Is Our Toolbox Big Enough?
Having lived in a variety of locations around the world, I often faced more “do-it-yourself” challenges than I ever imagined. The hardware store became almost like a toy store for me. On one hand, if the repair involved something I knew about or had the tool for, the work went easy. In some cases, however, I was faced with repair jobs that required a very unique set of tools or skills that I did not have. I had to choose between trying to “make-do” with a tool I already owned or going out and getting the correct equipment. It goes without saying which option produced the best result. A great collection of automotive tools offers little help for most house repairs. A great set of carpentry tools will not be of much use in giving your car a tune-up.
This is part of our human nature. In the Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, published in 2012 by Yale Press, the entry under “Generals” records a modern proverb that states, “Generals (soldiers) always fight the last war.” This proverb refers to our human tendency to view the world, the challenges in front of us, and the solutions to those challenges through the filter of our past experiences. In almost every endeavor, we tend to use our past successes, failures, and the lessons learned to build up a “toolbox” of strategies, policies, techniques, and resources that have proven useful and effective. If the issue at hand is a familiar one, then the tools in the toolbox may work. Sometimes, though, the issues and challenges are so far outside of our framework, we cannot even see them until it is too late. And, even if we could see them, our tendency is to twist or re-define these issues to make them “fit” into our accepted paradigms. This temptation to redefine issues is the reason why business and cultural writers state that we often miss important “paradigm shifts” that change our reality completely. The classic example of a missed paradigm shift is the failure by Swiss watchmakers to recognize the significance of one of their own inventions – the quartz movement. By refusing to see the potential of this new invention, these highly effective watch manufacturers lost revenue, and many went out of business as their competitors in Japan and other locations took advantage of the new technology.
As churches, we are facing challenges today with “toolboxes” that may be limited or inappropriate. It is becoming clear through observation and research that we, as Evangelical Christians are facing a cultural shift in our country that is leading many to grow more hostile to our message and our identity. There is no shortage of effective analyses and evaluations as to why this may be taking place. The important question is, “What do we do about it?” How do we carry the Gospel effectively to a culture that more and more sees us as extremist, closed-minded, intolerant, and irrelevant? This is only one example of the multiple challenges before us. Even as we recognize these challenges, we also struggle with the temptation to bring out our trusted “toolbox” and continue to use solutions and strategies that were very effective in a different era. It is easy to see what does not work. The numbers make that clear. Yet, we struggle to identify and see what will work. Some congregations seem to opt for “more of the same” – only bigger and better. To those on the outside, it seems that these churches are unconsciously structuring their programs and activities to, in a sense, “compete” with other churches for a slice of an ever-shrinking pie. It appears to be easier to gather believers dissatisfied with their current congregations than to reach into a lost world that is growing more suspicious and hostile toward us. The good news is that this world is desperate for the Gospel. The Kingdom is growing world-wide and men and women are coming to faith in parts for the world that we have often considered closed. In our own Western culture, there are reasons to believe that we are living in a time in history that is as close to the First Century reality as we have ever experienced. The opportunities abound, but they may require adding “tools” to the toolbox. The way forward may be to look back at the “tools” our brothers and sisters used in the very beginning of the Church to change the world in a generation. Many of us are facing a dilemma. How can churches continue to fill weekly calendars with more and more activity and familiar program-based “tools” and, at the same time, during the same weeks, ask their members to have time to build relationships intentionally, love their neighbors, do good to those around them and reflect the love of Jesus in concrete ways. The God who worked in Acts is the same God who desires to work now. His purposes and desires have not changed. The true challenge is not the cultural or societal issues before us. It is whether we have the trust and faith to step back and let God guide us and work in us as He wills. Are we open to letting God use people and experiences that are very different from our own to show us new tools? Do we have the patience and the spiritual will to let God expand our “toolbox” in ways that might be uncomfortable and new so that we can become the instruments in His hands to expand His Kingdom and multiply disciples? I hope we are. I would not like the Lord to find me trying to hammer a nail with a crescent wrench just because I did not recognize the hammer He had placed beside me.