Imagining… not emerging.
When we learned earlier this year that the U.S. population shot past 300 million, a great many of us began to feel the squeeze. Yet if the entire population of the United States moved to Texas, we’d each receive two acres. Hmmm… not so crowded now.
When we’re told the federal deficit is somewhere north of 10 trillion dollars, what does that mean? How does that change our buying habits at Kohls? Yet if every taxpayer wrote out a check for $25,000 to the U.S. Treasury, our deficit would be gone. Now that means something. It means we’re not going to erase the federal deficit!
In blue oceans, companies reinvent their niche by reframing the message. Businesses that keep using the same language are fishing in red oceans — that is, in industries already existing where companies compete by grabbing for a greater share of limited demand. The market space gets more crowded and increasing competition turns the water bloody. In blue oceans, customer demand is created rather than fought over. As a result, there are ample opportunities for growth that is both profitable and rapid. This is what we mean by a “blue ocean faith.” It’s not an “emerging” church. It’s not rehashing the same information. It’s helping people imagine an old faith in a new way.
A blue ocean faith begins by recognizing the world we live in. “Christianity in the modern world has no choice,” as Nicholas Wolterstorff describes it, “but to be a Sunday and after-hours affair.” A businessman’s “personal religious convictions are either irrelevant or obstructive as motives and guides for action… If the businessman, rather than being motivated by the bottom line of profit, allows his religious convictions to shape his business practices, he shortly finds himself out of business.”1 The world has changed. “Doing church” in the same old way is fishing in a red ocean.
Next, a blue ocean faith recognizes the primacy of imagination. In the blue ocean we’re changing the frame not the facts. We’re reinventing metaphors not the message. All our truth, or all but a few fragments is won by metaphor, wrote C.S. Lewis. He understood that reason and imagination have distinct roles: reason has to do with theoretical truths; imagination has to do with the very conditions of truth. Reason had to do with facts. Imagination had to do with preparing the mind to receive facts as meaningful. Lewis was not saying imagination is sovereign. It did not supersede reason as the organ of truth; rather it preceded reason as a condition for truth:
It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.2
Lewis sought to “to create a climate in the reader, an imaginative and intellectual climate that would make the reader more able to receive the gospel when they heard it,” according to historian Colin Duriez. The great Oxford don foresaw a world where Jesus would make less and less sense to more and more people. In the blue ocean, we help people re-imagine who Jesus is, what the gospel means, and why someone would want to embrace the good news. By reframing gospel truths, we stand a better chance of stealing “past those watchful dragons” that guard against the intrusion of religion in daily life.3
Reframing faith is how we get our toes in the water of the blue ocean. We can’t pretend the world hasn’t changed. Forty years ago, if we had learned that the Bible describes homosexuality as sin, that would “fit” how many imagined a homosexual. Admit it — we’d have used words like disgusting, effeminate, or distasteful.
Fast-forward forty years. If we learn that the Bible describes homosexuality as sin, it doesn’t “fit” how many imagine a homosexual. Admit it — most people would use words like humorous, classy, or sharp. The same message as forty years before no longer makes sense in the 21st century. The 1st century presented a pre-Christian, pluralistic world that had never heard of Jesus. Today we live in a post-Christian, pluralistic world where a great many people have heard of Jesus — and they don’t see him as someone who’s smart enough to run their business. In the blue ocean, we reframe the gospel as a four-chapter story that grabs our colleagues’ attention, engages their imagination, and connects Sunday to Monday.
1 Nicholas Wolterstorff is the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. These remarks were delivered as part of a seminar “Can Life in Business Still Be a Calling? Or is That Day Over?” at the Colloquy on Christian Faith and Economic Life, March 18, 2004, at Richmond, Virginia.
2 C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, p. 265
3 C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What Needs to Be Said,” in On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature (Orlando: Harvest, 1982), p.12.