Joseph Schumpeter was a political and economic scientist of Austrian descent who developed a concept known as Schöpferische Zerstörung in his native language or in english Creative Destruction. This theory of economic innovation was built upon ideas originally found in Karl Marx’s writings which Schumpeter developed. In economic terms it is understood as the driving force of capitalism in which new wealth is created by destroying old. Here though I want to simplify and expand this notion, that when anything new is created it also destroys something. I want to look at Creative Destruction in this wider sense and particularly in how it links with innovation and the church.
As I said in my last post, innovation is ever-present in our world and it has an impact on just about everything from politics to pottery. The driving force of all innovation is to create or to develop things that people need in some way and it is a constant process. Often the stimuli for a new innovation is to meet a perceived need in society or to significantly improve on a current one. Below are some examples of this creative process and the destruction that takes place alongside it, often in ways that could never be foreseen.
- In 1982 a joint development project between Sony and Philips saw the creation of the CD. This new form of storage, particularly for audio files, revolutionised the music industry and became the death of cassette tapes.
- In the 1920’s a new refrigerant called Freon was used in domestic fridges making them much safer and opening up the market to further developments. This new chemical became restricted in the 80’s when environmentalists linked the use of Freon or CF gases to the depletion of the O-Zone layer.
- Netflix has allowed instant access to film and television for a number of years but has decimate the rental industry and seen off companies such as Blockbusters and the jobs provided through them. It is even thought that Netflix and other providers like Amazon TV who are now creating content will have a detrimental impact on cable tv companies going forward.
- On a slightly different theme, sculptures take huge lumps of stone and chip away at it, destroying the original form but creating a beautiful image out of what is left.
In each of these examples we see that a new creation also sees some form of destruction. This can be directly linked in areas such as the CD or sculpting or as with the use of Freon in areas which where never envisaged. Another example of this unseen destruction from a new creation comes in the form of the car and particular the Model-T.
In 1908 cars had been around for a while, particularly in Europe but in America it was the introduction of the Model-T Ford that had a great impact on the country. First, there was Henry Ford’s creation of the assembly line which would produce the Model-T cheaply and quickly. This was great for productivity but initially caused a huge turnover in staff as many grew bored with the repetitive work. Some say for every 100 positions that needed filling the company had to employ 300 people in a year to fill them all due to drop-off. The assembly line also led to social alienation as employees worked in isolation on single tasks which led to a breakdown in relationship between other workers.
Further afield though the car had a larger impact on American society. Phyllis Tickle notes in her book The Great Emergence, how the introduction of this cheap car led to a breakdown in the traditional routines of many Americans. Sundays had been the day where families gathered at church and ate together for lunch, before returning for the evening service. With the affordable car, people could travel further with greater ease and so on Sunday, they would visit friends in the next town or take a drive out of or into the city. The car had given people freedom but it also changed what they did on their days off, this in turn all but killed off certain times for worshipping in church.(1)
Here we can begin to see how innovation in the world effects the church in many different ways. The creation of a 24/7 culture within society has seen supermarkets open on Sundays and have a direct impact on church attendance. This is also the case for the competition from other leisure activities such as watching or playing sports, going to the cinema or shopping on a Sunday. The world is changing and to quote Schumpeter ‘the gale of creative destruction’ is blowing on the church as much as anywhere else.
I believe the challenge for the church is this. First, it needs to recognise the changing world and needs to innovate so that it creates new ways of being, alongside the new ways in which people are operating in the world. Second, there needs to be a recognition that as we create these new ways others will have to be destroyed in the process.
In my experience we are not always very good within the church at doing either of these. Change is a painful and difficult process and is often resisted. When we do create something new it does not often take over from the old but runs alongside, stretching already depleted resources. We have difficulty letting things go so that the new can flourish and at times this leads to both struggling.
I believe the church has to innovate and find the new thing that God is doing. We need to recognise the world has changed and that our structures and some of our traditions need to change with that. We also have to recognise that as we create the new, we will also destroy the old.
(1) Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books 2012) Kindle Addition, Part 2: The Great Emergence: How did it come to be?; 5. The Century of Emergence: Einstein, The Automobile and the Marginalization of Grandma; Leaving Grandma in the Rearview Mirror, location 927