Let me show my hand right up front. The church in America is at a crossroads. 1 in 5 Americans now claims “none” when it comes to religious affiliation. Of those under the age of 30 that number is 1 in 3. The number of people claiming no religious affiliation has grown by 25% in the last five years alone. We could wax eloquent for quite a while trying to figure out where to place the blame, but I don’t think that matters. What matters is how the church responds. Will the church begin to see the mission field as here in our neighborhoods and communities, or will we continue with business as usual? It is my belief that without a profound shift in our mental model regarding church and missions we will continue to lose our neighborhoods and cities.
Mental models are a set of assumptions and beliefs about the world, how it works, and how things in the world relate to one another. They are based on experiences and knowledge. Mental models are extremely powerful as they help us function in the world. Without them, we would have to evaluate everything as it happens. Let’s use the picture below as an example.
What is going to happen if the finger touches that first domino? You probably answered that it will knock over all the dominos. How did you know that? Because you have a mental model. You have experienced this or something like this before. Maybe you understand some physics. Regardless of how, you knew what would happen without having to set up some dominos and pushing on them to figure it out. Your mental model helped you figure it out. That is how mental models help us in the world. They keep us from having to experiment and figure everything out every time we did something.
It’s important enough to note again, our mental models are based on experiences and the knowledge we have.
Because they are based on experience and knowledge, and because they help us function in the world, they are extremely difficult to change.
My son Luke has been into a show called Dinosaur Train. After he watches the show he likes to pretend that he is one of the dinosaurs on the show, Don. He then wants me to be one of the other dinosaurs, Bonnie. The only thing is, Bonnie isn’t one of the dinosaurs. The dinosaur’s name is actually Buddy. I’ve tried to tell Luke this, but he insists it’s Bonnie. To the point he throws a small fit screaming, “It’s Bonnie!” He has made up his mind how it is and that is the way it is. Even in the face of reality he refuses to change his mind.
That’s the power of a mental model.
While the example is a simple one, it drives the point home. Mental models shape the way we see the world around us to the degree that, even in the face of contradictory information, we believe the mental model. Since I blog most about faith let’s use a faith example. If your mental model of the world is that miracles do not exist, then even in the face of information that points to their existence you will hold to your mental model seeking to prove their non-existence. We do not readily give up our mental models. Changing a mental model would mean a change in how we see the world, and frankly, most of us are comfortable with how we see the world.
The danger of mental models is that they go largely unnoticed. Most people are not aware of the mental models they hold to. This is dangerous because at some point, all mental models break down. While they are based on experience and knowledge we must admit that we do not hold all the facts there are to know. There is all sorts of information that we don’t know. Some of that information, upon being learned, will require us to change our mental models. Failing to change our mental models is failing to learn. Or another way to say it: Failing to change our mental models in the face of new information is a choice for ignorance.
Why the big diatribe about mental models on a blog largely about faith?
Everyone has a mental model about church. We have a picture in our mind about what church looks like. We have beliefs about what church should do or shouldn’t do. We have certain understandings about what those in church should look like and what they should do. In a word, we have a mental model. The question is, in light of new information would we be willing to change our mental model of church?
Here’s the information: The current model of church seems to be ineffective at reaching the larger American culture.
From Jerusalem to Antioch
Before you stop reading let me just say that the church has shifted the mental model of itself in the past. In Acts 11 the church in Jerusalem learned that Greeks in Antioch have accepted the Gospel. This raises some questions because 1) They aren’t Jewish and 2) are they doing it right? The Jerusalem church sends Barnabas to find out what is going on, and to everyone’s surprise, things are going quite well. Barnabas sends for Paul, who is in Tarsus, and the two of them stay in Antioch for a year teaching and building the church. After a year the church send Paul out on his first missionary journey. It would seem that all is well in the relationships between the old, established church in Jerusalem and the new, unconventional church in Antioch.
Except that it isn’t.
Some people from Judea head up to Antioch and begin telling the converted Greeks they must be circumcised to really be followers of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas take issue with this and go to Jerusalem to plead their case (the record of this is in Acts 15). After the council in Jerusalem says that the Greeks do not need to be circumcised, Paul and Barnabas head back to Antioch to deliver the news. Shortly thereafter, Paul heads out on his second and third missionary journeys. All of Paul’s missionary journeys begin in Antioch.
The church today is around today largely because of Antioch.
Why? Well let me give you just one reason that I see the church in Antioch was more effective in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth as commanded in Acts 1:8.
Antioch had a different mental model of church.
The church in Jerusalem functioned in a “you come to us and become like us” model. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gave the disciples the command to take the gospel to “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” By Acts 6 they had taken the gospel all the way to Jerusalem. In other words, no where. Now, that isn’t to say they weren’t effective. They were. Thousands had come to follow Jesus through their preaching. But the disciples were relying on people coming to where they were, in the temple, in Jerusalem. Not only that, but the church in Jerusalem thought that you had to look like them. You had to be like them. Follow our traditions. Get circumcised.
It was a “come to us” and “conform to us” mental model.
But Antioch was different. Antioch sent people out. It’s mental model was one of sending people to others. Without bashing the church in Jerusalem, it seems the church in Antioch seemed to more fully embrace Jesus’ words, “Just as the Father sent me, so I send you.” Not only were they a sending church, but it seems they better contextualized the gospel. Antioch is the first place where Greeks accepting the gospel is emphasized. Then you have Paul, who spent a year there, going around Asia Minor quoting Greek poets and philosophers, talking about unnamed idols, and saying that he will be all things to all people for the sake of the gospel.
It was a “go to them” and “understand them” mental model.
Let’s be honest. For a very long time the American church has been Jerusalem. We built bigger buildings, put on better shows, got the best speakers and attracted people to us. Our values were the dominate values of the culture and, by and large, we could expect people to become like us. But no more. The time has come for the church to shift its mental model and become more like the church in Antioch.
I realize that some people get anxious when talking about changing church. Let’s be clear, I am not talking about a shift in the message or in what we believe. Rather, I am talking about a shift in how we organize ourself around the message and the mission and how we live the gospel.
I will be the first to admit I do not have the answer. At best I have an inkling. Which doesn’t sound like a lot. Trust me, I would rather have the plan. But for now, I will take the inkling. It is my hope to continue to work this inkling out into something that is much more tangible. Some of that will be in the context of the church I pastor (lucky congregation!), and some of it will be here on this blog, and still others of it will be in my neighborhood and community. I hope you’ll join me. I hope you will engage me here and other places and maybe together we will find a new way forward.