Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well developed.” (James 1, The Message)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Professor of Risk Engineering at NYU) wrote the book “Fooled By Randomness”, in which he put forth the concept of “black swans”–unexpected but highly influential events that “profoundly shape our world”. Now he has written a new book, “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”, which examines the way systems (economies, large institutions) adapt to unexpected change.
In a Wall Street Journal article you can read here, Taleb summarizes ways an “antifragile” system can learn to thrive in atmospheres of volatility and adversity. So, of course, I had to try to apply his theories to church decline.
1) He says we should consider all systems to be more like organic bodies than machines. An organic system has natural ways of regulating itself through ups and downs, without outside intervention. So you get a fever when you have an infection because the body is engaged in an attempt at self-healing. In the same way, churches in decline should practice getting comfortable with instability and adaptation, instead of trying to foster stablity while the unseen “infection” spreads. In my experience with a church in decline, I had to learn to stop putting out the fires and let them burn so people got uncomfortable enough to start adapting to change.
2) Reward systems that learn from their mistakes. Churches are not used to failure, but failure is part of growth. To grow, we have to take risks and try things that may flop. The Presbyterian Church recently announced it wants to start 1001 new churches in 10 years. What if 75% of them fail? They will have 250 new churches, hallelujah! But more than that, with each failure, they will learn more about what works. Allowing ministries to take calculated risks and fail is a way the whole Church, ultimately, advances in a positive direction.
3) Small and efficient often wins the day. Taleb argues that the old “economies of scale” argument doesn’t hold up when large systems are highly leveraged and not very pliable. I have seen that small churches are often more resilient and sustainable. They don’t have debt and their maintenance is largely volunteer. Smaller systems also tend to adapt faster, if they are forced to. In contrast, when the Crystal Cathedral came down, it came down hard and fast.
4) Trial and error is the best way to learn new ways of behaving in systems. In the book I’m writing, the stories are about real churches that tried different things and got from Point A to Point B by taking the “scenic route”. Denominational leaders seem to want a “system” for analyzing and addressing churches’ needs, but remember #1 above: your church is a body, not a machine! It wants to be massaged, not “repaired”.
“Things that are antifragile only grow and improve under adversity,” writes Taleb. I believe the Church of Jesus Christ is, by nature, an antifragile system. It is the Body of Christ, and it is wired to thrive and grow. But to do so, it must endure the stressors of change, loss and experimentation.
…don’t try to get out of anything prematurely, writes James. Decline in your church may not be a sign that you are headed for closure. It may be an invitation to volatility, and an increased ability to ride waves of change.
What do you think?
Thanks to my husband Charles for sharing this article… And thanks for reading to the end of this long post!