Artwork by Tim Donohue – All Rights Reserved
“Houston – We Have a Problem“
When the astronauts on Apollo 13 discovered their predicament, the world stood still, astonished at the words of Commander James A. Lovell. A return to Earth became questionable. In an instant, the welfare of the crew, the charter of NASA and the space shuttle program were at risk. Preparing for re-entry became the sole focus of the flight crew, as well as those of us glued to our televisions and anxiously gazing skyward down here on Earth. The viability of their spacecraft and their mission had been compromised. Lives were at stake.
The precariousness of this predicament has pertinent parallels for Christians, Christianity and the Church to pay heed to. Let me explain.
The Successful Failure
Two days after lift-off on April 11, 1970, a faulty oxygen tank exploded in the service module and disabled the spacecraft (If you’re wondering, oxygen is important if you’re in space. Then again, it’s pretty important here on Earth as well). This unit provided the essential oxygen relied on by the fuel cells that functioned as the spacecraft’s fundamental source of power. Sure, there was a backup electricity supply with a life span of maybe ten hours on board — but Apollo 13 was 80 plus hours from home. (Do the math – holding your breath for 70+ hours would be difficult). The service module was jettisoned and destroyed in space, before the command module re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and brought the crew hurtling home. The Apollo 13 mission has been referred to as The Successful Failure due to the amount of additional research and development this incident spawned.
During this historic drama, I remember people saying stuff like, “How could we have blasted those poor souls into outer space to accomplish a strategic mission of international importance, without preparing for this undertaking more effectively? What were we thinking? Who would have ever imagined this sort of thing could ever happen? They should have never launched this mission! We should have stayed home.”
We were all changed by this incident. The national psyche was shaken. We were taken aback in terms of what we had come to believe we were certain about. “All systems go” turned into our worst nightmare. We were required to learn and unlearn from this near-tragic miscalculation. The viability of future missions would be dependent upon exactly that.
Somehow, after re-entry, we all became more grounded. In many ways, successful failures are the impetus for innovation. This is as true for the mission of the church as it is for NASA.
The Unsung Reality
The uncertain, unexpected, unpredictable, unintelligible, unbelievable, unimaginable, unthinkable, unfathomable are all components of the fundamental reality of human existence. They share one central theme in common: They are unequivocally certain. They exist. They inhabit the lives of every human being. Each of us experiences them in one form, flavor or degree. There are no exceptions. Yet, how we respond to these realities when they pop up in our lives is desperately important. For people who profess a faith in God, it gets really interesting, very quickly.
There’s a distinct difference between the response from NASA to the successful failure of the Apollo 13 mission, and the response to the failure of the mission of the Church, Christians and Christianity at this juncture in the 21st century. NASA went right to work exploring, re-engineering — admitting and embracing the fact that the near-tragic malfunction was an opportunity, and represented the fundamental necessity to change.
A few years ago, George Barna wrote, “It is quite astounding that although Protestant and Catholic churches have raised – and spent – close to one trillion dollars on domestic ministry during the past two decades, there has been no measurable increase in one of the expressed purposes of the church: to lead people to Christ and have them commit their lives to Him.“[i] In other words, “Christendom, We’ve got a problem!” ( I almost wrote “Houston” in that last sentence but then people would just go around blaming Joel Osteen for this mess). The integrity of the results of the mission of Christians, Christianity and the Church had been called into question. The ‘C’ module had malfunctioned and the oxygen level readings indicated the atmosphere had been jeopardized, impairing the health and safety of all on board. Paraphrasing Barna, our Command module was declared tangibly inoperable. Our mission had been publicly declared as compromised. The future viability of the mission was questionable. Lives were at stake. The consequences could be characterized as eternal. The unsung reality was upon us.
How have we responded to this unimaginable, unthinkable, unbelievable news from Barna (and a myriad of others)? We ignored the proclamation, resorted to blaming others, denial, became indignant and defensive, and rejected the validity of the social research that supported Barna’s pronouncement. More recently, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons confirm and characterize the Christian response to this conundrum in their new book unChristian, stating: “We are not known for the depth of our transparency, for digging in and solving deep-seated problems, but for trying to project an unchristian picture of having it all together.” [ii]
Feel like you’re lost in space? Keep reading.
“Ground Control to Major Tom”
How could the viability of the ‘C’ module be restored? How could we avoid the unthinkable death of those on the current mission? How could the NASA (National Association of Spiritual Authorities) professionals restore the faith of the public in its ongoing mission? Folks muttered that this might be the end of the line with statements like, “It is our belief that one of the core tasks of missional leadership is to assist the church to find new forms and expressions of church, or bear the responsibility for the church’s effective extinction in our day.”[iii] The integrity of the entire enterprise was at stake.
