Creative Leadership

The Industrial Age of Churches and Ministries is Over

My friend Seth Godin endorsed my book “The Last TV Evangelist.”  Today he wrote a terrific post on the recession, and pointed out that it’s made up of two things:  1.  The financial recession, which is cyclical and will bounce back, and the 2. Recession of the Industrial Age, which will continue forever.  Here’s some of what he said:

“The other one, I fear, is here forever. This is the recession of the industrial age, the receding wave of bounty that workers and businesses got as a result of rising productivity but imperfect market communication.  In short: if you’re local, we need to buy from you. If you work in town, we need to hire you. If you can do a craft, we can’t replace you with a machine.  No longer.  The lowest price for any good worth pricing is now available to anyone, anywhere. Which makes the market for boring stuff a lot more perfect than it used to be.”

Seth’s right, and it made me think of “industrial age churches and ministries.”  In the Christian world, far too many organizations who experienced great success 5, 10, or 20 years ago, don’t realize that age is over.

I’ve sat in marketing meetings where the leaders are baffled at why they can’t re-create their success from 2005, 2000, 1995 or earlier.  Hey – if it worked then, why won’t it work today?  But they don’t realize that era is over.  Audiences change.  Donors change.  Cultures change.  The world has changed.

As Seth says:

“Protectionism isn’t going to fix this problem. Neither is stimulus of old factories or yelling in frustration and anger. No, the only useful response is to view this as an opportunity. To poorly paraphrase Clay Shirky, every revolution destroys the last thing before it turns a profit on a new thing.”

Jesus chastized the religious leaders of his day because they couldn’t read the signs of the times.  I’m here today shouting the same message.  The world is changing and yet far too many churches, ministries, and non-profits keep on looking back, doing business as usual, and keep on failing.

Seth realizes that propping up the old method only keeps you from realizing real success.  Stop reaching for yesterday.  Stop being upset at your team because they can’t replicate past success.  Look around you.  Those days are over.

It’s time to recognize the future.

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  1. I remember when only the wealthy had mobile phones, and when I travelled I had to find a pay phone or use a hotel phone to call home.

    Well, in the Twenty-Minutes-into-The-Future world of Left Behind, they still do!

    Remember in the Eighties?  When one morning you heard about this thing called a CD and by that night you were the only one left in the world still spinning vinyl?

    And Christians are notorious for being Late Adopters.

  2. Seth is largely right in saying that the lowest price is available anywhere. But people aren’t rational, and there are those who don’t want cheapest: they want something they know and can trust (which is why some of us insist on buying local – which costs – rather than cheap imports.

    I’m not sure that the same isn’t true for Christian mission – I think that there will continue to be niches where doing things the old way will work. Quite how large those niches will be (more especially, quite how large in comparison to the new models) is anyone’s guess…

  3. Phil: You are right on. The great tragedy of today in the church, non-profits and christian education is that we choose tradition and history to plan the future. Though it is important to know from where we have come, it is even more important to determine where we are going. The facts are we need to look at what is real, relevant and relational. Times change along with people, situations, economics, needs and the like. Unless we are not only willing but able to change methods and remain relevant, real, relational – all is for nothing. An irrelevant mission reaches no one, just as an irrelevant degree from education creates an unemployable or under-employable individual. God’s Word tells us for lack of vision – forward looking and thinking – the people perish.

  4. The death of a business model, an economy or paradigm gets mighty uncomfortable in those last few days. Success is over rated – it’s a poor teacher and it lulls us into a false sense of security. Innovation favors those who have nothing to lose, just as luck favors the prepared.

  5. Look at the success of Pixar… 11 hit films in a row. The secret? Each film had a different writer. They DID NOT DEPEND ON THEIR SUCCESS FROM THE PREVIOUS FILM(S)… PURPOSELY. They wanted to keep it fresh. Making each new film meant taking a huge risk each and every time. Success can be a poor teacher ….. it should be handled with caution. Good point Anthony.

  6. Does the ending of an era mean the Christian media “industry” as we know it will die? As long as leaders don’t believe it will, and are just willing to accept less, the movement you seek will likely not advance too far.

    And a movement has to be monetized. We need to pray God raises up more risk takers willing, by faith, to show the way.

    Dawn, couldn’t agree more.

  7. There’s a saying that goes, “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always gotten”. In this case, it’s more like, if you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you never wanted…. Kind of a Duh! moment there I know. I work in a television ministry where the ratings have been overtly slipping as the years go by, and yet leadership continues to force the production dept. to keep on doing what they’ve always done while continuing to get the same failing results. Then when the ratings are bad, it’s somehow the producers fault. The question here is why continue to force something that isn’t working? Pride? Arrogance? Blindness? It’s insane behavior. In this age, ministries cannot afford imperfect & out of touch communication as in the past; there are too way many choices for one to make. Nor can they afford, “The lowest price for any good worth pricing is now available to anyone, anywhere” regarding staff/employees. What happened to hiring professionals (and paying them their worth) instead of people who come in from another industry altogether (paying them nothing) and throwing them into a high profile job title with no training available except to learn by making multiple mistakes? What happened to working in excellence in the church and ministry (we the church should be leading in this area)? What happened to creativity (again, we the church should be leading in this area)? We surely can do better than this, and do it before we crash. It’s time to wake up for those who continue to do what they’ve always done. Thinking in a box equals boring…. another Duh! Moment!

