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The Iceberg Slicing at the Hull of the Church

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. When it comes to seeing what is occurring within churches, that is creating our current mission malaise, it takes an illustration to stick in our minds and stir our imaginations. In this blog, I bring you a principle I developed in my book ReMission, which seeks to raise the missional health of the body. With permission from my publisher, I offer an excerpt from one of the more controversial concepts, which I believe is absolutely vital for church leaders to achieve greater mission prowess in their people. It provides a picture that we must be willing to look at, if we care about each Christian’s discipleship and increasing their gospel impact. Now, enter the book at chapter 5, enjoy!

Excerpt from ReMission: “The Permeation.”  

On June 6, 2015 at Homer Alaska, the self-proclaimed halibut fishing capital of the world, a strange meteorological event occurred. It was not something perceptible to the average tourist or passerby, but at 10:56 am, out on what they call the Homer Spit, two relocated church planters took a photo of a horizon, which included two faint distant mountains. When these pastors later inquired of the peak’s names, a local corrected their claim clarifying that those mountains were not visible from the Spit. Doubt ensued as to what they actually saw, only to have it wiped away by their corroborating photograph.[

Yes, Mt Fourpeaked and Mt Douglas—out of sight geographically from the Homer Split due to the curvature of the earth and their distance: 95 and 87 miles respectively, were clear as day to the human eye and the camera lens. What they had witnessed and photographed made no sense at all. That is, until you understand the word: refraction. From mid 17th century Latin, “refringere,” to break up, the dictionary defines it: “The fact or phenomenon of light, radio waves, etc., being deflected in passing obliquely through the interface between one medium and another or through a medium of varying density.” In simpler terms, what had appeared on that day was the collision of one cold medium of air into a warmer less dense front, which deflected light resulting in a mass towering mirage.

Refraction

If by chance you are still shaking your head regarding this explanation, I will make things worse by saying that this was the definitive conclusion of British researcher, Tim Maltin, to solve the mystery of what really occurred on the night the Titanic went down, when the cold air of the Labrador Current met the warm air of the Gulf Stream. Combing through volumes of eyewitness testimony and ship records painstakingly, a preponderance of evidence mounts: the descriptions of “refraction” by vessels in that vicinity, the frigid cold air suddenly coming upon the passengers, the blurring of the water’s horizon with the sky, the fact the nearest captain’s telescopic eyes, Stanley Lord of the SS Californian, believed the gigantic liner was a smaller ship, the failure of the lookouts to see the massive iceberg before it was right upon them, all seem to point to this one lethal phenomenon. Detailed in the Smithsonian’s documentary, Titanic’s Final Mystery, we must now entertain that it was a night of optical illusion that sunk the great ship.[2]

Refraction in the Church

It is my conviction from close observations and corroborating data, that one thing pervasive within today’s church is—refraction. Pastor’s look out at their beloved congregations and get a distorted view of what is occurring. With human factors involved, this tendency has numerous tethers.

The most obvious, perhaps, is how deeply vested and personal the church is to the pastor (or group leader). Whether they planted or not, it is their baby. What parent is invulnerable to rose-colored-glasses? When a church’s corporate accomplishments or community prominence is added to the mix, whom may I ask is able to resist the lens-skewing affects of pride? Now granted, each leader must assess him or her self. I am only making a generalized assertion of tendency. Your eyes might be spot on, and ruthlessly honest.

Honest evaluation, by the way, is the quality of a leader that I admire most. Paul expresses the virtue with a penetrating verse: “I say to everyone of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” (Rom 12:3). The ability to maintain humble perspective sets the great leaders apart from the rest. High-level leaders are not so caught up with themselves or their ministry that they lose objectivity. To the contrary, the exceptional leader is searching for deeper insights on what is really going down. The Friday Night Lights axiom, “Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose” is their motto. They can see good happening and realize that their church is only scratching the surface of who Jesus wants them to be and what he wills them to do in our world. They might even have the ability to see sweeping deficiencies. And they can make cold hard assessments about themselves, too.