Enter the professionals. Yes, when the going gets tough, trust the experts! At Ground Control the missiologists began speaking publicly. The public began to hear terms like mission critical, missionally, the missional code, missional leadership, and missional leaders. The professional technicians began writing, lecturing, publishing, blogging and expounding on the various alternatives that must be considered to address the dysfunction within the ‘C‘ module. The approach couldn’t be more of the same. As stated by one observer; “Obviously, it’s anything but business as usual on the demographic front — each of us is challenged to rethink what it means to be a Christian in 21st century America.”[iv] “Wonderful…” said the people on the street.
As part of this effort, the professionals began to suggest “we’re all missionnauts — everybody is on a mission — everyday.”[v] You don’t even have to be on a mission to a specific place or a specific people anymore.[vi] The mission which had once been the purview of a select few, technically trained and spiritually prepared, is now the responsibility of all. The mission field was no longer some remote outpost in a foreign land or outer space, it’s your own neighborhood, your workplace, the pub, the coffee shop — wherever you go, you’re on a mission from God! Furthermore, it was advised that missions need not be launched from Cape ‘C‘ (church – small ‘c’) anymore. “We no longer need to imagine that God dwells in special places like sanctuaries, church buildings, temples or tabernacles. Nor is he accessed only through special holy men, like priests and pastors, rabbis and imams…God has left the building.”[vii] In fact, it was suggested that mission was primary and could be launched virtually anywhere. And then there’s stuff like the following where theologians are trying to re-work the practical application of Einstein’s equation: “Put the M in the equation first, and the EC will follow.”[viii]
A voice from the back of the room: “Where has all this ingenious thinking got us? “Too often we see academic theology doing very little to actually impact practice on the ground. It’s too top down….if you start with pure reason, you’ll never get your heart fully enough involved to get down and change things.”[ix] “One’s life begins to slope downward when one becomes an “expert.” Postmodern pilgrims are not “experts in anything.” Pilgrims never graduate. We are students sitting lifelong, and one day eternity long, at Jesus’ feet.”[x]
Oh ya. I almost forgot. What about the trained professionals now flailing precariously around in the disabled ‘C‘ module limping around the Earth? In the ‘C‘ module we have Major Tom (aka “Doubting Thomas”) the mission commander. Excerpts from now public transcripts of the radio transmissions between the impaired Command module and Ground Control, Major Tom can be heard saying, “Ground Control — This is Major Tom. Get us back to Earth would ya! We want to get home. Is this stuff the best you can up with? How long is it going to take to restore the functionality of the ‘C‘ module so we can get on with this mission? We’re running low on oxygen and it’s getting awfully warm and stuffy in here!”
Atmospheric Conditions – Climate Change:
The words of Major Tom spurred the research teams at Ground Control to focus on a series of tests to determine if the spiritual atmosphere had somehow changed. Teams of scientists immediately began to obtain readings from their atmospheric testing devices, deployed throughout sacred space. Here’s a summary of what they found:
There are two types of errors: Errors of co-mission and errors of o-mission. When you’ve committed both types of errors, I refer to the atmosphere you’ve created as one primarily composed of CO2…you begin gasping for oxygen. You also have the effect of sucking the oxygen out of others. According to some, the conditions within the ‘C‘ module have become critical: “The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations, from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out (80% of money given to congregations comes from people aged fifty-five and older) or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off or both.”[xi]
The production of spiritual carbon-dioxide is insidious. Like its presence in the physical realm, you can’t see it, taste it, or smell it (although some have now developed measurements to quantify its presence within the atmosphere of the ‘C‘ module). It is produced by combustion. In the physical sciences, while burning charcoal, Flemish chemist John Baptist van Helmont (No – I didn’t make up this guy’s name) discovered that the mass of ash remaining was less than the mass he began with. His hypothesis was that the rest of the charcoal had been transmuted into some sort of an invisible essence he referred to as a “gas” or “wild spirit” (spiritus sylvestre). So, let’s take a look at the components and conditions for producing spiritual CO2 that these scientists uncovered:
