The Church Won't Die (But Our Unhealthy Attachment to Institutions Must)

The Telegraph and Its Plunge into the Abyss

The telegraph … pretty good piece of technology that.[1] In the 19th century, telegraphy allowed for the transmission of information over a great distance by using electrical impulses and some wires. An amazingly important innovation.

As the world expanded in the wake of post-Reformation exploration, the telegraph became “the” way business got done. It was efficient, and could be accomplished at a reasonable cost. The market horizon for telegraphy seemed endless, the need for it inevitable. Western Union became a powerhouse.

After some years, however, a guy named, Alexander Graham Bell came along and invented the telephone. This new technology could carry not only electric pulses read as Morse code, but voice. Pretty slick. In fact, Bell offered to sell the technology to Western Union for $100,000–which, in inflation-adjusted dollars is roughly 2 million dollars. A small price to pay, one would think in retrospect, to own a soon-to-be monstrously profitable technology.

Western Union declined the offer, doubling down on telegraphy as an inevitable technology. Seen through the eyes of the context of the latter half of the 19th century, Western Union’s refusal to buy in on telephony makes perfect sense.

Who would need such a thing? The market for the information conveyed by the telegraph was primarily upscale. Merchants and traders used it as a quick and efficient means of sending data and information over long distances.

Besides, there was already a heavy investment in the technology. What would they do with all that ticker tape?

Since telephony differed enough from telegraphy, there would need to be a heavy front-end investment in a completely new infrastructure. New cables. New ways of organizing the information that flowed through the cables via switchboards. New workforce of people to operate those switchboards.

Moreover, Dediu points out that figuring out a way to monetize it would take a completely different pricing model. You couldn’t just charge by the word anymore. So, how would you charge people for it?

Taking into consideration all the perfectly good reasons for not taking Alexander Graham Bell’s offer, Western Union’s decision to stand pat in the face of technological innovation makes sense . In 1876, you could understand the president of Western Union saying that the telephone was “nothing but a toy”–a remark he would soon come to regret.

We know the rest of the story, if only in its broadest sense. The telephone went on to displace the telegraph–not only in new domestic markets, but also taking over Western Union’s primary market–merchants and traders.

What happened?

Disruption

Disruption Theory. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? In 1995, a Harvard economist, by the name of Clayton Christensen, published an article entitled, “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave.”

In the article, he and his co-author, Joseph Bower, put forward a new theory of business and technology that better tells the story of how businesses adapt (or fail to adapt) to technological innovations. The theory goes something like this:

Company A is a small company with scarce resources. It takes existing technology and rearranges it in some innovative way. Initially, the innovation is too small and too obscure to be bothered with by bigger, more well established companies. Company B, an industry giant, knows about the innovation, but figures it won’t work, or company B can’t spare the resources to devote to such a small project; so, company B ignores the innovation.

Meanwhile, company A is working to perfect its innovation, which starts out pretty clunky and costly–and appeals only to a small emerging market. As company A gets better at its innovation, company B starts getting worried and decides to go after the upscale portion of the market. This market proves to be too small.

Company A continues to get better and better at creating and marketing its product, pushing company B into smaller and smaller upscale markets–until one day company A overwhelms the industry titan, company B–pushing it further into irrelevance.

Does the Church Need to Worry About Disruption?

In a word, yes.

Hang in there with me for a moment. Recently, [D]mergent has hosted a sometimes spirited conversation concerning the future of the institutional church. There have been provocative statements about how we ought to let the institutional church die, which have been met with a strenuous defense of the institutional church.

By way of disclaimer, I will say that whether I agree with the arguments or not, I certainly understand the passion that prompts them … on both sides of the issue. More about that in a moment.

I would like to suggest, however, that we name that over which we are fighting. The current debate about the viability of the institutional church is a technological one.

This is important to get right, so let me be clear: The church is a community of people called by God to equip disciples for the in-breaking of God’s reign. By this definition, the church is a conceptual truth that followers of Jesus are constantly trying to embody in particular ways and in particular places. It is the “embodiment in particular ways and in particular places,” over which there is an argument–not over the “conceptual truth.” That is to say, “the church” and “the institutional church,” while they sometimes overlap, are not the same things.[2]

In other words, the institutional church, as we have known it in the West, is a technological innovation, a strategy, a delivery system. It’s important to point out that when I say “institutional church,” I’m referring to a whole host of things, from organizational structure (local, regional, and denominational) to programmatic emphases, from its status as a cultural “player” to its role as the dominant religious voice.

