, Bob - after a few years studying counseling psych, I can offer hard evidence in brain research for this dynamic. Under stress, the limbic system "shuts down" the cortex (the thinking part of our brain) and goes into fight/flight/freeze mode. When the stress is gone, the cortex shuts down the limbic system and returns to a more creative mode.

Now would be a great time for our contemplative Christian friends to infuse a bit of prayer and meditation into mainline culture - if only to cool down those hundreds of thousands of raging amygdalas so that we could actually take up the task of innovation and creativity. -md

Bob said...

Hey, Mark. Thanks for the scientific explanation. I've certainly watched that effect in organizations (and felt it in my own soul) and its nice to know there's a reason.