Thursday, February 24, 2011

Church DNA: Don't Be A Monkey

I am currently making my way through Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko, which I strongly recommend. He has this analogy about assumptions that I love:

Imagine a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stair, spray all the monkeys with ice-cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and will want to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third monkey with a new one. The new one goes to the stairs and is attacked. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with ice-cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

Don’t be a monkey. Challenge all assumptions.

Any organization we join has its own DNA, its own way of doing things. Even within organizations, different groups will take on different characteristics, and what makes these things unique is that this DNA is not really dependent on the people. Like the monkeys, the DNA will last long after those who started the pattern have left unless something is done to change that pattern, and then what's likely to happen is that you will be attacked.

Even though the new monkeys don't have any idea why they can't go near the stairs, they never try because they learn the culture of the cage. Sometimes this culture is learned through being attacked and sometimes its learned through observation or more nuanced approaches by gently being told "that's not the way we do it here." I'm sure we've all experienced this learning.

The same is true of churches. Every church has its own unique DNA, its own unique way of doing things and its something that you have to learn, and over time everyone learns it whether they recognize it or not. Most of the arguments and conflicts that churches get into are linked to patterns that are sometimes generations old.

In this congregation a common refrain from past conflicts is "We felt like it was being jammed down our throat and no one was listening to what we had to say." I have heard this said about conflicts only 5 years old, and about those 20 years old and older. I suspect if we talked to people who were here sixty years ago about about conflicts then, the same phrase would be repeated. We learn and adapt to the culture we are in, and we operate and act by those rules, and if you don't then be aware that your missteps will be brought to your attention.

So how do we get passed this and change the DNA. The first answer is, very carefully. Systems do not like to change, and they will always revert back to the status quo. It is the path of least resistance, and its also the path that everyone knows. But, if you are going to change the system, you start by challenging the assumptions. You ask "why can't we go near the stairs?" And when you ask that question, remarkably you will hear two things. The first is because that's the way it's always been done, of course, and the second is that people have no idea why it's always been done that way.

There will be people who object to you even asking the question because it's assumed that the answer is self-evident, even if it's not even evident to them, and also because they assume that you want to change the system. Challenging assumptions and asking about them does not mean you have to change them. There might be a completely good reason why things are done the way they are and reasons to keep them that way. But it's just as likely that the reasons have run their course and no one has asked any questions about them and so they haven't changed.

I remember hearing a story from a professor about a church she visited in which when the Apostle's Creed was said everyone turned around and faced the back wall and recited it then turned back to the front of the church when it was over. She asked why they did this, and of course no one knew, it's just the way it was done. In digging more through the church archives she found an old picture of the sanctuary in which, as you might have guessed, the Apostle's Creed was written on the back wall, and so everyone turned around to read it. It had long since been painted over but the pattern still remained.

Don't be a monkey. Challenge assumptions. Change those things which have long since past their necessity and keep what needs to be kept, but don't stay away from the banana simply because that's the way it's always been done.

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