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Algorithmically, correct?

Over the past few weeks, we have as a team shared our hopes, dreams, and convictions about the future. Last week, Alistair spoke of hope in the face of overwhelming odds, which saw Jehoshaphat seeking guidance, sharing the challenge with the entire community and his willingness to listen. All these are essential disciplines to embrace, especially listening to God and our context. I do believe that God is in the process of revealing something of His plans and blessing for the church, but as I have previously commented, this might not be in the way we expect, nor lead to the church continuing in the shape it has. Nevertheless, I am convinced that we will recognise God is ultimately at work through the Holy Spirit.

I am currently reading a book that talks of the work of algorithms, a predetermined formula that produces reliable outcomes when consistently applied. Algorithms are often employed behind the scenes on social media and many websites we browse, which is why we are frequently shown offers and links to things we might have previously just glanced at. People can use algorithms to predict the direction of interest rates and stock markets and to set rents for landlords. Algorithms are said to reduce the risk of minor variations as they seek to replicate past patterns when predicting the future. The downside is that they increase risk when cataclysmic events are encountered; the future no longer looks like the past, rendering the algorithm irrelevant or useless.

Is it possible that we have been applying algorithms to the church? I don’t mean that some ‘hoodie-wearing computer nerd’ has been tapping away at a keyboard in an underground office to create a mathematical formula to predict what will happen in the church in 2068. Instead, my concern is that we seem to desire a future that looks a lot like the past. Excuse the generalisation, but it feels like we are applying 19th-century thinking to 21st-century problems using the metrics of measurement that are no longer relevant today. Algorithms are only good if they match and interpret the external conditions; however, if the context shifts, then the algorithms can become a brake or an anchor that holds us back rather than allow us to move forward and re-interpret the new landscape.

We have encountered a pandemic; we are living with a war in Europe. We have seen an end to cheap energy and perhaps cheap production of goods. We are experiencing political turmoil and change, and we are probably the most indebted generation in history, with the gap between the haves and have-nots ever increasing. Against all of this, we are seemingly offering a domesticated interpretation of Christianity. Marx once called organised religion ‘the opiate of the people;’ perhaps he was correct as, like many drugs, it has dulled many to the realities we need to face.

As Alan Hirsch observes, Jesus intended us to become a permanent revolution - an outpost of the kingdom of God...if we are not this, then we need to take stock. Planning and good management do not lead to success, notes Hirsch, but instead, being able to adapt and maximise the opportunities that a changing context and culture bring might be where the hope lies[1]. Are we too stuck in how we used to do it, using the algorithms of an age passed rather than seeing where God is at work and then joining in with this?

I believe God has spoken prophetically about the future, that we stand as Christians on the threshold of a new beginning; both a downpour and a fire (which seem juxtaposed as metaphors but isn’t that just like God!) If God is giving us a task to fulfil that is impossible, what might this say about God? Is God toying with us? If, however, we accept that God has given us all that we need to achieve all that God has called us to do, we are merely called to be obedient, might that suggest that we need to re-examine what we are doing?

So, can I challenge you in your church (whatever form that takes) to honestly answer two huge questions?

  1. Why does our church exist?

  2. In light of our response, what does accomplishing this look like in the next two years? What can we see taking place?

Let’s abandon the algorithm and place our trust fully in the God of new beginnings.

This is what GOD says,

the God who builds a road right through the ocean,

who carves a path through pounding waves,

The God who summons horses and chariots and armies—

they lie down and then can’t get up;

they’re snuffed out like so many candles:

“Forget about what’s happened;

don’t keep going over old history.

Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.

It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?

Isaiah 43:16-19a (The Message)

Simon Mattholie

CEO, Rural Ministries

[1] Alan Hirsch, writing in The permanent revolution Jossey-Bass 2012


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