By Eddie Pipkin

May 26, 2017

I have a 20-something friend who is obsessed with all things Elon Musk.  You will have heard of Mr. Musk, entrepreneur, visionary, multi-billionaire shifter of paradigms: builder of cars, launcher of rockets, digger of tunnels.  This is a guy with a lot of world changing irons in the fire, so, understandably my young friend was interested in how a visionary consistently generates vision.  It turns out these leaps of imagination stem not from some secret knowledge accessible only to super brains, but from asking good questions and refocusing on the fundamentals.

Elon (we’ll call him Elon—he seems accessible that way, a fine trait in a leader) looks routinely at complex questions, seemingly unsolvable issues facing humanity, and wonders, “Why not?”  He cites as his own inspiration the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, who believed that even the most intractable of problems (we’re talking quarks and parallel universes and such) are approachable with a fresh grasp of the fundamentals:

Feynman was famous as a student for redoing many of physics’ early experiments himself to build a foundational understanding of the field. By mastering these first principles, Feynman often saw things that others did not in quantum mechanics, computing, and nuclear physics.

Elon Musk took this approach to heart.  He wanted to build electric cars that were high quality, high performance, and yet eventually affordable enough to be accessible to regular people.  This would require not just reengineering automotive design, but rethinking the way that cars were built—rethinking the 100-year-old assembly line process of manufacturing.  So, he started with asking fundamental questions about the basics of that process, re-approaching principles that had been established and accepted as fact for generations.

He wanted to make rocket launches more affordable and accessible and eventually send people to Mars, so he began with the basic physics and economics of shooting stuff into orbit, and by going back to the basics led his team to figure out things that many said were impossible in this lifetime, like re-landing and reusing rocket stages.  (And by the way, these rocket launches and the revived enthusiasm on the Space Coast have been a lot of fun for those of us who live in Central Florida and can watch them from our front yards—thanks, Elon!)

For those of us in ministry, this approach could be a refreshing process.  We often function in a world that is filled with legacy projects and programs, sometimes decades old, that we are trying to keep chugging along.  We invest lots of talent and resources in tinkering around the edges of these projects and programs, giving them tweaks that will hopefully make them “relevant for a new generation.”  It is rare, however, that we reimagine them from the ground up, starting with foundational principles and building something new.  Even our celebrated innovations are most often copying ideas and “solutions” from a select group of superstar churches and ministries.  (I love Andrew Forrest’s take on how every dying church in America has a community garden.”)

A deeper dive into the unique contexts of our local communities, paired with a stronger embrace of the fundamentals of discipleship can relaunch us in new directions and free us from the shackles of past-think.  It’s what Feynman (and our friend, Elon) have celebrated as the power of simple math to accomplish highly complex things.

Take, for example, the work of Episcopal priest, the Rev. Sean Steele, who has built a highly unusual (and intentionally untethered from a physical campus) congregation which combines Taco Church with a pub theology group with a laundry ministry, all connected through a cellphone app.  This approach to building a faith community coincides with almost none of the received wisdom of how to plant a church or build a congregation recognizable by the traditional metrics for measuring success.  It doesn’t even seem to meet the definition of what we understand a “church” to be, yet in an Acts 2 sense, it is providing seriously fertile ground for the growth of genuine discipleship.  As the linked article above from Faith and Leadership attests, “Its priest isn’t trying to do something old in a new way – he’s trying to do something brand-new in the old way.”

What are the ways in which we are trying to force new wine into old wineskins?  Are we looking at the obvious needs in our community through the eyes of our clear call to raise up disciples and building our ministries on those twin foundational building blocks?  What successes have you seen with this approach, and what frustrations have you encountered?  Share your stories and questions with us here at emc3 (Excellence in Ministry Coaching).  Together we can inspire and challenge one another.