A BRIDGE STORY
In 1851 many of the most accomplished engineers in the country thought James Roebling was out of his mind. That year Roebling began to work on the unthinkable. the bridging of the Niagara River Gorge.
Disaster was nearly universally predicted. There was, of course, the sheer mathematics of the thing.~ 825 fret across, and— more terrifyingly—200 feet down. Straight down. As in a plummet you couldn’t even dream in your worst nightmare.
But the numbers paled in comparison to the sheer power and raging terror of the place. Roebling~ proposed site was just upstream from the great Niagara Falls, where up to 37.4 million gallons of water per minute fall into the Niagara Gorge. From there the rushing water had cut a deep abyss with a series of savage rapids before ending in a tremendous whirlpool held in a massive rock basin. A no-mans-land.
A cross such a chasm. Roebling believed a train could cross.
History was not a powerful ally. Although greater spans had already been bridged—including Roebling’s own bridge across the Ohio River— the Niagara River posed fierce difficulties: No girders or bridge supports, provided that they could even be constructed, would ever survive the raging current. The only possible solution, to Roebling, was a suspension bridge.
And that was what had people worried. At the time, suspension bridges were about as well regarded in the engineering profrssion as the Edsel would be in the early automotive industry—disasters in the making. They shook in the wind, and after a few yea rs they twisted and crumbled into the waters they were designed to span. In England and France suspension bridges had collapsed under the mere weight of crossing humans, killing hundreds. In America a number of small suspension bridges—mostly for the movement of livestock—had collapsed, including one over the Licking River in Coyington, Kentucky
When Roebling first proposed a suspension bridge across the great Niagara Gorge, it came as no great surprise that most people were putting their money on the gorge, not the bridge.
The Chasm was simply too great, too terrible.
AS THE CHURCH ENGAGES a third millennium, it too looks across a terrifying—and ever-widening—chasm:
•Between first-century authority and postmodern skepticism;
•Between a bold proclamation of God’s love and unmet human needs;
•Between the selfless vision of Christ and the self-obsessed reality of our world;
•Between the truth of God’s laws and the moral compromise of our culture;
•Between those who believe and those who don’t.
At the bottom of the chasm rages the white water of popular sentiment, which increasingly views the church as inconsequential, a sideshow along the interstate of the world’s real traffic. Today, “numerous studies confirm that the public, especially media and intellectual leaders, do not see Christianity as a dominant social force.”l Instead, six out of ten Americans believe the church is irrelevant.2 And in the lives of the 170 million non-Christians in America (making our country the third largest mission field in the world), that irrelevance provokes an ever-increasing cynicism and hostility.
A growing sense of isolation and powerlessness pervades much of the contemporary church. Have you felt that as a pastor or layperson? A sinking feeling that we are not only losing ground but losing our voice as well? If so, you’re not alone. As it stares across the Great Chasm, much of the church no longer believes it can greatly influence the world. In fact, only one out of three pastors—pastors—believes the church is making a positive impact on the culture.3
RESORTING TO FALLBACKS
Often, as “engineers of churches,” pastors and lay leaders desperately desire to bridge the gap, but when measuring the gorge with the world’s mathematics, they come to believe the span is simply too vast. I personally have often felt paralyzed by the intimidating distance that exists between the church and the community. The sheer size of the Great Chasm is not only intimidating, but it also scares many church leaders into believing that the task is impossible. As a result, many pastors resort to the following “fallback methodologies” as substitutes for spanning the great divide:
“Be Culturally Relevant.” According to this strategy; churches can best address their receding influence through contemporary repackaging. Unfortunately, this strategy often goes too far. It becomes relevance at the expense of substance. In many contemporary churches, believers no longer carry Bibles. Worshipers seek an experience with God minus the commitment. Therapy replaces morality; Entertainment crowds out the cross. Is it maturity we’re after, or the “feel good”? “These new paradigm churches,” David Wells says, “appear to be succeeding not because they are offering an alternative to modern culture, but because they are speaking with its voice and mimicking its moves.”
“Promise Heaven Now.” Pastors and traveling speakers tell eager audiences that God promises health, wealth, and power to anyone with enough faith. Churches with this strategy certainly draw a crowd. And why not? Who wouldn’t want this? But is this the Christian life or the American Dream in pseudospiritual garb?
