Buzz easily becomes a bastard.

In the 1970s, GM’s market share was slipping. Diesel fuel was cheap, so GM got buzzed about diesel engines. It slapped diesel parts on Oldsmobile’s V-8 engines. It was a bastard design with disastrous results. We might see the same result with the release of James Hunter’s To Change the World. It might create a buzz with many churches, slapping certain words like “faithful presence” on their existing programs. The results will be inglorious bastards.

“Bastard” sounds disgusting, but it’s the correct diagnosis. “Bastard” means “illegitimate coupling.” To understand why this is likely to happen in the modern American church, it is wise to remember what happened in that colossus of American institutions—GM.

In 1946, worldwide output of automobiles amounted to 3.9 million units, with the U.S. accounting for 80 percent of the total. GM was so dominant it’s legendary chief Alfred P. Sloan boasted: “When GM sneezes, America catches cold.” GM ignored Toyota and Honda as relative pipsqueaks—their auto imports accounted for only 15 percent of U.S. sales in 1970. “GM initially figured that the Japanese would be stuck in a niche of small cars… as customers grew out of their small car phase of life,” writes Joseph White.1

In the 1970s, GM’s market share was slipping. GM heard the buzz for diesel and attempted to quickly bring an innovative diesel engine to market. But they continued to operate inside their mental model and simply slapped diesel parts on Oldsmobile’s 350 V-8 internal combustion engines. The head design and head bolts were not able to withstand the higher cylinder pressures and temperatures of diesel use. This led to catastrophic failures of the engines. It was an inglorious bastard.

By the early 1980s, the decline at GM was becoming obvious to all. Jim Harbour tried to show GM’s executives the efficiencies of Japanese factories. The productivity gap was startling. It was so disruptive that GM’s president barred Jim Harbour from company property. Another GM executive, Alex Mair gave detailed presentations on why Japanese cars were superior to GM’s. He set up a war room at GM’s technical center with displays showing how Honda devised low-cost, high-quality engine parts. GM debunked the data as too disruptive and treated him as an adversary rather than an ally (Mair’s “war room” might have been an unfortunate metaphor).

It is instructive to note that 15 percent of Americans now say they have “no” religion.2 Some churches ignore this trend while others figure it will remain a narrow niche. A few are alarmed, mostly because research indicates this isn’t a phase of life, it’s a growing fact of life for younger generations.3 Forty percent of the 16–29 year-old segment of the U.S. population no longer checks “Christian” to mark their identity. Faith communities are foolhardy to ignore this trend. But they don’t have to repeat GM’s error—seeing trends and then being trendy. This is the risk with the release of To Change the World.

To Change the World introduces a better model for the church—calling for a “faithful presence within” culture. Christianity Today editors call it one of the most significant books ever written. As faith communities begin to buzz about becoming a “faithful presence,” many will strap Hunter’s paradigm to their programs. What many fail to realize is the design of how they engage culture will not able to withstand the tensions inherent in “faithful presence within.” They will create inglorious bastards.

For example, “faithful presence within” means seeing the public square as more than the political sphere. It means recognizing politics is downstream—not unimportant but not upstream, either. “Faithful presence within” means the church doesn’t go ga-ga when a pastor opens a session of the legislature in prayer. We forget that, once legislators get down to business, the pastor is politely asked to leave. “Faithful presence within” means developing a new language of politics, inside our definition of reality, with an accurate assessment of human nature, so that we’re taken seriously. But that’s not all.

“Faithful presence within” means the church embraces the reality that ideas don’t necessarily have legs, or consequences, unless tied to powerful individuals, images, and center institutions. This is not a battle of worldviews and winning debates.

“Faithful presence within” means the church embraces the reality that cultures are not changed from the bottom up. This is not a battle of merely winning individuals and leading missions of mercy. It is changing the structures and institutions in society.

“Faithful presence within” means the church doesn’t see power as “taking over culture” but using power on behalf of others to enact shalom. Power is for seeking the wellbeing of others, for others, not ourselves. It is love.

