On Monday this week I read this article on BBC News covering the recovery of Microsoft as a tech powerhouse (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-47078013). An innocuous article in many ways, though an interesting case study in transformational leadership. What really caught my attention, however, were the proposed 6 stages of business evolution quoted below.

“The company has undergone the same stages of evolution experienced by many successful tech names.

1. The nimble start-up with a new idea

2. The fast-growing one-to-watch that’s changing the world, slaying the old guard in its path

3. The omniprescence we can’t live without

4. The uncomfortably big monopoly that buys out or subdues its smaller rivals

5. The Evil Empire that has too much power, and knows too much

6. The unwieldy supertanker that can’t change course fast enough to catch the next big wave”

It caused me to reflect upon the Church and the broad cycles of evolution seen across the church landscape. I don’t intend this reflection to be overly-historical, more sociological if anything.

Of course, “the Church” is not homogeneous but if you allow me some latitude in this aspect then it strikes me that the Church has passed through some, if not all, of these stages. From the early church, which was a nimble start-up embodying the “new” idea as Christ-followers (stage 1), to its rapid expansion through the missionary journeys of Paul and others (stage 2). In the Christendom era, perhaps we can identify it as omnipresent that was all-pervasive (stage 3) and eventually the Church as an uncomfortably big monopoly that misdirects its power all too often (stage 4). Episodes like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition or the support for the slave trade paint the Church as the evil empire with too much power (stage 5). Finally, in the contemporary world it will resonate with many to describe the Church as an unwieldy supertanker, outdated and too slow to react to a changing world (stage 6). As I say, there are shades of nuance particularly in the broad depiction of history but I’m certain there will be some general agreement with this picture I’ve painted.

There is another way to look at these stages of evolution in relation to the church and, in part, it is related to the previous interpretation. Since we have passed through these stages, the current church landscape is potted with echoes of all these stages – some more prevalent than others and some being reinvented for the contemporary world. Starting from stage 6 backwards, I am sure we all know churches that are not to be able to catch the next big wave (in fact you might say they’ve already missed several “next big waves” already!) There are, unfortunately, examples of churches that cozy up to power and perpetrate abuses antithetical to the essence of Christianity. There are the large “megachurches” who do well at performing church in a slick way that they subdue the smaller, local churches meaning that, more often than not, they grow by church-movement.

And here’s an interesting observation: it does seem like between stage 3 and 4 there is a change from positive to negative attributes and this, I think, is an inherent weakness to the model itself. It seems to promote newness over tried and tested thinking; innovation over reliability; and flexibility over foundations. Maybe in business this is beneficial but is the same true of the Church? Where deepening relationships is key often stability is valued and when it comes to longer term social transformation longevity is often better than a flash-in-the-pan hit and run approach.  

New forms of church are often nimble start-ups, trying something different. Often there’s the fast-growing one-to-watch like Messy Church which transforms the way we think about tradition. Then there’s the all-immersive neo-monastic community-based forms of church that promote a holistic omnipresent way of Christian living. My question then is two-fold. First, is it inevitable that some of these new forms of church will eventually “evolve” into the latter stages? Second, are we certain that new forms of church are not captive to a culture of newness but instead can foster the stability and longevity that ought to be valued by the Church? My hope is that new forms of church really allow us to think creatively, catch some of the waves, and challenge us to deepen our commitment to the Church; my fear is that in the pursuit of newness we devalue good parts of the Church which might seem boring – the routine, stability, and longevity which help to cultivate relationships and the position to be heard. I think these are big questions but vital to be asking and discussing if we really value our churches.

So can we learn anything from Microsoft. For those who read the article at the start you may be aware that it goes on to talk about stage 7. Here’s an extended (and edited) quote:

“Stage seven can either be a sinking of Titanic proportions or it can be a sinking into the background, becoming part of the infrastructure, and quietly, unostentatiously, allowing your confidence to grow.

“We don’t want to be the cool company in the tech sector,” Mr Nadella has previously said. “We want to be the company that makes other people cool.” . . . And with that stage-seven confidence, comes an acceptance that you can’t win every battle; that you should welcome other’s successes.

Embracing new ideas that don’t have to originate within Microsoft, seems to be one of Mr Nadella’s core principles.”

I’m not sure either option is ideal – the sinking like the Titanic or shrinking into the background outcome for the Church. That being said, however, I wonder if not seeking to be cool is good advice for the Church. I think there is a lot to be said about coming alongside others that are also aiming towards the common good in society – supporting foodbanks, for example, and there are many more examples where agencies are working to improve the conditions of others. Maybe there is a humility that comes with the post-Christendom era where the Church doesn’t need to “win every battle” but instead celebrates and supports the successes of others. In this, I think there is some great wisdom. As I say, I don’t think either sinking nor shrinking are ideal options for the Church so stage 7 may need to be modified for the Church. Perhaps if “becoming part of the infrastructure” is conceived as the Church being in many diverse places supporting many different people to change the structures of society into a more Christ-like, kingdom-orientated world then this is not so bad a stage to move towards.

These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using graham.meiklejohn@uws.ac.uk or through social media if that’s where you see it!

Selected Further Reading:

James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism

Martyn Percy and Louise Nelstrop, Evaluating Fresh Expression

Kester Brewin, The Complex Christ (and his blog – https://www.kesterbrewin.com/blog/)

Jonny Baker’s blog – https://jonnybaker.blogs.com/

SBC’s very own (!) John Drane and his McDonaldization of the Church series

On pursuing the common good alongside others I recommend Luke Bretherton’s, Christianity and Contemporary Politics