“Just Preach the Word.” I love expository preaching and deeply admire those who do it well. But great preaching alone will not reach our world or magically transport unbelievers across the Great Chasm. According to Rick Warren, there are many who say, “If you’ll just stay doctrinally pure, preach the Word, pray more, and be dedicated, then your church will explode with growth. It sounds so simple and so spiritual, but it just isn’t true.”5
To make matters worse, those in the world often see believers who are “under the Word” falling woefully short of the supernatural lifestyles the Scripture presents. In a recent poll, George Barna, a sociologist and research expert, compared the lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians, using 131 different measures of attitudes, behaviors, values, and beliefs. His conclusion: “In the aspects of lifestyle where Christians can have their greatest impact on the lives of non-Christians, there are no visible differences between the two segments.”
How will the world ever discover church again if what they see across the Great Chasm is, in reality, people no different than themselves, living in what appears to be a fantasy? “Our gospel,” laments Dr. Henry Blackaby, author of Experiencing God, “is cancelled by the way we live.”
“Stay the Course.” Believing that the world influences the church too much and often discounting the obvious, many decide to stick with the same “tried-and-true” methods that they’ve used for decades. One pastor friend of mine stated this methodology succinctly when he said, “If the l950s ever come around again, my church will be ready.” What is sadly overlooked is that these older methodologies were originally created to work only in a certain time and context. Some were no doubt considered radical departures from the norm in their own day. But no longer. Yesterday’s freshness always fades. What’s worse, “doing business as usual” today is a complete denial of the crisis at hand. Charles Chaney, former vice-president of the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board, is right when he says, “America will not be won to Christ by establishing more churches like the vast majority we now have.”
I do not wish to be harsh. Some of what is happening in today’s church has brought important and long overdue additions to the Christian agenda: culturally sensitive messages from the Word, helpful adaptations of technology, deeper development of community, a recovery of the arts, and a greater attention to real personal needs. Our own church has adopted parts of these question was these strategies. But what we have failed to do, for the most part, is to bridge the Great Chasm.
For all its frenetic activity and supernatural posturings, the overall impact of the church on American culture is generally understood to be about the same: just slightly above zero. “I believe it is time to confess that our strategies have not worked,” says Michael B. Regele, cofounder of Precept Group, Inc., an organization that has developed congregational profiles for nearly 20,000 churches. “Church leaders are working harder and harder for fewer positive results.”
Recently I conducted an informal poll at a suburban mall near where I live in Little Rock, Arkansas. The question was simple: What impact is the church having on the community? When I posed that question to a teenager, his answer was direct and penetrating: “The church,” he said, “is crap.” We want to indignantly react or piously defend ourselves, appealing to the few success stories we know. But across the Great Chasm, can we hear the truth in his voice?
A DANGEROUS DREAM
As James Roebling peered across the Niagara River Gorge, he believed the chasm could be bridged. Even with an abundance of naysayers, some of his confidence rested in this verifiable fact: it had already been done. Within a short distance of his proposed railroad bridge, a suspension bridge already hung, although a bit shakily. The work of Charles Ellet, American engineer and showman, the bridge had opened three years before Roebling strung his first cable. Ellet had proved, at the very least, that the Great Niagara Gorge was vulnerable.
A master of ingenuity and flamboyance, Ellet solved his first problem—how to get the initial wire across the gorge—with characteristic pomp and style. He offered the first American boy to fly a kite across the chasm a five-dollar reward. The competition was intense as skies over thundering waters were filled with frail colors, but on the first day, no one was successful. On the second day, young Homer Walsh won the prize. The string of his kite was fastened to a tree on the far side of the river, a light cord attached to it, and pulled slowly back over the gorge. Next came a heavier cord, then a rope, and finally a cable composed of number 10—strand wires. It was the beginning of Ellet’s bridge, the accomplishment of a soaring dream.
Ellet was not finished with the dramatics. After the first cable was completed, he decided to demonstrate his faith in an unforgettable fashion. He built an iron basket, attaching it to the cable with a series of pulleys. Then he got inside, pulling himself across—the first man ever to cross the great chasm. “The wind was high and the weather cold,” he wrote of the experience, “but yet the trip was a very interesting one to me—perched up as I was two hundred and forty feet above the Rapids, and viewing from the center of the river one of the sublimest prospects which nature had prepared on this globe of ours.”10
Along both rims of the gorge on that historic March day, an excitement surged through crowds. They had witnessed the accomplishment of the impossible.
