A Blank Slate?

articles forge

Originally published on the Forge Scotland blog.

Newness and freshness are not the arbiters of truth.

The other day I read an excellent article by Neil Cole on the nature of the church. At the beginning of the article, he quoted Francis Chan:

“Imagine you were alone on a desert island and had no experience at all with Christianity, and a bible washed up on shore so you read it cover to cover. If you then decided you would do church, do you think you would do church the way we do it?”

Now, whilst the article was excellent, I have an issue with this quote, or rather with the kind of thinking that it often produces within the more missionally-minded wing of the church. In particular, I think it encourages 3 forms of incorrect thinking:

1. It encourages us to think of those with no church or Bible-background as being “blank slates”, with no bias or baggage.

The problem is – this just isn’t true. Everyone comes with a bias. Everyone has baggage. Even someone who comes to the Bible completely new will already have an idea of what, say, a family meal means. Everyone has an understanding (usually flawed and incomplete) of what ‘community’ is. Moreover, someone coming new to the Bible is not automatically going to get everything “right” first time – none of us did! Yes, we need to challenge some of our bias and understanding. Yes, it is good to hear a fresh perspective. But newness and freshness are not the arbiters of truth. This leads to my second point:

2. It encourages us to think of the vast array of thought from around and before us within the church as somehow inferior, or even invalid, in our ‘new’ missional context.

This is so staggeringly arrogant, and yet often we seem unaware of it. Not that the current church, or the church of the past, have got everything right – we all know this isn’t true. But neither did it get everything wrong, and there is such a wealth of available knowledge for us to pull on. We might be reaching for different shelves, but standing on the shoulders of giants can still help us reach them.

3. It encourages us to continue in a (somewhat 21st century) pattern of thinking that starts with and revolves around the individual.

For all our cries for authentic community, we need to ensure that our community is grounded in, and centred on (as Cole points out in the aforementioned article) the person of Jesus, and not the person we’re trying to reach.

The question of “What is Church?” is still an extremely vital question that will play a key role in our mission. But we don’t start with a blank slate, either personally or conceptually. We start with Jesus, and we start with Scripture, and we push forward toward something that is both theologically orthodox and culturally relevant.

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