Who Killed the Encyclopedia Salesman?

Encyclopaedia Salesman-1As a young boy I remember the men who used to go door-to-door selling the Encyclopedia Britannica. I don't remember the exact price. But I do remember that it cost thousands of dollars to buy the set. You couldn't buy them in any store. You had to wait for the salesman to come knocking on your door. His job was to convince you to make a serious investment in your children's future by purchasing a set of Encyclopedias. Our family never could afford that investment. Which is probably why I never became a brain surgeon!

Today, my children have no excuse. We have the Encyclopedia Britannica. Not the leather bound edition in multiple volumes in a nice cabinet but on a single piece of plastic called a CD Rom. Not for thousands of dollars but for $49.95 on special. Overnight the paradigm shifted. A new reality emerged. A new world was born. Overnight Encyclopedia Britannica sacked its worldwide sales force and reinvented its strategy to fit that new reality.

There are a lot of Churches and Christian organisations that are still employing door-to-door encyclopedia sales staff in an age of DVD and CD ROMS. In an age in which we will blink and DVD's and CD ROMS will be obsolete. Dynamic movements practice "sanctified pragmatism". They are willing to change everything about themselves, apart from their essential identity, in order to fulfill their mission.

Humanly speaking, the Reformation under Martin Luther could never have taken place without the technological advances in printing made by Gutenberg (ca. 1400-68). Gutenberg provided Luther with the means to communicate with the masses who were increasingly becoming literate. The Lutherans developed great skill in communicating its message of reform to the people by means of inexpensive pamphlets adorned with woodcut illustrations and cartoons. Without the publicity the printing press provided, Luther could not have rallied the popular support that enabled him to withstand the forces of the all-powerful church and state aligned against him.

In the 1970's Paul Beasley-Murray produced a study of church growth in British Baptist Churches. Interestingly he found a correlation between the growth of a church and whether it made use of an overhead projector. Churches that employed the relatively new tool of an overhead projector were more likely to be growing than those who did not. Three decades later we would probably find a similar link between the use of the more sophisticated data projector and church growth.

At their best, institutions operate like well-oiled machines. But the problem with even the best machinery is that it's not alive. It cannot adapt and respond to a changing world. It cannot reinvent itself in new circumstances.

A dynamic movement is more like a mountain stream than a machine. A stream has a driving purpose to find its way to the ocean. In pursuit of that relentless goal it is continually adapting to its environment, changing its environment, choosing new tactics, overcoming obstacles. A diversity of structures emerge as temporary solutions that facilitate its mission. As soon as they lose their effectiveness they are abandoned. The stream takes on an infinite diversity of forms and yet remains essentially the same in its identity and purpose.