Woolly Mammoths and Renewed Vision

A few years back I watched the above TED video about a mammoth undertaking—literally. Researchers are looking to re-introduce the world to a living, breathing, walking woolly mammoth. Presenter Hendrik Poinar shares just how close scientist are (or at least were — back in 2013) to bringing back this prehistoric beast. To me, this all sounds quite exciting.

But as exciting as this Jurassic Park fantasy (or in this case, Pleistocene Park fantasy) might be, Poinar notes that re-introduction of a lost organism requires an intact sample of its DNA (mostly intact, if not fully) — which can be a real challenge when it involves a long extinct species. Why?

First, when it comes to DNA, scientists have learned that preservation depends not so much on the length of time but rather a consistency of temperature. So theoretically, the DNA of an ancient species could be retrieved if it has been stored at a consistent temperature. And of course if a consistent temperature cannot be maintained, then a viable sample would be lost. Unfortunately, as we see with climate change, maintaining a consistent environmental temperature can be quite the challenge.

Second, Poinar notes that DNA can be destroyed as a result of bacterial processes — that includes bacteria that lived in the organism when it was alive. When the animal was alive the bacteria co-existed alongside in a symbiotic relationship. Now that the animal has died, the bacteria destroys its host’s DNA. Over time, the work of this bacteria greatly reduces and even eliminates any viable DNA samples.

Congregations seeking to inhabit new, or even renewed vision, can have the sinking feeling that their efforts are akin to raising a once extinct species back to life.

Depending on how big the vision or the undertaking, mammoth may not be too big a word — particularly for congregations with a storied past. With this in mind, perhaps we might glean a thing or two about congregational visioning from the reintroduction of woolly mammoths — such things as:

1. Consistency. In some ways, the congregation’s vision is its DNA. So having a viable vision is important — and so many groups will spend hours on focus groups and brainstorming sessions to construct the perfect vision. But consistency is also important. For congregations that find themselves floundering when it comes to direction and purpose, consistency helps to bring a viable vision to life. And this requires creating an environment where vision is not only known, but is also consistently finding expression. Failure to attend to the environment can lead to a degradation of the vision itself.

2. Homegrown opposition. Like the work of resident bacteria, some of the biggest challenges to new/renewed vision comes from people within the congregation itself. Those who were once so supportive now turn on the very organization when difficult times arise — when vision casting is the most needed. Because this is so common, it should in someways come to be expected — but yet it still takes us by surprise when we encounter opposition. At the same time, it is important to note that not all opposition is the antithesis of shared vision. Opposition can serve as the crucible for a better way forward together — and a more faithful vision in the end.

… it is important to note that not all opposition is the antithesis of shared vision. Opposition can serve as the crucible for a better way forward together— and a more faithful vision in the end.

Bringing back the woolly mammoth seems to be a popular idea in recent years — with researchers attempting this feat through a number of different techniques (more information available here about the work that is being done). The prospect of seeing mammoths return is really quite exciting. At the same time, to see expressions of robust (mammoth) and renewed vision in local congregations in our own time may be just as exciting.