King Canute was an English King in the 10th Century who is recorded as having governed very wisely and as having done a lot of good for his people. However, the story (legendary or not) is that he became so flattered by those around him as to his greatness that he believed he could control the tide. In order to show this he ordered his throne to be hauled down to the beach where he sat commanding the tide not to come in. Of course the tide won! and Canute nearly drowned!
The story of Canute’s failure to grasp the reality of the unstoppable tide reminds me of another about a group of people’s denial of reality, a story of a disappearing river.
“Once upon a time there was a mighty river. It flowed gracefully and
elegantly across the landscape. Along its banks it gave life and
sustenance to the tribes of Aboriginal Australians who camped by it. For many generations this river was central focus for life. Then, gradually, the river ceased to flow, becoming a stagnant pool. With the heat of summer it started to dry up. Around the banks of the disappearing symbol of their security, the people watched aghast. What could be happening to them? By the dried-up river bed many sat, waiting for the river to flow once more. Yet others thought to look around and discovered that the river was not gone but was still flowing, it had simply changed course upstream, creating a billabong on the curve at which they sat.”
This story acts as a parable about the Australian church’s widespread denial that the river of the Holy Spirit wants to do new things in other places and in new ways. Despite all of the evidence that the river of ’church as we have known it’ is drying up, there appears to be a Canute-like denial that things are changing, and the ‘River’ of the Spirit of God is clearly not flowing through the churches as we have known them, in fact the tide of God’s purpose is flowing in new ways. This should not surprise anybody because God as always is a God of new things.
This should not be a cause for despair but for a greater resolve to discern and follow the Spirit of God, in the new directions in which He calls us. Indeed that we seek to develop a church for our post-Christian times (indeed as if we were in a pagan Borneo) and not be those who remain sitting on the increasingly dried up river bank of 20th Century models of church and ministry hoping for ‘church as we knew it’ to start flowing back. It is not going to.
This is also a highly relevant issue for leadership, that leaders are people who are able to discern in what new directions the river of the Spirit of God is flowing (As the apostle Paul had to in Acts 16:6-10).They should not be those who want to stand Canute -Like against the change that is essential for the mission of God in the context of the tsunami of paganism flooding society. Indeed leaders need to be those who will lead us into the highly challenging mission demands of the 21st Century, into the spiritual and cultural parallel universe where non-Christians now live, not back into the relatively stable environment and now irrelevant ministry structures and methods of the 20th Century.
The DNA of the 21st Century church must be very different from the past, it must be strongly missional DNA that drives every aspect of church life. Such a church will creatively, adventurously and experimentally develop new styles of ministry that will be the presence of Jesus in the parallel universe where non-Christians live, and will challenge and change the ‘spirit of the world’ which drives Australian culture. It is indeed the essence of Unbounded Church that it seeks to find where the river of God is now flowing and to flow with it.