- Combustion – The God-man relationship is combustible. The history of civilization confirms it. Furthermore, the result of this combustion is supposed to be something that is so distinctly transformative in character that the fragrance and form of our lives is magnetically attractive to others. When this process results in the production of byproducts that are unattractive to others, we’ve failed. As stated by one researcher, “We think and behave no differently from anyone else.”[xii] To quote the findings of yet another investigator; “With Christians now largely indistinguishable from non-Christians in how they live and think, there is no longer a startling freshness to the proclamation of biblical truth when it is presented as principles and propositions. How a person lives speaks much more loudly than what he or she asserts, now as always.”[xiii] This is an error of co-mission. As Will Smith screamed in his most recent film, I am Legend: “God didn’t do this Anna! We did.”[xiv] What must we do now? “What is needed is a revolution within the Christian faith – a complete upheaval of those Christian practices that are contrary to biblical principle. We must begin all over again, on the right foundation. Anything less will prove defective.”[xv] “We Christians cannot continue to avoid knowing what we already know: that something is rotten in the state of our religion.”[xvi]
- The first error of O-mission, as Doug Pagitt describes it, involves “running into things that “just ain’t so” is something I have come to call an uh-oh moment. It’s that time when reality opens up in front of you and you can either step into it or run away from it”[xvii] Embracing uh-oh moments involves the possibility that; “Perhaps becoming what you believe is a process that necessarily involves shedding beliefs that are no longer becoming.”[xviii] It appears that we omitted the possibility we humans in the 21st century could get this God-life relationship wrong. As another observer points out; “We must, therefore, never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God, when thinking about God, when imagining God-whether in prose or in poetry.”[xix]
- The second error of O-mission is characterized by the following from A.W. Tozer: “Orthodoxy, or right opinion, is, at best, a very slender part of religion. Though right tempers cannot subsist without right opinions, right opinions may subsist without right tempers. There may be a right opinion of God without either love or one right temper toward Him. Satan is a proof of this.”[xx] With our penchant over the last several hundred years to get our beliefs, doctrine and theology correct, we have overlooked the byproducts of what this penchant has been producing; a love affair with the comfort and smugness of being right theologically. As one author notes; “We can’t keep comparing our best to their worst and feeling smug.”[xxi] We seem to have overlooked the fact that a transformed life reflecting the love of Jesus to this, his world, must be the end result of our belief systems. Perhaps we need to explore the truth that “love is an action; love is something we do for others.”[xxii] Maybe, our challenge is to confront the following: “What I believe is not what I say I believe; what I believe is what I do.”[xxiii]
As the research teams shared these findings in the crowded conference facility at Ground Control, the flight director rose and said: “I simply do not believe that we can continue to try and think our way into a new way of acting, but rather we need to act our way into a new way of thinking.”[xxiv]
Voice from the rear of the conference room at Ground Control: “How do we do that?”
The Curie point
Researchers also observed that the ‘C‘ module had encountered an atmospheric phenomenon referred to as discontinuous change. “Discontinuous change is disruptive and unanticipated; it creates situations that challenge our assumptions. The skills we have learned aren’t helpful in this kind of change…it is dominant in periods of history that transform a culture forever, tipping it over into something new.”[xxv]
As the research team completed sharing this insight, to the crowd of practitioners gathered in the crowded conference facility at Ground Control, the flight director jumped to his feet and shouted: “We need to become “wombs of the divine” and completely rebirth the church into a host culture!”[xxvi]
Voice from the rear of the conference room at Ground Control: “Sounds like we need a biological geneticist.”
Delving further into this issue, the experts began to hone in on the essence of the problem. Conditions within the ‘C‘ module had morphed into what physical scientists refer to as, the Curie point. In physics, magnetism is an observable fact by which particles exert either an attractive or repulsive force on other particles. Whenever electrically charged particles are in motion, magnetism occurs. The measurements obtained from various reference points within the ‘C‘ module indicate that the Curie point was reached. Magnetization (attraction) becomes nil at and above the Curie point. In other words, as stated by another expert, “What is at stake is the expansion of the movement, which in this case, is the fulfillment of the Great Commission.”[xxvii]
Translation: The fundamental magnetic essence of the ‘C‘ module has been impaired. The ability to attract others has been compromised. It has become “unChristian – reflecting outsiders’ most common reaction to the faith: they think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind, that Christianity in our society is not what it was meant to be.”[xxviii][xxix] “How can people love God, whom they can’t see, if those of us who claim to represent him don’t respond to outsiders with love?”
