There’s a sad story in the news about a fatal automobile accident involving a 2015 Tesla Model S and a tractor trailer crossing a divided highway in front of the Tesla. The driver of the Tesla was killed.
Tesla issued a statement that reads in part, “What we know is that the vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”
Apparently the Model S Autopilot has some sort of optics system that registers contrasts and sends signals to the breaking system when it determines that the contrast represents an on-coming object. It does all this in milliseconds.
Tesla also explains that “every time that Autopilot is engaged, the car reminds the driver to ‘Always keep your hands on the wheel. Be prepared to take over at any time.’ The system also makes frequent checks to ensure that the driver’s hands remain on the wheel and provides visual and audible alerts if hands-on is not detected. It then gradually slows down the car until hands-on is detected again.” If you are interested in more of the technical details, you can read the Tesla statement here.
Autopilot entered the American lexicon decades ago and quickly took on a non-technical meaning. When we say that a person is on autopilot we mean that he or she is going about daily routines or even living life without much, certainly not sufficient, self-awareness. We may be able to vacuum the living room carpet while on autopilot, though a Lego piece or penny or dime pulled into the beater bar tends to cause autopilot to disengage. Parenting, marriages, friendships, and careers do not do so well on autopilot. Nor do churches.
A church on autopilot is insufficiently aware of the world around it and often fails to notice the contrast between its life and the call of the Gospel. Programs are run with scheduled perfection and every piece of the worship service is rehearsed and well executed. Prayers, sometimes well said, even poetic, are offered and hymns or praise songs sung. Sermons are well-illustrated and evoke the listeners’ emotions at precisely the right time. Missionaries from hip and gritty urban ministries or far away hospitals and clinics tell stories of amazing grace and the congregation responds with a generous special offering. All the while, the white tractor trailer, hard to see against the brightly lit sky, begins to cross the divided highway.
The liberal or progressive churches have an autopilot program with an optic system that detects any changes in the culture, especially leftward changes, and autocorrects immediately, following the change and ensuring the church’s relevance in a world that has long since quit caring. Having made an imperceptible route adjustment and no longer following the way of Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone according to Scripture alone and to the Glory of God alone, the progressive church trumpets the change as surely meaning “sempre reformanda,” always reforming (according to the Word of God). But always changing is not the same as always reforming, or being reformed according to the Word of God.
The conservative churches have a laser beam in their autopilot system that locks onto the past and navigates a route that always leads them back to where they began. A Siri-like voice from the control panel gently reminds the leadership of the traditional church that “we’ve never done it that way before.” Until recently autopilot programs in conservative churches often used the same software as that used by conservative political organizations. They should not have been surprised when the church followed its political compatriots into a deep ditch of disrepute.
Langhorne Presbyterian Church is a traditional, fairly conservative, church in a progressive denomination. We are traveling a highway with lots of cross traffic and the glare from the brightly lit sky of our confused world is intense. No autopilot system will be able to find the way of Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone according the Scripture alone and to the Glory of God alone. We’re going to have to keep our hands on the wheel and our eyes on the one who goes ahead of us, the author and perfecter of our faith.
See you Sunday