The Square Wheel Delusion

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

This is a quote from Sir Winston Churchill who was paraphrasing a statement by the Italian philosopher and novelist George Santayana. Churchill went on to say-

“We must always look forward, but we have to understand our history in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past. I have seen too many instances where people continue to pursue wrong courses of action because they do not take the time to think critically about what has happened in the past”

I mention this because I think it plays into a significant problem we have in the western church (Australian church anyway) in regard to mission, which is what I call the ‘Square Wheel Delusion’.

I have blogged on this site before about ‘Square Wheels’. However, distressingly, the issue doesn’t seem to be going away even as our missional effectiveness plummets further, so I think it needs to be highlighted again.

This concept of the ‘Square Wheel’’ came to me when watching a very old comedy movie in which I saw a caveman who had come up with a new invention, namely the bicycle. However, his design had square wheels, and of course he discovered it didn’t work! Surprise, surprise!

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Of course, it’s ok to invent something and then find it doesn’t work, we all do that, but we do need to take the opportunity to learn from the design that didn’t work before and try something potentially more beneficial. However, to keep on reinventing the ‘Square Wheel’, would seem to have at least a whiff of Einstein’s definition of insanity about it, which is “to repeat the same thing over and over again and expect different results”! Yet it seems that we in the church are quite good at just that and in fact seem to have a love affair with missional ‘Square Wheels’! There are far too many examples to list here but here are a few all of which are very recent examples, some of which I know because I have been guilty of them!

1. A New Family Friendly Service. Held in the existing church building on a Sunday, and designed to attract families the church had contact with at other times, e.g. at Playgroup. Despite allegedly being ‘contemporary’ and ‘family friendly’ it still was effectively a repeat of the ‘SIC’ church model (Sunday-Centric, In- Drag, Christendom-Form, See Unbounded Church Active tab), which has now been failing to produce much fruit for decades.

2. The ‘Classic’ Church Plant. At a conference a minister talked about the mistakes that he had made in a ‘Classic’ church planting initiative which ultimately failed. As he talked I remember thinking he could have been warned against repeating those same mistakes by reading any number of books on church planting written during the previous ten years or so! Yet he and others had persisted in reinventing the “Square wheel”. Classic church plants are usually very high resource but in our current culture generally produce low levels of fruit in the long term.

3. The Outreach Playgroup. The usual idea of these is to run a good playgroup that will attract non-Christin families into the church building. Relationships can be built and then those families can be invited into normal services and/or basic Christianity courses. However, while this may have been fruitful some significant time ago it is a high resource activity that is rarely very effective now. There are just too many obstacles for the non-Christian to negotiate.

4. The Kids Holiday Club. A strategy of churches wishing to reach the non-church kids in the community, I ran them for years. It is certainly true that a good program will often bring many non- church kids along, however the question needs to be asked – how many of them and their families end up joining the church at any time after this high resource activity? The answer in recent times is nearly always – few to none. Mostly non-church families use a Holiday Club as ‘Out of school care’.

5. The ‘Big Mission’ Campaign. As statistics continually show a failure of churches to reach the lost, a call is often heard for an area or region- wide ‘Mission’, often with a number of churches committing to work together on the project. 30 to 40 years ago in a much more Christianized society such campaigns often bore much fruit. However, since then in parallel with the de-Christianization of the culture they have progressively produced far less. Indeed, they have been shown to be very high resource ‘Square Wheels’ – why would we repeat them?

6. The Outreach Carol Service. The argument is that as many non-Christians still like singing Christmas carols they will come along (they do) and that gives the opportunity for a short gospel talk to be given. Once such events would have some ongoing fruit with people being engaged by the message and turning up in church. However, this is now a very rare result from what can be a very high resource exercise, and as a missional strategy this is now nearly always a ‘Square Wheel’. Observation of people at such an event usually shows that the talk is something to be endured and they don’t even listen to it.

To those who respond to the above list by arguing that they can point out examples that are producing significant fruit, I will respond- so can I! However, such examples are exceptions and not very common, so we cannot rely on them to significantly improve the overall decline in missional fruitfulness. Further, close inspection of such exceptions often reveals special circumstances that facilitate the success, circumstances that are not usually present in most contexts.

It is a delusion to think that ‘Square Wheel’ missional strategies can suddenly become a good idea. Rather it is essential that we take note of George Santayana’s statement that-

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, for they “continue to pursue wrong courses of action because they do not take the time to think critically about what has happened in the past”

And that we critically analyze our missional strategies such that we do not waste scarce resources on mostly unfruitful ‘Square Wheels’.

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