“Faithful presence within” means the church embraces the reality that we live in an unprecedented age. The solution is not to return to the ancient church as the end-all, but rather to glean what we can from many ages. It means embracing a better definition of reality and an accurate assessment of human nature, recognizing that every church age gets some things right and some things wrong. “Faithful presence within” is not simply strapping a few new ideas to the ministry model of the modern American church. That would result in inglorious bastards and catastrophic failures. “Faithful presence within” is not tweaking the engine. It is replacing almost the entire engine.

Like GM, this will be difficult for the American church to accept.

This is the dilemma in genuine innovation. It is disruptive, writes Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen.4 The larger the institution, the larger the church, the greater the resistance to innovation. That’s the nature of innovation and reality. “Faithful presence within” is a paradigm shift; it is not a new program. It upends existing programs—it doesn’t improve them. Like GM, faith communities can lose sight of this important distinction and create inglorious bastards. They won’t however be innovative.

_________________
1 Joseph B. White, “How Detroit’s Automakers Went from Kings of the Road to Roadkill,” Imprimus, February 2009, Volume 38, Number 2.
2 The study was conducted in 2008 by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment.
3 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, UNchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
4 Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (New York, NY: HarperBusiness Essentials, 2002).

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9 Responses to “Inglorious Bastards”

  1. Michael Viljoen says:

    Excellent Mike, thanks.

  2. Fritz Kling says:

    I completely agree with the prescription of gleaning what we can from many ages and embracing a better definition of reality. Thomas Friedman calls this “information arbitrage –understanding a multiplicity of fields, and not just sacred, church, or theological in nature.

  3. Peter Frieswick says:

    Another provacative and interesting essay, Mike.

    In paragraph 9 you talk about “faithful presence within” as advocating the church to join with “powerful individuals” and “center institutions”. In order to fulfill the ideas in paragraph 9 and get the results you are looking for in paragraph 10, would you suggest creating a central institution that spans all denominations? Since a single church can only do so much, and may only have the expertise to focus on particular public spheres effectively, this central institution’s job would be to co-ordinate their efforts on a mass scale. This would not be a hive mind, where all the denominations have to change to conform to a standard of Sunday service routine, but a way to effectively “share resources” of different churches for a common goal. I believe a microversion of this occurs when Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims, who have many different beliefs about faith, still unite together at anti-abortion events. Or perhaps, if this interdenominational institution is not a viable plan, would you suggest that the church pulpit become more political, encouraging its members to join political parties, and even run for office if they have the skill?

  4. Mike Metzger says:

    Peter:

    Yours is a thoughtful question – but it’s not what I’m envisioning. Rather, I’m suggesting that the church get a foot in the door and a place at the table of, say, GM. Or Google. If you read Dallas Willard’s “Knowing Christ Today,” he notes that the church was once viewed as a repository of the knowledge of reality – and this even extended to so-called “secular” institutions. The church was also perceived (by some) as having a profoundly accurate assessment of human nature. These are still true today. Your suggestion might have some merit, but I’m suggesting that shalom is when “Babylonian” institutions take seriously our definition of reality and act on it.

  5. Walter David Disney says:

    Mr Freiswick,
    There is already an institution you described in place,but it is not necessarily, brick and mortar,men and women, and yet it is. It is established by the Holy Spirit that indwells those who truly believe that makes up this church. Those who have welcomed “the presence within” themselves. I believe the point is to be the WHOLE church effecting the entire world. Catholic was the accurate term,but has since become associated to a denomination versus the original Biblical meaning.
    In reality one would not put all the salt on one cut of meat. It is spread lightly over all to enhance what has been created, and redeem what has been corrupted.
    Simply put, be the catalytic changed ones right where we are,effecting both facets of reality, the redeemed and corrupted.
    Shalom

