I was taught never to mix metaphors. So I wouldn’t dare do it here. But I will indulge in two different metaphors to make a point. Here goes:
First, this. In our travels we typically use Google Maps like most of the western world. As everyone knows it’s really handy and generally gets you to where you’re going by the shortest possible route. Except when it directs down a cul de sac in an industrial estate or into a lake, which occasionally happens.
The main shortcoming of Google Maps is that it doesn’t give larger context to your travels; it doesn’t typically show a larger area outside the immediate route of travel. This is a disadvantage when traveling in unfamiliar places; we’ve been doing a lot of that lately so Marilyn said“I want an ink-on-paper road atlas so I can see where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what’s along the way.” This was a perfectly reasonable request and required a trip to the local Wal-Mart super store where we figured there would surely be a suitable road atlas.
We located the Wal-Mart (that was easy) then began the more difficult task of locating the road atlas. Finally, after a fruitless search a helpful employee directed us to a dark and disused corner of the store where – as soon as our eyes adjusted to the darkness of disuse – we spied the road atlas on a dusty display in the corner. Wiping away the accumulated cobwebs on said atlas, we paid the purchase price and were on our way.
Our kids laughed at us (not unusual; they find us alternately amusing and infuriating). They suggested, based on our experience, that in addition to aisles labelled for homewares, personal care and auto accessories, Wal-Mart might be wise to offer an Old Person’s Aisle. That aisle would contain once-essential-but-now-obsolete items such as paper address books and diaries, landline telephones (and phone books), dial-up modems, flip phones, dictionaries and – of course – road atlases. It would be visited by folks of a certain age, searching for something they last bought two decades ago for a fraction of its present-day price. They would of course complain about the present day price, as well as the difficulty of finding the now-obsolete item.
Second, get a load of this little piece about obsolescence was written by a long-time friend; it grabbed my attention recently:
In the 1930s a suspension bridge was built across the Choluteca River in Honduras. In the 1990s a new bridge, the Bridge of the Rising Sun, was added on the same river. It was sturdily built to withstand even the most severe storms.
And it did.
In 1998, shortly after the new bridge was finished Hurricane Mitch ravaged Honduras, killing thousands, inflicting major damage to roads and destroying 150 bridges. But not the Bridge of the Rising Sun. As the storm subsided, leaving carnage in its wake, the bridge stood strong, suffering only minor damage.
In spite of this, it was useless. The storm that could not bring down the bridge, rendered it worthless by rerouting the river and destroying the roads on either side. The Bridge of the Rising Sun became known as the Bridge to Nowhere, standing proudly but it spanned…nothing.
The Bridge to Nowhere serves as a fitting metaphor for the church in the twenty-first century. The “flow” of culture used to move in the direction of the church and Christianity. However, cultural shifts and changes have formed a new channel that now meanders on its own; away from the church and religion.
The culture’s moved on. But have we? People who believe in Jesus – who actually trust Him, – are a huge minority. Some consider us to be weirdos. Sometimes they’re right! Clinging desperately to bridge-to-nowhere ideas about what it means to know Jesus in this generation, missing the trajectory of the culture altogether, is to miss opportunities to meet people, influence them where they are and make an impact for something eternal. We become out of date, sometimes choosing to check out, worn down by the combination of a culture that is fast-changing and an absence of holy flexibility.
An Irish Evangelical Alliance survey from about 15 years ago showed that roughly one half of one percent of Irish people claimed any form of “evangelical” belief in Jesus. That number is surely higher now, and most of that growth has been driven by immigrants from Eastern Europe and West Africa now residing in Ireland. Whatever the numbers, it remains true that only a tiny fraction of those who attend church – and those are themselves only a tiny fraction of the population at large – claim any sort of knowledge of the Jesus who is alive and active today. By extension, it’s highly likely that, for many people you and I interact with on a daily basis, we are the only Jesus they know.
I’ve enjoyed seeing so many examples over the years of believers taking that likelihood seriously: making a real effort to keep it fresh, pushing against their own inhibitions or timidity, skipping the Sunday service to befriend a neighbour, going to a workmate’s event where there would be no fellow Christians, or otherwise purposefully engaging in the world of the non-believer for the sake of the gospel. This kind of effectiveness requires risk; taking the brave initiative to move into the world of those who don’t yet know Jesus, rather than waiting for them to come to church or come to us. That sort of risk is a sure way to steer clear of the proverbial Old People’s Aisle.