All of us are familiar with the motor car. It dominates our cities, for most westerners it is considered a normal part of life. Its history pretty well parallels the history of the 20th century, from its origins in the later decades of the 19th century through to the early years of the 21st.
Over those years the car has been developed and improved with a multitude of modifications, all designed to improve performance, speed, comfort, fuel efficiency etc. However, the modern Toyota Camry or General Motors Holden Commodore still has the same basic components, four wheels, engine, chassis, body, steering wheel, gear box etc, as its 19th century antecedent. Importantly, there is also one other thing all cars have in common, and that is they are all designed to operate in an Earthly environment.
However, when engineers were faced with the task of designing a new vehicle to reach and operate on Mars, despite the long and ongoing development process of the motor car, they did not try to redesign and upgrade the Commodore or Camry for the purpose. This is because Mars is a totally different, distant and alien environment compared to the Earth, with different atmospheric pressure, a totally different chemical mix in the atmosphere, a very different temperature range, much lower gravity, and very different weather etc, and where if there were any ‘little green men’ they would certainly not think or speak like us.
This is a completely alien environment compared to that for which the motor car was designed. No matter how much tweaking, tinkering with, or redesign of, the Commodore it can never be the vehicle required for the mission to and on Mars.
Arguably, the biggest roadblock to 21st century western mission is the widespread failure by those responsible for mission leadership to grasp that we are now on ‘Mars’.
Yet that seems to be an exact analogy to the standard approach to mission that churches continue to take. The attitude to mission adopted by the vast majority of churches is to continue to use the spiritual equivalent of the ‘Commodore’, i.e. the ‘parochial’ or local Church platform for mission into the alien socio-spiritual and increasingly hostile environment of the cultural equivalent of Mars’.
Arguably, the biggest roadblock to 21st century western mission is the widespread failure by those responsible for mission leadership to grasp that we are now on ‘Mars’. That is, the missional landscape is an alien environment that the European, Christendom originating, Sunday-Centric church model was simply never designed for because it did not need to be. The brute reality that must be faced is that, no matter how much we tweak and tinker with the existing missional ‘Commodore’, and no matter how much we increase the resources put into it, it will remain ‘not fit for purpose’, for it will never be effective in the ‘Martian’ environment.
This is a time that the western church has arguably not faced for over a thousand years. The consequent need now is to face that reality, and design a completely new vehicle specifically for the mission into the constantly morphing, alien, kaleidoscope cultural landscape that lies before us. Yet, despite overwhelming and mounting evidence over many decades, out of either ignorance or perhaps wilful stubbornness, this urgent need in most areas of the contemporary (certainly Australian) church generally remains unaddressed.
It is not as though we do not have some clues as to a better way for the future, indeed it is not as though Christians have not faced similar challenges before. For example, there are many similarities between our times and the those of the early church, when Christians faced a pluralistic, frequently hostile, pagan, non-Christendom environment just like ours. Yet they conquered with the gospel, by self-denial and sacrifice, proclaiming (a different word to preaching) Christ. They were mobile, going from place to place and town to town, they didn’t set up large centres and expect the pagans to come to them.
Then, for lessons in strategy, we might engage in a ‘Back to the Future’ (of Mission) exercise by looking at the Celts, particularly the 6th Century mission of the Irish missionary Columba(nus) to what is now Scotland and northern England. The key aspect of Columba’s missional success was that he went to where the pagans had their villages and set up small Christian gospel communities in the centre of them. The daily witnessing of those communities in Word and deed and the massive fruit that followed provides us with much from which the contemporary church can learn.
However, what we actually see is rather than the urgently needed ‘New Mindset’, there appears to be a paralysis of thinking that now seems to characterise most churches, both leadership and congregations. So it seems that it will have to be the few, those who actually do understand that we face a Crisis, indeed a slow burning existential Crisis, one which faces the western church generally, and those who can grasp the need for, and can envision, a new missional vehicle for the ‘Mission to Mars’.
This is a mission into an alien and ever-changing cultural landscape comprised by a multiplicity of socio-spiritual universes, ‘where the pagans live’ and where the ‘Commodore’ cannot go.