Repost: Are Mainline Churches Like Detroit?

From April 2009.  The Big Three have made some changes for the better (the city of Detroit itself is a whole other story).  Have Mainline Churches made any changes?  Should they?


I’ve been wondering lately if there is anything in common with Mainline Protestant Churches and the American Auto Industry.

Having been ordained in a mainline denomination, working for a church going through change and having two parents who spent years working for General Motors has made me thing there are similarities in the two.

With the onset of the financial crisis, Detroit is having to face its problems in a big way. The Big Three had their heyday in the 50s and 60s, building large cars that Americans purchased like crazy. Gas was cheap and the foreign automakers were not as present on the road.

All that changed in the 70s. The gas crises of that era caught Detroit flatfooted. People started looking for more fuel efficient cars. Japan started showing its muscle as people looked to Toyota and Honda for cheap and efficient cars.

Detroit decided to make changes. But in some cases the changes were small and not major. People complained about the quality of the cars and started abandoning domestic automakers. Detroit kept making small changes, a badge engineering here, a plant closing there, but never made the big costly changes.

The late 90s brought the SUV craze and Detroit went big guns over it. The Big Three were now flushed with cash and the good times were rolling in. The Asian automakers, no joined by the Korean upstarts like Huyndai, also built SUVs, but they also kept selling small cars to people who wanted them.

The gas started getting more expensive. First $2, then $3, then $4 per gallon. It got too crazy to spend so much in gas for an SUV that got 12 miles to the gallon. People started to look to small cars. Again, Detroit came up short. It had spent years neglecting its cars, so when people came looking for more efficient cars, Detroit had few.

Finally, the credit crisis hit. Banks weren’t lending which meant, people couldn’t buy cars. Two of the Big Three stand on the edge of oblivion.

Like Detroit, the heyday for Mainline churches was in the 50s and 60s. Christianity had a big place in American culture. People went to church, and the sancutaries were full. But things changed in the 60s. Other religions came to the fore. Also, all those “blue laws” that closed stores on Sunday, vanished. Going to church was only one option of many.

Like Detroit, the mainline churches made some small changes, a renewal movement here, a new youth program there, but they weren’t willing to see how the times had changed around them.

The mainline churches as a whole aren’t at the point where Detroit is, yet. But I think the problems are similiar: we are trying to pretend it’s still 1958. We think that if we make a few changes, then everything will be as it was. But the problem is that we can’t go back to 1958- not for cars or for churches. America is not the place it was 50 years ago. We have changed as nation and both institutions have to learn to change.

But that change is hard. It means giving up things that have been tried and true. For a company like GM, it means letting go of some storied brands like Buick (where my Dad worked). For churches it means things like giving up the way we’ve done worship, or learning to welcome gays and lesbians when that was even on the radar years ago.

But the thing is, for both the auto companies and the churches, you either have to make meaningful change, or die. I think for both we are way past the point of small change.

Change requires a leap of faith, a belief that in the end, God there with open arms waiting to catch us. For the church, we have to be willing to trust, not in practices and memories of the past, but in God; knowing that God is always with us.

Who would ever have thought my love of cars and love of the church and God would ever combine. 🙂


2 thoughts on “Repost: Are Mainline Churches Like Detroit?

Add yours

  1. You are so right. For me, I find a subtle switch that you mention incredibly important, which was the intentional decision (again, from the 1950s) for planned obsolescence with the cheap, steel car, which was our badge of honor. While the Asian manufacturers not only brought inexpensive, but reliable cars to our market. The decline didn’t simply follow the fuel trends, but the economic ones as well. By the early 1990s, Toyota and Honda had built stellar reputations for the Corolla and Civic because they 1) lasted forever (comparatively) and 2) had high resale value. They tapped both markets (new and used) and began dominating them because these were markets they had formed themselves to exploit.

    In other words, while the Big 3 are left trying to read the tea leaves and spending billions in suddenly shifting to these existing markets, Toyota and Honda (and even Hyundai) have long passed the investment phase.

    The mainline really is that self-deluded monster that is disadvantaged by a shifted paradigm. However…If you were to update this, the dramatic success of Ford is an interesting wrinkle as they, unlike GM, were in a much better spot and leveraged the opportunity to create a new argument that they are domestic AND that they make good cars. GM is selling again and looks to be in better shape, but is it the 90’s again with them?

    Good stuff!

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