A Church That Flies (Jan-Feb 2009)

By Matt Dabbs

by Tim Woodroof
January – February, 1998

And for to make a bird or fowl made of wood and metal to fly, it is to be done so as to beat the air with wings as other birds or fowls do; being a reasonable lightness, it may fly. ~ William Bourne, circa 1800s

30It did not take the human race long to grow dissatisfied with the limits of gravity. Among the earliest narratives of recorded history – accounts of ancient legends and myths and dreams – are stories of men looking enviously at birds and coveting their ability to fly. It is impossible for those of us raised with airline schedules and moon-shots to appreciate how powerfully the dream of flight captured the imagination of ancient man.

For thousands of years, inventors and dreamers have thought about ways to build a flying machine that could lift man into the heavens with the birds. Most of these dreamers made the assumption that to “fly” meant to soar not just with the birds but like the birds, by flapping some sort of mechanical wings. Historians of flight call such thinkers ornithopterists (“wing-flappers”) for their obsession with achieving the ability to fly by copying the manner in which birds do so.

From ancient Greek mythology, there is the story of Icarus who made wings fashioned of wood and feathers, held together by wax. By flapping mightily, Icarus was able to rise into the atmosphere and navigate the skies. Unfortunately, he flew so high and close to the sun that the wax melted and his feathers fell off, plunging Icarus into the Mediterranean where he drowned. You can almost hear generations of mothers repeating this story to their children and warning, “If God had wanted men to fly, he would have given them wings.”

In the fifteenth century, Leonardo Da Vinci – fascinated with birds and the possibility of flight – sketched out a number of flying machines. His designs often betray the same confusion of form and function. In Da Vinci’s mind, flight would become possible by giving man equipment similar to that of birds: large wings, attached to the arms or driven mechanically by pedals and chains, which could be flapped up and down to achieve lift. There is no evidence that Da Vinci ever built and tried one of his designs. If he had, his fate would have been similar to that of Icarus.

More centuries passed, and still the notion that a flying machine would have to look and act like a bird dominated the thinking of inventors. Had the ornithopterists been successful in achieving flight through slavish imitation of the bird’s form, that would have been the end of the story. BUt an embarrassing string of failures and the deaths of numerous “aeronauts” proved that a flying machine – if it was to function – would have to be designed around a different form.

It wasn’t until the last hundred years that inventors were finally able to disconnect function from form, and question whether flight might be possible without mimicking the manner in which birds achieved it. The Wright brothers, among others, decided not to focus on birds but on the problem of flight itself. Rather than attempting to build a better “flapper,” they build one of the first wind tunnels to study the effects of wind on wings. With the handful of aerodynamic principles which resulted, they designed a machine to take advantage of those principles – whether it came out looking like a bird or not.

The rest, as they say, is history. On December 17, 1902, Wilbur and Orville flew their “Kitty Hawk Special” four times, the longest flight lasting 58 seconds. Their “flying machine” wasn’t covered in feathers. It didn’t have bird-shaped wings. The wings did not flap up and down.

But it flew.

How Do You Make a Church Fly?

In many ways, the history of the Churches of Christ has paralleled the history of flight. For the past one hundred and fifty years, we have looked enviously at New Testament churches and coveted their ability to fly. We gazed longingly at their loving fellowship, life-changing ethic, Spirit-led worship, and evangelistic witness. We noted the fervor of their faith and the courage that led them to the arena and the stake. We watched as a band of twelve grew into a church of three thousand and, then, matured into a movement which turned the world upside down.

Looking up at the early church, we grew dissatisfied with the limits of our own religious experience and yearned to fly with those first Christians. We dreamed of building a contemporary church that recaptured the same dynamic and faithfulness exhibited by the first century exemplar.

Like the ornithopterists of old, we assumed that “function” was inextricably bound to “form” … that to fly with the first century church required us to fly like it. In our minds, a restoration of the first century spirit and dynamic would only be possible when we gave the modern church the same “equipment” as its ancient counterpart.

Copying first century structures, organizations, patterns and behaviors became for us the best and necessary means for restoring the vitality and performance of the primitive church – if only we could reinstate the forms, function would follow. And so the past 150 years have been spent analyzing the New Testament church for “marks” and “patterns.” Several generations of our ecclesiological ancestors have given their best to reincarnating the primitive model. They poured over the available evidence, both biblical and historical, searching for the most minute clues regarding the behavior of the early church. They dissected and classified and described every detail of early church anatomy. They debated verb tenses and necessary inferences.

Had we been successful in building a functional modern church through slavish imitation of first century forms, that would have been the end of the story ad there would be no need for this article. But, as a movement, we have experienced an embarrassing string of failures – divisions, stagnation, a sense of being increasingly marginalized in our culture, a loss of identity, and the spiritual death s of people we know and love. We can’t seem to get the contemporary church off the ground – no matter how hard we flap our first century wings. Increasingly, the assumption that function will follow the restoration of correct forms is being called into question. Many of us are growing frustrated with a modern church that may look like the ancient church in the particulars but fails to function with anything like its power and life-changing dynamic. Some are beginning to ask whether it might be possible to be the church of Christ today without the focus on forms which has become our hallmark.

There is the nagging sense that our focus on the details of early church life has dulled us to “the weightier matters” which animated the spiritual walk of our first-century counterparts. We fear having become a people who major in the minors and minor in what is truly major. We question whether the many issues which have consumed us and dominated our discussions have grown out of all proportion and diverted a movement which, at its inception, addressed higher ideals.

If we are honest, however, the pressing motivation for questioning the way we do church is rooted less in our sensitivity to the spiritually central than in the growing acknowledgment that our movement is no longer able to capture the imagination of a new generation. The issues which served as points of identification and rallying flags for the church through much of this century fail to ignite the passions of those who must carry the church into the next millennium. Increasingly, we find ourselves in the difficult position of holding a debate we do not want in order to secure a future we fear is slipping from us. As has been true of many movements before us, desperation is driving us where theology should but does not.

This article, and the ones to follow, represent a small attempt to construct a spiritual “wind tunnel” – to study how the God who built Abraham’s family and the nation of Israel and the church of Pentecost might be working to build a faithful church today. Central to this endeavor (and no doubt problematic for some readers) is a willingness to disconnect form from function, to assert that function is primary, and to suggest that it is possible to build a contemporary church that pleases God even if it does not look exactly like the church of the first or the nineteenth century.

We want a church that flies. All the guilded models that capture the most intricate details of churches past are of little use to us if they cannot get off the ground. What is required is a church for today that soars with the same power and faith as the church of our first fathers. We don’t need to build a better “flapper” – more accurate, more true to scale, more meticulously detailed. We should rather be concerned to build a church that is sensitive to the same “aerodynamic principles” which lifted the church in the first century world, whether we end up looking like that church or not.

The church that results will not be covered by first century culture and attitudes. It will not meet in catacombs or adopt the worship patterns of the synagogue. It will not insist on recreating every facet of ancient church life and practice.

But maybe, just maybe, it will fly.


This article and the ones to follow will soon be available in book form, and can be purchased from Look Press.Wineskins Magazine

Tim Woodroof

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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