I am continuing to do research to help turn my PhD dissertation into a book that can be read by normal people. Even though the dissertation is just a few years old, my thinking continues to move in new directions. The purpose of the dissertation turned book is to help pastors and church leaders develop new imaginations for the renewal of the church. In other words–how to we help the church to stay fresh, vibrant, alive and adapting so that a gospel movement does not erode, decay into a lifeless form.
One my my favorite and stimulating authors is Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU (www.shirky.com). His latest book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age presents what has been dubbed the Shirky Principle: “…people committed to solving a particular problem also commit themselves to maintaining that problem in order to keep their solution viable. We can’t ask people running traditional systems to evaluate a new technology for its radical benefits; people committed to keeping the current system will tend, as a group, to have trouble seeing value in anything disruptive” (p. 210).
Shirky gets me thinking about church. The church in North America once existed within a modern, Christendom-based world, and the church developed ways to exist and to thrive in that world. But the world has changed–the world is now post-modern, and post-Christian. The old ways of doing church though helpful and successful in one age, simply will not work in a new age.
I wonder how if the Shirky Principle invades the ecclesial world–in our denominations, in our seminaries, in local congregations. Are we so committed to running our current and comfortable and known system, that we are unable to see the need for radical new ways for the gospel to engage our world?
I have been doing a lot of reading this summer on the Awakenings that took place in the history of the United States. Those engaged in these awakenings–Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield and others–faced opposition from traditional clergy because of their new thinking and methods. Is that the Shirky Principle?
The gospel message is alive with tranformative power. Does it get stuck in systems that are deadened? Do we who are engaged in serving the church, seeking to advance the gospel movement get stuck in our traditional ways, giving uncritical allegiance to our guilds, our denominations, our systems?
We are prone, all of us to live settled lives. The way forward, however, is to allow the disruptive to seed our thinking and our practices. Those whom we too easily dismiss may truly be the catalyst that advances the gospel and rallies the church.