ON BICYCLES AND BI-PLANES
As we all know, December 2003 was the centenary marking the advent of manned flight by the Wright brothers. Many are commentating on how over the last 100 years flying has transformed how we live. It certainly has transformed the whole missionary enterprise. When William Cary and the other leaders of the modern missionary movement sailed away from their homeland, most of them never returned. Their lives were short and the sea journey took months. So, the Wright brothers certainly have served in advancing the spread of the gospel around the earth.
As you probably know, the brothers were not alone in seeking to develop a flying machine. Several inventors were independently attacking the problem. Most of them believed that the key to flight was to perfect the shape of the aircraft. Endless designs were drawn up and prototypes built, all of which failed. The perfect shape seemed to elude everyone.
However, the Wright brothers were bicycle makers and realized that the bicycle did not work because it was a perfect shape (many designs were on the market, from unicycles to “penny farthings”). Their genius was to realize that the bicycle worked because it was possible to manipulate its “shape” as it was moving over the ground. Once some velocity was achieved by pedaling, the key was to constantly change the direction of the front wheel to maintain balance. Manipulating the shape of the bicycle (particularly the alignment of the front wheel in relation to the back wheel) was what made cycling possible.
When we are on a bike we are not even conscious of the micro adjustment we are making every few seconds to the trajectory of the front wheel (by using our handlebars) to keep the machine upright—along with small shifts of our body weight from side to side counterbalance the effects of gravity. We are usually only conscious of turning the handlebars when negotiating corners. When I was a teenager I would try and see how long I could stay upright on my bike without moving my handlebars even a fraction of an inch. My maximum, before hitting the dirt, was about fifteen feet.
Hence 100 years later, Lance Armstrong has a aerodynamically designed carbon-fiber frame, but still retains handlebars and forks to manipulate the trajectory of the front wheel when navigating his way down an alpine pass in the Tour de France.
The primary problem with flight was not propulsion or weight (both were crucial but quickly overcome), but shape. Wilber and Orville did work in a primitive wind tunnel to determine the best cross section of a wing and factor this in to the overall shape of their machine, but the breakthrough came when they applied what they knew about bicycles to airplanes. They realized that perhaps that there was no perfect shape that would keep a flying machine stable in the air, but rather that the shape had to be constantly adjusted and manipulated; then perhaps the problems of balance, stability, lift, and control could be overcome.
So they had a go. As you might know, Wilber would lie down on his stomach on the lower wing, head first, and swing his hips and legs from side to side. Attached to his hips and legs were ropes that would twist the shape of the wing as the machine was in the air. Once air-borne he would
swing his hips and legs from side to side, putting some torque on the wing to adjust its shape. And to their delight it worked. This 1902 glider was the breakthrough in manned flight.
Today, we have computerized ailerons and wing-flaps, but the principle is the same. The shape of the wing has to be manipulated in the air to make flight possible. Window seats are still fun because you can see the astonishing changes in the shape of the wing during take-off, flight, and particularly, on landing. We can’t control the thermals or the wind, but we can reconfigure the shape of the wing to maintain control while we are in flight.
So what does all this have to do with the church? Possibly quite a bit. As you know, the literature on the church growth is massive and much is written on what is the best shape of the church in a postmodern society. New programs are launched, adjustments are made in architecture, and small groups multiply. Additions are made in the area of specialized staff and personnel; all of us keep a weather eye out as to the shape of the rapidly expanding churches in the Third World. The Lord has given us some extra propulsion, via the charismatic movement, and we are learning some spiritual aerodynamics to creatively reconfigure the shape and structure our congregations. And this is all good and necessary.
However, it seems that new configurations are tried, only to be abandoned a few years later, and replaced by the next new thing. There is nothing wrong with this, we are all working hard to build the kingdom and restructuring and experimentation all goes with the territory. But it would seem that much like the early airplane designers we are searching for the perfect shape, when in fact, it may not exist. Perhaps the key is manipulating the shape of the church while we are in flight.
Jesus said that the Spirit, like the wind, has a mysterious quality. We can’t discern where it comes from or where it goes, and neither can we adjust its velocity and direction. However, what we can do is reconfigure the shape of our wings to take maximum advantage of the season we are in and of the weather patterns of the Spirit.
It is much easier to decide on a shape and stay with it. However, like the Wright brothers, we need to be courageous enough risk making adjustments “in the air”, while we are in flight and not only in our committees and conferences while safely on terra firma. I think it would be fair to say that most breakthroughs in church history have happened this way (Just look at the church in Antioch) but this takes sensitivity to the Spirit and the boldness to flex what is often very inflexible in congregational culture and expectations.
Like Wilber and Orville, once in a while we too will crash, they did, about 200 times in the l902 glider, but eventually, by being bold enough to lie on the wing, we will discern the direction the wind is blowing, manipulate the structure accordingly, and gain some altitude.
Early flight was risky business and so is church leadership. However, waiting around for the perfect shape, the next program for exponential growth, or the next book by the growth gurus, will probably not get us off of the ground. Perhaps on this centenary of the Wright brothers we need to take another look at the bicycle and the bi-plane.