The fire below

A blaze is smoldering beneath the platform of congregational life in the 21st century.

By Bill Wilson

As I met with a congregation’s leadership team in preparation for making a presentation to their congregation about the state of the church in American culture in the 21st century, I mentioned that a primary issue we face in creating awareness is the burning platform syndrome. One of the congregational leaders asked with genuine curiosity: “What is a burning platform, and why should we care?”

Two good questions.

Question #1: What is the burning platform syndrome?

The burning platform syndrome is a phrase coined by Daryl Conner in his 1993 book, Managing at the Speed of Change. He tells how, on July 6, 1988, a nighttime explosion and fire on the Piper Alpha Platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland became the worst catastrophe on the North Sea in 25 years. The crew gathered on the platform where most wanted to stay put, thinking the fire was not serious. One of the few survivors, Andy Mochan, was convinced of the severity of the fire, and finally leapt 150 feet into a burning sea of oil and debris, knowing he would only survive 20 minutes in the frigid sea.

Why did Andy jump? When interviewed in the hospital, he said that he chose uncertain death over certain death — he knew that if he stayed in the inferno on the platform, he would surely die. The pain of his current reality was too great. He jumped because he had to, not because he wanted to.

Conner coined the term “Burning Platform Syndrome” to describe what people and organizations go through as they consider change. Personal and organizational change is often precipitated by a real or perceived “burning platform.” Change is usually pushed by discomfort with the status quo or unease about what is predicted if change is not made. We only jump/change when the pain or danger of staying where we are exceeds the pain or danger of making a change.

Question #2: Why should we care?

To put it bluntly, there is a smoldering fire beneath the platform of congregational life in the 21st century. Sooner, rather than later, it is going to become apparent to you and your congregation that significant shifts and changes are necessary for your very survival. The sooner you recognized the severity of the situation, the more likely you will be to survive.

The congregational leader was interested enough to listen to the rest of the presentation, and later pulled me aside to say something like: “Thank you for naming something I’ve sensed for several years, but have not known how to put into words. Now that we know there is a problem, I believe we will respond with needed attention and urgency.”

Thus far, she has proven prophetic, as the congregation she is part of is undergoing a significant shift in the way it sees and does its ministry.

Indeed, the facts are frightening. Any number of sources can provide you with data that points to the local congregation facing significant headwind to remain vibrant and alive. Research any of the familiar names who make a living doing statistical analysis of modern American congregational life: David Olson, George Barna, Mark Chaves, David Kinnamon, Ed Stetzer. Read the FACTS (Faith Communities Today) 2010 survey. Pay attention to prophetic voices like Tom Ehrich, Dianna Butler Bass, Phyllis Tickle, George Bullard, Eddie Hammett or Mark Tidsworth. Study the metrics of your local congregation and other congregations like yours.

An honest look at our culture and our congregational life will lead you to some sobering conclusions. Business as usual will no longer work. The “churched culture” that helped create the golden era of congregational life in the United States is past. Institutional support for local churches is ebbing. Participation in congregational life in most communities is receding in frequency and perceived importance. Most congregations face a looming crisis of funding the facilities, staff and programs that have defined them. Increasingly, we do our work in a hostile mission setting, not a church-friendly cocoon of support.

What will we do when we realize the fire is real and deadly?

One response is to scapegoat. Too often, the one who points out the fire below is blamed for its existence. Clergy know the trepidation of acknowledging declining metrics, knowing that an initial response is to blame the staff for the bad news. Better to keep quiet and let it be.

Some will panic, reacting out of fear to exacerbate an already dangerous situation. Quick fixes and magic solutions seldom work long-term.

There is, however, the possibility that we will respond as God’s people have across the centuries when confronted with long odds and huge obstacles. Rather than lose faith, we can acknowledge our plight, and take the leap of faith to live in the courage and strength of God’s provisions. When we do, we may find that the current crisis spawns a new day of vitality and life for the American church.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.