The recently released movie The Martian starring Matt Damon tells the not-so-far-out tale of botanist Mark Watney left for dead on the planet Mars. His fellow crew members have reluctantly left him behind to undertake the 4 year return voyage to Earth. When he comes to after being knocked unconscious he is faced with a series of catastrophic realities he must tackle in order to survive.
While not explicitly a story of faith–Watney says he’ll have to “science the s&!# out of things”–it’s a great metaphor for the church in this day and age.
Watney is up against what David and Goliath author Malcolm Gladwell calls “desirable difficulties” which hone his imagination and capitalize on his desire to live. Much like dyslexics who innovate and orphans who excel precisely because of their difficulties, Watney rises to the occasion, and [spoiler alert] survives. Indeed, thrives.
The church has a history of thriving when the chips are down. We grow comfortable and weak when all is well. We would do well to remember our rocky history when bemoaning our post-Christian world and spiritual but religious cohorts. What can the church learn from The Martian? Here are 10 Commandments for a Martian Church.
- Thou shalt step into the unknown. The premise of The Martian is the courage of astronauts to go to Mars and to set up camp in an unforgiving environment. Getting left behind in that environment pushed the uncertainty principle to the max. Congregational survival similarly calls for a willingness to purposefully move into new territory. We can’t sail new seas and stay in a safe harbor at the same time.
- Thou shalt flex thy faith muscles. Watney doesn’t express an explicit faith in God. But he demonstrates faith in himself and his training. That faith is tested time and again. Instead of weakening under scrutiny it grows stronger. Here’s the thing, church: certainty does not require faith. Only uncertainty does. In the early years of the life of the church, no one was sure if this thing would survive or if all the followers of Jesus would be martyred. Following him took a vigorous, muscular faith. Our faith muscles, by contrast, are fairly weak and flabby. What if we were to embrace uncertainty as an opportunity to grow stronger?
- Thou shalt embrace pain. The first obstacle Watney encounters might have done the rest of us in. In order to not bleed to death, he has to perform painful surgery on himself. It would have made sense for him to lay down and die right then and there. Instead, he is willing to endure more pain to get on the right track. Is your church embracing the pain of corrective self-surgery or is it bleeding out?
- That shalt not blame. Watney demonstrates remarkably good humor and compassion in the face of intense isolation, seemingly insurmountable odds, and several failed attempts at survival. He doesn’t blame his crew, Mars, NASA, God, or himself. Instead, he understands and approves of the decision his crew made. He goes to work with what he’s got. How much energy do we waste on blame when we could be putting it toward creativity and faith flexing? Things are the way they are. Let go of blame and get on with it.
- That shall not covet thy neighbor’s success. Watney doesn’t get lost in the fantasy that life would be better if only… Covetousness blinds us to what we do have. The next time you drift into envy over megachurches, famous pastors, large budgets or fabulous buildings, you are wasting precious energy on fantasy. Do like Watney: improvise, improvise, improvise. That too is the stuff of faith.
- Thou shalt fail. Being willing to fail is the only way to truly succeed. Watney had to put his limited resources on the line in order to figure out what would actually work. He failed, and failed big. More than once. But those failures are what pushed him to ultimately succeed. When the church is unwilling to fail, or to lose only a little, it is also unwilling to succeed big. Big fails require big faith. Big faith leads to big breakthroughs.
- Thou shalt not be blind. Only one thing drives Watney’s efforts: his desire to live. This vision pushes him through pain, failure and the seemingly impossible. It gives him the courage to try things that seem impossible. If your church is not operating with a fresh and compelling vision, it’s hard to imagine you’ll do more than limp along until death.
- Thou shalt give thy all. At one point, Watney must concede that he may in fact not make it. He asks the Commander to break the news to his mother and father, if needed. “Tell them I love them. Tell them I loved my work. Tell them I have died in the service of something greater than myself. And that it was worth it.” If your church has tried everything, failed, and must die, be proud that you gave your all.
- Thou shalt give back. After Watney comes back to Earth, he gives back. Another person might have hid away and nursed their wounds, or gone on a vendetta. Not Watney. He becomes a professor of aspiring astronauts, helping them navigate their fears and concerns. Every congregation, no matter the size or budget, can give something back. We don’t exist in a vacuum. When we refuse to give back, we refuse to participate in the cycle of life. Our stinginess will come back to haunt us. One small congregation I know of is so concerned about its own survival that it prefers to hoard its sizable bank account rather than share it with those in need now. Stinginess does not inspire faith, deliver hope, or bring the Kingdom. Give back or pay it forward.
- Thou shalt not coast. When Watney returns, he reveals the grit that got him through. People ask him: Did you think you were going to die? “Yes,” he says. “Space is unforgiving. Things will go wrong. You solve one problem. Then the next. Then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you will live.” Does your church ignore its problems, confusing denial with faith? God does not do for us what we can do for ourselves. Coasting is not faith. Coasting is laziness.
The lessons of faith are all around us. Even in sci-fi movies. So don a pair of 3D glasses, and head to the theater. Then, thou shalt consider the 10 Commandments of a Martian Church.