Biologists use the term “fitness” to describe the success of an organism. In business it is used to describe the competitive edge.
Fitness depends on numerous interrelated factors that can combine in endless variety. There are three types of fitness landscapes, and each can be used to characterize familiar scenarios:
1. gradual. like the undulating terrain of southern California. This environment is now history in the world of business and isn’t likely to return.
2. rugged. like the topography of Nepal – compare to the present day competition in the cellular industry.
3. random. the topography of the moon, where the impact of meteors rather than the logic of plate tectonics shaped the surface
Higher degrees of fitness are depicted by linear height on a landscape, and a loss of fitness is visualized as going downhill. When a species is threatened, as happened with the coyote in America, it descends the fitness landscape to the edge of chaos. The coyote had to cope with habitat destruction, encroachment by human population, and even outright attempts to eradicate it. If a species adapts, it may lead to increased fitness, even better than the original habitat. In the case of the coyote and the foothills around Malibu, this is what occurred.
The struggle to secure a niche is described as an uphill climb. But when a species reaches a subsidiary peak (called a local optimum) on the fitness landscape, it may choose to remain there. Biologists call this perch a basin of attraction – a rest stop during the competitive journey. But species become stranded on these peaks. And because there are no bridges to get to the higher peaks, the organism must “go down to go up.”
In order to make this shift, there has to be sufficient instability or challenge; otherwise, an organism will not opt to leave the intermediate peak and suffer the unknown prospects of the valley. Living systems are driven out of a basin of attraction by discomfort – whether internal or external. Employee unrest, new competition, dwindling food sources, customer defection, loss of margins.. all these can combine to generate unrest.
“The living systems view does not focus only on the path of an organism as it maneuvers across the competitive landscape. Complexity also concerns itself with the way the landscape itself changes as the organism moves across it. Systems dynamics sees the challenge as mapping causal factors that move a system from point A to point B. Complexity regards the journey as walking on a trampoline. Each step alters the whole topography. What was “up” at the start may be somewhat “down” farther along the route, and the ascent may be far steeper as the destination draws near.” (Surfing, 106)
Fitness landscapes are useful tools in navigating the edge of chaos. Their principal advantage over more traditional journey maps are twofold:
1. the landscape imagery makes clear that one must “go down to go up” if the goal is to reach a higher fitness peak. The human disruption and distress associated with this movement are often the undermanaged aspect of corporate change [see Heifetz: Leadership on the Line].
2. the landscape changes as soon as there is movement on it.
The edge of chaos, a realm of uncertainty and discomfort, maximizes the generativity of living things. (Summary from Surfing the Edge of Chaos)
Let me share what I see as implications.
North American evangelical churches arrived at a fitness peak in the 1980s. In a stable and settled culture, the Christian story was accepted and even had a certain dominance, though eroding. Our impact on the culture around us was waning. Growth by conversion was on the decline, though some smaller and marginal groups were having success.
The pace of change accelerated. Modernity was passing away and we were confronted with a new reality. (Or if we take Colin Greene on board, we face multiple dying “modernities”). But few groups were prepared to do the work of descending into the valley to relearn how to engage with the culture. Many of those that made the effort were too accommodating (mostly liberals and mainline). The voices calling for renewal were too threatening and so we continued to marginalize prophets and apostles, who joined parachurch groups where they could express missional passion and vision.
This only further accelerated our decline. We circled the wagons and did business as usual. Meanwhile, the cultural shift accelerated, leaving us even more isolated and increasingly fearful of changes that we did not understand.
Chart Adapted from Robert Webber, The Younger Evangelicals
In some places, serious efforts were made to go through the steps… and the pain.. needed to reengage. Some leaders and churches descended from their peaks or “basins of attraction.” This was often precipitated by desperation, and sometimes brought renewal and birthed new initiatives. In the UK and Australia, for example, there was FORGE and Fresh Expressions. “Mission Shaped Church” and other documents like “The End of Christendom” and “The Shaping of Things to Come” grew out of these efforts. The Gospel and our Culture Network formed in Canada and the US and produced “Missional Church” and the followup, “Treasure in Jars of Clay” and many thoughtful articles. Since then further books have come from individuals in this network.
This had some impact, though our training schools lagged far behind and continued to train leaders for a stable Christendom culture. But in the first decade of the new millennium the shift is beginning at Tyndale and other locations as well as a few American schools.
Meanwhile, “missional” has become contested territory – somewhat faddish, but on the ground there remains some genuine engagement and fresh imagination.
The question of leadership has dominated ecclesial imagination for the past twenty years. The result has not been renewal and the church in the West remains in decline, founded on models of religious consumerism and with more evidence of leadership cults than a leadership culture. Perhaps Canadian leadership guru Michael Fullan is right when he observes that, “the two greatest failures of leaders are indecisiveness in times of urgent need for action and dead certainty that they are right in times of complexity.” (The Six Secrets of Change, 16).
“Who Moved My Cheese” is the title of a little book on leadership by Spencer Johnson. He tells a story that is a parable. It concerns two mice and their response to a changed environment. Essentially the story is this. Two mice have lived in an old house. For years they have always found cheese in a certain location. Then one day the cheese is not there. By the end of the week both mice are hungry, but they respond in different ways. One mouse decides that it is foolish to change, because history has taught them where to find cheese. The other mouse decides that the future has become uncertain and it is time to adapt or die. You can guess how this story plays out.
Most of our churches sit on a fitness peak that is 1/3 of the height it once was, and we face the necessity to “do or die.” We have generally attempted to import what works from elsewhere.. usually south of the border.. usually American BIG. REVEAL (2007) showed us the value of that effort. Our delayed response to unique conditions is a result of our tendency to follow the crowd. We have to do our own work now, in dependence on the Holy Spirit.
But there are signs of life in Canada: documented in “One Size Fits All,” and in books like “Borderland Churches” and “Kingdom Culture.” Broader initiatives and coalitions like Church Planting Canada, FORGE and Fresh Expressions should accelerate an adaptive response. And we shouldn’t neglect the impact of artists, who by virtue of moving on the margins are more in touch with change and with an adaptive response. As Donald Goertz put it,
“In the 21st century the artists will lead us. They are the ones who dream. Dreams and pragmatism are always in tension. Unless we learn how to make this tension more creative we will never be able to see the future for our region. We will always be buying it from someone else. And this is the greatest tragedy of the local church in Canada; when we sing a new song, we have bought it from someone else. When we dream a new dream, we have bought it from another church in another country. God is always doing a new work. Even in Canada. The artists help us to see it.” Quoted in Missional Voice, Spring, 2009.