Degrading gracefully

A few years ago, graceful degradation was the goal for web design. Web browsers weren’t created equal (and aren’t, though it’s better now), and what might look beautiful in one browser may fail to load properly in another. And since there’s not enough time to make a site work equally well for all browsers, it had to be sufficient for the site to load “well enough” if the browser was old or eccentric. You may not get special features, but you would get the essentials, like the text.

It may seem an odd jump from Internet Explorer 6 to your church, but the idea isn’t too strange. If it fails to everything desirable — for want of money, leadership, members, options or a supportive community — then it can, at least, do the basics. What that is is, of course, debatable. But I’ve certainly visited churches that tried too much and failed to do what they wanted, perhaps out of pride and a misplaced sense of historic capacity. They could have done less, and done it well, but could not degrade gracefully. There’s something to be said for one good sermon a month instead of four indifferent presentations. A clean tablecloth instead of dusty silk flowers. Good singing instead of a wheezing organ.

It may not be what we had, or even what we would prefer. And it’s not to say that even this reduced activity would be easy, but a chance to succeed is better than failing ungracefully.

Published by

Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

2 thoughts on “Degrading gracefully”

  1. Very important thoughts on an increasing issue, Scott — and not one that I see being talked about much. The emphasis seems always to be on growth, ultimately on numerical growth even if the other types of growth are acknowledged on the way, without a lot of attention given to the kind of identity shift that has to take place if downsizing is taking place first.

    What if the no-longer-grand church were able to embrace its identity as something else? Can that happen in a way that emphasizes new capacities rather than diminishment? To return to your metaphor, a smartphone doesn’t “feel bad” that it sees a different view of a web site than a desktop. If anything, it celebrates its nimbleness and mobility.

    So what new qualities might such a church celebrate? And where are the resources to help it get there?

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