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