“Frozen Zoo Offers Last Chance for Some Species.” This was the headline from a February 12 Fresno Bee story. According to the article, San Diego Zoo researchers have spent 40 years amassing genetic material from 1,000 different species. These are all preserved in nitrogen-cooled, stainless steel vats—thus the Frozen Zoo moniker.
One of the most critical cases is that of the northern white rhino. Only five animals remain in the world, and none can reproduce. Some scientists are busy trying to find ways to save the white rhino.
But according to the article, not all scientists are thrilled with the money and resources spent on preserving dwindling species. According to Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, there are far higher priorities than saving white rhinos. “The Frozen Zoo is basically rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” He says that this distracts attention from more important issues such as loss of habitat and population growth. He argued that many species will go extinct by the time we artificially save one “lost cause.”
Oddly, this sounds like the same conversation we seem to have in our churches these days. Are we artificially preserving “dying species”? And in doing so, are we missing out on chances to make crucial changes? Are we truly addressing the more major problems that cause people to reject organized religion? Tough questions.
Social scientists talk about these issues by using two terms: technical change and adaptive change. Technical change is the kind of fix we make all the time using current skills and know-how. When my cable provider has an outage, it makes technical changes to the network in order to get it up and running again. When a restaurant decides to update its menu, it makes technical changes to its food ordering, preparation and signage.
Adaptive change, by contrast, requires skills and know-how that we don’t currently possess. Twenty years ago, the process of bringing telephones to residents of Third-World villages seemed impossible. To run phone wire and provide infrastructure using existing skills and know-how just couldn’t get the job done. But along came the adaptive change of mobile communication. Thanks to wireless phones, people in some of the world’s remotest places send texts, transfer money and talk to faraway friends and family—all using a technology that didn’t exist a couple decades ago. That’s an example of adaptive change.
Churches typically live in the world of technical changes: liven up the worship, hire a new preacher, build a new children’s wing, freshen up the weekly newsletter, add female scripture readers, install an espresso machine, and so forth. These changes may be helpful for a given church. They may even be necessary. But they all rely on current skills and know-how. They are in essence “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” They are all about US and OUR skills and know-how. They can’t address the cultural changes that surround us.
In the same way that many animal species face major problems from loss of habitat and climate change, our churches confront a world that is increasingly unchurched and even hostile toward organized religion. Folks on the outside view Christians as intolerant, prejudiced, and inhospitable. While a few mega-congregations seem to still thrive, most struggle to maintain numbers.
This is a challenge that requires adaptive change. Yet we tend to spend all our energy and capital on technical change. We’re fighting adaptive challenges with technical solutions. It’s no wonder we’re frustrated!
It’s not hard to be sentimental. When I stop and consider aspects of our faith that were still thriving when I was young, I feel grief over an age that is gone. From great four-part harmony to teen training programs to Sunday night services, these and many other components of congregational life were a critical part of my environment growing up. Many of these things were beautiful. They nurtured my faith. They helped make me who I am.
But that world is gone. The era that allowed those things to thrive is no longer our context. Our way of thinking and acting isn’t sufficient to stem the tide that is working against us.
What should we do? In faith, we have no choice but to turn and ask God to provide new skills, new know-how and—perhaps most importantly—new people. Together, these may lead us into new ways of thinking and acting that will realign us with the missional heart of God and bring our message of hope to a generation of people in need of God’s good news.
Here’s the key question: Is your church building a frozen zoo? Are you holding on to dying ways of doing things? Are you clinging to the belief that one day the world will magically change and that those things of a bygone age will once again find fertile reception? Are you rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
Or here’s the alternative: Do you and your church recognize that we live in a changing world? Are you learning to trust God to provide for you? Are you realizing that you face challenges that you’ve never before seen and that require resources you don’t presently have? If so, then you are in a place where faith and divine provision can come together in new and exciting ways. The human-centric story (a focus on technical changes) so prevalent in many of our churches may be dying away. Thank goodness! As we fall on our knees in humility before God, a divinely inspired narrative (a movement toward adaptive change) can rise up that opens the way to gospel for the world around us.