Shifting Baseline Syndrome and the Church

undecided voter conceptLast week the Harvard Business Review Ideacast taught me a new term: shifting baseline syndrome.

In a conversation about how corporate cultures change, the idea of the shifting baseline syndrome was borrowed from the world of ecology. The term was first introduced to the world by Daniel Pauly, a French marine biologist, to describe how we as humans react to the changes in our environment. In a nutshell, shifting baseline syndrome is defined this way:

Shifting Baseline Syndrome refers to a gradual change in our accepted norm for ecological conditions.  The phrase describes an incremental lowering of standards that results with each new generation lacking knowledge of the historical, and presumably more natural, condition of the environment.  Therefore, each generation defines what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ according to current conditions and their personal experiences.  With each new generation, the expectations of various ecological conditions shifts.  The result is that our standards are lowered almost imperceptibly.

Thanks to Remote Footprints.

Over the last ten days I have been thinking a good bit about the institutions of higher education in our country, and how many of them started out as religious institutions. Over the course of time, these institutions have drifted away from the sacred, and embraced the secular; to the point where many of them openly reject the beliefs and values that were embraced by their founders (forsaken their first love, perhaps?). This transition has been subtle, and has happen over decades (or centuries), but it has been a slow drift away from the initial vision and purpose of the institution.

While serving in Atlanta, our pastor was known for saying “vision leaks.” 

This principle is reminiscent of the second law of thermodynamics in that if you cast a solid vision, set the organization in motion, and do not make intentional efforts to keep the vision front and center the organization will lose sight of its original purpose. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when organizations need to shift away from their original purpose… but these need to be intentional shifts, not shifts that result from a shifting baseline.

How has YOUR church’s baseline shifted over the years?


About the Author: Matt Steen

I love Jesus, Theresa (my wife), the Redskins & Capitals, and am currently living in Waco, Texas where I am studying the finer points of BBQ (while working on my MDiv and MBA at Baylor University). When not studying, I serve church leaders through MinistryBriefing.com and am the Director of Connections for Harris Creek Baptist Church's Downtown Campus.