Still Ellet was not finished. After a catwalk had been completed several weeks later, he leaped into a small horse-drawn carriage and rolled fearlessly headlong onto the tiny bridge with, as yet, no guardrails. Standing straight up like a charioteer, Ellet directed the carriage across the bridge, which swayed fearfully. In the crowds, women passed out, men stood dumbstruck, and, in the end, applause was heard over the gorge’s roar.
As Roebling pondered his much larger bridge, Ellet’s efforts must have generated some confidence. Yet it was to be a short-lived reassurance. In May 1854—just one year before the completion of Roebling’s
bridge over the Niagara Gorge—word was received that a suspension bridge over the Ohio River, also built by Ellet, had collapsed. It had survived just five years.
Most people were now convinced that James Roebling was a dangerous dreamer. Could it be doubted that the Great Chasm would win in the end?
Jesus Christ was a daring bridge builder of another kind. Against his own overwhelming odds, he imagined a bridge of unprecedented spiritual influence—one that could span a chasm roaring with skepticism, indifference, hostility, even persecution. He imagined a bridge able to connect his people—”my church,” he called them—to a disbelieving, disinterested world.
That’s why Jesus loved to talk about the church, especially the power it could unleash and exercise in the world.
Follow me, he would say, and will make you fishers of men.
You are the light of the world, he would teach, shine in the darkness.
You are the salt of the earth, he declared, make a tasteful difference.
Nothing, he believed, would prevail against the power of the church:
I will build my church, he said, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. By exhibiting, through everyday humanity, his life and love to the world, Jesus expected the church to supernaturally attract all men to God: If 1 am lifted up, he said just before his death, I will draw all men to myself
This is the bridge Jesus imagined: a connecting church—a bridge of influence.
EQUIPPED FOR WHAT?
The message of this book is simple: the church must rediscover its essential role and craft as bridge builder. For the world’s sake. For the church’s sake. For God’s sake. We can no longer simply afford to stand on one side of the Great Chasm and shout to those on the other side. We must connect. Otherwise, the greatest unbridged chasm will remain the gap between the stunning vision of Jesus Christ and the ever-receding influence of the contemporary church in the world.
As pastors and lay leaders, as engineers, we must recommit ourselves to dangerous dreaming and precise calculating. We must be a people of deep faith. The great chasm can be bridged!
To -a very small degree, I know from personal—and often painful—experience. Our own church, Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, has built its bridges mostly by trial and error. We have suffered through numerous collapses. But we continue making the attempt. And with our own “dangerous dreams,” progress is being made.
At first, however, we didn’t even understand that bridge building was what we were supposed to he doing. Our church, from its start in 1977, implemented many ministry concepts that only recently have come into vogue in today’s contemporary church models: team preaching; small groups; lay equipping and empowerment; passionate worship; strong, focused vision; seeker-sensitive evangelism; results-oriented planning—all with a deep commitment to biblical accuracy and truth.
The process of personal transformation, we firmly believed, only occurred within the boundaries of the supernatural Word of God and an ever-intensiljring relationship with God in all of his triune glory, power, and excellence. We believed, too, that spiritual growth happened in the context of honest, loving relationships. We stressed that all of our people should be involved in small groups where other Christians could know them well enough to encourage them deeper into the life and love of God.
Church leaders also took seriously the duty to “equip the saints.” We sought to meet needs, help people discern their gifts, build skills and confidence, increase knowledge, and develop spiritual and personal authenticity And in fact, we still believe all of these issues are critical to the work of the church.
And yet, to be quite frank, an essential piece of the puzzle was missing. In 1989 the church reached a crisis point. With an intuitive sense that something was wrong, we as leaders of the church engaged in a formal study. Our people were surveyed through a multifaceted questionnaire. The results were stunning. We discovered that after four to five years of involvement in the small group ministry that is central to our church, people began to feel unchallenged and stifled. Their excitement about church dramatically declined. They had always been told that they were to be “equipped,” but the data raised a greater question:
In the history of our church, nothing has shocked us as much as that simple, three-word question. It was like a bomb went off inside the church walls, one that would eventually lead to a complete reconstruction of Fellowship Bible Church.
As our elders discussed the survey with our congregation and sought guidance from the Word of God, we realized we were at a crossroads.
If we continued on our present path, we would likely create a style of ministry that we would one day regret. We would eventually function as a refuge from the world, a sort of Christian “club” that exhausted itself trying to keep its members happy. We would become focused on our own inward needs. We would probably measure our success, not by the true biblical standards of courage and faithfulness, changed and changing hearts, and an irreplaceable impact on the world through good works, but rather by other things: personalities, numbers in attendance, entertainment value, money, and facilities. We would become the type of church described by Bill Hull in his book, Can We Save the Evangelical Church? “The average evangelical church in North America exists for itself,” Hull writes. “Churches are preoccupied with themselves, their routines, facilities, and filling their buildings for performances.”ll Yes, we could certainly go there.
