I am not sure in what context or venue he said this, but billionaire financier Warren Buffett is credited with having noted:
“In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”
Whatever the initial context, there is much wisdom in this insight that can be applied to any endeavor that is no longer functioning. This includes the Church – especially the mission of the church.
To deny that the Church as a whole has a declining influence would be naive. While this lack of potency is not the case overall, as Christianity is exploding in many parts of the world, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, it is almost unarguably true of the Church in the West, including the USA. The declining percentage of those attending weekly worship, and empty rooms that used to be filled with people gathered for prayer meetings, reflect Buffet’s imagery of “leaking boats”. No question change is needed.
Yet what is subject to change? Should everything be up for grabs? There is no lack of suggestions and examples of what people are changing in the name of reigniting the church. And many have increased the attendance of their respective congregational gatherings using a variety of techniques. But is mere pragmatism really the answer? If it “works” is it of God? Is having more butts in the pew (or whatever kind of seat) equal to making more disciples? After all, some of the techniques employed by “cutting edge” congregations are raising some eyebrows – not to mention raising some ire.
I do not recall which of his writings I read it in, (I think it was Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,) but Neil Postman pointed out that not all inventions are actually to our advancement. Postman says that for something to be an advancement it must meet an actual need. While Postman was speaking of technology, the same principle applies to institutions, including the Church. (I know some will object to identifying the Church as an institution, insisting that the Church is “organic”. But in one sense it is. It was “instituted” by God… Marriage is also an institution “instituted” by God. But that does not mean my marriage is stoic and stodgy and inorganic. Marriage and Church are both “organic” and “institutions” at the same time – or, when at their best, organic institutions.)
OK. Back on track…
While some novel ideas are showing clear evidence of drawing crowds, one question must be asked: “At what expense?” In other words, what might we be sacrificing, what would we forfeit, for the sake of increasing numbers?
It is vital that we remember Psalm 127.1:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
When I consider Postman’s concern along with this truth, I cannot help but thinking that while some innovations unquestionably advance attendance, those not in accord with God’s blue-print do so at the expense of not actually being the Church. I do not know what such a congregation is, but God says all their creative efforts are in vain. To be church we MUST be built by God, and upon God’s design.
Now, I do not want to be suspect of being an ecclesiastical Luddite. I am not against creativity, innovation, or change. I agree with Buffett that energy expended constantly patching leaks would be better spent on changing to a new vessel. But Buffett’s illustration does not imply changing modes entirely. He does not say, for instance, that if your boat leaks then buy a car. He suggests we renew our mode.
For the Church this means that we reaffirm what it means to be a Church. We must do this in every detail: doctrine, church government, misson. We do not just employ trendy organizational practices, and then teach the Bible, and call it a church. We embody everything God says a church is – and has always been. And then we take a look at where the leaks are coming from, and what is causing them. Then, and only then, do we consider possible innovations in our methods.
In short, I believe we must consider innovations, but that we must only employ those that are consistent with all that it means to be Christ’s Church, of which Jesus is the Head.
In line with this premise, Felipe Assis has made a few paradigm shift suggestions for the future of the church that I find intriguing and promising, and worthy of consideration:
1. Incarnation over innovation
2. Environments over processes
3. Movement over expansion
4. Flat over hierarchical