That experience led to World War I becoming known as “the war to end all wars,” because no one could imagine any nation choosing to reenter the meat grinder. Yet even as the nations promised a lasting peace, they were wary – and each of the European powers made some provision for a future conflict. England, America, and Japan built large fleets of warships, Germany began secretly building submarines and aircraft, and France built a series of massive fortifications called the Maginot Line.
The Maginot Line was a series of concrete fortifications on France’s border with Germany. The theory was that the Line’s pillboxes, gun emplacements, strongpoints, and concrete obstacles would slow Germany down in any future conflict, allowing time for the French Army to muster and mount a strong defense. In large part, this line of thought derived from the reality of World War I: massive armies were stymied by strong defensive works and fortifications, and offensive strikes could be beaten back with relative ease. French military experts declared the Maginot line a foolproof defense, even a work of genius.
The thing is, while the Maginot Line was a masterpiece in defensive fortifications for a World War I-style assault, it was designed for the last war. Military advances in the 20 years between WWI and WWII, including fast armored columns and deadly bombers, rendered the Maginot Line obsolete before the first shot was fired. Faced with seemingly-impenetrable defensive fortifications along the border, the German Army simply went around the line through Belgium and the Luftwaffe simply flew over it to strike French targets in the rear. France fell within 6 weeks, and the Maginot Line contributed little to the nation’s defense – because while French generals were fighting the last war, their enemy was fighting the current war. Far from being the linchpin of France’s national defense, what remains of the Maginot Line today has been sold to private owners and turned into wine cellars, a mushroom farm, and a disco.
Before we are too hard on the French generals, we might want to remember that many of us, and many of our organizations and even churches, make the same mistake. We go through an experience in life, especially a traumatic or significant experience, and we learn from it. We study the situation that led to that experience, and we explore our response to it. We acknowledge our weaknesses and build up our strengths. And if that same experience came along again, we would know how to handle it better. If the last “war” was to happen again, we would know how to fight it.
The thing is, the same war is never fought twice. Just as French defenses were ill-prepared for the mobile strikes of World War II, we are not ready for a new experience in a world that has fundamentally changed. Look at our churches, for example. In the 1980s and 1990s, churches began to notice that young people, the Baby Boomers, were increasingly missing from church. What happened? Churches eventually developed new techniques – praise music, coffee-shop atmospheres, and church buildings that looked more like shopping malls than sanctuaries – and many were able to entice some baby boomers back. The “seeker-sensitive” movement became the success story of Christianity, and it seemed like every church tried to copy what they had seen work somewhere else: the young, hip pastor, the edgy worship leader, the big, bold youth ministry, and the like.
Yet then things changed. Advances in communication technology and transportation made us a less-connected, more mobile society. Increases in violence and terrorism isolated us and changed the balance of power in our world. Economic crises and governmental scandals shook the foundations of our culture. And a new generation of young people – the Millenials – grew up in this world. So what did churches do? They rolled out their praise bands, and their projector screens, and their flashy programs. They expected the Millenials to come back just because they had mastered the techniques of the “seeker-sensitive” movement – but they didn’t. Churches were prepared to fight the last war, but guess what? We’re losing ground, because the war has changed.
We shouldn’t feel too bad about this, for two reasons. The first is that we’re in good company. In the first chapter of Acts, we find that Jesus, who has already defeated sin and death through the cross and resurrection, is preparing to ascend to his Father. As he prepared to go, he gave his disciples instructions to prepare for the task ahead of them: to continue his work and spread his Gospel to the ends of the earth. Yet even at that point, they didn’t get it. “Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6) Even after 3 years and the miracles of Good Friday and Easter, Jesus’ closest friends and followers were trying to fight the last war. God’s new covenant wasn’t the same as the old one – but they couldn’t see it just then. So if Peter, James, and the rest couldn’t figure it out at first, we shouldn’t feel too bad that we can’t, either.
We may be fighting the last war, but God isn’t. God is on top of things, ready to engage our changing world and save it through the love of Christ. All that he has chosen to need is us to get on board. So really, the only question is exactly what Isaiah says. “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
Admittedly, this can be hard for churches, pastors, and Christians of all stripes. After all, we’ve gotten pretty good at the old way of doing things – or at least, relatively competent. If the 1950s or the 1980s ever returned, most of our churches would be okay. But we don’t live in the 1950s or the 1980s anymore. The world around us has changed. Do we understand the new realities around us? God does – and he can work through us to accomplish his will, even though things are different. Are we willing to take risks, try fresh techniques and approaches to ministry, and follow God on new paths to claim the victory? Just what war are we fighting for God – the last one, or this one?