By Rev. Mindi
I bought my first car twelve years ago. After driving it off the lot, I went immediately to the store and bought floor mats, a first aid kit and emergency lights (my Dad will be proud), and an atlas for Boston and Metro West, where I was living at the time. I also signed my first cell phone contract and had a small phone that just made phone calls (texting wasn’t even in vogue then).
Even with an atlas and having already lived in the Boston area for three years, I often got lost, because of all the “cow paths” of old Colonial roads that twist and turn and were so narrow many of them became one-way streets. Especially in Cambridge. And though the major roads were marked on my atlas, the one-way arrows on the smaller roads were not always clear. What should have taken me thirty minutes would sometimes take me an hour and a half, due to traffic and getting lost. And while we may complain of drivers today using their smart phones for maps and directions, just twelve years ago we were trying to look at maps and atlases when stopped at intersections, flipping through pages and turning maps over. We can’t say those weren’t any less of a distraction for driving!
But I also had a notebook in my car that I called my “Car Journal.” In my first years of ministry, I wrote down the directions to my church member’s homes. Often they would give me directions over the phone and I would write them down in the journal, then keep it in the car so I could look it up until I had the route memorized.
Then came the GPS. At last! Now we don’t have to look at a map or atlas, we have a GPS that will talk to us (ours was a Magellan so we named it “Maggie” for her voice). The first GPS devices that came on the market were not great at “Recalculating.” When you made a wrong turn or missed your exit, the first GPS devices would get you directions back to where you made your wrong turn and then you had to go from there. The next generation of devices would recalculate and get you back in the right direction. But still, GPS devices could not take into account road construction.
And now, the smartphone and Google Maps. We don’t need directions any longer. We just need the address! We don’t have to learn how to get where we are going, a device will tell us step-by-step, as long as we have the endpoint. And most of the time (but not always) they even take into account road construction, traffic, even accidents.
This has all happened in ten years. For almost one hundred years, if you were driving and needed to know how to get somewhere, you asked for directions. This was how my generation, my parents, my grandparents and great-grandparents found how to get where they were going. They asked for directions the first time. Starting in a new ministry two years ago, my husband noticed that when he went to visit his church members for the first time, they all wanted to give him directions when he simply asked them the address.
There is nothing wrong with giving directions, or giving an address. But when you write down directions and then enter the address into your smartphone, chances of them lining up can be questionable. Directions given by someone take into account personal preferences—perhaps it is a busy street that is difficult to make left turns onto, or one knows that the street lights never sync up and it is easier to take a back road the long way around than to drive directly through. Directions tell us how we should get somewhere, and there often was a good reason for those directions at one point in time.
An address is the destination, the end point. And maybe it’s not as important how you get there—maybe there is a faster way, or an easier way, or a more scenic route. The point is to get to the place you are going and not get lost.
This metaphor applies in so many areas of our life. Remember the days of the encyclopedia sales at your door? My mother bought the World Book 1984 edition for us, all twenty-two volumes. I used to read entire volumes of the encyclopedia and fall asleep with a volume next to my bed as a child. Often I would start to look up something, such as Horses, and end up reading all the other articles in that volume, learning about the history of Hungary (still an Eastern Bloc country, of course, in those days). Today, I can google Horses and get millions of pictures and articles and even edit references on Wikipedia. But I might not learn about Hungary unless I was specifically looking for Hungary searching this way.
Those of us who have lived through this transition in technology—the way we think, the way we process information, the way we even drive our cars from A to Z is changing. The generation getting their driver’s license right now may never use an AAA map. They have access to an information universe that we didn’t when we were their age. They don’t have to wait for their schools to buy new World Maps—Google updates pretty quickly (unfortunately for me, though I was in middle school when the Soviet Union collapsed, I went through high school and college with cold-war era maps, even in my college Geography class).
The caution to give is that we might be ready to give up on giving directions, but there may be a good reason for those old directions. We all know the pace of road construction, and traffic is just getting worse. Though we have made leaps and bounds on technology, we are still a stubborn society that likes to drive ourselves rather than take public transit. There may still be some value in knowing the old way on the back roads.
What does this say for us in the church today? We are bridging a major change in how we get from A to Z, and how we know how to get there. The truth is, we are still going from A to Z. We still, often, have the same goal—to follow Jesus Christ and to share the Gospel, the Good News, with the world. Are our old directions of how to do church still working for us? There may be other ways of being church, of getting to where we need to be.
And as much as I love that I can Google any topic of my choosing and find out way more than I ever wanted to know about a subject, I also miss happily stumbling across knowledge I wouldn’t have by skimming through an encyclopedia volume. I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much on the subject, but I’d know more about several subjects.
Maybe our topic is too narrow of a focus. We are researching and studying and gathering information on how to be church. Maybe we need to read outside the church entry and discover how other communities are growing, adapting and changing. Maybe we need to broaden our search and view. Visit our neighbors of other denominations, religions, and religious groups in different countries around the world. And go out further from there—what are other community groups, nonprofits, organizations doing? What do they look and act like? Maybe we might stumble across another subject, another idea, that we never would have, had we only searched “church.”