Wilbur and Orville Wright's names are not much heard in our day. A hundred and ten years ago they invented the Wright Flyer, the first aeroplane to fly under its own power. Prior to that powered flight at Kill Devil Hill in North Carolina, they made more than 700 flights in gliders they built in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. Their research into the secret of flight opened the way for all who came after them. At first they had no wind tunnel, so they attached a bracket to the handlebars of a bicycle, and tested the airfoil shapes as they pedaled down the road. Later, they built a wind tunnel and tested each wing, as well as the design for the propellors for their powered Flyer. Amazing innovators, they were! They designed and built their own engine, a 12 horsepower horizontal four cylinder, and made a primitive carburetor for it. One of the mechanics put it together and tinkered with it until it ran reliably. They solved the problem of low speed stalls by attaching pulleys and cables to a movable cradle the pilot lay in so he could warp the wings and bank the Flyer in a turn. They built a catapult to launch the Flyer, and it flew! They flew that rattling, clattering, vibrating contraption of spruce and cloth and wire, and motor and sprockets and bicycle chains and handmade propellors, they flew it over a hundred feet that day in 1903. Almost the length of a modern airliner's wingspan.
The Wright brothers were impressive characters. The sons of a Congregational minister, they held some surprisingly strong beliefs. No matter what stage of testing they were at, they dressed up in suits and ties and refused to do any work on Sundays. Photos abound of them setting aside the Lord's day, no matter where they were or what they were doing. They were also brilliant aeronautical engineers before the title even existed. They often disagreed, and would debate for hours the complexities of their flimsy fledgling aircraft. They were so persuasive that they even convinced each other and traded viewpoints and started the debate all over again.
Many interesting historical highlights of those primitive flights are written down. Years ago, someone built an exact replica of the Flyer, I mean, an exact copy. And they couldn't get it to fly, at all. Someone else built one and got it into the air, only to find that it was terribly unstable and came very close to crashing every time they flew it.
There is one incident, or series of incidents, that deserves special mention. You see, once they'd flown the Wright Flyer off Kill Devil Hill a few times and gained a tiny bit of experience, they disassembled it, packed it up and sent it back to Dayton. They were offered an empty cow pasture on the edge of town for the first flying field in the world. It was called Huffman's Prairie. It lacked several advantages the windy, sea level beach at Kill Devil Hill had. The higher elevation made the air pressure lower so the lift of the wings was less, and the little engine's power dropped as well. At Kill Devil Hill, the wind blew at more than 40 miles per hour, here the wind was almost non existent, so they lost airspeed for takeoff. The summer air was much hotter and thinner, so the catapult rails had to be lengthened to increase the takeoff speed. But it just wouldn't fly. Local newspaper reporters came out to see it fly, and it didn't, and they laughed and went home.
Orville and Wilbur went back to the bicycle shop and to the windtunnel they'd made, and they argued it out, until they solved the problems, one after the other. The design was good. The airfoil was tweaked, and the wings and tail lengthened. Having the horizontal tail in front to prevent stalls was a good idea, and the wing warping concept was sound. The propellor design was optimal (as computer studies would prove, years later). The center of gravity was right. The catapult was improved, but the Flyer just wouldn't fly. The major problem was the little motor. More power was needed to push the Flyer along fast enough to take off. Twelve horsepower was just barely enough to fly in the conditions at Kill Devil Hill, but not in those at Huffman's Prairie. They designed a new, more powerful engine, and the Flyer flew. Soon, they were flying, sitting upright, and even carrying a passenger. And flying five hours at a time, non-stop.
It flew at Huffman's Prairie
The last fifty years have seen some strange designs come and go. Most of them won't fly at Huffman's Prairie.
No, I don't mean aircraft designs. I mean church designs. In the 50's we saw "bus-churches" springing up everywhere. In the 60's it was "contest-churches" and "southern-gospel-music-churches", in the 70's we had "big-name-preacher-churches", (and they are still with us today), in the 80's and 90's there appeared the "seeker-sensitive-megachurches", and over the past ten years or so the "emergent/emerging-churches" have spread all over the world. Each of these designs seems to fly impressively for a little while, as long as the winds of culture are blowing just right, and the temperature of society is just right, and the peer pressure is high enough. Some of them need blue collared converts in order to get off the ground, others need cashed up yuppies to take off. Some can only flourish in the sun belt or the deep south, or near Hollywood or Nashville or Disneyland. Large cities are required for some designs to fly, and it seems that they all need Hillsong and YouTube. Most of them would crash and burn without a website, a rockband, and televised church services.
