According to Stanford professor, Bob Sutton "virtually all creative feats are accomplished by people, teams, and organisations that face challenging and immovable constraints." 1
This quote made me think of how the early church despite all its challenges expanded across the known world. They faced culture wars, opposition within, imprisonment and martyrdom but still kept advancing. It was their dependence on God in a restrictive environment that caused them to break out of the box.
Bob Sutton quotes furniture designer Charles Eames who said that "an innovator’s willingness and enthusiasm to work within and around unchangeable elements determines success or failure. It isn’t a question of whether there will be constraints; it is a question of whether people have the will and skill to find ways around the constraints and transform them into virtues."
I love the language of transforming constraints into virtues. Instead of grumbling about our limitations, we can see them as a gift. Jesus went into the wilderness, faced his limitations and came out in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:14).
Put this into the context of mission and evangelism. Do you feel limited or constrained by your environment? Do you lack space, time, resources, energy? These are all constraints that could actually help you find innovative ways to share the good news.
The covid lockdown is a great example of this. When churches could no longer open their buildings and meet in large gathered congregations they had to think out of the box. Being constrained turned out to be a good thing for those willing to innovate. We discovered Zoom and innovated or re-emphasised small groups, or prayed harder than ever. It pushed us out of our comfort zones and actually made us think harder about what matters to us. Being constrained focused our attention.
There are some fascinating examples of this. Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine. Issac Newton came up with the Theory of Relativity in lockdown. The article mentioned earlier asks "Why do constraints help? Research on creativity and constraint demonstrates that, when options are limited, people generate more, rather than less, varied solutions — apparently because their attention is less scattered."
When constrained we are forced to come up with new ways of being church and connecting with people with the good news. Think about the letters of the apostle Paul. Most of them were written from the constraints of a prison cell or while under house arrest. Paul's letters are some of the most profound and focussed articulations of theology that we have. If he had not been put in prison would we still have them?
Could restraint be a good thing? Could lockdown as a result of a global pandemic actually release new levels of creativity and focus? Does quarantine perhaps produce some of our best missional thinking, forcing us to think in new ways and develop new practices? There is a fascinating example in Acts 16:6 when Paul is constrained by the Holy Spirit.
"Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia."
Other translations say they were forbidden or hindered by the Holy Spirit.
In Acts 16:7-8 it says "they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not permit them. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas."
Jesus stopped them from preaching the gospel in a certain place to a certain people. Why? Apparently we need constraints at times to enable us to focus in a new direction. It was this constraint that opened up a new door for Paul and his companions to travel to Macedonia which opened up brand new opportunities and divine appointments.
I suspect many of us are locked into ways of sharing the good news that is a pattern familiar to us. I suspect many of us are locked into ways of sharing good news with people who are familiar to us. This is really the story of the book of Acts. God had to break the early church out of their comfort zones, away from what they knew, to a whole new paradigm of mission and evangelism. It took people like Cornelius the centurion compelling them to come, and the Spirit of Jesus to put restraints in place, and visions, to get the first disciples to change direction.
For me, lockdown has been a gift. I have had time and energy to develop new ways of communication through online courses, blogs and Facebook. You are reading an example of that innovation. Let's use this gift of constraint to think out of the box. Let's not default to old or familiar ways of doing things.
What might evangelism look like in lockdown? What might mission look like post covid? Could church operate in a new paradigm, just like the early church did when it had to reach out to the non-Jews for the first time. Where is the Spirit of Jesus constraining or hindering? Perhaps there is a man of Macedonia desperate for our help and just waiting for us to be constrained and redirected.
Sometimes our frustration is the best motivation we can muster. Frustration is often caused by limitation. Perhaps these feelings and frustrations are caused by the Spirit of God? It took circumstances (frustrated goals) and a vision to get Paul's attention but the cities he then visited were never the same again. This was Paul's first venture into Europe. Look at how Europe embraced the gospel and became a centre of mission for generations to come spreading the good news across the world.
If you have good stories to share of a holy hindering please let me know.