The Future is Not Behind Us

All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’

Numbers 14:2-4

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The above quote is a small section of the account in the book of Numbers where the majority of the leadership of Israel baulked when presented with the opportunity of entering the Promised Land.

They had sent twelve leaders on ahead to scout out the new land who had returned with reports of a bountiful land flowing ‘with milk and honey’. They had also reported that the ‘people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large’.

It was the last bit that, despite the promise of a more fruitful land, caused the majority of the leadership to baulk at the challenges and opposition they were told they would face if they went forward. They responded to the challenge with a craven lack of courage and lack of trust in God to see them through, even thinking that it would be better to retreat to the bondage in which they had previously been held in Egypt and from which God had miraculously set them free. The result was that they forfeited God’s blessing and he let them wander around in the wilderness for another 40 years.

I think there are parallels with that Israelite behaviour and its consequences and the missional failure of the traditional church today. When it is obvious that God is calling us to go on mission, to enter into the new cultural land of the 21st century, alien though it is to most Christians, the response is a failure of most in leadership positions to lead God’s people into the undoubted challenges and difficulties of the new cultural landscape.

Rather than unbinding, setting free, the church there is a widespread preference to remain in ‘Egypt’. That is to remain in the bondage of the traditional forms of church and chronically failing missional strategies of the past, rather than trusting in God to lead us forward and enabling us to grasp the challenge of a new, and constantly changing day.

The problem is that it is largely the case that centuries of our current model of church has left most church leaders and members with ‘frozen imaginations’ in regard to how we ‘do church’. There will often be an assumption, indeed insistence, that how church has been done is how it must continue to be done, i.e. ’Egypt’ style. This despite the statistical reality of catastrophic decline, both numerical and in terms of Gospel influence (i.e. ‘Salt’).

This ‘frozen imagination’ issue was highlighted again in a review I recently saw of the book ‘The Benedict Option’. The author is Rod Dreher who accurately diagnoses the Church condition (i.e. ‘We are losing the battle’) and seeks to suggest another option for both the form of church and missional strategy. His suggestion is that the church should adopt a ‘small and local’ strategy reminiscent of that which kept the gospel flame alive in the ‘Dark Ages’ after the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe. However, this is not my main point which is the response to the book.

The reviewer is a high placed church leader who is significantly involved in planning mission strategies. His response to the book is a classic example (one among many) of the ‘frozen mind’ thinking that won’t or can’t grasp the realities of the current missional challenge, but would rather cling to the bondage of ‘Egypt’. i.e. the failing forms of yesteryear. Rather than applaud the attempt of the author to at least be willing explore another option there is only criticism and dismissal in response.

In the uncertainty of the ever morphing cultural landscape where the only thing certain is uncertainty, the type of leadership required must not be those who will keep us in ‘Egypt’ but rather be those who are flexible, visionary, entrepreneurial, creative, are capable of creative thinking and who are willing to take risks, indeed, as has been said, those who are able ‘live on the edge of chaos’. Indeed as Alan Roxburgh has written-

What the church urgently needs are men and women capable of leading others toward missional transformation for a future church which has not yet been imagined.”

It is such leaders that are desperately needed and for which we must pray.

One thought on “The Future is Not Behind Us

  1. It seems to me that we are too often fighting yesterday’s battles, promoting or opposing issues that were raised in the Reformation or the charismatic renewal or some other phase in the history of the western church, when those issues are no longer as important as they were back then, maybe not even important at all. The future is not (often) in quarrels over minor doctrines or practices.

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