Voice from the rear of the conference room at Ground Control: “Perhaps many more people would be open to what Jesus offers if his followers weren’t so bent on requiring you to clean up your act as a prerequisite for receiving it?”[xxx]
Inside the ‘C‘ module, Major Tom and his crew were startled awake. The module had struck something. They continued to be jostled by a strange rolling motion that seemed to be impacting the module from the outside. Nobody spoke. The crew listened and glanced at each other’s facial expressions. Then – a tapping sound. Major Tom moved toward the hatch and rubbed the face of the external atmospheric pressure dial. “It can’t be,” he muttered, as he released the seal on the hatch. The hydraulic hatch sprung open as fresh air and light filled the capsule, along with a huge shower of salt water, drenching the crew in the capsule. As the crew wiped the salt water from their eyes, the face a young dark-skinned boy appears in the hatch, peering down into capsule. He smiles widely and shouts with inviting excitement, “Come out! Come out!” Major Tom climbs out first, followed by the other four crew members. They follow the young boy, wading ashore, soothed by the warmth of chest high ocean waters.
On the beach, the four crew members look out to sea. The ‘C‘ module is rocking back and forth in the ocean swells. “Where are we?” asks one crew member as they ponder the beauty of the surf crashing on the endless white sandy beaches. “We should go back to the ‘C‘ module” said another, clearly unnerved by their unexpected surroundings.
Major Tom, looking toward the young boy in the distance speaks up and says, “We must move to the other side. We cannot return to the ‘C‘ module.” “As we move to the other side, our greatest enemy will not be our ignorance; it will be our unteachability. It won’t be what we don’t know that threatens us; it will be what we do know. We know too much — so much that we can’t learn how much we need to learn.”[xxx] A crew member places his hand on Major Tom’s shoulder as they turn and gaze at the ‘C‘ module marooned on the reef: “This won’t be an easy journey even after we have dismounted from the old dead horse.”[xxxi]
The crew turns toward the sandy bluff where the young boy was standing. He has been joined by dozens of other children, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. The entourage is waving at the crew with faint shouts of, “Welcome! Come on! Follow us! Let’s go!”
Major Tom smiles wryly as he gazes upon this group of remnants and says, “A total renovation of our imagination, our way of looking at things – is what Jesus commanded in his no-nonsense imperative, “Repent!” – is required.”[xxxii] “Renewal movements are often led by people with no recognized formal leadership status in the church.”[xxxiii] Perhaps we should live and learn amongst these aliens and strangers and see what God has in store for us.” Pausing for a moment, Major Tom mutters quizzically, “spiritus sylvestre.” Another crew member adds, “Aliens and strangers – it appears that’s what we’ve become.”
As the crew trudges through the white sands toward their new hosts, they turn toward the sea one final time. The sun is setting. The ‘C‘ module is being swallowed in the rising tide. A red hue begins to increase in intensity, reflecting off the surface of the ocean waters.
As the crew meanders toward the distant crowd, a voice from the heavens booms: “Keep practicing that dangerous critique of the host empire!”[xxxiv]
[i] Barna, George The State of the Church: 2002, Published by Issachar Resources, a division of Barna Research Group, Ltd., 5528 Everglades Street Ventura, CA 93003 Copyright © 2002 by George Barna p. 63.
[ii] Kinnaman, David & Lyons, Gabe unChristian – What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… And Why It Matters Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI Copyright 2007 by Dabvid Kinnaman and Fermi Project, p. 44.
[iii] Frost, Michael & Hirsch, Alan The Shaping of Things to Come – Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century Church,“ Hendrickson Publishers, Copyright 2003 by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, p. 186.
[iv] Barna, George and Hatch, Mark Boiling Point – It Takes Only One Degree – Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century, Regal Books Ventura, CA Copyright © 2001 by George Barna and Mark Hatch, p. 46.
[v] See – Stetzer, Ed and Putman, David Breaking The Missional Code – Your Church Can Become A Missionary in Your Community, Broadman & Holman Publishers Nashville, TN Copyright © 2006 by Ed Stetzer and David Putman p. 31.
[vi] See – Creps, Earl Off-Road Disciplines – Spiritual Adventures of Missional Leaders Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, Copyright © 2006 by Earl Creps p. 38.
[vii] Cavey, Bruxy The End of Religion – Encountering The Subversive Spirituality of Jesus, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO Copyright © 2007 by Bruxy Cavey pp. 155-156.
[viii] Hirsch, Alan The Forgotten Ways – Reactivating The Missional Church Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2006 by Alan Hirsch
[xix] Brewin, Kester in Garrison, Becky Rising From The Ashes – Rethinking Church, Seabury Books New York, NY Copyright © 2007 by Becky Garrison pp. 141-142.
[x] Sweet, Leonard Learn to Dance the Soul Salza – 17 Surprising Steps for Godly Living in the 21st Century, Zondervan Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2000 by Leonard I. Sweet p. 63.
