What a Tour in Iraq Taught Me About Church Growth

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In 2009 I was deployed to Iraq with a Military Police company. I had been in the Army for 3.5 years but this was my first time in a combat zone. The experience was - to say the least - remarkably eye opening. Among the many things I learned were combat lessons which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would someday impact how I relate to the church's mission outlined in Matthew 28:16-20. While the lessons were many, this week I want to focus on the one I consider to be the most urgent.

Elasticity is More Important than Familiarity

Churches are in love with what is familiar. And I don't blame them. We all do. Familiarity helps us feel safe. And human beings love feeling safe.

But in a war scenario, familiarity can get you killed. The enemy would study our movements, convoys and tactics daily. They would familiarize themselves with what we were familiar with. They would memorize our patterns and methods. Then, they would patiently develop counter-tactics that exploited our well crafted maneuvers.

The Army quickly learned that in order to prevent casualties they would have to develop elasticity. Elasticity is ones ability to adapt and mold to any given situation, not once or twice but over and over again. Our tactics, maneuvers and patterns began to change randomly on a daily basis. We never did the same thing twice. Our convoys no longer followed a prescribed distance between vehicles. The distances changed over and over again. In doing this, we frustrated the enemy and stayed one step ahead of them.

The church is involved in a war infinitely more important than the Iraq war, and yet we cling to that which is familiar as if our safety depends on it. But if war tactic has anything to say here, clinging to familiarity is the most dangerous thing we can do. Rather than keeping us safe, it enables the enemy to exploit us over and over again. We need to develop elasticity and become adaptable and moldable in our evangelistic strategies and methods if we wish to stay one step ahead.

Satan has already developed counter-tactics for everything that used to work so well, and yet we keep doing it as if nothing has changed. Don't believe me? Here are some of the current issues I see in how we do outreach and evangelism.

  • Back in the day, an evangelistic series could attract the whole town to your church. But today, there are many counter-tactics that make this approach useless. The increase in entertainment options that wasn't around back then is probably the biggest one. As a result, attendance at these kinds of events is nowhere what it used to be, and yet many churches keep repeating this very thing as if nothing has changed around them. The enemy has studied them, counteracted their methods and made them ineffective. But the church doesn't seem to notice (or perhaps we simply aren't paying attention).
  • Back in the day, Bible worker could go door to door with greater ease than today. The increase in fenced in estates makes this method completely useless in some areas. Then there is the increase in people moving to the cities and living in high rises that require code access to enter or where security wont allow you in. And of course, there is the increase in people who simply can't stand it when a stranger knocks on their door - especially a religious one.
  • Back in the day, the majority of people in Western countries were primarily Christian or had a Christian background. So the starting point for evangelism was simpler. You weren't dealing with whether or not people believed in God or Jesus. By and large, evangelist and audience shared a very similar worldview. Today, that is no longer the case. The number of people in the culture who are either Christian or familiar with Christianity as a worldview is dwindling. Most of the people around us no longer assume that the Bible is true, that the preacher is trustworthy or that the church is a good thing. As a result, the content of our evangelism has to adapt in order to meet the worldviews of the people we are encountering. To this day, most evangelistic meetings I see assume that the audience is Christian of some sort and that makes their content irrelevant to emerging post-Christian generations.

So what can we do about these? What would elasticity look like if applied to these scenarios? For starters, the way in which we do evangelism would adapt itself to the cultural milieu. Rather than a traditional two week series, it may take on the form of small groups at local meeting places like cafes, libraries or parks. Training our members in friendship evangelism and truth seeking relationships would set the foundation for enabling them to run these groups in temporary bursts. Developing greater forms of media communication would also enable us to speak into our technological age. Likewise, while Bible workers can continue their door-to-door methods (which I still believe are important) they should also be trained in social media marketing, influence and communications. They should be experts on reaching their communities via these platforms and can do some awesome work for the local churches they work for. Finally, our content would take on a more relevant tone - focusing on the questions people are actually asking rather than the questions we think they should be asking. 

But elasticity is more than this. While elasticity would result in the above, it would result in much more. Elasticity isn't simply about adapting to a change. It's about becoming adaptable. The difference is this: Adapting to change is an activity. Becoming adaptable is a skill. And while the two are related, churches that embrace elasticity as a way of life will never feel overwhelmed by the changes that surround them because adapting will become part of their cultural DNA.

It's time we opened our eyes, put the old ways aside and focused on developing a culture of elasticity capable of staying one step ahead of cultural shifts and twists. The fact that the church is always 10 years behind the rest of the world ought to show us how urgent this need is. While our message or theology must never change to accommodate the shifting winds of philosophy and ideology, our methods must be elastic if we wish to have a voice that proclaims truth to the world around us.