One of my favorite books I've read in the past year is called Canoeing the Mountains by Tod Bolsinger. In it, the author tells the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, looking for the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The team was convinced that if they travelled far enough up the Missouri River, they would find the headwaters of the Columbia River and be able to travel by canoe to the ocean…uphill and hard work to a certain point, and then coasting downstream. This was the existing understanding of geography and 200 years of accepted lore. However, when they came to the headwaters of the Missouri and looked over the next hill, instead of seeing the headwaters of the Columbia, they saw snow-covered mountains as far as they could see. What do you do, when all your expectations and your experience is in canoeing and all you have is mountains?
Lewis and Clark understood that their objective was to get to the Pacific Ocean, not to canoe to the Pacific. So, they sold their canoes and bought horses and snowshoes and kept on moving. They did not allow their method of transportation define the journey to their destination.
I love this story in that it demonstrates an important lesson for those of us who have served in churches and specifically in church leadership for a long time. It would be tempting to focus on the activities of the past and conclude they would be the key for getting us to where we want to go. I remember the good old days of revival tent meetings and bus ministries and door-to-door campaigns and hymn sings and evangelistic crusades. It could be argued that each seemed to have a level of effectiveness in their day, but it would be foolish to conclude that the methods that got us here will effectively move us forward in advancing the good news of the gospel.
It isn’t that we “can’t get there from here,” but that we can’t get there how we got here.
The world I see is a very different place than the world I grew up in. The landscape has changed.
- Technology has changed not only how we communicate and transfer information, but it is changing the way we relate to each other. As the speed of everything has increased and our expectation of accessibility has risen, the last thing we desire is to attend one more meeting. Loneliness is on the rise in the midst of constant communication.
- The pace of life is faster. Having children involved in sports has become for many a part-time job. Vacations are hard to come by and church attendance has changed as well. In my formative years I was at church at least 48 Sundays a year and now? Not so much.
- Perhaps the biggest difference is that the cultural landscape is different today. It isn’t quite so “popular” to be a Christian these days, and there is a growing institutional distrust among all people. The accepted views of what is “right” are very different today from a generation ago.
I have conversations from time to time with those who long for the good old days. I have good memories to share, but I have no desire to live in the past or to cling to my “canoe.” We must continue to trade away our past methodologies for new ones, all the while clinging to the “old rugged cross.” Our goal has been and will be to continue to share the good news of the gospel of Christ and to live in the reality of God’s Kingship and His Kingdom. Our energy must not be spent on clinging to certain methods, but to focus on our message and mandate.