I am thinking about heretics again. Seth Godin in his latest book Tribes (a book that should be read, marked up, practiced and shared!) offers a delightful parable of a unicorn in a balloon factory. Balloon factory workers are very timid and fearful. They are afraid of needles, pins, and porcupines, anything sharp. Balloon factories are quiet and peaceful places of soft stability, until the unicorn shows up.
Those who imagine missional change in the church are unicorns! And they are also seen as heretics–people who go against the status quo.
Wilbert Shenk, senior professor at Fuller Seminary, notes a number of strategies for renewal that have been evidenced throughout the history of the church (Shenk 1997:157-158).
First, churches renew through a reaffirming of tradition. This mode seeks to recapture the original identity of the church. This is the church always reforming with change emerging out of the past. This mode defends and promotes tradition. This mode can inhibit mission.
Second, churches renew through restructuring. This option recognizes that structures can become sterile. So organizations need to be streamlined for efficiency. Restructuring often does not stimulate vision or commitment.
Third, renewal occurs through ‘mainstreaming’ the church. This method is driven by culture. Here the church becomes culturally embedded and reactive, thus it often lacks an ability to become a distinct presence in society.
Fourth, renewal occurs through attempts to restore the primitive church. This model is built upon the New Testament apostolic model. It seeks to replicate the original church as found in the New Testament. This is an a-historical model without memory. This model ignores or denies that the Spirit of God has been active in the church since the primitive period, and the Spirit has been active in a variety of ways. This model elevates the New Testament period without regard for current cultural considerations. This is the method encouraged recently by Frank Viola in his books Pagan Christianity? and Reimagining Church.
Shenk’s fifth model for renewal is missionary engagement. This model is built upon the biblical concept of missio Dei. It witnesses to the reign of God in history. With this model, renewal is concerned with the recovery of the churches primary reason for existence. It is linked to the church’s engagement in society. Context takes priority over structure. This model of church renewal, Shenk notes, sets an agenda based on the heart cries of the culture and it reads Scripture and is drawn to Scripture in new ways in light of the anxieties of contemporary culture. This fifth model provides the way forward. It becomes the missiological basis for churchly re-imagination.
Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man despairs about the impotency of religion:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the tone of compassion—the message becomes meaningless.
As we imagine new ways to be church that connects Good News with the hurts of our world, we need to take the position of a unicorn. It will be risky and it will make people nervous. But this is necessary–for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of the world.