Are We Very Shrewd? (Part 3)

Michael Metzger

Jesus said “streetwise people are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. I want you to be smart in the same way.” Are we? Shrewd begin with understanding the times. If Christians are exiles in a land of exile, the second implication is that a lot of us are operating in unrealistic time frames.

In exile, Jeremiah told the Jews to build homes, plant gardens, raise families, and multiply. This command echoes the Creation Mandate, where God calls us to be fruitful, multiply, and rule the earth (Gen. 1:26-30). It is reiterated in the Cultural Mandate, where we are told to cultivate the earth (Gen. 2:15). Culture-making includes building institutions, such as family and commerce (i.e., planting gardens) – but not just Jewish ones. The Jews were to make cultures where the Babylonians flourished (Jer. 29:7). They hadn’t sought the flourishing of the neighbors for over 200 years, so this project would take several generations – at least 70 years, a time period that included not only the reign of Nebuchadnezzar but of his son and grandson. (Jer. 25:11; 27:7; 29:10).

Sociologists would say God was calling the Jews (as well as the Babylonians) to make paradigm shifts. Paradigm shifts generally require at least a generation or two. Too often in my work as a consultant I wasn’t shrewd to ask whether faith communities had that kind of time frame for shifting paradigms. “Paradigm” comes from two Greek words, “compare” and “show.” Until the 1960s it was a concept limited to linguistics meaning “pattern.” Thomas Kuhn coined “paradigm shift” in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” to describe how institutions shift perspectives when they compare cherished assumptions against new mental models. It’s disruptive and takes a long time since it requires repudiation of the old model. Institutional leaders tend to cling to old paradigms and reject the new ones, even if the new paradigms are correct.

Kuhn had his own example of a paradigm shift: the Copernican Revolution. It began with Ptolemy’s take on the earth being at the center of the universe. Copernicus suggested this was incorrect, that the sun was actually at the center. There was institutional resistance since many in the scientific and church community were invested in the Ptolemaic paradigm. Galileo built off the Copernican model with new data concerning motion. There was institutional resistance to Galileo’s model but reality was slowly winning. Kepler abandoned the Ptolemaic paradigm, adding to Galileo’s work. The facts of planetary motion came to be understood within a new frame. After roughly three generations, a little more than 70 years, bingo – a paradigm shift occurred.

James Hunter writes that the history of the conservative American faith traditions over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence. This decline is due to the prevailing evangelical paradigms of cultural engagement – “defensive against,” “relevance to,” or “purity from” culture. These paradigms don’t seek the flourishing of all but instead create a vast subculture of parallel religious institutions, especially in education and media. If it took 175 years for the church to dig its way into insularity, it will likely require at least a generation or two to dig our way out. I would have been shrewd to ask whether a religious institution was willing to work in this long a time frame.

For example, I worked with an organization that wanted to “reach” major cities of the world in a matter of years. First of all, you can physically reach a city by taking the first flight out. If however “reach” is only one part of renewal, renewal requires paradigm shifts and any shift of a significant nature often requires decades. I once heard Hunter say the time frame for his institute’s goals is 100 years. It took evangelicals 100 years to abandon our elite universities – it will likely take 100 years to repopulate them with thoughtful scholars of faith. Recent findings from neuroscience support this view.

The brain can process about 14 million bits of information per second. It does this by compressing ‘bits’ into 100 to 200 bundles that travel along neural highways. We can be conscious of only five to nine bundles at any given moment. The other 95 percent of human thought is unconscious, moving along highways cemented in place by the age of 20. These concrete cranial highways explain why only 20 percent of adults over the age of 20 ever do the heavy lifting of constructing new neural highways. It’s arduous, which is why paradigm shifts are more of a young person’s game. This presents a problem however since institutional leadership is more of an older person’s game.

These findings indicate to me that institutional paradigm shifts will take at least several generations. In the first generation, 20 percent of institutional leaders are likely to shift. To get to a “tipping point” in society, we’d likely need at least three generations to get over 50 percent of institutions making such a shift. This is why renewing a city (not just reaching one) takes a long time. Had I known this when I was a pastor, I would have been more patient and persistent, talking in terms of decades and even a century. Even now as a consultant, it’s tempting to take a three-year contract and get paid rather than inquire about the time frame in which we are working. That’s not very shrewd.

When Henry Kissinger asked Chinese leader Chou En Lai whether the French Revolution of 1789 had benefited humanity, Chou reportedly replied, “It’s too early to tell.” Joe Ehrmann tells a similar story. Joe’s a former NFL player who works with young men while serving as an assistant coach at Gilman School in Baltimore. Parents often ask head coach Francis “Biff” Poggi how the players will do this year. “I really won’t know for twenty years,” he replies. I am seeing how being shrewd requires lengthy time frames. These frames require measuring the most important thing so that a church stays riveted to the mission over the long haul. That’s the third implication from exile. And the subject of next week’s column.


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  1. Having recently finished the biography of Steve Jobs, I was stunned to realize how one man (with a vision, mission and deep belief in his ideas and ability) could change the world in less than thirty years.

    He changed six industries and the way 7 billion people live.

    Now that the internet has leveled the playing field and brought us all together, it seems we are living in a new dimension of time and place. Personally, I believe our indelible fingerprint on society can be made much faster than at any other time in history. It’s a great time to be a culture-changer.

  2. Last week Aaron asked whether the work of Christ causes us to think differently about today’s world and our work as believers. I don’t think so. As one wise man put it, the gospel message never changes, although the address might. What I mean is our delivery probably needs to change – dramatically. The only precedent in history, the Babylonian exile, gives us clues, including thinking in terms of generations and even centuries rather than three and five year plans to “reach” a city.

  3. By any chance, have you seen the address of soon-to-be-Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, Archbishop of New York? It was made just today, I believe, to the Pope and the Cardinals. In it, he talks of the “new evangelization” and the intersection of faith and culture. If he’s not singing the same tune as you, it is at the very least a harmony or lovely counterpoint.

    Here’s the link:

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