Using Exit as a default strategy comes with a number of downsides in the real world. One is that it cedes high-value territory or institutions to people who either won’t steward them well or who may use them in ways contrary to your values. As Hirschman wrote:
While it is most clearly revealed in the public-private school case, one characteristic is crucial in all the forgoing situations: those customers who care most about the quality of the product and who, therefore, are those who would be most active, reliable, and creative agents of voice are for that reason also those who are apparently likely to exit first in case of deterioration
In fact, has it ever occurred to those advocating that people leave their city, church, etc. that this is exactly what their opponents want them to do? Hirschman notes that in some cases the incumbent management of failed organizations wants to create opportunities for exit in order to get rid of potential troublemakers. He cites the example of Latin American countries offering the right of asylum to foreign leaders and dissidents.
Latin American powerholders have long encouraged their political enemies and potential critics to remove themselves from the scene by voluntary exile. The right of asylum, so generously practiced by all Latin American republics, could almost be considered as a “conspiracy in the restraint of voice.”
So by leaving you give up on something established and are forced to start over from scratch. Not only is starting over difficult in general, in some domains it is impossible to replicate the institution you just left. It’s highly unlikely anyone will ever create a new high status university from nothing today, for example.
Secondly, the world is dynamic, not static, and the problems that you think you are escaping by Exiting have a tendency to follow you to the next place. The city goes downhill, so people move to the suburbs. A generation later people are moving to a newer suburb on the edge because the older suburbs started declining.
Not only do problems have a way of chasing after us, choosing Exit means we seldom reflect on our own role in creating those problems. Sometimes the problems seem to follow us because the problem is us, or at least is partially related to us.
But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes there are social trends that work against you and sometimes you do have enemies that don’t like you and will continue to pursue you even as you flee the battle. As the apocryphal Trotsky quote puts it, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
You frequently see this play out in conservative breakaway organizations. They tend to ultimately have a reprise of the same disputes that caused them to split off from the main organization originally. The present-day disputes over gender roles in the Presbyterian Church in America are an example of this. And any future conservative breakaway Methodist denomination will encounter similar problems down the road.
There’s definitely a place for Exit or retreat. In many contexts, the stakes are low and there’s no moral dimension to departure. If your employer is failing or the culture is becoming toxic there, there’s no shame in taking a better job elsewhere. You have no ethical duty to stay and fight to save the place.
In other contexts, by the time you realize there’s a serious problem in your city, church, or other organization, it’s often too advanced for you to effectively combat it. And let’s not pretend that fights are always symmetrical or fair. Some people and movements have massive societal support behind them, others don’t. Withdrawing and regrouping is sometimes the best option in these cases.
But if all you ever do is retreat, if you never stand and fight to the end, if you never go on the advance, things are not going to go well in the long run. This is, as one writer put it, surrender on the installment plan.
It is true that many Christians have an expansionary, advancing mindset in some areas – a focus on evangelization, for example. But I think many of the things that on the surface look expansionary are in fact defensive or retreating. The new, growing suburb is not actually an example of expansion but of retreat, retreat from the places the people who are moving to the shiny new town are coming from.
In the church world, the bulk of church planting (that is, new church startups) falls into this category. Almost every town in America is replete with struggling and dying churches, but almost nobody ever tries investing in one of those. Instead, they are deemed hopeless and a new church is started instead.
There’s nothing more laughable than the websites of these urban churches that talk about “renewing the city” or some such. 99% of these churches were started recently. These people couldn’t even renew one existing church, so why would anyone believe they have what it takes to renew a city?
There are some Christians who’ve chosen a different path. I’m not surprised that most (but not all) of these are progressives. For example, there’s a church here in Indianapolis called Englewood Christian Church. You may know them from their well-regarded Englewood Review of Books. They are in a rough area on the East Side of Indianapolis. As the neighborhood went into transition and decline, rather than moving further out to the suburbs, as so many Protestant denominations did, they stayed. What’s more, many of their members have stayed too, buying houses and rooting themselves in that community. They’ve been extremely active both in serving the basic needs of their neighborhood but also community development. They took the attitude that this is our neighborhood and we’re not going anywhere. Who knows where it will end, but they have done well so far.
And mostly by chance, I happened to have previously attended two churches in the past that were nearly dead or dying but that were revived by people who went into very risky situations and undertook turnarounds. My impression is that this is highly unusual so I feel fortunate to have experienced it. One result of taking on turnarounds is that these congregations ended up with strategic real estate in the form of church buildings in very expensive places like Lincoln Park and Roscoe Village in Chicago, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan, something very few of these new church startups have.
You should ask yourself in what areas you plan to stand and fight, and in what areas you plan to be on the advance. If there aren’t any, that’s a very negative sign.
What would a mentality of advancing rather than retreating look like? One example might be in how you pick a church. Are you trying to find the best and “safest” church you can find? Instead perhaps you should consider looking for a less attractive choice, but one where you (and potentially people you recruit to join you) could make a real difference in a place that might otherwise tip the wrong direction. I’m not saying everyone should do this, but it’s an example of a different kind of attitude.