At the 2012 Vital Church Planting conference in Toronto, the U.K.’s Rev. David Male imagined the future by suggesting that all those committed to expanding the mission-shaped church should “keep in the slipstream of God.”
During his inspirational keynote address, Male compared the difficult and uncharted work of church pioneering to competitive cycling. Key to long-term survival in this grueling sport is to stay within centimeters of the rider ahead without colliding. In cycling parlance, riding in the “slipstream” means staying in the low-pressure area found in the space immediately behind a cyclist. For someone riding in this slipstream, a process known as “drafting,” the effort required to maintain the same speed is much reduced.
“You are literally that close to the guy in front of you, but [his effort] makes it easier for you to cycle,” said Male, who is a tutor in pioneer mission training at Ridley Hall, an Anglican theological college in Cambridge. Male is also director of the Centre for Pioneer Learning. “That presents us with an image of what we are called to do-keep in the slipstream of God because it is so hard to predict the future,” he told delegates to this year’s conference, entitled “The Missional Roadmap.” In looking to what lies ahead, Male said, “Listen to the whisper of the spirit.”
He also warned church pioneers not to fall into the trap of tarting up a bankrupt, old-model church in contemporary disguise to try and attract the unchurched. He compared this to the makeover given old cars on the television show Pimp my Ride. Stay away from the “pimp my church” approach, he said.
As proof of the future’s unknowability, Male referred to the 2008/2009 economic meltdown and last year’s Arab Spring–or pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa–which no experts saw coming. And he quoted the words of Alexander Graham Bell to a reporter: “It may sound cocky of me Sir, but I foresee the day when there will be a telephone in every town in America!”
As an exemplum for modern-day disciples, Male spoke of the uncertain future faced by the disciples after Jesus’ death and speculated about how they might have strategized to spread the Word. He also quoted John V. Taylor’s observation that mission is more like an unexpected explosion than a physical extension of an old building.
Male was particularly careful to warn those who hold onto the past at the risk of losing the future. He cited the sobering case of the once-mighty Eastman Kodak company, which last month filed for bankruptcy protection. Although Kodak once held 90 per cent of the world photography market with innovations such as Kodachrome colour film and the Instamatic camera, it passed over several early opportunities to enter the digital era in effort to protect its film empire. “There’s a danger that when we talk about the future, we’re really talking about how to improve our rolls of film,” Male said.