I couldn't say no, though I did try at least four times. But our host was insistent I was going to get behind the wheel of his $90,000 Tesla Model S car, and hit the streets of Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. As I slipped into the leather seats and powered up the system, its vast touch screen display showed me maps with traffic updates, a rear view camera and more information about the torque, weight distribution and a whole host of updates I didn't know even existed.
Pressing the ignition button, and pulling away in silence was a disconcerting experience, as was the fact the acceleration was perfectly smooth and seemingly unending. I ran out of road before I ran out of the opportunity to accelerate. Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 by a group of engineers who wanted to prove that electric cars could be better than gasoline-powered cars.They are huge in California and what they produced in people was something powerful I wished I could bottle. At the very least I can pass on here what I learned in what I would like to call the Tesla Test, with four quick questions for the Church.
1. Is there a refusal to accept the status quo?
You can't help but admire Tesla's vision. In a nation dominated by gas guzzlers (two of the cars I travelled in during my brief visit to California had 5.4 litre engines), Tesla decided to launch the world's first electric sports car: the Tesla Roadster. In an electric vehicle market dominated by affordable commuter models, Tesla aimed at the high end luxury car market. Elon Musk, the company's bold CEO, explained that he was competing with "150 years and trillions of dollars spent on gasoline cars." For most of us, that level of challenge to the status quo and that number of hurdles to cross would have quickly sunk us and our enthusiasm. But for Musk the challenge seemed to energise him.
I would love to see this never-say-die spirit in our churches. A go-get-it attitude that does not settle for accepted norms, but aims to change the culture. We have been given a picture of the future of humanity in the Bible, the coming Kingdom of God, which should propel us forwards with even greater confidence than Musk could ever muster. It is not too late for a disruptive innovation in the way that the Church relates to our culture, or the way the gospel is communicated. It's time for some kingdom dreamers to start making dreams a reality.
2. Is there an audacity to believe that big problems need big solutions?
Musk's vision was to cause a sea change in the way we power our vehicles and to make electric cars normative. Currently, electric cars are a tiny fraction of car sales in the world so Musk is making radical steps to try and transform it. He started with the Roadster followed by the Model S, the Model X and then the launch of the affordable Model E. Pre-orders of the latter hit 325,000 in a week, giving Musk 3.25 billion dollars to build his new gigafactory.
Big problems require radical thinking and Musk is modeling on a global scale how to problem solve. With huge problems in our world such as the global refugee crisis, poverty, inequality, jihadi terrorism, racism and huge numbers of vulnerable children, let alone the need to communicate the gospel, it may be time to think big with our solutions. The early church's Spirit-filled entrepreneurialism needs to be recaptured. We need a Kingdom of God-sized consuming vision that is big enough for the whole Church – young and old, black and white, traditional and start-up – to gather around.
3. Is there a courage of conviction regarding environmental issues?
The US has a very divided opinion on the impact of human interaction with climate change. I have met many people, including Christians, who vehemently believe that climate change is a myth made up by progressives and dispute the scientific evidence as a left-leaning conspiracy. I have also met the climate scientist who coined the phrase "Nuclear Winter", who is a passionate Bible-believing Christian.
Car companies aren't normally known for their ideological stances on issues. But Musk has built a whole business around the need to do something radical about the environment. In fact, his new gigafactory is apparently going to be self-sustaining thanks to solar technology. There are great examples of the Church being willing to lead with conviction on huge social issues even if they were not popular. Think of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Wilberforce on slavery and recently Pope Francis and the refugee crisis.
But I wonder whether the environment is still a relatively untapped area for our engagement? I am grateful for groups like A Rocha who have championed Christian environmentalism for a long time now, and the new green church initiative, but to capture some of the same ground that Musk has found, we need to aim for another level of engagement. Perhaps to be carbon-negative instead of just carbon neutral? To promote new farming methods? To cultivate our church gardens as allotments? Whatever it is, we can make a huge impact if together we take further steps to care for the creation that God has given us stewardship over.
4. Is there confidence in the product that turns all consumers into evangelists?
The person who allowed a nervous British driver to take control of his prized Tesla was very brave. Driving on the 'other' side of the road in an unfamiliar high end, high-tech car was going to involve a certain amount of risk. But this Google employee was more than just an owner of a Tesla vehicle, he was an evangelist for them. He was able to explain to me the processes involved in making his car, the weight distribution, the way that torque worked differently for the electric motor, the range of the vehicle (over 200 miles) and how long to fully charge the car at a supercharging station (45 minutes). He could even tell me the advantages of the car's low centre of gravity due to the positioning of the motor and the heaviness of the car, and how combined with this aluminium chasis, this makes the car "the safest ever built."
In fact he has even written the definitive statistical analysis on why – despite the price tag of the Model S ($90,000) it is cheaper to own and run than a Honda Odyssey people carrier. This Tesla owner loves his car and is enthusiastic to recommend it to others. He was so confident we would love it that he encouraged me to test drive it because he thought the car would sell itself to me.
Occasionally I meet Christians who have a similar level of enthusiasm and confidence when it comes to their favourite possession – the gospel. How great if we could learn something here. It's time that we learn to cite with the degree of accuracy, authority and energy why we believe what we believe about Christianity as this man could tell you why he loved his Tesla. What if we were so confident about the gospel that we encouraged people to try it out in the belief that it would sell itself?
I don't think I am going to buy a Tesla... yet. But I am excited by their visionary approach and I am jealous of their passion and entrepreneurial leadership. Perhaps it's time we the Church took a leaf out of Tesla's playbook.