That's the difference between megachurches and the biblical churches the apostles planted. Peter and Paul did no market research or surveys of lost men's preferences in order to start an enculturated church. They did not seek a favourable environment for an anemic message. They didn't test the wind, or sample the market. They preached the Word of God and followed the leading of the Spirit of God. They preached the gospel of Christ in the most hostile cultures imaginable. The synagogues erupted, and the silversmiths chanted their threats, and Nero schemed, and lions devoured them. And those little apostolic churches overcame the gravitational pull of the world, and rose above the crosswinds of pagan religions. When all the world was against them, they flew. You know, that is the real test of a preacher or a church. Does it only survive if it is planted in a favourable cultural climate? Will it only fly if society smiles upon it? Or will it fly at Huffman's Prairie?
Everywhere we look today, Egochurches and Ecochurches are flapping their wings and staggering off the ground in front of TV cameras. But they can only do it if they are supported by their cultures. Their only hope of flying is if they gain the assistance of the world they love. CEO/pastors study the methods of billionaire businessmen to learn how to point their church into the wind. And of course, the business methods they adopt completely eclipse any truth they ever possessed.
One lesson from history they never learn is that culture changes with the passing of time. The favourable breeze that lifts Joel Osteen's Jumbochurch to great altitude this year inevitably becomes a thurnderstorm just when he hopes for a gentle landing. They forget Oral Roberts and Ted Haggard and Truman Dollar and Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Woe betide the modern CEO/pastor who is the pilot when the wind shifts or dies. Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral is crashing and burning at this moment. Why? Because the economic winds shifted, and his New Age doctrines caught up with him and his church stalled. The Roman Catholics are circling like vultures to pick up the pieces. Within twenty minutes of our church is a Baptist church
that tried Rick Warren's Purpose Driven design a few years ago. But the amibitous pastor found that the culture here could not and would not support "purposeless drivel" and it crashed and burned. I fear it will never recover.
I keep wanting to ask these pastors, "Will your church fly at Huffman's Prairie? Can you get it off the ground when the cultural winds refuse to blow like you've been told they will? What will you do if there are no yuppies to fork over megabucks to fuel your Juggernaut and pay the crew? What if your town has no rednecks (with longnecks?) to pay for Bill Gaither's visit? Can you plant a church in the jungle village never heard of GenX, or Y, or Z? How will you ever get an emergent church off the ground there? What if the winds shift? What if you attempt a takeoff in the middle of a societal tornado, or a cultural hailstorm? And when your church won't fly, have you thought about why it won't?"
I know, Rick Warren boasts that he has hundreds of thousands of pastors and churches enlisted in his Saddleback Association. And he tells all the attendees at his conferences that fundmentalists are his biggest problem. I also know that churches have outlived their pallbearers for almost 2000 years. I predict (without inspiration) that the Megachurch window has begun to close. Its explosive growth depended on cultural influences that are dying. Somebody should write a book titled, "How The GFC Killed The Seeker Sensitive Church." The same could be said of the Emergent/Emerging church, which is the new face of gnosticism. We cannot help noticing how its gurus and their adherents see themselves to be the intelligentsia, the elite. Have they stopped to think that their culture is dying, that the dumbing down of the minds of students all over the world will bring their airspeed to zero. It all points to a simple truth. Churches which are built to soar on the winds of culture will disappear in the first big storm.
There are lots of little churches around the world whose pastors understand that the gospel of Christ is still the power of God unto salvation. They understand that the Holy Spirit is the only "wind" a church needs to be concerned about. I know pastors that coax their tiny congregations off the ground every week and they do it with a tailwind, in a hailstorm, with a cyclone blowing, in heavy rain, and sometimes when the passengers don't want to fly! They do it with the power of gospel preaching and the help of the Spirit of God.
These little churches do God's work week after week, year after year, and never have to rely on a godless culture.
They fly from Huffman's Prairie International Airport, with God's help.
Otherwise, sooner or later, they crash and burn.
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