I’m not sure quite how I was struck by the thought, but something occurred to me about the way we learned to fly. Early attempts at flight were clearly based on an examination of birds. Contraptions designed to allow a human being to fly would typically employ a device whereby the aviator’s arms and legs would power a “flapping” motion of the wings on the machine. Da Vinci designed such a device, as did many others — some of whom tested them with varying degrees of success. Perhaps “varying degrees of failure” might be a better way to phrase that. It seems that the best case scenario was flight for a limited distance off the edge of a bluff or small cliff and lasting for as long as the aviator could maintain the frantic flapping that would delay or diminish the pain at the end of a potential plummet.
The approach made sense, as far as it goes. People had only ever seen birds fly, and birds, for the most part, all fly in fundamentally the same way. They flap their wings. By all logic and reasonable scientific principle, it stands to reason that by studying the flight of birds and devising a means to mimic the principles by which they achieve flight, so too could we “slip the surly bonds of earth.” Da Vinci’s drawing dates to the 1500s. In 1742, The Marquis de Bacqueville “probably glided about 120 ft. with most violent exertions, and fell when his strength became exhausted.” Otto Lilienthal (pictured) attempted flight in the late 1800’s. He had some success with gliding, but not so much in the flapping department. For much longer than 400 years, this logic held: the key to understanding and achieving flight lay in understanding and mimicking the birds, for they could fly already. The theory was sound, wasn’t it?
But it didn’t work.
The Wright brothers managed to build and fly the first viable, controllable fixed-wing aircraft not by studying birds at all. These days, it’s a fairly simple scientific matter — basic aerodynamics are taught to children in grade-school, enough so they can at least grasp the essential principle of what causes “lift” and allows airplanes to fly. The bird-mimicry idea seems solid, but for one little fact. Too obvious to state, its importance was nevertheless overlooked. In short, people are not birds. We achieved flight not by understanding the principles by which other living things flew before us, but by understanding the principles of aerodynamics. To put it another way, the thing to examine and extract the principles of flight was not the birds, but the air.
Despite the fact that birds had been flying for millennia before us, achieving flight required thinking in a new way, looking past the patterns of other fly-ers to understand the principles of aerodynamics. Basic, universal, unbending principles which could be applied to the goal of flight not by repeating what others had done and clearly not by attempting to break or bend these principles, but by fully respecting them and applying them to achieve the task at hand. Ultimately, flight was achieved through a means that looked nothing like those which had been attempted for the preceding several hundreds years, at least.
So the question is, where are we making attempts to achieve a goal through the repetition of patterns which haven’t worked or have met with limited success for hundreds of years? Are there deeper principles which we could seek to understand that could help us be more effective? Are there ways in which we continue to look at what we’ve done in the past while overlooking the environmental factors that hold the key to effectiveness?
Yes, I know it’s just an analogy that will eventually break down, and that you can’t overinterpret a metaphor… but what do you think?
Well, some keep using methods such as “the 4 Spiritual Laws,” the “bridge” illustration, the so-called “sinner’s prayer,” etc., but what does that produce? Check out the I-monk’s latest post, especially the comment by J. Michael Jones. Didn’ the Willow Creek Reveal study indicate that methods that most of us use (small groups, classes, studies, activities, etc.) don’t necessarily lead to transformed lives? That would indicate to me that a return to the classical spiritual disciplines might indeed be in order. On a personal level, the two things that have changed me to the extent that the Spirit has done so over that past few years are spending about an hour with God each morning in prayer, reading the Bible, and journaling, and going on a mission trip about 18 months ago to help Katrina victims. I would also add regular worship with Communion, a fellowship group, travel, classes, and so forth. But simply saying a prayer basically to assure that we will be in heaven when we die is only the first step, if even that for some. Many churches are full of people who have done so, but bear little if any fruit for the Kingdom here and now. Remember that Jesus said to repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near–it’s here, in other words.
I do find your flight analogy helpful. Changing the focus from flapping to aerodynamics is a shift of focus from methods to milieu, while still reaching for the same outcome.
So if we want to work towards the “outcome” of discipleship – people becoming and maturing as followers of Jesus – we need to think less about methods and more about milieu.
What then is the milieu for human growth, maturation and transformation?
I would suggest that it is substantial relationships.
I suspect that the Willow Creek Reveal study is confirming this by finding that participation in worship and various programs doesn’t necessarily result in growth because they often don’t evoke substantial relationships.
I’ve been strongly drawn to what I see taking place in the House Church movement for this very reason: as an expression of congregational life, a House Church is a much more natural setting for fostering relationships than a conventional congregation. And I’ve noticed that some in the movement – notably Neil Cole and his Greenhouse/Church Multiplication Associates groups – also advocate strongly for even smaller groups of three or four. At that level, the nature and the quality of the relationships (or lack thereof) will be fully at the forefront.
Reminds me of something Jesus said about where “two or three are gathered…”
“We achieved flight not by understanding the principles by which other living things flew before us, but by understanding the principles of aerodynamics.”
I like the analogy, but if I could, I would re-phrase the above statement as follows (to more closely match what I see churches doing all the time):
We achieved flight not by understanding the actions (or methods) by which other living things flew before us, but by understanding the principles of aerodynamics.
Maybe I’m nitpicking, but that’s what I see people doing all the time. Emulating the actions of the people that went before us, without ever getting to the reasons for those actions.