The First Principle is ‘Use First Principles’

Many years ago I was working overseas as an engineer. It was in a country with a very different culture from the western one I grew up in and was educated in. I found that the locally trained engineers were very intelligent, more than myself mostly and very competent.

This was true except in one respect, and that was ‘lateral thinking’. When a problem arose that was non-standard, i.e. not ‘in the book’ they tended to struggle to deal with it. The reason was that their culture required that they did things ‘by the book’ and they found it difficult to find a solution to a problem that was not ‘in the book’. To put this another way, they were not trained or encouraged to solve new problems by using ‘first scientific principles’, whereas I came from an engineering culture where that was expected.

I think we have a similar problem in our approach to mission. Many church leaders are highly theologically trained. However, there seems to be an entrenched reluctance to respond to the previously unencountered missional challenges we face today using a ‘first principle’ approach. Rather, they will either keep on with the failed missional strategies we have been using since the last century, or they will import the latest ‘off the shelf’ missional model or program (usually from overseas). These rarely have the ‘success’ they reputedly had where they were first used elsewhere.

What needs to happen is the application of ‘first principles’ i.e. the New Testament principles for Christian community. This means to construct designer ‘Missional Communities’ for each specific local context, not to try and squeeze existing ‘models’ imported from other contexts so they fit, an approach that rarely has a high ‘success’ rate in terms of missional fruit.

I am frequently asked to supply successful ‘models’ of missional communities, something that can easily be done. However, that misses the point. The essence of the ‘Unbounded Church Concept’ is the application of first biblical principles (learned by leaders at theological college or by church members through local bible study), to create organic, highly flexible, ‘context specific’ missional communities embedded in their local context.

This argument is unpacked in much more detail in ‘Unbinding the Church’. See the ‘Resource’ section of this site.

We now face missional challenges the western church has not faced for perhaps over a 1000 years, and which are not found in the standard church ‘mission book’. Such challenges require an entrepreneurial, often ‘Messy’ approach that uses ‘first principles’, if we are to be missionally effective in the multiplicity of socio-spiritual cultural ‘universes’ that comprise 21st century western society.

The ‘First Principle’ for greater missional fruitfulness will be an approach that applies learned theology, the ‘First Principles’ found in the New Testament, so as to construct designer missional communities for the 21st century.

2 thoughts on “The First Principle is ‘Use First Principles’

  1. It’s a good analogy. On a similar line, a friend of ours said recently: “The more narrowly Christians define their Christianity, the more incapable they are of engaging with the world, or even the wider church.” He was talking about culture and doctrine (I think), but it would apply to mission too.


    1. Thanks for your comment Eric. I think the ‘narrowing’ is part of a circling of the wagons process, a ‘survival mechanism’, in an increasingly hostile world. And the more it happens the more the church is unable to engage with the World and ‘Mission’ becomes all too hard..


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