However, the institutional church is a way of doing things; it’s not the things themselves.

In certain times and places the institutional church has been enormously effective at trying to accomplish the conceptual truth of the mission of Jesus’ followers. So effective has the institutional church been, in fact, that for years it has seemed like the only way (or at least the only proper way) church could be done. The institutional church achieved over time an air of inevitability.

Because of some important shifts culturally and demographically, the institutional church’s air of inevitability has seemed less certain of late. While it’s dominant role has been under assault for some time (the decline of mainline denominations is but one indication), questions about the longterm viability of the institutional church have become increasingly pressing.

That the discussion around the institutional church be framed as a matter of technological innovation is important, it seems to me, from the standpoint of understanding not only the passing of certain forms, but of adequately accounting for the emotions attached to the discussion.

If you had spent your whole life invested in the technology of telegraphs, it should come as no surprise that there would be feelings of anxiety when someone announced a potential technological replacement.

“I did all of my business over the telegraph. Are you saying my life’s work was a waste of time?”

.

“My daughter was married, and I heard about it by telegram. I can’t describe my feelings of joy when first looking at that announcement–which I still have in a shoe box. A phone call couldn’t have lasted like that.”

.

“We’ve got all these huge buildings dedicated to the telegraphic dream. What do you expect us to do with them? My father was the architect who designed them?”

Or, on the other side:

“What did the telegraph ever do for me? I never sent or received a telegram.”

.

“I went to school, spent a lot of time and money, wracked up debt learning to become a telegraph operator–and nobody will give me a job. Why should I care what happens to the telegraph?”

.

“The telephone is so amazingly superior to telegraphy, I just can’t understand why anyone cares what happens to Western Union.”

To both sides the comments of the other sound either hopelessly cold or hopelessly irrelevant:

“You just don’t understand how inadequate the telegraph is. I’m only telling you the way it is.”

.

"You just don’t understand what a great technology telegraphy is. I’m only trying to give you the benefit of my experience.

But here’s the thing: The institutional church is a tool, as is whatever comes along to challenge it. It’s possible to argue about the superiority of the tools, while acknowledging that the primary reason the tools exist is to do a job that will always be larger than the tools used to do the job.

Rules to Remember

Tools change

(Just ask Alexander Graham Bell’s industrial heirs about the prospects for landline telephony today. In fact, even the replacement for landline telephony–i.e., cellular telephony–is experiencing challenges to its newfound dominance from texting and social media.)

Arguing about the tools shouldn’t be mistaken for doing the job

(Talking about hammering isn’t hammering unless it results in actual nails being pounded.)

The job is the important thing

(People need what the church has to offer. If, as it seems in many ways, the institutional church is approaching the limits of its usefulness, we need to concentrate on finding new ways to deliver the conceptual truth of the church.)

The institutional church, as we know it, isn’t going to die any time soon–if at all

(There continue to be important expressions of the conceptual truth of the church that happen within the confines of the systems of the institutional church. These expressions should be celebrated until such time as they no longer accomplish their purpose. We need to be careful about being dismissive of things that do the job, but that fail to fit the new model.)

The church belongs to God. We’re all just trying to make sense of it in the places we find ourselves.

Tell me what you think. Leave a comment. Send an email. Call me up on the phone. Send me a telegram (actually, that would be pretty cool. I’ve never gotten one before).


  1. Horace Dediu offers a nice rehearsal of the history of the telegraph and its eventual displacement by the disruptive technology represented by the telephone in this article. I’m grateful for his insight, on which I depend for this article.  ↩
  2. I want to be clear that I know the value of the institutional church. Without it we wouldn’t have (or at least have in the same way) such amazingly important innovations as hospitals, schools, aid agencies, ecumenical initiatives, etc.). I have both benefited from and contributed to the systems that comprise the institutional church’s position of dominance. Consequently, I take no joy in reflecting on its demise.  ↩