It is estimated that an additional 7,000-10,000 houses of worship will close this year for the tenth year in a row. Vacant churches are now becoming weed-infested distressed properties. Some have been converted into chic apartments, nightclubs, and indoor skateboarding parks—hardly scalable solutions. As attendance dwindles, our incumbent religious leaders are facing the music. Unfavorable demographics and changing consumer behavior up the ante for sheer survival as religion is increasingly becoming a hit-driven business model with only tent-pole holidays—Christmas, Easter, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and a small handful of others—that sell out. The rest of the calendar is full of empty seats; low utilization rates result in many churches permanently operating well below break-even with few solutions on the horizon.
So, what’s gone wrong? One explanation is the current portfolios of religious products and services just aren’t getting the job done for more and more Americans. It might be wise for the incumbent religious institutions to look at two unexpected phenomena that shook up the pay-TV and music industries: cord cutting and unbundling, respectively.
At first blush, innovation in religion might seem counter-intuitive or even oxymoronic. Yet over the millennia, religion, writ large, had developed a powerful set of accountability technologies (think heaven and hell) and a robust set of moral apps (the Ten Commandments, Christmas, rosary beads, the Sabbath, last rites, Gregorian chants)—products and services that were supposed to get a job done. But over time the traditional products and services embedded in the rituals, dogma and creed became too inaccessible, too complicated and lost sight of the fundamental task or goal to be accomplished. These products and services were no longer particularly useful for increasingly large numbers of people and have almost completely lost their grip on Gen Y and Z.
The cable and music industries can offer some valuable lessons for our traditional religious institutions. They too are facing cord-cutting (at least figuratively speaking) and the unbundling phenomena. Today any religious practice, text or piece of wisdom can now also be mixed, mashed up, shared on social media—unbundled with great ease with no intermediaries or authorities involved. Linear religious programming, i.e. services on Sunday at 10:00 a.m., is being supplanted by non-linear consumption in both time and space. Can binge-watching be far behind?
This unbundling by the consumer, and the ensuing mash-ups that cross religious and spiritual boundaries, is becoming commonplace. The disaffected customer seeking spiritual nourishment is increasingly taking matters into their own hands, becoming curators and creators in the religious spheres as well becoming religious and spiritual DJs. New spiritual ecosystems are starting to emerge as new business models are being formulated in real time. While the iPhone may have already become a sacred object, one can easily foresee an iTunes model for religion and spirituality. The gig economy now also applies to the religious sole practitioners, be they rabbis, priests, scientists, artists or new age shamans.
A new breed of religious leaders will need to re-engineer their skill sets, cultivate new communities and re-imagine the sacred practices and spaces. But the consumers’ new-found power that comes with curation, personalization, and customization comes with a new level of responsibility and accountability to assure that they understand the job to be done: building community and helping people flourish. If these new products and services are good enough to get the job done then disruption and, in many cases, a decimation of the religious incumbents will not be far behind. The incumbents must learn to disrupt themselves—a very tall order—or be disrupted by a rabbi and priest in a garage.
Craig Hatkoff and Irwin Kula, “The great unbundling: Will organized religion go the same way as cable TV?”, Big Think (15 August 2018) [https://bigthink.com/offwhite-papers/the-great-unbundling-will-organized-religion-go-the-same-way-as-cable-tv]