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About the Author
Rob Wilkins is a freelance writer who wrote "Taking the Child's Way Home" and, with various authors, seven other books. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. He lives in Etowah, NC.
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The Church of Irresistible Influence
By Robert Lewis Rob Wilkins
ZondervanCopyright © 2001 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE GREAT CHASM
The church's inward focus is a grave illness.
-Michael B. Regele, Death of the Church
A Bridge Story
In 1851 many of the most accomplished engineers in the country thought James Roebling was out of his mind. That year Roebling began to work on the unthinkable: the bridging of the Niagara River Gorge.
Disaster was nearly universally predicted. There was, of course, the sheer mathematics of the thing: 825 feet across, and-more terrifyingly-200 feet down. Straight down. As in a plummet you couldn't even dream in your worst nightmare.
But the numbers paled in comparison to the sheer power and raging terror of the place. Roebling's proposed site was just upstream from the great Niagara Falls, where up to 37.4 million gallons of water per minute fell into the Niagara Gorge. From there the rushing water had cut a deep abyss with a series of savage rapids before ending in a tremendous whirlpool held in a massive rock basin. A no-man's-land.
Across such a chasm, Roebling believed a train could cross.
History was not a powerful ally. Although greater spans had already been bridged-including Roebling's own bridge across the Ohio River-the Niagara River posed fierce difficulties: No girders or bridge supports, provided that they could even be constructed, would ever survive the raging current. The only possible solution, to Roebling, was a suspension bridge.
And that was what had people worried. At the time, suspension bridges were about as well regarded in the engineering profession as the Edsel would be in the early automotive industry-disasters in the making. They shook in the wind, and after a few years they twisted and crumbled into the waters they were designed to span. In England and France suspension bridges had collapsed under the mere weight of crossing humans, killing hundreds. In America a number of small suspension bridges-mostly for the movement of livestock-had collapsed, including one over the Licking River in Covington, Kentucky.
When Roebling first proposed a suspension bridge across the great Niagara Gorge, it came as no great surprise that most people were putting their money on the gorge, not the bridge.
The Chasm was simply too great, too terrible.
* * *
As the church engages a third millennium, it too looks across a terrifying-and ever-widening-chasm:
Between first-century authority and postmodern skepticism;
Between a bold proclamation of God's love and unmet human needs;
Between the selfless vision of Christ and the self-obsessed reality of our world;
Between the truth of God's laws and the moral compromise of our culture;
Between those who believe and those who don't.
At the bottom of the chasm rages the white water of popular sentiment, which increasingly views the church as inconsequential, a sideshow along the interstate of the world's real traffic. Today, "numerous studies confirm that the public, especially media and intellectual leaders, do not see Christianity as a dominant social force." Instead, six out of ten Americans believe the church is irrelevant. And in the lives of the 170 million non-Christians in America (making our country the third largest mission field in the world), that irrelevance provokes an ever-increasing cynicism and hostility.
A growing sense of isolation and powerlessness pervades much of the contemporary church. Have you felt that as a pastor or layperson? A sinking feeling that we are not only losing ground but losing our voice as well? If so, you're not alone. As it stares across the Great Chasm, much of the church no longer believes it can greatly influence the world.
In fact, only one out of three pastors-pastors-believes the church is making a positive impact on the culture.
RESORTING TO FALLBACKS
Often, as "engineers of churches," pastors and lay leaders desperately desire to bridge the gap, but when measuring the gorge with the world's mathematics, they come to believe the span is simply too vast. I personally have often felt paralyzed by the intimidating distance that exists between the church and the community here in Little Rock. The sheer size of the Great Chasm is not only intimidating, but it also scares many church leaders into believing that the task is impossible. As a result, many pastors resort to the following "fallback methodologies" as substitutes for spanning the great divide:
"Be Culturally Relevant." According to this strategy, churches can best address their receding influence through contemporary repackaging. Unfortunately, this strategy often goes too far. It becomes relevance at the expense of substance. In many contemporary churches, believers no longer carry Bibles. Worshipers seek an experience with God minus the commitment. Therapy replaces morality. Entertainment crowds out the cross. Is it maturity we're after, or the "feel good"? "These new paradigm churches," David Wells says, "appear to be succeeding not because they are offering an alternative to modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice and mimicking its moves."
"Promise Heaven Now." Pastors and traveling speakers tell eager audiences that God promises health, wealth, and power to anyone with enough faith. Churches with this strategy certainly draw a crowd. And why not? Who wouldn't want this? But is this the Christian life or the American Dream in pseudospiritual garb?
"Just Preach the Word." I love expository preaching and deeply admire those who do it well. But great preaching alone will not reach our world or magically transport unbelievers across the Great Chasm. According to Rick Warren, there are many who say, "If you'll just stay doctrinally pure, preach the Word, pray more, and be dedicated, then your church will explode with growth. It sounds so simple and so spiritual, but it just isn't true."
To make matters worse, those in the world often see believers who are "under the Word" falling woefully short of the supernatural lifestyles the Scripture presents. In a recent poll, George Barna, a sociologist and research expert, compared the lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians, using 131 different measures of attitudes, behaviors, values, and beliefs. His conclusion: "In the aspects of lifestyle where Christians can have their greatest impact on the lives of non-Christians, there are no visible differences between the two segments."
Excerpted from The Church of Irresistible Influence by Robert Lewis Rob Wilkins Copyright © 2001 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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