There was a time when cars were build with rigid chassis which ran from one end to the other, with the bumper fitted on either end. The logic of this was that, if the car crashed into anything, surely it would make sense to build the car as strong as possible, so that it would protect the passengers from the impact. It turned out that this logic was exactly the wrong way to go about it. With a rigid chassis, all the shock from the impact is transmitted to the whole car, causing serious injuries to the occupants.
It was realised quite early on that this was not the best way to build cars—but it took decades before change came. The idea of the crumple zone was first conceived and patented by an Austro-Hungarian engineer Béla Barényi (the ‘father of modern car safety’) in 1937, but it didn’t find its way into car design until 1959, and only became widespread in the 1970s and 80s. The idea is the opposite of the chassis; instead of having a rigid frame from one end to another, you actually create soft and flexible zones of the car at the front and rear (and possibly even on the sides), and in a crash these collapse, absorbing the energy of the impact. Meanwhile the passengers are kept safe in a rigid cell in the middle of the car; not only is this strong enough to protect them, it is at some distance from the point of impact, so that the energy has been dissipated and the passengers are saved from the shock of the impact.
What has all this got to do with the Christian life and discipleship?
I thought about crumple zones after reading this honest and moving article written by Laura Turner, John Ortberg’s daughter, as she reflected on why she and her contemporaries who has been raised and nurtured in the Chicago mega-church Willow Creek ended up in such different places.
In high school, my friends and I were inseparable. We grew up in the same church with the same faith. How did we all drift so far apart?
But it is not just here that Turner’s experience was slightly detached from aspects of real life. She describes Willow Creek in these terms:
At Willow Creek, a mile-long driveway wound around a manmade lake where believers got baptized in the summer months, and in the spring it was littered with Canadian geese and their goslings. The parking lots were so big that I learned to drive there, on uninterrupted swaths of flat Midwestern bog.
This is not the experience of your average church in the UK, or even in the States! When we attended one of the first Willow Creek conferences where Bill Hybels was speaking in 1994, he mentioned in passing that he had a 60-foot yacht on Lake Michigan which he sailed with friends on a Saturday. It was true that this was comparatively modest for a megachurch pastor—but it felt a little removed for most of us in Anglican ministry!
Our teaching, in every area of life, needs to be tested from the beginning with the realities of life—and that is why experience in a different cultural context is often key to the growing of mature faith. Will what I have learnt in one context stand up to scrutiny in quite a different context?
2. Focus on the ‘why’ not just on the ‘what’
In the ministry of both Jesus and Paul, there is a consistent emphasis on understanding things, and not just doing what they are told. When Jesus saw the crowds, he ‘had compassion on them—so he taught them’ (Mark 6.34). Jesus did, of course, respond to the crowds in compassion by healing them and feeding them—but his compassion stirred by their lostness also meant that he healed and fed their understanding by teaching them about the kingdom of God.
This emphasis on understanding is also found all through Paul’s writings. Although he begins his first letter to the Corinthians by rejecting certain Greek idea of clever rhetoric and philosophy, he in fact deploys some sophisticated arguments on a range of issues, and wants the Corinthians to fully understand:
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your understanding be perfect (1 Cor 14.20)
Paul is here using the language of perfection, teleios, that we find in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect’. In the opening of his letter to the Philippians, Paul has a similar emphasis on understanding:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1.9–11)
Paul doesn’t just rebuke the Corinthians for their divisions; he explains that it is God who gives the growth, so individual leaders are not that important. He doesn’t just urge sexual purity; he explains why the bodily resurrection might shape our thinking. He doesn’t just tell them to allow all to participate; he roots it in the practice and purpose of the Holy Spirit in giving gifts to the church—and so on. It makes us feel that Paul’s letters are complex and demanding (and I suspect his first readers/hearers felt the same!) but it models a pastoral approach to the development of mature discipleship.
