When the Answer is Not a Square

‘As much we may be convinced that a particular new form of structure will remedy existing deficiencies, there can be no guarantee that it will still be appropriate for the further changes in society yet to come. And such changes, no doubt beyond the range of present thinking, will most certainly occur.’

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There is a toy for very young children that has been around for several generations now. It consists of a plastic ball with a range of shapes cut into it together with a set of different shaped plastic bricks each of which matches one of the holes cut in the ball.

The challenge for the child is to find the shape of brick that matches each one of the holes and then push it through. They do this by trial and error which enables them to learn that, for example, you can’t push a square brick through a triangular hole! And it doesn’t matter how hard you try; it still won’t go!

It seems to me this is a good analogy for the challenge of 21st century mission in that we can liken that ball to a given micro-culture which the Church needs to access in the mission of the Gospel. Although in fact, western society is now made up of a multiplicity of ‘Cultural Balls’ not just the one that was the case for centuries.

Thus, the missional challenge requires a whole range of differently ‘shaped’ missional vehicles in order to be able the enter the variety of ‘Live, work and play’ ‘Cultural Balls’ comprising society.

To complicate the challenge further, as the authors of the above brilliantly prescient quote (from a mission report of 70 years ago!), clearly understood, the ‘shape’ of the entry points to the ‘Cultural Balls’ is continually changing. Thus, the required vehicles able to access the changing micro-cultures must have the capability to regularly change their ‘Shape’ (better ‘Shapes’).

However, with some great exceptions, the Church generally continues to be highly resistant to the lesson the small child learns. That lesson is that square bricks won’t go through round, triangular, star-shaped, ellipsoid or whatever shaped holes, and this is true no-matter how much effort is applied!

It is time to stop trying to force ‘square’ (usually 20th century’) missional strategies though different shaped 21st century cultural entry portals. The way forward is to develop a whole range of different, culturally appropriate, reinvent-able, forms of missional vehicle (Missional Communities), each ‘shaped’ for a particular ‘Cultural Ball’, and very few will be a ‘Square’!

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