Disruption as Applied to the Church

Disruption is a theory proposed by Clayton Christensen to describe a phenomenon of innovation in the business world wherein incumbents are successfully challenged by upstarts. This excerpt is from an article that thoroughly addresses the basics of the theory-

“Disruption” describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.

(It is, perhaps, ironic that the linked article is an argument claiming that the theory’s success has led the to the term disruption being used far too broadly and casually. Here, I’m using it as an analogy for the church, which has nothing to do with the strict sense of the theory developed by Christensen.)

I find disruption to be a fascinating way to think about the reality of life in the institutional church (the incumbent) as opposed to life in various new churches (the upstarts). By “new churches” I mean to refer to one of any number of church starts (some within denominations, others intentionally started with no ties at all to any denominational body) in which the most defining characteristics of church life are rethought from the ground up. Styles of worship, the meaning of membership, alternate revenue streams, the role of pastors, the structures of leadership, and on and on are all developed based on what is best for the future of the church and not the way it’s always been done.

The upstart mentality allows the new church to narrowly focus on a particular way of doing ministry that forms a coherent mission and ministry practice. Doing a few things well is increasingly more important than doing many things in part. While incumbents fight over the most challenging segments of the market (like affecting broad cultural influence on the nation’s policies and politics through endless debates about the most divisive topics), newer churches simply target overlooked segments (like making sure someone is actually welcomed in the parking lot and made to feel like they are wanted in church life). The success of those single things done well provides the leverage to move upmarket into multi-campus churches, mergers, and deep partnerships, through which more and more of the market is saturated by the influence of the upstart more so than the incumbent.

In a sense, the disruption of the mainline church is inevitable. Many of the incentives and structures that made the institutional church what it is no longer exist or make sense. As explored in podcast form here, an organization’s greatest strength is often its greatest weakness. What made the church ideal as a country defining institution are often the very same qualities that prevent the church from moving forward into the new realities made possible by 21st century life. It may yet be possible to breath new life into the mainline church if we are willing to admit the significant shift in mentality required to respond to new realities of life. To do so would require that we at least consider Replacing Membership and Embracing Purpose.

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