  6. Fraser H. Haug says:

    Dear Mike,
    I have been a satisfied reader of your newsletter for quite some time. The last installment, “Inglorious Bastards,” was typically good and thought-provoking. I would like to add a few important thoughts to the discussion.
    I have, for many years, been actively attempting to do what you suggest: getting “a seat at the table,” becoming a repository of the “knowledge of reality.” and offering that to leaders within the nations that choose to listen. Granted, my experience has been exclusively outside the U.S. (in the developing world). Neither has it been exhaustive or even hugely successful for that matter! Nevertheless, I have garnered some experience in this – enough to venture a few observations that are germane to this discussion.
    First the radical, “disruptive technology” of actually getting a place at the table is only a very small next step – and in many nations of the developing world, actually not that uncommon. Once we have the ear (and the trust) of the policy makers of Babylon however, we might be surprised to discover that they actually want to know what our solution is to their very real and often intractable problems! In fact, that’s the main reason we get invited to the table – they have exhausted their own “wisdom” resources and they are desperate enough to ask even us!
    After being seated at the table, the real problem emerges: Our ability to present a coherent and workable biblical (Christian) solution to very challenging problems in society and culture.
    The prophet Moses reveals an important key as to why we are often unable to give a satisfactory answer to the kings of Babylon. Moses said our “wisdom in the sight of the nations” is a result of knowing and obeying the law of God. Unhappily, in the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation, we have less and less held that the word of God is actually the law of God – we misunderstand and misapply Paul’s statement “I am no longer under law but under grace.”
    Many Evangelical/ Charismatic communities have compounded the problem by insisting that spiritual authority (to interpret and apply scripture) is the purview of the individual – and particularly the anointed “pastor.” We have moved from an objective standard of authority to a very subjective standard. The unhappy reality at the present is, if you have five Christians favored enough to be invited to sit at the table of the king of Babylon, he will probably hear five different Christian subjective opinions as to the solution to his problem – not a unified declaration of what the law of God objectively declares. Only this gives us the “unbastardized” approach to sociocultural problem solving.
    In other words, the problem is not the lack of a central institution, it is the lack of commonly held and understood authoritative standards (law) to apply to the problems of the world.
    Getting a place at the table, exercising appropriate “presence” in the public square is hugely important. But that is still only the smallest part of the bigger problem. We have to recover from our Reformation excesses (innumerable, subjective, man-centered opinions on matters) and rediscover the wonders of the law of God – the objective, comprehensive, authoritative standard by which to judge and rule nations. Then we will not just be invited to the King’s table, rulers will actually seek us out to experience for themselves the wonders of the wisdom of God as the fruit of knowing and obeying the law of God. The story of the Queen of Sheba will no longer be an historical exception but the modern norm.

    Regards,
    Fraser Haug

  7. John Seel says:

    The role of the church is to equip individuals to be agents of shalom in and through their callings. It is not the church as the church that sits at the GM Board table. Rather it is the church members who have been equipped to be effective practitioners of shalom who carry the work of the church into the particular spheres that the local situation necessitates and individual members have influence. The church is a translator, not a practitioner. But it must measure its effectiveness in translation in how effective its members are in enacting shalom within their own unique spheres of influence. So it is not about program in the church or church programs being done outside the church. Both remain church centered. People don’t notice transmissions, nor should they translators. They are not the end, but a means to an end. The measure is not church growth, but the growth of shalom. Surely it is the empowering dynamic of Christ’s presence within each believer that animates the effort. But its effect is not measured by what remains in the believer, but the love that flows from the believer in tangible ways.

  8. Steve Ashcroft says:

    I’m about 15% into Hunters book and deeply intrigued. I’m trekking with you on the GM analogy totally. My experience and observation of the church (broadly defined) is that the church thinks its job is to build the church. To the church creating culture is not an end but rather a means to silencing opposition to its own denominational system of truth, claims and perceived moral obligations. At best it sees building culture as a means of garnering adherents to its own culture and Shalom does not appear to be on their radar screen. Historically the church has never respected other cultures even other cultures within Christendom. Denominations today are so overwhelmed with challenges to their own culture from outside and within that working together to form a multi-denominational, culture altering organization is an idealistic impossibility at best. The battle for control of the organization would far and away supersede its mission. Finally we have to contend with the reality that according to Barna 87% of the faith community’s youth will graduate and never return to church. Today every denomination except the AG, LDS and JW denominations are declining in membership and attendance numbers are much worse. The NAB for example has declined 49.9% in attendance from 2006 to 2008. The denominations are today where GM was when they bastardized the V8 and as the need for self-preservation sets in over the next decade the impossibility will only increase. I’m not without hope but my questions outweigh my answers 100:1. I’m hoping to find the fodder I need to formulate effective culture altering strategies in Hunters book. I’ll let you know…

  9. Mike Metzger says:

    Fraser – shoot me an email to me. I’d like to follow up with your excellent observations.

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