3. Encourage the asking of questions, not the acceptance of formulas
When we were at the conference in 1994, Hybels was teaching about fruitful evangelism, and he shared with us his formula:
Bill Hybels says it boils down to a simple equation so for all you algebra nuts here it is:
HP + CP + CC = MI
It is that simple, so we can all go home now and the church should grow from here. Well maybe we should put this formula to work.
You know what? It isn’t actually that simple! There is plenty of wisdom in this formula, and it has an explanation that is rooted in the teaching of Jesus:
HP simply stand for HIGH POTENCY, it means being a good example. It means letting your light shine brightly throughout your everyday life. It means understanding that those who live in darkness are attracted to light, so you need to be that light, not a flickering candle. Lose your temper and curse in public, you just lost some wattage. Pass judgment on people in town with others, your light is getting dimmer. Get involved in gossip about your neighbors, you become a candle flickering in the wind. We need to be a HIGH POTENCY light for the world.
CP – stands for close proximity. This simply means, being a shining light only at your house is doing nothing for the expansion of the kingdom.
CC – stands for clear communication…
These things are good—but I remember thinking, as I came away from these teaching sessions, ‘This is a formula’. Sometimes formulas, summary sayings, and helpful alliteration are good to enable people to remember things. But formulas are not real life, and they often close down the possibility of asking questions, like ‘Does this really work?’ and ‘What if it goes wrong?’ For many people, it is asking questions of exploration that really enable them to learn.
In a plenary session, I asked Bill Hybels what he did when there was a theological difference that opened up in the church. His reply was ‘We take the question to our theologian, Gilbert Bilezikian, and he tells us the answer’. That did not strike me as the most robust way to deal with questions.
4. Offer a secure ‘cell’ of central belief
Crumple zones in cars only work to protect the passengers if they also contain a strong safety cell as a complement. For some unknown reason, my parents once bought an Austin Allegro, complete with its bizarre square steering wheel. The Allegro was great in terms of its crumple zones—it would collapse quite happily at the slightest impact. Unfortunately it didn’t have an effective safety cell, and was notorious for dropping the engine into the lap of the front passengers in an accident. (I am glad to say we never learnt that from our own experience!)
This, for me, is a model of what ‘progressive’ Christianity is like. There are plenty of crumple zones around—you can ask questions about anything and everything. But where is the safety cell of core Christian belief? Very often it is not there, and that is why you often find people making the journey from traditional faith, to progressive faith, to lack of faith. Something similar happens for those shaped by Fowler’s model of ‘stages of faith’, where greater maturity seems to be associated with a greater ability to ask questions and a reduction of any kind of certainty. Apart from the practical problems with this model, it leads you to expect that the person who modelled the greatest maturity of faith, Jesus, would be someone who was certain of nothing—which hardly accords with his depiction in the gospels.
We build a ‘safety cell’ by inducting ourselves and others into the historic core of the Christian faith, for example by saying (and teaching on) the Creeds. Someone commented on Facebook last week: ‘We recited the creed this week, something we don’t normally do. It had an interesting effect; perhaps we ought to do it more often.’ Perhaps indeed. It seems to me that one of the major structural and strategic weaknesses in all forms of ’emerging church’ is the failure to attach the flexibility of form and context of ‘church’ to the solid safety cell of creedal confession.
5. Model patient enquiry in community.
If we are going to develop a strong safety cell, but develop these ‘crumple zones’ where we can question and challenge, then we are going to need to find a way of sustaining faith in community whilst questions are being resolved—and the bigger the questions, the more patience we are going to need. I have been struck by Paul’s explication of the nature of love, which begins ‘Love it patient’. What does that then mean for our love of God? In an instant world, are we prepared to be patient with God as we seek answers to difficult questions?
A large part of that patience is delivered by a faith community that creates space for questions, and maintains relational fidelity, whilst also offering the safety cell of creedal belief.
However we do it, we need to nurture ourselves and others so that we all grow a faith that can cope with the challenges that life throws at us.
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