The Religion Singularity Crisis: Avoid the Danger – Discover the Opportunity


By Ken Howard

It has been said that the Chinese word for “crisis” is formed from two ideograms: one which signifies danger, the other opportunity.

Last summer, we published a research paper entitled, “The Religion SIngularity: The Demographic Crisis Destabilizing and Transforming Institutional Christianity” in the Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society. The article describes an emerging phenomenon, which we have called the Religion Singularity: the runaway growth-by-fragmentation in the numbers of denominations and worship centers at a rate exceeding the growth in the total population of Christians worldwide.

The danger in this crisis is existential. If the long-standing current trend does not change – and it seems unlikely we can fight it – then it will drive down the size of those institutions to unsustainable levels by the end of this century. We may see the end of denominations and worshipping communities as we have known them.

But how do we find the opportunity in this crisis? The answer lies in point of view and preparation. Once we accept that denominations and worship centers will die in their current form, then we can prepare to ride out the change, so that we might survive and thrive in the midst of the current uncertainty into whatever form the resurrected body of Christ might take on the other side. Faith-based communities and organizations will need to find a way to achieve sustainability in the truest sense of the term: choosing to adapt to their changing environment while remaining true to their vision and mission. Where can we look for ideas about how to make such an adaptation? We won’t find them inside institutions that are committed to maintaining the status quo and that have the resources necessary to build defensive organizational fortifications against the forces of change. Institutionalized organizations, be they faith-based or business-based, tend to respond reactively to uncertainty and change, viewing them almost exclusively as dangerous threats to the status quo and marshaling their resources to reduce them.

But while times of uncertainty and change may indeed present dangerous threats to entrenched institutions, they also reveal opportunities for organizations that are willing to take the risks necessary to pursue them. Such organizations are typically younger, leaner, and less established than their institutionalized counterparts. They have neither the time, the resources, nor the temperament to erect barriers against organizational change. And they are more prepared to experiment with new ideas, to take greater risks for great gain, and to disrupt the status quo. It is to such organizations and their leaders that we must turn for adaptive ideas for surviving and thriving in times of uncertainty and change, and particularly to the leaders of startup faith communities and startup business organizations, and leaders with adaptive and experimental attitudes within mature organizations. It is from these leaders and organizations that it may be possible to learn how to develop strategies for rapid yet healthy adaptation to accelerating change and mounting uncertainty.

Which brings us to the question of sustainability – specifically, how faith-based communities and organizations, and those who lead them, must change to achieve true sustainability: the ability not simply to survive but to thrive; not just in the present but in the journey that lies ahead of us and the future that lies beyond it. Sustainability is not so much a fixed and final state to be achieved but rather a set of processes and proficiencies to be continuously honed and exercised. It is about leadership capabilities, such as: vision clarity, mission focus, culture creation, decisiveness, and extrapreneurialism. It is about vision-focused, data-driven, hypothesis-tested adaptability in all aspects of the organization, including: internal and external community needs analysis, programming and program development, fundraising and resource generation, and even constant discernment and refinement of mission. And it is about building in organizational supports for these things.  In short, it means that faith-based communities and organizations must become lean, creative, and experimental.

Vision-Based Experimentation

So how do leaders of faith-based communities and organizations go about achieving that goal?

It is impossible to provide a set step-by-step checklist of actions that will guarantee success. Yet I can share some practices of ministry that seem to work when used experimentally: as a way to test out assumptions and find out what really works. Taken individually, few of these practices can be considered original (we’re not talking “rocket surgery” here). Some of you may have a feeling of deja vu as you read my descriptions of these practices, and think to yourselves, “Hey, I’ve done that!” Some of the practices will remind you of ideas you have seen in other fields, like business for example. This is no accident. Smart developers of faith communities have been creatively stealing practices that work from a variety of different fields, including business. But the practices that follow are by no means solely the result of creative thievery. Rather, they are in large part the result of a kind of parallel evolution: organizations developing similar evolutionary strategies to adapt to a similar environment. Much as fish and dolphins both developed fins to propel themselves in water, business startups and faith community startups – including church startups I have lead or with whom I have consulted – have been for years developing similar strategies to adapt to a shared environment characterized by increasing uncertainty and change.

I call this approach Vision-Guided Experimentation (or VGE). It consists of two critical practices:

  1. Minimum Viable Belief: Discerning Your Why of Whys
  2. Rapid Iteration Prototyping: Validated Learning Within Tradition 

In upcoming posts, I will expand upon and give examples for each of these practices. But again, there’s no magic in these practices. Think of them instead as a toolbox for organizational experimentation and adaptation: a way that congregations and faith-based organizations can transform themselves for their future while preserving the heart of their shared faith.

It is said that tradition is about respecting principles and practices that have weathered the tests of time, while traditionalism is the worship of tradition in the absence of testing. These seven practices, known collectively as Vision-Guided Experimentation, are a way to test our traditions over time while remaining true to the vision that gave them birth.