Can we all just take a moment to stop "thinking outside of the box?" I am not objecting to it because it has become a meaningless cliché, but because we cannot think outside of the box until we understand what box we're talking about in the first place. There are different boxes after all, some of which we need to work inside of, and others we need to look well beyond. As a new church, the leadership at Redeemer Fellowship is always talking about these issues, though we tend to avoid the box talk. There is a danger in the allure to think outside of the box, especially when it comes to new churches and dying churches. It sounds promising, exciting, and new, but for many "thinking outside of the box" simply boils down to trying something we've never tried before. This often means we imitate the ministries of other churches, like Mars Hill, Harvest, Sojourn, Saddleback, or FBC of Whatevertown. We see successful churches doing great things, and in our desire to see God do something great among us we simply copy another ministry. So, while we wind up thinking outside of the box of our own operation (a potentially good thing), we may wind up thinking well outside of the box of our cultural context (a bad thing).
Here's what I'm thinking. In the metaphor, the "box" represents the parameters within which we think and act. For the church, there are many different boxes - here are three to consider: the boxes of Scripture, culture, and tradition.
As a church, the Scripture sets the parameters for what we believe and what our essential tasks and goals are. The bible calls us to worship, make disciples, practice discipline, serve the community, etc. How this takes shape will vary from culture to culture, but the tasks remain the same. Thinking outside of this box may mean compromising the divine mandate for the church.
Culture is another box we must think and act within. If you're a part of a church in a rural community of 1000 people, doing church as if you were in an urban context would make you at best, ineffective, or worse, irrelevant. Thinking within the box of your cultural context does not meaning accommodating the culture at every point, but interacting with it redemptively. To think inside this box we ask questions like, What are the community's needs? Who are these people? What's broken? What are the prevalent evils, virtues, and customs? What would it look like if the Kingdom of God took over in the neighborhood our church is in? How can we best preach and demonstrate the gospel in this context (box)? Thinking outside of this box may not mean theological error, but it will make us irrelevant, and thus unbiblical in form.
The third box is tradition. Rather than dismissing everything that has happened within these parameters we need to review and evaluate. What have we been doing? Is it faithful to Scripture and appropriate for our context? Has it produced fruit? Is it producing fruit now? What can we do better? What do we need to do different? Has this box been covered in gold and treated like an idol? If so, how can we melt it down? This is the box we may need to think outside of, or destroy in faithfulness to God.
As I see it the best churches and church leaders throughout history have all thought outside of the box of tradition (when necessary), while thinking inside the boxes of Scripture and culture. Consider Martin Luther, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Carey and Charles Spurgeon. These are men who were radically committed to proclaiming the gospel in word and deed in ways appropriate to their particular culture. From the language they used, to the contexts created for hearing and responding to the word, to the works of mercy they created for the good of those who suffered they were all thinking through a biblical and cultural grid.
All of the churches that I admire today are thinking outside of the box of tradition (again, only when necessary) and within the boxes of Scripture and culture. Yet, none of these churches would want another church to simply do what they do. In fact, they warn against it. They do however call other churches to operate according to biblical principles while figuring out the best way to work it out in their own context.
I know, churches want to get going, get doing, start making a difference for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors, but we first have to commit ourselves to thinking within some boxes while remaining willing to think outside of the others that so often needlessly trap us. This takes a deep dependence on God, a radical commitment to Scripture, a sensitivity to culture and much time, trial and error.