The great unbundling: Will organized religion go the same way as cable TV?

What could religion learn from cable television? A surprising amount, seeing as the younger generations are turning away from both in huge numbers.

Paul McCartney once wrote, "Father McKenzie is writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear," and that sentiment is coming true. With a few exceptions, church and synagogue attendance in the U.S. has been declining at an “alarming” rate. Empty pews are upending the traditional congregational bricks and mortar business model, even posing an existential threat for many of our religious institutions. According to Harvard professor Robert Putnam, we are living through the greatest social transformation in American history: “The disaffiliation and de-institutionalizing of the American parishioner.” The forces of disruption are weighing heavily upon the religion industry in America. 

Alarming? Existential threat? Certainly, if you are the head of a congregation or a regular attendee at worship services. But according to Pew Research, the fastest growing religious demographic in America is “None.” That’s None, not Nun. If you are one of the Nones—people with no affiliation (or disaffiliation) with a religious institution—this may well be a liberating experience. Not affiliated or disaffiliated does not necessarily mean that Nones have no religious or spiritual needs and yearnings. The Nones are taking matters into their own hands as they seek to fulfill their unmet needs through innovations in the religious and spiritual domains.

There is a duality to Putnam’s cautionary tale. Do the current dynamics represent a crisis or a golden opportunity? It’s enlightening to view this institutional disaffiliation through the lens of the highly problematic cord-cutting that still plagues the Pay TV industry. Cord-cutting does not mean these viewers, particularly the younger demos, aren’t consuming their favorite content. They are consuming it in different ways and on different screens.   

For the Nones, this very well might be less a matter of whether they are abandoning their religious and spiritual needs and yearnings, and more a matter of existing resources just not getting the job done. Perhaps this demographic is just looking for new religious products and services that are simpler, cheaper and more accessible or a repurposing of the existing portfolios. Like attendance, our attention spans are also on the decline. Those of you familiar with Clayton M. Christensen’s framework of disruptive innovation theory might recognize the language. Better prepare yourselves for disruptive spiritual innovation on a grand scale.

An abandoned church. (Credit: Flickr user Rennet Stowe)

Economics 101

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. 

Cut cords. (Credit: Flickr user Scott Swigart)

The great unbundling

Last year, 20-plus million American consumers disconnected their expensive cable and satellite services. This ongoing trend of cord-cutters, coupled with an additional 20 million cord-nevers, has shaken the industry to the core. The pay-TV cable and satellite customer gets almost 200 channels, yet they only watch on average 18 or so—but they have been paying for the other 90% they don’t watch. And why did pay TV charge so much? Because they could. Through bundling, which severely limited the options for the consumer. That is... until now. The once-dominant HBO is now being challenged by Netflix and Amazon.  

Similarly, the major music labels suffered greatly from the advent of the MP3 file which they dismissed as unviable. They believed the sound quality was unacceptable to the consumer.  Napster quickly established the MP3 proof of concept but was deemed to violate copyright laws, was deemed illegal and quickly failed—but not before attracting the attention of Steve Jobs whose epic vision for the iTunes and iPhone juggernaut was the coup de grace for the music industry’s business model. Music downloads and subscription streaming services have fundamentally changed the entire business model for the music industry. For the music and cable industries, the raft of technological innovations, management missteps and unanticipated changes in consumer behavior caught the incumbents off guard. And Apple controls 70% of the digital download music business with the streamers, Spotify and Pandora, growing rapidly. 

But it was Jobs' brute force that led to the unbundling of the standard album that was once the mainstay of the industry; now consumers could buy the one or two singles they really wanted for 99 cents rather than having to buy the entire album for $17.99. Another force at hand was consumers could now become creators using software and relatively inexpensive equipment in home studios. Remixes and mashups were commonplace. Discovery of new artists started to displace the stranglehold of the Top 20 gatekeepers and the A&R mavens at the labels; these days, everyone is a curator and hot playlists create a new form of status, and Scooter Braun discovered Justin Bieber, one of the biggest artists of the 21st century (like it or not) on YouTube. The cable industry found that their once-untouchable bundles, much like albums, could also be dissembled. VOD, a-la-carte, and skinny bundles, when coupled with cord cutting, are posing a real threat to their once-stable business models. 

A pastor, pastoring. (Credit: Björn Eichenauer, Creative Commons)

Could this happen with religion?

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.

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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

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