Enterprise zones for the church

The states and federal government have used the concept of "enterprise zones" to encourage investment in blighted areas to create jobs and stimulate the economy. The concept works differently in different places, but the general idea is that there are tax incentives to locate businesses in these depressed areas. By giving on some of its normal expectations of businesses, the zones can achieve economic goals that couldn't be met under the normal rules. The special rules only apply to special areas designated as enterprise zones. The rules don't change for the rest of city or state, and businesses that aren't contributing to the specific goals of the zone don't expect a similar tax cut.

A similar concept of church enterprise zones might be a way forward for mainline denominational structures, which (as we discussed yesterday based on Kelly Fryer's thoughts) can cling to conformity when faced with the challenges of a rapidly changing frontier rather than digging deep for faithful innovation.

In his marvelous little book "Tribes," which is a must-read for church leaders who want to challenge the status quo, marketing guru Seth Godin has an apt description that can apply to oldline businesses, charitable and educational institutions, government and the church: "Stuck."

“Some tribes are stuck. They embrace the status quo and drown out any tribe member who dares to question authority and the established order.” (5)

Here Seth gives voice to many younger, emerging church leaders, as well as veterans who are tiring of the status quo and feel called to explore new answers for changing times.

I observe that the ELCA tends to want to birth “new things” within existing models. Communities that are struggling to raise up leadership have to deal with a system in which leaders must vetted, appointed and educated according to a standard pattern. Grassroots communities, or groups that may always be organically small, don’t have easy access to a planting system based on achieving self-sufficiency (we don’t even know what this means in new models yet!) as quickly as possible.

Of course, this makes sense from the institution's point of view. Redefining a part of a system -- such as "pastor" or "congregation" -- implies that the rules are changed for everyone, which could lead to freedom or to chaos. The problem is that if what can be imagined and birthed can only look like what we already know, the possibilities for true creativity and innovation are eliminated. As the old saw goes, "Our system is perfectly calibrated to achieve the results we are already getting."

The results we are already getting are in many cases disappointing. While the mainline church-as-we-know-it works well for many people in many places, the general long-running decline of the mainline churches and the relative absence of post-confirmation youth and young adults indicates that all is not well. In the case of these lost generations, and in the growing number of post-modern people of all ages (it's not a generation but a way of looking at the world), there's a good case to be made that some enterprise zones, spaces where new church could emerge connected with but not in conformity with the denomination and tradition, could help the churches tap into what the Spirit is doing among these populations.

This could be as simple as authorizing “sandboxes” where experiments can run firewalled off from the existing church, much as software developers often run new or potentially malicious programs in a virtual environment where they cannot crash the underlying operating system. These experiments could be set up so that there would be a path into the recognized church if they succeed, by moving toward changes in rules and procedures based on the signs of the Spirit recognized in these new communities. If they fail, we'll have at least learned something. Or if the denomination and community don’t agree on moving ahead, it could be agreed ahead of time that the group would simply cease to exist, or spin off as an independent church.

Such pilot projects provide a way forward for denominations that are “stuck” without creating the risk of massive destabilization or fracture. By being self-contained, the experiments are less threatening to the existing institution than different new “churches” that suggest a new model for others. Of course, experiments do suggest new models, but providing an enterprise zone allows them to take risk and grow without directly threatening the status quo. The new models can later be absorbed into the mainstream once they are proven, rather than stamped out before they are tried because they are risky or misunderstood.

These enterprise zones tap into the latent potential Godin sees in such mired systems:

“Every one of those (stuck) tribes, though, is a movement waiting to happen, a group of people just waiting to be energized and transformed.” (5)

By releasing the energy of leaders and communities who want to experiment, their energy can be harnessed to release even more innovation and renewal across the institution!


Karen W said...

I totally agree with this. This is what COTA has been and still is in our synod and diocese.

The next move is much trickier. To expand the zone into a 'network of agents' free-range 'agents of future' meaning to 'turn lose' a first cohort of Pioneer Missioners (6-7 folk) but to get this authorized (even as a pilot), is a mine field here and I'm already missing a few toes.

This PMP idea is seen as a trojan horse. The problem is, it probably is, at some future point... but this horse could lead us into a new missional futures.

What to do... for me to not be seen as a homegrown 'Che Guevera' to get this going?

Bob said...

There seems to be a real tension -- how to be far enough ahead of the mothership to do some good and get meaningful intell, while not getting disconnected. You almost need to be a revolutionary to reach escape velocity, but then re-entry is a real mess.

IMHO you're right about the trojan horse. Given the trends and the travails we face, what is the future like if we don't inject some pioneering ideas into the mix?