[xi] McNeal, Reggie The Present Future – Six Tough Questions For The Church, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA – A Leadership Network Series Publication Copyright © 2003 by John Wiley & Sons, p. 1
[xii] Barna, George The Second Coming of the Church – A Blueprint for Survival -Word Publishing, Nashville, TN Copyright © 1998 by George Barna, p. 7.
[xiii] Sweet, Leonard. Out of the Question… into the Mystery – Getting Lost in the Godlife Relationship, WaterBrook Press Colorado Springs, CO Ó Copyright 2004 by Leonard I. Sweet, p. 21.
[xiv] Smith, Will I Am Legend – Warner Bros. 12-14-07
[xv] Barna, George and Viola Frank Pagan Christianity? – Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, Barna Books – An Imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Copyright © 2002, 2008 by Frank Viola and George Barna, p. 250.
[xvi] McLaren, Brian A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI © © Copyright 2004 by Youth Specialties, p. 268.
[xvii] Pagitt, Doug A Christianity Worth Believing – Hope Filled, Open Armed, Alive and Well Faith – For the Left Out, Left Behind and Let Down in Us All by Doug Pagitt – Jossey-Bass Publishers San Francisco, CA Copyright 2008 by John Wiley & Sons – publication date June 2008, p. 19.
[xviii] Dahl, Bill – in Burke, Spencer Out of the Ooze – Unlikely Love Letters to the Church from Beyond the Pew – NavPress – Colorado Springs, CO Copyright © 2007 by Spencer Burke as compiler – excerpt from Paradime: A Christian Witness Worth More Than Twenty Cents by Bill Dahl, p. 68.
[xix] McLaren, Brian A Generous Orthodoxy, Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI © © Copyright 2004 by Youth Specialties, p. 152.
[xx] Tozer, A. W. The Pursuit of God – The Human Thirst for the Divine, Christian Publications, Inc. Camp Hill, PA Ó Copyright 1982, 1993 by Christian Publications, Inc., p. 9.
[xxi] McLaren, Brian Church on the Other Side – Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, Zondervan Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2000 by Brian D. McLaren, p.81.
[xxii] Tutu, Desmond God Has A Dream – A Vision of Hope for Our Time, Image Books – Doubleday – A Division of Random House, Inc., Copyright © 2004 by Desmond Tutu p.78.
[xxiii] Miller, Donald, J. Blue Like Jazz – Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, TN Copyright 2004 by Donald Miller, p.110.
[xxiv] Hirsch, Alan The Forgotten Ways – Reactivating The Missional Church Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2006 by Alan Hirsch p. 122.
[xxv] Roxburgh, Alan J. and Romanuk, Fred – Foreword by Eddie Gibbs, The Missional Leader – Equipping Your Church to Reach A Changing World, Jossey-Bass Publishers – A WILEY Imprint, San Francisco, CA, Copyright © 2006 by Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, p. 7.
[xxvi] Brewin, Kester Signs of Emergence- A Vision for Church That is Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexing/Always Evolving, Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2004, 2007 by Kester Brewin, p.92.
[xxvii] Easum, Bill UnFreezing Moves – Following Jesus Into The Mission Field, Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN, Copyright © 2001 by Bill Easum, p. 25.
[xxviii] Kinnaman, David & Lyons, Gabe unChristian – What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… And Why It Matters Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI Copyright 2007 by Dabvid Kinnaman and Fermi Project, p. 15.
[xxix] Kinnaman, David & Lyons, Gabe unChristian – What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… And Why It Matters Baker Books Grand Rapids, MI Copyright 2007 by Dabvid Kinnaman and Fermi Project, p. 36.
[xxx] Palmer, Jim Divine Nobodies – Shedding Religion to Find God and the Unlikely People Who Help You, W Publishing Group – A Division of Thomas Nelson Publishers Nashville, TN Copyright © 2006 by Jim Palmer, p. 24.
[xxxi] McLaren, Brian Church on the Other Side – Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, Zondervan Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2000 by Brian D. McLaren, p. 38-39.
[xxxii] McLaren, Brian Church on the Other Side – Doing Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix, Zondervan Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2000 by Brian D. McLaren, p. 25.
[xxxiii] Peterson, Eugene H. The Jesus Way – A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way, William B. Eerdsman Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2007 by Eugene H. Peterson, p.9.
[xxxiv] Hirsch, Alan The Forgotten Ways – Reactivating The Missional Church Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI Copyright © 2006 by Alan Hirsch p. 193.
[xxxv] Frost, Michael Exiles – Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Peabody, MA Copyright © 2006 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. p. 327.