Melting Points: Seeing Around the Corner to 2022
by Nathan Artt, on November 2021
An inflection point is a term taken from geometry, indicating where a change in direction occurs on a curve. In business and culture, an inflection point represents a significant change or a turning point in a trend.
Inflection points are critical to organizations who are attempting to maintain relevance and sustainability. Great leaders are always staying on top of these inflection points to guide the organization into the future. Amazon noticed the power of the internet as early as 1995, when critics firmly stated that you couldn’t replace a book in hand, a physical newspaper, or the experience of shopping in a store. Apple was told they could never compete with IBM or Microsoft. Neither of these companies were first to market with their products. They were, however, resolute in their findings, which came from studying the market and taking bets on the inevitable future they saw coming towards them.
If you are experiencing a feeling of surprise by a change that is taking place, it likely means that you weren’t seeing smaller signals of change along the way. Take our snowman above as an example. If you notice, there is green grass all around him, which means that the snow was slowly melting towards him the entire time, starting at the edges and working in. Why? Because the edges are most exposed to the environment. It’s at the edges that the change in temperature is first detected. The snow inside the edges is surrounded and insulated by other snow, and therefore can’t experience the change in temperature directly. The very last snow to experience the effects of the changing environment? Our snowman.
Inflection points are never discovered in board rooms. Real changes take their place on the edges: the salesperson talking to a customer, a small group leader meeting with people in homes, or a volunteer coordinator attempting to get people back to church. If we are feeling surprised by change, it likely means that we have lost touch with the edges, or we surround ourselves with snow: environments filled with people who think like us, agree with us, and see the world like us.
The edges have been melting around the Church for years.
We’ve all read the studies on the decline in church attendance and the increasing irrelevance of the church with every new generation. We’ve seen every other industry on the planet get completely and radically changed as a result of technology, exponentially so in the last twenty years. The church, however, has always had one thing going for it: cultural obligation.
I realize that this is going to be offensive to some people, but hear me out. The reason other industries have adapted is because they had to in order to survive. People don’t have to shop at Home Depot; they can shop at Lowe’s or even hire a handyman in lieu of going to the store. However, culture has told us for years that in order to be a “good Christian” you have to go to church on Sunday. Going to church on Sunday is being the church. If you are reading this, I very much doubt you agree with that statement, but is that not the thought process happening on the edges?
This illusion that going to church is being the church no more makes a person an effective Christian than a person sitting inside a garage makes them a mechanic. Am I saying that Sunday morning services or corporate worship should dissipate and that we should all move towards self-discipleship? No, not even close. What I am saying is that culture no longer requires people to go to a church building on Sunday morning to be approved or considered relevant in society. Generation Z actually believes that makes people less relevant.
This cultural shift is moving church attendance away from obligation and back to invitation, the original catalyst of the Gospel.
People will want to belong to a church based on what the church stands for, how it fosters authentic environments for people to grow in relationship and significance, and how the church impacts the community around it. A perceived obligation of needing to go to a church building to be labeled with a cultural title is going in the opposite direction of society.
People have the option to shop at Lowe’s or Home Depot, or the option to not shop at either store at all. For Home Depot to increase its in-store sales by 600% over seven years or so, it had to create a compelling buying experience, which was centered around the idea of equipping people to be better “DIY’ers.” For Apple, it was about making technology that integrates into people’s lives. For Target, it was about compelling people to make Target a part of their every day shopping. Technology and Information have one very vital thing in common: their level of power and impact is commensurate to their relevance.
What if we were to change our thought process and strategies towards how we can create environments and movements that people want to belong to versus strategies that continue to capitalize on Sunday morning cultural obligations? My prediction is that it would have the inverse effect of what we think: that the more relevant we are outside our walls, the more people we’ll see on Sunday inside our walls.
The more relevant we are outside of our walls, the more people we’ll see inside our walls.
Digital platforms and technology have been disrupting every industry, and it’s been disrupting our churches at the edges for years. If you think about it, anyone under 25 years old doesn’t have knowledge of what life looked like without the internet or cell phones. If we want to truly engage people where they are, we have to understand how they are experiencing the world on a daily basis, and find ourselves somewhere in that stream.
Great leaders and entrepreneurs should never find themselves surprised by inflection points. Leaders in any industry are the people who know that it is never as good or as bad as it seems, and that the only guarantee in life is change. Therefore, leaders should constantly be evaluating models, finding ways to engage with people on the edges, and asking questions about what people want from their organization versus telling people what they should buy or how they should behave. For strong leaders, inflection points are seasons of incredible growth, as they reach out in front of the competition.
How do we do that as a church? For every church, that will look differently, but here are a few pointers to take away:
1. Organize Accordingly
In her bestselling book, Seeing Around Corners, Rita McGrath states that the biggest challenge in taking advantage of inflection points is “doing the transformational work that is required to rewire the organization. This is equivalent to the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’: the very systems and processes that served you well pre-inflection point are the biggest barriers to transformation.”
For us to take advantage of the future, we have to be organized for the future. Leadership requires us to put our best people on our biggest opportunities, and I cannot think of a Kingdom opportunity better than the one that is before us.
2. Feedback happens at the edges
If what you are hearing back from people doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you are more likely in an echo chamber than a feedback loop. When was the last time we sat down with people who didn't believe what we believe and simply asked, “so why don’t you come to church?”
3. Lagging indicators tell your history, not your future
Income, attendance, giving reports, etc. are all considered lagging indicators, or data based on previous behavior. For churches to make decisions that help them see around the corner, we have to move to leading indicators. Leading indicators are not as credible as lagging indicators because lagging indicators deal with facts, while leading indicators deal with possibilities. However, while leading indicators may not give us answers, they help us form the right questions.
According to Rita McGrath, the moment you have the most trustworthy information is the moment when you have the least amount of power to change the story told by that information. The key is being able to identify smaller signals before they become loud sirens. How do you do that?
4. Data must have a seat at the executive table
Data has been a controversial subject in the church world. While there is pushback around the idea of “turning people into numbers”, the reality is that data is actually neutral. It has no purpose or intent. It cannot, in itself, do anything. Data is simply the information that helps us, as an organization, accomplish two very important things:
- Identify Stories to be celebrated (what gets celebrated, grows)
- Form the questions that inform our decisions
Notice that data does not form our decisions. The purpose of data is to form the questions that form our decisions.
For our organizations to be successful, for leaders to identify evolving change, and for us as a church to develop and engage people, it will be nearly impossible to accomplish any of this without measuring our wins. The purpose of data, in short, is to provide quantitative information within a qualitative context. Meaning, quantify what you believe qualifies a win for yourself, your organization, and your people and measure yourself up to those standards constantly.
Our advice, especially through a season of navigating a new unknown, is to be the best student of your organization and your people that you can be. Constantly measure, learn, grow, and adapt. To do this, data must have a seat at the executive table.
*This content was inspired by Seeing Around Corners by Rita McGrath. This book is a must-read for anyone looking to take a deeper dive into the points addressed in this blog!