One effect of growing up in 20th century America is that I love cars. Early on, I got the fever. Played with them as a kid, worked on them, collected them, admired them, dreamed of them. I’ve owned around 25 cars of multiple sorts. Started with a ’64 Chevy Impala and moved on to: VW, Mercury, Jeep, Honda (11!), Toyota, BMW, Plymouth, Volvo, Dodge, Oldsmobile and one lovely ’77 MGB.
I was talking about congregational life recently with my friend Dock Hollingsworth. Dock is one of the bright lights in the world of clergy and congregations. He teaches at McAfee School of Theology, and effectively helps many churches and ministers. He mentioned to me that a layperson at the church where he is interim pastor had recently shared with him a powerful analogy for the struggle for relevance that established churches face.
The analogy grew out of hearing an NPR story regarding the efforts of Chevrolet to re-invent the Corvette automobile. When I listened to the story, I had to agree that, remarkably, traditional churches and Corvettes have several things in common. Could the Corvette have something to teach us about our future?
At the Detroit Auto Show in January, Corvette rolled out their new model of the classic American sports car. It helps to know that sales of Corvettes were at an all-time low last year. Those sales peaked in 1979 and have plateaued and declined since. Over the last few years, in the face of rising fuel prices and the Great Recession, sales have plummeted. Last year, they bottomed out at 12,000 cars sold.
The Corvette faces a well-known dilemma. Its 60-year-old iconic brand evokes great nostalgia and loyalty among a dwindling crowd. Thus, any changes in the vehicle produce strong reactions and pushback from devotees.
To stay alive, it must change and upgrade to meet higher fuel efficiency standards and rising competition. The designers face the classic quandary of how to remain true to their traditional heritage, while striving to be relevant for the next generation of customers.
Sound familiar? Dock and I agreed that the analogy holds for many established churches who face a very uncertain future.
What might our fellow pilgrims at Corvette teach us?
In their struggle for survival, the designers and makers of Corvettes have been forced to go back to the essence of identity and purpose.
First, they had to decide what they were not willing to do.
Tadge Jeuchter, the chief engineer at Corvette, says the hardest part is bringing the car into the 21st century while making it look like a Corvette. “We don’t want to do retro,” Jeuchter says. “We don’t want to go back and do like some manufacturers [and] go relive the glory days.”
It is very tempting, when we are under pressure to produce results, to revert back to what worked before. Many congregations find themselves longing for the glory days of a “churched culture” that funneled people into local churches and produced high-water marks of attendance and participation in traditional programs. Some congregations, when confronted with plateau and decline, double down on programmatic models of ministry that depend upon elevated levels of loyalty and high frequency of attendance. It seldom works.
The Corvette team decided to accept the new reality and challenged their engineers to find ways to maintain their historic style while fully embracing the new. They used aluminum and carbon fiber to make it lighter and quicker. The new car shares just two parts with the outgoing model. The over-riding mindset was to “respect our history, but advance it”.
Healthy congregations balance the respect of our programmatic history with a full embrace of the missional model of ministry. When we fail to manage that polarity and live exclusively in either extreme, we run the risk of losing relevance with both our past and our future.
Eric Gustafson, the editor of Corvette Magazine, loves Corvettes as much as anyone, but he says he’s part of a devoted but aging and dwindling crowd.
“The big challenge is to find new customers,” Gustafson says, “and not only new customers now, but new customers that are going to buy the car in 10 years.”
Healthy congregations go about our ministry and work with an eye toward what will be, not simply what has been.
This Corvette is known as the C7, or seventh generation of the brand. This means that, on average, every 8½ years a major redesign is initiated. My experience is that a healthy congregation needs to undergo an extensive refocus and redesign at least once a decade, if it is to remain relevant to the context it exists in.
I came away from my musings about the new Corvette convinced more churches need to follow its lead. I hope Corvette will find new life, reinvent itself, and avoid the fate of now-deceased names like Packard, Edsel, Pontiac and Oldsmobile.
I pray we will, too.