There Are A Lot of Us ‘In the Box’

Much of the time I tend to operate in my own world, too busy to ‘look over the parapet’ and see much of what other denominations are doing. However now and again I get an opportunity to do so. One such opportunity occurred a while ago when I was invited to a meeting on the topic of ‘equipping the saints’ particularly for evangelism.

The meeting room was full of good, godly faithful Christian leaders, both ordained and not, all of whom were passionate to see more people come to Christ. Indeed that was why they had taken the time to attend the meeting, to learn about a new approach to evangelism, church planting and disciple-making. Yet as I listened to the discussion I couldn’t help feeling sadly that the gathering was like a ‘Microcosm of Woes’ i.e. what was being said illustrated so much of what is wrong with our churches and many of the reasons for our general missional unfruitfulness.

The participants were from a range of denominations and represented a number of small to medium sized churches all of which were stagnant or in slow decline, but there was no doubt that they all wanted to see more fruitful mission, more disciples of Jesus and their congregations grow. It was revealing however to listen to their input and responses to what was being presented.

One of the pastors implied that he was hoping the meeting would provide some sort of ‘magic bullet’, a new approach to outreach that would boost his flat-lining congregation. Too often I believe however that in search of that elusive ‘Magic Bullet’, we have jumped on the bandwagon of the ‘latest thing’ only to find a few years later that our ‘latest thing’ turns out to be yet another in a long line of ‘latest thing’ carcases on the road of our missional unfruitfulness.

Another participant seemed to have a rather ‘gung ho’ response to what was being presented, saying “come on let’s just do it”! This without any real critical reflection on what was being presented, or how it would be implemented in his context. It seemed to me that here again is one of the reasons for our failure and that is insufficient critical analysis of the 21st century appropriateness of our missional efforts, strategies and their results, or lack thereof.

Then there was the godly, faithful but somewhat cautious conservative man, whose thought seemed to be that we just need to be faithful and keep on doing what we’ve been doing. He was not really into innovation, and very unlikely to do anything radical. Yet ‘radical’ is exactly what we need in the crisis we face in this time of falling church attendance and limited missional fruit. ‘Steady as she goes’ is just reproducing the now decades long decline.

Another leader present is a passionate evangelist, who works hard but whose congregation is still struggling. He already has two major church growth schemes happening. One wonders does he really need another one which would spread his already overstretched resources even thinner, with corresponding lack of fruit. This seems to be another example of a lack of strategic and well thought out use of resources that I think is one of our problems. Our resources are scarce enough and need to be used wisely.

Another was the pastor of an aging congregation, which because of declining attendances had already consolidated a number of small dwindling congregations into one over the last few years. It was quite depressing to listen to him as he shared that he felt he was pretty much on his own in his church in regards to enthusiasm for anything new. This same congregational apathy concern was also echoed by a female leader from one of the other churches. I have written elsewhere about the usually unacknowledged ‘elephants’ in the mission operations room, the obstacles to mission, and one of these is this widespread congregational apathy, that often gives rise to outright opposition to anything radically new the pastor might want to try.

However, probably the thing that I found most depressing about the meeting was sense that all those present were still thinking within the ‘box’ of the clearly failed ‘In-drag’, Christendom model paradigm. i.e. trying to get people from the community into our Sunday services. There was little evidence of any thinking ‘outside box’, or awareness of the urgent need for a paradigm shift and a new mindset.
I felt a great sense of sadness to see all these good, godly, hardworking Christian leaders, so passionate to see the Kingdom grow, yet still locked into putting all their energies into the clearly failing paradigms of the 20th century.

Looking ‘over the parapet’ that day into the broader interdenominational church world the view was depressing, for all I could really see was a ‘microcosm of our missional woes’, and that indeed “there are a lot of us in the box”. As I did so a highly relevant Einstein quote, an old favourite of mine, came to my mind-

“The significant problems we face can’t be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

For us to battle the pagan tide it is urgent indeed that we move to a new level of thinking, indeed to unbind the church from its yesteryear paradigm – and very soon.

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