I recently found this online game called Pandemic II. It got me thinking about the gospel and the mission of the church…
In Pandemic II, your disease must adapt in four ways in order to flourish in different parts of the world. It must develop a resistance to heat (for regions like the middle east), cold (for regions like Canada), moisture (for the wetter regions of the world like South America), and drug resistance (to hopefully ward off the development of a vaccine, which will eventually happen). This doesn’t happen for free–you must acquire “evolution points” (I prefer the term “adaptability”, but we won’t open that can…), which increase over time, and with the amount/rate of people you infect. Each of the four categories has four levels of adaptability, each level costing more points. The higher the adaptability, the more efficiently your disease spreads. In some cases, it is nearly impossible to infect certain regions without a high enough level (for example, you can’t infect Madagascar unless your disease starts there, or you have a high moisture resistance). To sum up, if you want to achieve your objective of wiping out mankind with your disease, it must be highly adaptable.
What does adaptability have to do with the gospel and the church’s mission?
Some of us would argue that the gospel isn’t adaptable–we can’t change it. I agree that we cannot change the core message of the gospel: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and transformation of our lives. But how do we effectively communicate the unchangeable message of the gospel in a world saturated with different cultures and subcultures? Adaptability.
We see the adaptability of the gospel in the New Testament. The church in Jerusalem looked a lot different from the church in Antioch, which undoubtedly looked a lot different from the churches she planted in the province of Asia and in Europe through Paul. The Jerusalem church was made up mainly of Jews; the Antioch church was a multi-ethnic church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles; the churches of Europe look to have been predominately Gentile; vastly different cultures with vastly different expressions of the unchangeable gospel. It’s very likely that each of these churches approached the concept of “doing church” differently. The Jerusalem church certainly had a Jewish flair; the church plants in Europe likely did not. The flagship Bible text for adaptability is 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where Paul writes that he became “all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” There were times when it looks like Paul laid aside his Jewishness in order to reach non-Jews with the gospel. He didn’t become someone he wasn’t–he simply adapted his methods in order to reach the culture he found himself in at the time.
In our times, this issue of adaptability–or, as the smart guys call it, contextualization–is something that all Christians and church planters must take seriously. Ten years ago, you could go into a city or town and plant a “cool, relevant church” with the cool rock band, the super slick lighting scheme, and jacked-up audio-visual set up, etc., and it would work because you were the only kid on the block. Now, it seems like every school and movie theater has a “cool, relevant church” that markets heavily with slogans like, “You’ve never experienced church like this before.” Well… yeah, we have. They’re everywhere now. Is this a bad thing? No… unless we stop being students of the culture we’re in and simply plant pre-boxed, processed churches.
Think about it–many churches planted now do so by the “parachute drop” method: a team of guys raises a ton of money, goes to the area they’re planting in and lives for 6-12 months, sets a date when the church will launch, and then tries to carry out their game plan (and, by the way, gives God a time line to work within). Has this method worked? Absolutely… but plants of this nature usually (not always) look very similar: the same type of Sunday gathering, the same type of music, the same type of preaching, etc. What if the culture and sub-cultures of the area you’re planting in really aren’t into U2 pop-rock? What if they really don’t get preaching that takes illustrations from the business world or pop culture? What if all your marketing just ends up being white noise?
The gospel is adaptable to the cultures we are in or will go to. The question we must ask is this: are we that adaptable?
Here are some things to think about when it comes to adaptability:
- Let your Christology determine your missiology, which will determine your ecclesiology. Well, that’s how Alan Hirsch puts it in his book, “The Forgotten Ways”. We’ve let our ecclesiology (the way we do church) determine our missiology (how we carry out our mission). The result is that we aren’t as relevant as we claim to be. Instead, allow everything to start with Jesus (as it should). Let Him determine how we carry out our mission. Then let how we carry out our mission determine what our church will look like. When we do this, we’ll find our churches rising up out of the culture instead of forcing a new sub-culture onto the existing culture.
- Be a student of the culture(s) you’re in. This is something I’m learning to do now. Sociologists have determined that our culture is made up of a complex web of sub-cultures (and each sub-culture even has sub-cultures of its own). As you learn more about the sub-cultures of your area, you can discern the best way to adapt the gospel to reach those sub-cultures.
- Success is relative. We must stop thinking that each church we plant must be the next mega-church. It may be… it may not be. Success isn’t based on numbers (chances are, the larger your church is, the more church people you’ve attracted from other churches. Not true in every case, but in most cases). A micro-church that reaches a handful of people who are far from God is just as successful as the mega-church who reaches a bigger handful. It’s about life transformation, not bragging rights.
- Be open to absolutely anything God has in store. I learned this the hard way. I thought I was to be a mega-church planter (which was more out of personal pride than following Jesus). I now realize that I’m called to lead a network of microchurches. If you’re planting a church or part of a church planting core group, don’t automatically jump on the bandwagon of a certain model or approach. Let God show you what model and approach you’re to use.
- Multiply disciples, and the church will sprout. We’ve got this idea in our heads that if we plant a church, disciples will be made. We need to flip that coin–if we make disciples, churches will sprout… and they’ll be contextually and culturally relevant.
That’s plenty on adaptability. Tomorrow we’ll look at infectivity…