Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

The red rubber ball theory of church growth

red-36598_1280 (2)Why does a rubber ball bounce? The key is found in polymer science. The chemical formula for the rubber molecule is (C5H8)20,000+. C5H8, a single unit of the molecule is called a monomer, the complete molecule, a long string of 20,000 or more monomers, is called a polymer. The classic illustration is to think of raw rubber as a mass of cooked spaghetti. A mass of raw rubber may appear to be solid, but it is still technically a liquid as these polymer strands can slide past each other, causing the mass of rubber to slowly spread and flatten out.

The application of heat, usually with sulphur added as a catalyst, causes these molecule strands to cross link to each other at random points along the molecule string. This is usually done in a mould to shape the rubber into the desired finished product, in this case a rubber ball.

The scattered cross-linking allows the finished product to be stretched, but as soon as the tension is released the cross-linked molecules will snap it back to its original shape. It can be compressed, but as soon as the pressure is released it will likewise snap back to its original form.

When a rubber ball is dropped on a hard surface, the bottom will flatten out. The cross-linked molecules will immediately push the ball back to its original round shape, which pushes it away from the surface it was dropped on. We say that it bounces back.

The church growth movement that began some forty years ago taught that Christian congregations should be organized along the lines of people who have a natural affinity: a common ethnic background, or a similar education or type of employment. It seemed a defeatist mentality, assuming from the outset that people of different backgrounds and different interests could not worship together.

That assumption was based on the observation that too often a congregation would fracture along those lines. Yet accepting defeat is not the way to victory.

The New Testament gives a different picture. The apostle Paul described the members of a congregation thus: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Some may take this to mean that Greeks, Jews, Barbarians and Scythians immediately lose their distinguishing characteristics upon becoming Christians. Take care here, he also says there is neither male nor female and from what he wrote in other places we can safely assume that he did not mean to say that men and women would become indistinguishable and interchangeable. We know where that leads. What he is saying is that all are of equal value in the sight of God and thus should be counted equally worthy of love and honour in the eyes of fellow believers.

For this to happen there needs to be cross-linking between the different groups. Family is important, ideally each extended family forms one of the strands that make up the congregation. But if members of this extended family do not form strong bonds with members of other families, ethnic groups or other natural affinity groups, when pressures and stresses arise the strands will slide right past each other and the congregation will fragment.

Love is the catalyst that makes it possible for Christians to bond together across lines of natural affinity: “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:14).

The apostles all emphasize this. James instructs us to not have respect of persons, to confess our faults one to another and tells us that there is no partiality in the wisdom that comes from above. John says “And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also” (1 John 4:21). Peter says “see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Peter 1:22).

Paul speaks in Colossians 2:2 of being knit together in love. When we are knit together in love so that we bounce back from pressures and tensions, then we are experiencing the blessing that he describes in Ephesians 2:19: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God”.

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