One of the childhood toys I best remember is playing with a set of Lincoln Logs that I got for Christmas one year. I remember spending many hours building lots of different things–stores, schools, houses–but the funny thing was that no matter what I may have called it, it was always the same thing–a log house.
As I grew older and would visit in my friends’ homes, I discovered they had a new toy called a “Lego.” These simple building blocks came in different colors and sizes and shapes, and there seemed to be no limit to what we could make with them. What one minute was a skyscraper the next was a space ship was a car was a castle was a battleship, etc.
In fact, so versatile is the basic 8-lug Lego block that a simple column of only six (6) 8-lug Lego bricks can be combined in a total of 915,103,765 combinations (Lego Company Profile, p. 18). And there are enough Legos in production for every one of the six-billion-plus people on earth to have 62 bricks each.
Now what if we applied Lincoln Logs & Legos as a metaphor for the church?
I grew up attending a Baptist church that was fairly similar to the one across town and the one up the road. In fact, it didn’t much matter where our family traveled, we could count on the fact that if we picked a Baptist church at random from the yellow pages, chances were that we’d find a fairly predictable schedule, programming, and architecture.
When a Baptist church started a new church (intentionally–not inadvertently through a split), the “Mother Church” would send out a delegation to start a “Mission Church.” And it would replicate its schedule, programming, and, when the time came to build a building, its architecture.
Later on I attended a denominational seminary where I learned the nuts-and-bolts of maintaining a denominationally specific model of a local church. My primary emphasis was in Christian Education, so I learned all about Church Program Organizations, and how important it was that all the programs be fully functioning. Churches that neglected this program or that were looked on with a wary eye….we weren’t sure they were “really” a Baptist church if they didn’t fit the template.
After I graduated and accepted a call from a full-time church, I was a faithful foot-soldier, doing church by the book. I knew how to establish, expand and maintain the full gamut of church programs.
Through the years I read stories of brave men who began innovative new churches. And alas! Some of them didn’t have traditional Sunday School. Or Committees. Or Training Union. They had Women’s Ministries, which were not always affiliated with the denomination’s historic women’s missionary society. Organs soon were traded for keyboards, and choir robes and hymnals gave way to praise teams and PowerPoint.
Now there has emerged a proliferation of churches which don’t fit the traditional programming mode. Missions has given way to mission, which has given way to missional.
The greatest sin that the Church in the 21st Century faces is irrelevance. And as I have struggled to find a way to wrap my mind around the struggles that face us today is to reach back to my childhood toys.
The traditional church program organization based church is like my Lincoln Logs. Paint it sky-blue-pink and call it whatever you want, but it’s still a log cabin.
These non-traditional churches are more like Legos. You’ve got some basic building blocks (and we’ll try to identify those in the days ahead) which can be combined and recombined in a seemingly-endless number of combinations. And how one congregation assembles its Legos in its community will likely bear little resemblance to how another one does it in another community.
In a Lego world, there are no meta-model that can be replicated precisely. To attempt to replicate a Lego church is to reduce it to nothing more than a glorified set of high-tech Lincoln Logs. Lego Churches are unique to a particular time and place and geography and culture.
Lincoln Logs and Legos. Both serve a purpose, and both are needed. (In fact, after sharing this model with my congregation, one our families bought me a big, new set of Lincoln Logs ((we already had a house full of Legos!)) which my kids and I have enjoyed playing with immeasurably…but the funny thing is…no matter how hard we try to make a spaceship, it still looks like a log cabin. Go figure!) Lincoln Logs cannot transform into Legos any sooner than Legos can transmutate into Lincoln Logs.
I write this having invested my life thus far in Lincoln Log churches. I pastor one now, and I thank God for it! But we no longer live in a Lincoln Log world. We live in a Lego world. And the greatest challenge facing us is how to be faithful to God’s calling to us. In the days ahead, I want to explore the themes and implications of Lincoln Log churches and Lego churches and how each can learn from the other. I don’t fully know where this journey will take us. May God have mercy on us as we push out into the deep!