  8. Excellent post.

    Another frustration is watching organizations trying to implement the new [technology, methods, etc] using the same logic that worked with the old. It doesn’t work.

    New methods require new thinking, even if it takes some time to make the transition.



  9. Very insightful, Phil.  I couldn’t agree more.  These changing times also call for bold and courageus leadership that is willing to risk.  Ministries should be looking for leaders who are willing to learn from the past, but not remain in the past.  Mature leaders that are business saavy and with a streak of entrepreneurialism to bring about a new vision for their organization.  The status quo will no longer suffice. 

    The Lord is on the move and He has taught us that “new wine requires a new wineskin” (Matt 9:17).

  10. We are all impacted by the culture around us – often without even realizing it. 

    I remember when only the wealthy had mobile phones, and when I travelled I had to find a pay phone or use a hotel phone to call home. Now I can sit in an airport (and see most of the other passengers talking or texting) and call home from the comfort of wherever I happen to be.  The shift in mobile phone culture has changed us when we weren’t looking.

    I remember when the TV ministry I was running got its first computer and only the engineer really knew how to use it.  Now we all have computers at home – at work – and even in our breifcases. The shift in the computer and Internet culture has changed us when we weren’t looking.

    I don’t share there two examples to prove how old I am – but to clearly illustrate that we are being affected by culture and technology continuously – often in ways we do not even detect.  Consequently our behaviors change…

    People are changing and their behaviors are changing.  Donors give differently, readers read differently, writers write differently – but ministries all too often remain the same.  Of course, we must be committed to the Truth of God’s word – but we also must understand the cultural shifts happening around us – and to us – in order to remain effective in communicating that Truth.

  11. The last era was defined by walls, borders, and protection (think magazines, cd’s, and very soon cable tv). Those who have succeeded and will continue in Mr. Godin’s current age are those who can build roads. He who creates the greatest access wins.

    Sidenote- It was the Roman’s insistence on excellent roads (not barriers) that allowed their empire to thrive.

  12. Time constantly changes but Truth does not. Some effective ways of communicating Truth remain constant (through personal relationships, for example), while others need continual examination (CDs vs. Podcasts, sermons vs. illustrated sermons, verbal announcements vs. “dramas” vs. slickly-produced video announcements).

    Anything utilizing technology (electricity vs. steam-power) is particularly vulnerable to becoming outdated and cliche’. The risk there is the message being lost in or polluted by the medium.

    These days, EVERYBODY is a director or a Director of Photography. There’s even a Facebook page called “My Mom Bought Me A RED Camera So Now I’m A DP!”. Great cameras are cheap, and so are editing systems. But these do not make great storytellers any more than owning a race car makes you worthy to compete at LeMans.

    Like the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of vitamins and minerals in our diets, there is a similar “RDA” when it comes to the use of technology in communicating. As a TV producer and director, I’ve told clients for years that there is a bare minimum one needs to spend to do TV well, or it should not be done at all. It will be an absolute waste of resources– and in the case of churches, God’s resources.

    There is also an “RDA” when it comes to the necessary talented creators and the technology to capture and exhibit your message. If you try to be hip, cool, or even contemporary, unless you at least meet that RDA, you will be sickly.

    You have a professional pastor, don’t you? You have a professional accountant, right? A professional maintenance supervisor? Why not professional communicators and media experts who can tell great stories? After all, it is all about effectively communicating The Message and changing lives, isn’t it?

  13. Great thoughts Phil!! The message of Jesus never changes, but our method of communicating it must! There are so many exciting things ahead for the church. We are not the first century church nor are we the church of the last decade. We are the church of 2010 and we need to be reaching the generation and culture that God has entrusted us with today. We have to hire staff and train them accordingly. It is possible to have great, creative technology in church and at the same time not compromise on the message of Jesus!

  14. Phil,

    this is a great post!

    It’s important to note that “technology is a great servant, but a wicked master”

    leveraging technology in a way that impacts culture for Christ is the key to be effective in today’s MTV generation.

    Congrats on the review from Seth, can’t wait to read to new book…


  15. There’s a reason why the apostles in the book of Acts ONLY gave themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer, while appointing deacons to carry out the other functions of the growing movement.

    Too many pastors today try to be all things to the local body instead of focusing on the essence of their calling: the Word and prayer. The church’s tv ministry shouldn’t even be in the pastor’s hand! If he’s got time to focus on that, that’s time taken away from what he should be focused on: the Word and prayer!

    The apostles left the handling of financial matters up to those they appointed to handle it. This kept them free from the temptations of handling too much money; something minister’s today could use a good lesson in!

    Pastors need to get back to PASTORING; not trying to be apostles and evangelists, entrepreneurs and political activists!

    Bottom line: the American church has played its hand. Too many ministers have abused their status and tainted the people’s trust with scandal after scandal. We can all remember the weeping ministers on tv crying for donations to save a ‘lost and dying world’; only to later find out they were using some of those funds on hotel rooms and hookers.

    Grandma’s church has probably seen it’s last service. There will probably always be televangelists, but nothing like the golden days of the 70’s-90’s. Just like the oldtime holiness churches changed their stance on what constituted ‘worldliness’, so too will we have to change up our approach if we are to stay relevant in today’s world.

    We need to start using what works: BEING the church instead of just ATTENDING a church.

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