Floundering Churches and Thermodynamics

churchOne of the things that caught my attention over the past three years is how many churches that espouse sound doctrine seem to struggle. By struggle I mean, they don’t seem to grow too much, financially, they are precarious and with regards to morale they are very low. At the moment I can think of three churches without a pastor, and a number that can only afford one full time staff member. Often in discussions with my brothers on these issues the scent of hyper-Calvinism fills the room, and the sovereignty of God is blamed for the lack of fruit in these instances.

I can remember 6 years back speaking with the late Dr Martin Holdt and sharing with him the concerns of a potentially unfruitful ministry. I expressed concerns about a Jeremiah type of ministry (could have mentioned Amos)- what if no one was converted, what if the church shrank, what if…. He thought about it for a few seconds and answered with the great commission, “Jesus has all authority go make disciples” and “Satan has been bound that he can no longer deceive the gentiles”, in summary he intimated that we should no expect the same result as a Jeremiah or an Amos on this side of the cross.

It’s been years since that conversation, and by God’s grace I have been part of a successful and growing church plant, without cutting corners or compromising on Biblical fidelity (though we have had pragmatic temptations). But the question remains, what of so many of the churches I know and love that struggle along? Is that really how it should be?

A brief disclaimer, I don’t think numerical growth is always a given. There are different situations and different issues. However if there are two gospel preaching churches is a similar situations and one is thriving while the other is floundering, questions must be asked.

In my reading of late I came across a helpful insight that I find quite applicable. A strategist John Boyd applied the second law of Thermodynamics to reality based contexts. Boyd inferred that individuals or organizations that don’t communicate with the outside world by getting new information about the environment or by creating new mental models act like a “closed system.” And just as a closed system in nature will have increasing entropy, or disorder, so too will a person or organization experience mental entropy or disorder if they’re cut off from the outside world and new information.

imagesWe know that Scripture is not subject to entropy in this sense, for we know that God’s Word does not fade away as heaven and earth do (Matt 24:35). However the clarity with which we speak this Word of God, and the meaningfulness of how we centre ourselves on the Christ are all based on human models. Essentially we all contextualise to some degree.

If you say you don’t contextualise, then I don’t think you have given it much thought. When last did you preach in Kione Greek? You contextualised the language. Why did you wear a tie on Sunday or whatever goes for appropriate attire in your western cultural context? Why did you stand when you preach instead of sit? Did you use the words ‘gay’ to talk about ‘happy’ or ‘queer’ when you wanted to say ‘strange’? What went into the decision about how many songs would be sung, or the frequency of the Lord ’s Table or the starting time of the service, or the seating arrangement of the congregation. All these types of questions are either answered by thoughtful contextualisation or thoughtless tradition i.e Its how we have always done it.

When Paul wrote ,” I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22), he was a expressing that he gathered information from elsewhere in order to better garner his model of clearly proclaiming the gospel. He got more information by looking at Jews, by looking at those who did not have the law and by looking at the weak. Paul’s mental model of gospel transference was not closed. In Acts 15:22 and following we have the Apostles thinking through how to best reach the gentiles. In Galatians 2:3 Paul had Timothy circumcised in order to better facilitate the proclaiming of the gospel to Jews. In Acts 17 we have Paul not preaching in the synagogue but in a place where philosophers met to hear new ideas. Furthermore, Paul quotes pagan poets to bolster his points and make connections of understanding with his audience. In none of these things was the gospel compromised. In fact Jesus himself indicted the Pharisees because God had approached them with two different methods, thus confirming that it was not the approach but rather the truth they had an issue with (Matt 11:17)

Far from the hoorah-call of keeping our eyes only on the gospel, Paul also kept an eye on the environment, so that he would be wise as to how to best proclaim this gospel in the environment he found himself.

I think one of the huge issues churches face is entropy. Churches that don’t communicate (not just preach to) with the outside world by getting new information about the environment or by creating new mental models act like a “closed system.” And just as a closed system in nature will have increasing entropy, or disorder, so too does a church experience mental entropy or disorder if they’re cut off from the outside world and new information.

The Geneva liturgy as wonderful and Christ exalting as it is, is a human convention, and may not be the best way to express what it was meant to express in every context today. The ‘shouting’ preaching of great preachers of the past may not express the truths in the way they used to; just as ‘conversational’ type preaching may not have conveyed what it should have before. I am also not saying that there may not be correct contexts for all these things still! In fact the Geneva Liturgy may work very well in a culturally conservative setting. Solemnity and respect does not look the same in different eras and in different cultures – while these ideas always exist.

It is this “closed-system” mentality when our models of doing church have reached inspired authority practically speaking. This is leading to entropy in many local churches, and it is here that men of the same convictions on the authority of God’s Word need to begin the discussions and seek the Lord in prayer.

  3 comments for “Floundering Churches and Thermodynamics

  1. Damon Greville
    March 16, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I am with you totally on this. Consideration of context is vital. Churches where preaching is pure doctrine and theology, without relating it to context: what is happening in the world around them, language, traditions, culture, comparative religion, politics, etc., are bound to suffer decline. Peoples perception and understanding of the Gospel has to be related in some way to what they already know, and are experiencing. It has to be related to their daily life experience.

    • Elretha
      March 16, 2015 at 11:26 am

      I think many people do not like the bands that are played in the old churches. I saw a migration of people to other churches because the feel was not the same…. The ministers do not visit their flock and neglect the ill. My father was a minister in Aucklandpark and visited every household every year, he knew exactly what was going on in every household. He knew the people and the church was never empty. We enjoy your sermons on a sundaymorning on the radio.Elretha

  2. nrhalland
    March 20, 2015 at 9:04 am

    Thermodynamics and the Church, using an analogy like that, one might think you were an engineer… I think one of the tragedies is that the family of God is perfectly designed to combat to slow decline into chaos. Each of us has a very limited view of the environment outside of the church, but as a family we have inputs from the classroom in school, university, various sectors of the workplace and the retirement community as well. Engendering a sense of family with emphasis on hospitality, involvement in church ministries like youth groups, visiting the elderly, opens our eyes to the people around us, but also to the wider world.

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