The train companies thought they were in the train business, and the horse and buggy companies thought they were in the horse and buggy business, but then the automobile came along. They were in the transportation business, but because they couldn’t see outside the categories and boundaries they were living in, they didn’t realize it until it was too late. I read an interview with the president of British Petroleum (BP gas stations). Because it is estimated the world will run out of oil in 40 years, he is trying to convince the company that they are in the energy business, not the petroleum business.
New inventions, ecological problems, and cultural shifts have always forced people to re-think their assumptions and re-invent their companies to serve the needs of a new world fraught with new challenges and flush with new opportunities. I believe a seismic shift is underway in our culture, and the church needs to be re-thinking her assumptions, theology, and praxis. That’s kind of what this blog is about, most of the time.
The old categories are disappearing (conservative/liberal, Catholic/Protestant, traditional/contemporary, etc). More and more people are realizing that the lines that were drawn in previous generations aren’t helpful for following Jesus in this strange new world. It’s an uncomfortable time for many people, because whatever it is that’s coming is still in its infancy, so we can’t know for sure what it’s going to look like when it grows up. We know we need to change, but how? And how fast?
Of course cultural shifts like these take decades, not months, to fully emerge. Churches cannot "convert" to postmodern ministry all at once, especially if postmodernism (broadly speaking) hasn’t hit their locality in full force yet (which is often the case in Midwestern America). I think churches that are willing to be both established and emerging are going to find themselves in a good place. I long to see established churches that support and send postmodern missionaries into their communities, just like you’d send a missionary to India or France. It seems to me that if support, encouragement, wisdom, and discussion can take place among old and young, established and emerging, we will see some really good fruit. The church’s task in this "in-between-time" (between modernity and whatever is growing in our culture, call it postmodernity if you like) is captured well by Brian McLaren in A New Kind of Christian:
If it were 1910, what kind of transportation would you buy? What would be the most reliable form of transportation available to you in 1910? … Automobiles had been invented only a decade or two before. But in 1910, they were still notoriously undependable. Not only that, there weren’t good roads for them to ride on, and there weren’t any gas stations around. So if you needed good, reliable transportation, you would not have bought a car in 1910. What about airplanes? They were still seen pretty much as a joke, an impractical dreamer’s machine–if had only been a few short years since the first one got off the ground. So if you wanted good, reliable transportation in 1910, you would have bought a horse and buggy. Why, never in history had better buggies been built! Do you see the point? We would expect that the best modern churches in history would exist today, right at the time when the modern world is passing, much like the world of the horse and buggy in 1910. The smartest modern churches see this and are building in flexibility so that they can "convert" to postmodern effectiveness in the future–perhaps like a foresighted buggy manufacturer who realizes he’s not just in the buggy business but rather in the transportation business. He would continue building fine buggies but would be preparing to build automobiles too.
This is where it seems we are, at least here in Midwest America. We are realizing we are in the kingdom business, not just the church business (as defined by modernity), and we are going to have to build in flexibility so we can effectively "present everyone mature in Christ" in a new context.