Lessons from the rumble strips

Churches need alerts to recognize when their current path is leading them toward calamity.

By Bill Wilson

You’ve probably been helped by a rumble strip. You know, the series of grooved cuts in the pavement just off the right side of the road that rattles your car when you drift off the highway. The roar of the rumble strip is intended to jolt you awake, get your attention off your texting and back on the road, or generally break through your inattention to driving and warn you to pay attention.

Rumble strips save lives. Seventy percent of fatal single-car crashes are classified as ROR (run off road) accidents, as opposed to OR (on road) accidents. Highways that employ rumble strips see a decrease of these accidents ranging from 29 percent to 41 percent, depending upon which study you read.

Anyone who drives very often can attest to the rush of adrenalin that comes when you drift off the right shoulder of the road and hit that noisy reminder that this is definitely not the way you want to go in your vehicle.

I’m convinced that many of the calamities I see in churches and clergy begin as “veer” mistakes. No one sets out to intentionally make a mess of things. We gradually drift from our intended path and find ourselves far from where we intended to be. Sometimes we crash, other times we just sail off into irrelevance and lose touch with our reason for being.

I wish we could come up with some rumble strips for churches and clergy. You know, alarms that would sound when we veer off the path God intends for us to travel.

What are some warning signs that our church has strayed from the path God intends us to follow?

1. We think God is lucky to have people like us on the team.

2. We act like the judges from American Idol during worship.

3. When we hear a new ministry initiative, our first thoughts are, “Who’s going to object?” or “What’s that going to cost?”

4. We find ourselves rationalizing and justifying nearly everything we do.

5. We make fun of other Christians and other churches.

6. Our budgets, staff and buildings are primarily intended to serve our members. We feel uncomfortable when they are directed toward outsiders.

7. We whine. A lot.

8. We’re very, very afraid for our church’s future. That makes us cowards.

9. We use “us-them” language when we talk about our city/county/community.

10. We only pray, really pray, when we’re in trouble.

I’ll stop at 10. I could go to 100.

The purpose of a rumble strip is to immediately motivate you to take a corrective action. Ideally, you recognize that your current path is leading you toward calamity, and gently ease your vehicle back toward the highway.

Unfortunately, many people are so startled by a rumble strip that they over-correct and actually increase the likelihood of a serious accident. Over-correcting can be as dangerous for a car as running off the highway.

Highly anxious congregations are especially prone to panicked over-correction. When we finally realize that things have gone astray, we look around for quick and easy fixes. Facilities, budgets, worship styles and staff members are easy marks for a highly anxious congregation. We rush to symptomatic relief rather than address the deeper and more profound underlying issues. Spectacular wrecks ensue.

When a church hits the rumble strips, a careful and thoughtful study of the book of Acts and Matthew 25 seems in order. Lead the discussion away from symptoms to the question of vision and clarity around the mission of the church. Perhaps you could have a conversation in your church about what it means to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, here on earth, as it is in heaven.” Then, find specific ways to help that happen. Try to imagine what it would look like if God’s dream for us actually came to life in your church, then in your neighborhood, then in your city.

At the heart of much of our malaise and decline is the painful truth that we have drifted far from the path Christ intended for the church. Form has replaced substance. Rules trample grace. Pride dwarfs humility.

Remember that what saved the early church from an early demise was their relentless focus upon the life and ministry of Jesus (Acts 15). The same will certainly be true for us.

Rumble strips save lives. Let them jolt you awake and lead you back to the future God has dreamed for you.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.