Out of the Algorithm, Into the Mystery!

There are two great tasks for the Church in North America today. First, we must do everything we already know how to do to reach people we already know how to reach, multiply disciples, and start authentic communities of faith. The second great task for the Church is to address the present future by prayerfully submitting to the challenge of figuring out how to reach people who are seemingly more and more resistant to the gospel as it has been individually and corporately expressed in the West for many generations.*  This second task is more difficult than it needs to be for two primary reason.

First, we are motivated by a culture of success. We recruit, fund, celebrate, advocate, propagate and evaluate based on predictable, measureable success rates. This is not all bad; after all, who wants to spend time and money on something that fails? However, this mindset also keeps church planters and their partners from engaging truly new expressions of church. Instead, we simply tweak things like worship or preaching style, signage, or room configuration. What if we carved out time and resources to truly innovate? Health care, businesses, and nonprofits all have R&D branches that are deployed to solve problems and speculate about the future. God has enough resources at His disposal to allow for Spirit infused innovation.

The second reason that that the task of engaging the future is more difficult than necessary is that in our confusion, too often we blame one another. It clearly isn’t God’s fault that church membership has been declining all over North America, so the fault, dear Christians, is in ourselves that we are spiritual weaklings. We don’t care enough, obey enough, pray enough, and we have abandoned spiritual disciplines and practices, right? But are we certain that we are less enthusiastic disciples than previous generations? Is it true that we do not worship as wholly, that our families are more dysfunctional, or our leaders less godly- or has something fundamentally shifted that makes our work more challenging than it was when the formulas used to work?

Predictable protocols and processes that work every time are called algorithms. Algorithms work when problems are already solved. For generations, Christians have employed consistent methodologies within given cultural contexts. These have worked well for starting, growing and leading churches. Some have worked so well that we are tempted to rely more upon our own capacity to employ the algorithms than on the activity of God. Perhaps there is salvation in the not-knowing because greater faith is required. Maybe being forced to contemplate and trust that His kingdom will come is impetus enough.  Will some of the body of Christ, including many from our church planting tribe, consider the call of the wild, move out of the algorithm and embrace the mystery?

* For more information on this topic see: Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr.  Church Turned Inside Out: A Guide for Designers, Refiners, and Re-Aligners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010, p3

  • Sally

    Hi Linda,
    I think as long as we keep doing what we have always done, we will get the same results. That is not working for the “Church”. We need to get invested in lives and truly love like Jesus did.. Not some phony churchy love, but really love them and care. It is time for the repenters to repent. The world sees right thru phony. I really appreciate what you are doing. We just need to get REAL, Relational and Relevant. I am praying for you as you start the church plants. God Bless you 🙂

    • thank you so much for you prayers, Sally! And yes- but it is actually worse than that- The same ol’-same ol’ is even less effective than ever because the world is changing. but praise be to the God whose truth never changes.

  • Thanks for these provocative thoughts, Linda. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly more concerned that our approaches to church planting can become so rule-bound by past “success” in methods and models, that we can end up blocking ourselves from looking for the Holy Spirit’s leading. In fact, sometimes I wonder if the system we’re promoting is actually “Church Planting for Androids.” (Now there’s a title for blog post, eh?!) It’s as if all you have to do is input the “right” ingredients into a Plant-o-Matic team machine, and out pops a perfect, plug-and-play church!

    As an R&D guy on intercultural social transformation, I’m not against processes and procedures, or even rules and algorithms – – where they are appropriate. In fact, I’ve seen what happens when no organizational infrastructures are in place: Toxicity ensues, and the purposes and people involved get poisoned by the experience. But similar things can happen when we only function, as you say, by mechanistic algorithms and avoid any mystery. But there are other options …

    My original field of training was in linguistics, and because language is not mechanistic, you need other systems to help get “successful” translations – accurate, understandable, appropriate. It was in my linguistics courses that I learned one alternative to algorithms – namely, “heuristics.” These are “rules of thumb” for figuring out “approximate answers” and “pattern recognitions” and “best fit solutions.” These forms of “fuzzy thinking” can help us with the big picture of what we need to accomplish, but, appropriately, we can’t really even learn heuristics by mechanistic means. It takes more than just a list of rules to know when to NOT use rules; we need a mentor, a guide, to show us the way and walk with us on the way. And this has much application for those of us involved in social transformation strategy, whether in working through church plants, non-profit agencies, or social entrepreneur start-ups.

    One such guide for me was a main professor of mine, Arnold Satterthwait. Dr. Satterthwait was one of the first linguists in the world to work on computer-assisted language translation in the 1950s. He also taught on computers, society, and ethics. As an example of heuristics, one day he presented “the fallacy of the beard.” If a man has a beard and you begin pulling out hairs from it one at a time, when does he no longer have a beard? When one hair has been removed? When some hairs have been removed? When all the hairs are gone? Or is the numerical approach perhaps even the wrong angle to look at this question, and, at the strictly human level of things, is any beard-hair-pulling actually violence and should be refused?

    Dr. Satterthwait’s courses were fascinating because he brought frustrating, murky, ethical issues into the classroom for us to chew on. But this was not for the sake of mere philosophical inquiry. He did it both for training us in heuristics and training us in life. He himself lived out an ethical life of grappling with difficult issues, with discernment, and with decisions – and with accepting the consequences thereof. For instance, as a Quaker, he was committed fully to non-violence, and therefore refused to participate in any way that validated the idea or the practices of war. Thus, his conscience would not allow him even to work as a military medic, since that assumed the legitimacy of war and of killing people. And so he spent the World War II years in a U.S. prison as a conscientious objector. Regardless of what we may think of that decision, the bigger issue for social change agents comes back to humanization of the process and the products.

    I’m okay with us using both rules and heuristics in our organizational development, even amplifying the possibilities for success by mining the uses of technology. (Better “Church Planting for Cyborgs” than for “CP for Androids,” eh?) But when we become too lax on the leading of the Spirit being one of the most important aspects in our work, then the best we can do is reproduce a machine, not a viable, organic Body. So that leaves me with a lot more questions:

    How do we re-humanize the processes and procedures so we do not treat church planters or their neighbors as if we are all mere machines, governed by protocols and formulas?

    How do we re-open our horizons to the possibility … or, better yet, the probability … that God in His providence wants to use weak things and weak people to accomplish His best purposes?

    How do we reorganize our strategies and structures so they are *suitable* for the people God’s given us to work with? So they are *sensitive* to the cultures in which He’s planted us? So they are *survivable* in light of unavoidable paradigm shifts in the world at large? So they are *sustainable* for generations born 100 years after we are gone?

    I don’t think we’ll find answers for those questions in algorithms either …

    • good stuff Brad- a blog in its own right!

      • Thanks Linda … that’s very kind of you!

        I thought about it some more, and decided to repost this comment about *Heuristics versus Algorithms* on my futuristguy blog, with a few edits and additions. Also, I plan to follow up on that post with Part 2 on *Frameworks versus Formulas* as another alternative component to a mechanistic approach for church planting design. (And who knows … perhaps I’ll come up with some other suggestions, and even explain the all-important differences between androids and cyborgs along the way!)

        Hope this is of help …

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  • Pingback: Church Planting for Cyborgs – Part 1: Heuristics Versus Algorithms « futuristguy()

  • yep. this is why we didn’t succeed. too far off the chart for our supporters, but not far enough for those who needed us.

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