I wonder if anyone ever traced the success rate of those voted “most likely to succeed” in their high school. Certain traits or advantages prepare some for the potential that may or may not be realized. I enjoy the true stories of those who succeeded without the outward signs indicating potential. For that reason, Forrest Gump remains one of my favorite movies. The true story of William Smith fits the category of those “not most likely to succeed.” With evident aptitude, but without the position or education of others, Smith transformed the way we understand the world.
Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World details the self-taught journey of a man who observed, studied, hypothesized, tested, and ultimately proved what he theorized. Classified in the earth sciences, specifically as geology, Winchester also details William Smith’s work’s social and religious implications. Fascinated by fossils and rocks, William Smith sought to understand what lies beyond beneath earth’s surface. He produced a map with the soil stripped away and England’s geological layers exposed. His work led to economic growth with oil, iron, coal, diamonds, tin, platinum, and silver. Geology opened new opportunities for numerous capitalistic endeavors. In addition, “the new rationally based world of science and the old ecclesiastical, faith-directed world of belief” clashed. Before Smith, the common belief of the world’s “young age” was calculated down the very hour. After Smith, century-old assumptions fell or, at least, faced stiff, new challenges. Few people change the paradigm of how the world is understood, but William Smith belongs to that select group.
As I read this account, a principle surfaced for me. Learning about past realities opens new opportunities for the future. A new understanding of what came before can stimulate new ways to think about the world and thrive. This principle can be applied figuratively to the church in this current cultural moment. As Christendom fades in the West and a Post-Christian dynamic emerges, biblical values increasingly shift to the periphery. What is the church to do? A temptation to hold on to and seek to revitalize the assumptions under which the age of Christendom functioned provides one option. It is possible to keep reading from the same map of a world that no longer exists. In a metaphorical sense, the “spiritual map” changed dramatically. To continue to operate with the old map in a new reality offers little future value.
A new cultural reality requires new strategies for effectiveness. Could the answer lie in the ancient past of the church? I believe it does. In the first three hundred years of its existence, the church existed marginalized on the fringes of the Roman Empire, enduring seasons of persecution and illegal status. With little political power before Constantine, the church changed the Western world in a short span of time. Church historian, Bruce Shelley, states, “practical expression of Christian love was probably among the most powerful causes of Christian success.” Care for the poor, visiting the imprisoned, meeting needs in times of famine, earthquake, or war marked some visible manifestations of faith. Shelley notes one behavior in particular with significant impact. Followers of Jesus often provided a funeral for those too poor to pay for an honorable burial. North African scholar Lactantius (c. 240-320) wrote, “We will not allow the image and the creation of God to be thrown out to the wild beasts and the birds as their prey; it must be given back to the earth from which it was taken.” Sociologist Rodney Stark notes that the Christian response in times of pandemic was “efficacious” and proved influential in the growth of faith in Jesus. These acts of compassion and their results bare out the words of Jesus “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16 ESV) Those who follow God can help people see the God behind the efforts.
Rather than seeking its Christendom past, traditional power positions, or political solutions, the way forward can engage culture with acts of compassion like the early church with modern application. Perhaps ministry in the twenty-first century needs to look more like it did in the first century rather than the last century. That activism strategy also marked the church during more recent growth in Britain, as described by Bebbington. Could this be another season of opportunity in a time of marginalization? One of the dynamics of William Smith’s time centered on ultimate questions like “why they were where they were, who had placed them there, what was the point, what were their origins, what was their fate?” Those questions stand relevant for the church today in a period of disruption. Perhaps now is a time to create a new “map” for ministry in this day, informed by what transpired long ago.
 Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World (New York: HarperCollins e-books), 19.
 Ibid., 40.
 Ibid., 47-48.
 Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1982), 49.
 Ibid., 50.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997), 78.
 Winchester, The Map That Changed the World, 68.W