GPS for the Church

Michael Metzger

For sure?
On October 22, 1707, British Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovel sailed his fleet into bad weather.  When a sailor reported that his own navigational calculations indicated Shovel’s ships were badly out of position, Shovel had him hung.  No one likes to hear bad news.  Plus, private navigation was considered illegal at that time.  It was believed only British officers were qualified to plot a ship’s course.

The tragedy is that the sailor’s findings were accurate. Shovel’s
ships proceeded to wreck themselves upon the reefs of the Scilly Isles and 2000 lives were lost.  Catastrophes like this bring to mind Mark Twain’s counsel: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Twain’s truism troubles those who imagine Christianity as a way to navigate today’s cultural tides. For example, the Human Values Survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research reports conflicting cross currents – church attendance remains strong yet fewer people connect Sunday to Monday. This means “the United States occupies an unusual position: no other country is both as religious and permissive.”1 By permissive, the Human Values Survey discovered less emphasis on family and community, more openness toward abortion and divorce, and greater priority given to individual freedom and self-expression. By religious, the research indicates a lot of people attend church. These trends indicate the church is drifting.^

The good news is that the science of navigation has vastly improved. Today, planes, trains, and automobiles use GPS as a navigational tool; taking readings from four satellites that provide reliable course-plotting. Your personal GPS device also takes the measure of four coordinates, or you cannot navigate safely. I believe GPS for the Church could help it navigate today’s cross currents and help people connect Sunday to Monday. But that means the church would continually measure four coordinates derived from the ancient Judeo-Christian tradition: the conscience of converts, whether core assumptions are changing (what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm shift”), collegiality, and culture (whether it is improving).

The bad news – if you use these coordinates – is that Christianity appears headed in a hazardous direction. No one likes to hear this kind of news. The tendency instead is to focus on what’s going well. Dr. Dallas Willard, for example, says the church calculates it present position by mapping the ABCs – attendance, buildings, and cash (good things to gauge, by the way). If my church is growing and we’re planting new churches, the faith must be going forward. But the numbers can be deceiving. American church growth, as an example, is largely due to transfer growth (people leaving one church to join another) rather than new people coming to faith.2 William Chadwick closely examined data from church growth leaders of the last twenty years and came to the conclusion that there has been practically no growth due to evangelism and conversion. The church is not changing the core assumptions of those in the wider world.

And what about measuring collegiality and reforming culture two more satellites we need for proper navigation? Robert Bellah’s research indicates a majority of us choose our church based on personal prefererences and tastes; all of which undermines collegiality and involvement in reforming culture.3 Our tendency is to ignore the fact “that the influence of Christianity on the life and mores of our society is on the wane. And the decline is likely to continue.”4 As I said, no one likes to hear bad news. But these four coordinates can alert us to an impending shipwreck.

In fact, the findings of the Human Values Survey can do more than alert us. Admiral Shovel’s disaster occurred as a result of the long-recognized inability to calculate longitude. Several years later, Parliament passed the British Longitude Act of 1714, with a prize of 20,000 English pounds (roughly $12 million today) for anyone who could provide longitude to an accuracy of 1/2 degree. That got everyone’s attention. The church in America needs to recognize and award prizes to those who show how to measure the conscience of converts, whether core assumptions are changing, collegiality, and culture as navigational markers. That will address our current drift towards being “socially irrelevant, even if privately engaging.”5 It will also provide reliable coordinates reminding us it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

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1 “Mapping America’s Values: How our cultural attitudes stack up against those of other countries,” State of the Union, Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2006, p.148.
2 William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001).
3 Robert Bellah et al, Habits of The Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).
4 “The Church as Culture,” p. 2, by Robert Louis Wilken, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. The original version of this article was delivered as the Palmer Lecture at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.
5 Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), p.122.

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