Why the Church We Live in Isn't the Church We Think We Live in

Newsflash: Technology Changes!

In the book I spend some time talking about disruption theory and disruptive innovation, detailing the fall of the telegraph. I talk about, what I take to be, the inevitability of disruptive change–technological and otherwise. So, it should come as no surprise that I might lead with the commonplace, “Technology Changes!”

Ok. So, I know everybody is already aware that technology is constantly changing, being persistently threatened by new innovations. Witness the rise and fall of the compact disc, the cellular pager, or whatever particular iteration of the new game console that threatens to harden the commercial arteries at Walmart during the Christmas season.

Moreover, the rate of technological change is rapidly approaching geometric proportions. Moore’s Law of computer hardware, for example, states that the number of transistors that can be fitted onto an integrated circuit doubles every X number of months (18–24–depending on who you’re asking). The practical upshot of Moore’s Law, from a consumer perspective, is a description of the reason that the shiny new gewgaw you just bought will be obsolete by the time you get it home.

But here’s a little wrinkle that might have escaped your attention: Not only does technology change at breakneck speed, but the knowledge necessary to produce technological change also changes at breakneck speed.

“Man, you are full of great information—and by ‘great,’ I mean ‘painfully obvious.’”

Stay with me for a moment because this last proposition drastically alters more than the technical know-how necessary to produce iPads. The rate at which knowledge changes, prompted by technological innovation, completely reshuffles our relationship to our vocations–even those beyond the world of technological design and production.

For most of history, people learned a vocation—most often by apprenticeship of a formal or informal nature. Whether or not the economic environment for a particular kind of work was stable, the kind of knowledge one needed to do the work was stable.

Let’s say that you were a bricklayer. You spent however many years it took to become a competent layer of bricks, after which time, you had a vocation–presumably for the rest of your life. Even if the place in which you lived fell on hard economic times, you could expect at some future point to practice your craft again—whether because you moved to a new place with more work, or because the economy recovered.

With perhaps only minor technological innovations in the baking of bricks or the ingredients to mix mortar, the craft of making things with bricks has stayed relatively stable over the years. Even now, if you become a bricklayer, you can be relatively certain that if you could somehow fast-forward to the end of your career, laying bricks will look remarkably like it does today.

However, more and more of the labor market works, at least tangentially, with technology. Time-honored repositories of knowledge curated and protected by craft guilds are constantly undergoing revision—growing obsolete.

Consequently, starting a brick-laying business is an altogether different proposition in the world we inhabit today. Though bricklaying remains much the same, almost every other part of the vocation looks amazingly different—from invoicing to accounting, from communication to marketing. You may very well be the world’s best layer of brick, but still be unable to keep your head above water.

Think about it. If you graduate from medical school in 2014, having inherited the knowledge base of the craft of medicine, with all the technological and intellectual advancements available to a finely trained modern physician, is it realistic to think that you will still be doing the same job at the end of your career?

“Oh, you’re talking about how people can’t count on staying with the same company (or even vocation) over the course of a career.”

Yes and no. Yes, it’s true that retiring from the company you broke in with doesn’t happen much anymore. Although it’s not clear how many careers you can expect to have over the course of your working life, chances are pretty good that you will have multiple employers across a broad spectrum of jobs. For a variety of reasons there seems to be high occurrence of second, third, and fourth-career people, looking to start up in some completely new area.

No. I don’t just mean going from being a lawyer to being a career coach. I mean that the work physician’s do will be so radically different that, if you were privileged enough to get a glimpse of it now, you probably wouldn’t even recognize it.

But here’s the thing: If your job changes enough over the course of your working life, you are going to have to change along with it just to stay in the same career. In other words, people entering the workforce today—even if they never change careers—can’t count on acquiring a stable base of vocational knowledge usable over a lifetime. I’m not talking about continuing education–which has always been an important part of refining your craft—but about the possibility of having to be completely retrained just to be able to stay in your field.

If you graduate college today, get a job tomorrow in your chosen field of widget maintenance, chances are pretty good that the widgets you’re called to maintain may not even exist in a few years.

Question for another post: What kind of pressure does that put on young people coming into the workforce—young people, many of whom have accumulated soul-crushing debt to work jobs that allow you and I blithely to skip through life with expertly maintained widgets?

So What?

The church possesses a vocation to equip disciples for the reign of God. Like laying brick, the basic nature of the vocation remains stable. If you could fast forward a generation, a lifetime, a thousand years, what the church is called to do (viz., do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God) will look familiar.

However, because of the rapidly changing nature of the world we inhabit, the work the church engages in to accomplish its vocational goals is liable to look remarkably unfamiliar.

Think about it. Over just the last twenty years, the landscape of parish ministry (along with most of the rest of work life in America) has shifted dramatically. Here’s an edited version of a conversation with the board chairperson I had in 1993:

Me: “We need a computer.”

Board Chair: “Why? What would a church ever do with a computer?”

Can you imagine having that conversation today?

“So, all right, ministers coming out of seminary today need to be on ‘the Facebook,’ and need to know about the ‘electronic mail.’ Of course.”

But there’s more to it than just knowing how to create a Word document. Knowing how to negotiate a culture in which people (especially Millennials and younger generations) whose interaction with the world is increasingly digital is more a part of a minister’s job every day. If you went to seminary and the most sophisticated piece of technology in your repertoire was an IBM Selectric, you are operating in a brave new world. The job you trained for isn’t the job you have.

It strikes me that this is the problem many churches face today.

On the one hand, traditional churches hear about some of the things that emerging churches are doing (e.g., funding ministry by running a small business, having floating venues in which to gather, online church communities), and this stuff doesn’t even sound like church. It’s so radically different that traditional churches often have a hard time imagining they share any common vocation with emerging churches.

On the other hand, many traditional churches realize that what they’re doing isn’t working–that the churches that have nurtured generations through the maintenance of stable structures are declining rapidly enough to raise questions about survival.

How can you discount the fear of those countless congregations who survey the landscape and have a hard time imagining how they’ll last under their current organizational structure, but who feel like the alternatives offered by Emergence Christianity aren’t even “church,” properly defined–or that, even if they are prepared to call these new initiatives “churches,” can’t see how–given their location and ecclesiastical constituencies—they could ever pull off leaving the flannel-graphs behind and moving out of their buildings?

“We’re not asking for much. Can’t we just lay brick?”

I’d love to answer with a simple “yes.” The fact of the matter is, though, moving forward the church is going to have to be much more nimble and creative in sustaining its desire to do the simple and historic work of laying brick.

In fact, at times, it will cease to feel like bricklaying at all.

But that’s ok. The house we’re seeking to build doesn’t belong to us anyway.