So are you ready for some hard assessment? I wish to address a critical issue that is, in my view, pandemic in scope. It strikes me as something that is authentically true in an almost universal way—that church leaders overestimate their teaching impact. I submit to you that this type of refraction hinders church mission in the biggest of ways. It is the iceberg slicing across the steel walls undermining the outer movement of God. As it was on that fateful frigid night in 1912, there seem to be numbers of contributing aspects to this phenomenon.

It’s not just the low memory retention of hearers of a message (5 percent of what was said), or the fact that so many attend services sporadically. Though these factors undermine, the root is much more sly in how it ties to an honorable conviction. Propelling the propensity, preachers and teachers give messages from God’s Word, ones they have worked diligently to prepare in full faith of the two-edged sword which is able to cut between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and never return void (Heb 4:12; Isa ). Thus, it is with theological underpinning that they conclude members are resultantly well equipped to do God’s will.

This conclusion might be sound if there wasn’t another overarching principle at play—one not usually seen or understood, and if allowed to remain will invariably stymie transference. But when it is understood, Bible teachers can see how to course correct to achieve the growth they are aiming for. The principle is this: Form must match formation. This is a critical ReMission concept. Allow me to expound why. If the teaching goal is to create a greater understanding of God and theological truths, the form of upfront preaching does match the formation. Direct evangelism can work as well. The listener can get what they need from the pastor’s exegetical explanation of God’s Word. Most good Bible teaching churches help their people to understand theological truths about God and the gospel of grace along with relevant life applications. For this, I credit our pastors and teachers.

Yet when you shift the teaching goal to creating a missionally effective Christian, one who embodies the way and manners of Christ, and who possesses the culturally savvy skills pre-requisite to being gospel influencers in today’s world, the form of preaching does not match the formation. Not remotely. This, in my assessment, explains why we have the gap that exists today between pulpit and pew. The statistics do not lie. In sum, Christians know the gospel, but reach few with it. What that is telling us is that another kind of knowledge is missing and needed, one that does not occur from merely hearing a Bible talk. What I am referring to is practical knowledge—the “know how” of engagement, the kind of learning and life-skill development that enables relational spiritual influence to flow to others. This is what Jesus possessed and imparted to his disciples through three years of close proximity and engagement training.

Let me state the principle another way, you can’t produce mission formation if the format doesn’t adequately teach, practice and live it. This same rule applies to other biblical values as well. Hence, if you are teaching people about the community value, and yet your form of gathering is not leading people into deeper and more honest relationships, then don’t be surprised when no one “got” the community thing. I watched a membership-course implode at a major church, not because the content was bad, or that the presenter wasn’t ably prepared, nor that the church didn’t get behind it. It died, and rightly so, because the form did nothing to produce the formation. People sensed disconnect and stopped coming. Hearing about it, the pastor eventually threw in the towel. Call it a format failure.

Granted, teachers who are mission-gifted will do slightly better to inspire people outward, but the ceiling of this principle is irrevocable. You can’t overcome it by your exceptional teaching ability. No you can’t! Missional formation, the discipleship to be like Jesus in his manner and messaging, does not occur in a non-skill, non-practice, non-participatory way. Nowhere is this principle more vital than in the most difficult area of their development: evangelistic disciplemaking mission.

I know this proposition could elicit anger feelings from our most didactic devotees, who may be thinking of writing a nasty review, saying: “All we need is the Word! We just need to preach, nothing less, nothing more. If only people knew their Bibles!” I realize how sound that sounds to some. But it’s refracted. Not accurate. Possibly arrogant. Definitely unhelpful. And in consequence, it’s hurting the church.

I would also argue that it’s not biblical either. We have a way of being selective and truncating our interpretation of Scripture according to our gifting, seeing what we want to see, and not prizing what is there within the full range and discipline of hermeneutics. The Scriptures hold an enormous amount of content about mission dynamics, and yet, pastor-teachers can fail to appreciate how that development is crucial for members, and how it must be developed along non-conventional lines. The difference between the lecture and the laboratory is: Skill acquisition. Hands on learning. Practice. Follow-up coaching. More engagement. They have to learn it and then live it to get it. (ReMission is available where books are sold. Here is Amazon’s link: https://amzn.to/2vM5ibm).

[1] Photograph, Brian Moore, 6-6-15.

[2] Smithsonian Institute, Titanic’s Final Mystery, 2014.