Or, we realized, we could make a bold, radical move in a new direction. We could courageously pursue the type of church Jesus envisioned.
We saw more clearly than ever before that our church members were unchallenged and stifled because they were cut off from their divine mandate of bridge building. It was easy to understand why so many evangelical Christians sound strange, while looking so much like everyone else. Trapped in the small and mirrored room of introspection, reduced to the size of his or her own appetite, the average Christian has precious little motivation for real, radical change. With the Great Chasm uncrossed, the focus inevitably shifts from the transformed and compelling life—the necessity of becoming salt and light in a needy and searching world—to a much more superficial desire to “look Christian” to other Christians.
In a sense, we felt we had been running a basketball camp. With all the difficult and sometimes tedious focus on training, skill development, conditioning, and position selection, we had never actually played the game. In all our activity and hard work, we had missed the bigger picture.
We were missing our highest calling: to bridge the Great Chasm! But that quickly changed. Soon church structure was being reorganized, new staff were hired, and people were asked to take their first intimidating steps outside the safe and comfortable environs of the church campus we had been so consumed in building. The answer to the question, Equipped for what? came down to the simplest of answers: “For God so loved the world.”
The church, we now firmly believe, is to be in the bridge-building business, according to the design of Jesus Christ. Over this bridge the church must travel and prove it’s reality to a dis-believing world. Only then will the world reconsider its skepticism, hostility, and lostness. Our world must experience the same incarnational
influence as the first century experienced when Grace and Truth himself suddenly bridged that
Great Chasm and became flesh.
But bridge building is much different work than success building. Let me say this with as much of the humility birthed from our own difficult experiences as I can: If the church firnctions with any other design than that of a brid e it dooms itself. Our hard work over time will sink into t e cold waters of irre evancy, frustration, and despair. Great, charismatic preaching will drown in isolated, self-absorbed hearts. Innovation and cutting-edge technology without a new vision will become like a pile of rusted saltwater shipwreck. I am aware of how strong this sounds, but ~ believe it is only as judgmental as, say, a man who tells a child on a roof that his arms are not wings, or an engineer who rules out the circle for road design.
The necessity of understanding the church’s design as a bridge is critical. Imagine a great city without its bridges—New York City with no crossing of the Hudson and East Rivers, or San Francisco minus the Golden Gate, or London without the London Bridge, or Paris without a way to traverse the Seine. Bridges give life through two-way movement! Without its own bridges to the world, church life— in time—fades into isolation, self-congratulation, and finally, irrelevance.
James Roebling, in a sense, was a man of faith. He believed in the fixed laws of the universe. If great chasms refused to be bridged, it was the fault of the engineers, not the structures. Despite accumulating evidence to the contrary, Roebling insisted, “There are no safer bridges than those built on the suspension principle, if built understandingly, and none more dangerous if constructed with an imperfect knowledge of the principles of their equilibrium.
Roebling’s bridge was completed in March 1855. It was profound both in its simplicity and economy: “four plain towers sixty feet high [on opposing banks], four cables ten inches in diameter, their suspenders and stays, and a straightforward timber truss joining the two levels to the one span.”13 The bottom level was for carriage and pedestrian traffic, the top reserved for the Great Western Canada Railroad.
On Friday, March 16, the first train crossed over. Put together especially for this purpose, it was far heavier than most trains—the engine weighed twenty-eight tons, and it pushed twenty double-loaded cars. A few days later a passenger train, packed to capacity and beyond, also made the journey, this time from Canada to the United States.
Roebling harbored a quiet but deep satisfaction. He reveled in the opening of such great commerce, but even better, the separation that had long existed between two strong countries had been spanned. He was pleased with the harmony, economy, grace, and soundness of its structure. But most of all, he revisited its elemental purpose. “No one,” he wrote to his family, “is afraid to cross.”
The impossible became possible. A keeper of his faith, Roebling was now believed.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
As we turn to face the Great Chasm, can we believe him?
BRIDGE BUILDER QUESTIONS
What kind of impact do you believe todays church is having on our culture?
How does the community around you “know” your church? Do they feel a positive connection with it?
What tangible influence is your church having on your community?