Have you ever asked the why of a practice or a way of thinking and been told: “Because this is the way things are done around here”. A simplified illustration of a research project performed in the 1960s on a group of monkeys by G. R. Stephenson reminds us of why we perform in certain ways and believe certain things.
‘Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result – all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it from doing so.
Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new monkey. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.
Next, remove one more of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing all of the original monkeys, none of the new monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know, that’s the way it’s always been done around here’.
Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that we are like monkeys, nevertheless that is how cultural belief is formed: Acceptable and unacceptable behaviours are initially established in response to important external events but, over time, all that remains are strongly-held notions about what is and what isn’t acceptable. The origins of these beliefs vanish with the departure of the members of the group who were present when the patterns and standards were initially established. In a church that has been around for a long time, there may be no members left who know why a given belief or behaviour is considered acceptable or unacceptable. Yet all members are quick to enforce the belief or behaviour.
When I share with people a way of making disciples that is different from the way it’s being done, I encounter all sorts of reactions – from strong resistance to some acceptance. But the deeper I go into this new way of looking at discipleship, the more I encounter the old ways of thinking that are very entrenched and outworked in behaviour. They are so natural that people have no idea where they originated. As I share, people make comments like: “I think I understand what you are saying but I simply don’t know anyone who actually says that, and believes it enough to act on it.”
We are all continuing to do the same things we have always done with the same inadequate outcomes.’ The accepted ways of thinking that are being uncovered are of several types:
- Some are inherited from the local churches of our childhood.
- Some have a distinctive denominational flavour.
- Some may verge on heresy or be cultural rather than Christian.
- Many are simply inherited beliefs or practices that have never been questioned.
Let me give you another example. There is a belief that discipleship begins in the church, after a person has been ‘saved’ or, in some traditions, from their birth into the church. This widely-held belief may be important for discipleship within our families but will work against us in a world where fewer people acknowledge the place of Jesus or the church in their lives. In fact many see Christianity as irrelevant. If we are to serve Jesus well, we need to engage people in the discipleship process as we go about our day-to-day living. For some this will be a huge step to take. We all have connections with people as we live our normal lives with family, friends, work and leisure acquaintances. This is where we begin to listen to the Holy Spirit and keep our eyes open for those in whom we see Jesus working. It is my belief that God is still seeking the lost and He outworks His mission through us as we go. We are not looking for scalps or souls but we are engaging in real relationships with people, as holistically as possible, as they walk towards Jesus.