Dr. Mark Aaron Humphrey

Twenty-Seven years ago yesterday morning, I was an anxious little sixth-grader, staring at the clock until my class got to walk outside to see the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger as it made Christie McAuliffe, “The First Teacher in Space.” Growing up in Titusville, Florida, we had gotten very accustomed to launches. Much of the world had started to forget about us as the new wore off of the shuttle program. This launch recaptured some headlines, given that Christie was not a NASA astronaut, but a teacher, plucked from the classroom, chosen among thousands who competed for the opportunity. The Challenger explosion that day became the “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” moment of my generation, and I was pretty much standing along the grassy knoll.

Titusville was a town that sprung up from President Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural charge to go to the moon, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” Most of the houses in the established neighborhoods were 1960’s cinderblock homes. Sturdy. Basic. Frozen in time. My family moved there in 1983 when the shuttle program was beginning the next chapter of space exploration. The problem was that the chapter after the shuttle, though long-promised and discussed, never materialized. A program that was supposed to be an intermediate, opening act, was called upon to be the headlining band for far too long, and on January 28, 1983, it crumbled under the pressure as camera’s were fixed upon the reaction of Christie’s poor mother and father in the Space Center grandstand. On my Facebook page yesterday, I used the lasting image of the “y-shaped” smoke trail that has come to mark that day. Today, the image of her mom and dad seems like a more appropriate image to remember.

As it was explained to me, the Space Shuttle was 1970’s technology that was never designed as a long-term solution. Now, for most people outside of Titusville, it’s marked by its failure more than its accomplishment. They only remember it by its sad, humbled end. Last year, the final shuttles were taken to their museum homes. There are countless pictures of the shuttle Endeavour being paraded through the streets of Los Angeles (a place I would later call home).  As my LA friends were celebrating this unforgettable moment, I, as a Titusville kid, saw it more like the parading of a corpse like a funeral procession down main street.

I use Nancy Beech’s book An Hour on Sunday in one of my worship classes at UMHB. It has some incredible wisdom about managing teams, vision, and relationships on creative teams. But it is also heavily rooted in the original vision of Willow Creek Church when it was founded in 1975. This vision would become one of the prevailing models for the next generation of seeker-sensitive churches. This model was accompanied by sweeping changes in the way worship is designed and led, changes that will be lasting in many ways. On the other hand, as with so many of these churches today, they have not managed to clearly navigate into a next chapter, one that is sustainable for the new realities of the 21st Century. True, people are still attending. Launches are still being successfully carried out with safe landings back on earth. But as I spend more and more time with the generations younger than the Baby Boomers who led the changes of the 1980’s, I am convinced that just as the shuttle carried the mantle for space exploration beyond its time, so too have these ideas and models.

Now what? Many of these Boomer models thought emergent gimmicks were the next “big thing,” so they set up prayer stations and printed the t-shirts for the cool Christian kid conferences. But before the ink was dry on the shirts, it was over. I don’t know exactly what’s next. Only God does. History suggests a lot for us, so let’s take David Bazan’s advice and remember that “you can’t be right about the future if you’re wrong about the past.” As with any contemporary movement in transition, the changes are diverse and localized. There are some post-seeker mega-churches, but it is also intriguing to see Rob Bell and Francis Chan walk away from theirs. Whether this is a time of transition or a move toward decentralization is debatable. But one thing is for certain, as President Lincoln said, “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present.” May we draw upon that wisdom and lean into Kennedy’s challenge to push the envelop of the future not because it is easy (or even clearly defined), but because it is hard.