Each of us is like a tulip, pushing up from the earth, one life stretching out, reaching deep. We are ‘being watered’ and ‘being fed.’ Our aliveness is so magnificent and perfect that although we can contemplate it, we can never touch the comprehension of it.
Tulip Tapestry by Rod Brazier Flickr 2007 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.jpg
Each of us brings our tulip-self to the tapestry that is God’s creation. Who has done it, but the divine? The One who creates! Every hope of self will say you must eshew the passive voice, in writing, in living. Yet here is the truth: We are ‘being planted.’ We are ‘being threaded.’ We are ‘being grown, being loved, being drawn into the wholeness of the world.’
And who has done it but the divine?
God has orchestrated a concert of ultimate perfection we cannot understand. The whole comes together as God, the consummation weaver, grabs the threads together. We are ‘being pulled’ we are ‘being brought together.’ We are to become together into one, whole and filled, total consummation.
Forget the end times, that’s just the end.
This is total life:
nothing taken away.
Do you hear that? You are ‘being heard’ into the orchestral body, your part completes the orchestral sound. We are drawn into the music note by note.
Violin by Jon Bunting Flickr 2015 CC BY 2.0.jpg
You are part of this completeness and perfection. You cannot be taken away from creation because even now you are ‘being created.’ You cannot be taken away from creation because then it would be less than perfect and that can’t happen because God’s plan is perfect.
Stop thinking in chronological time.
Stone upon stone upon stone by Andrea Flickr 2009 CC BY-NC 2.0.jpg
This rock has existence beyond this moment. These rocks are light travelers, time travelers. Rock has existence as a weight in the hand, an image to the eye. If you close your eyes and enter holy darkness you can hear the round, smoothed mineral edges being brushed by the river and the wind. Can your smell the salts? The iron? The clinging dust? This rock encompasses ‘time and place and being’ far beyond the senses or this moment.
God deals in whole lifetimes. God deals into whole after-life times. God’s time is not chronological it is everything right now. God brought Alpha and Omega together, not side by side or one after the other but interlocking, fulfilling everything all at once, edge to edge to edge to edge.
Passive Voice belongs to humans not to God.
We don’t know our own lifetime limits like the little we know this rock. It will outlast us. We may seem ‘dead‘—even three days dead—completely dead—but we are not!
We are alive.
It is complete.
It is finished.
It is written.
God has done it!
Yarding the yard by Mike Beauregard Flickr 2011 CC BY 2.0.jpg
We are all of us ‘partials.’ We talk about being whole, but when we are we are whole in God.
Wholeness is not aloneness.
Wholeness is completeness.
Wholeness is fulfilled-ness.
We are ‘now.’ We are material beings, not imaginary beings, we are ‘now.’ The ‘now’ of our perception is often ‘thing-ish,’ material only. We do not realize that as material we ‘matter.’
‘Now’ is so much bigger than we imagine. ‘Now’ is bigger than this rock, bigger than basaltic cliffs, bigger that the stone that rolled away. What if—thing about it—what if ‘now,’ right now, belongs wholly and completely to God?
Alpha and Omega.
We who are here are the rock.
We share in the divine breath,
Share in the divine vision,
share in the divine being,
This moment, the one you are living is so much bigger than you are. This moment culminates all right now.
Stained Glass by Ian Britton Flickr 2009 CC BY-NC 2.0.jpg
Why then, do we turn away?
Though we are told not to be afraid, it is cataclysmic to our ‘self’ to glimpse the totality of God. It is a shock—a blow—to feel our limitedness, or part-ed-ness. The truth falls like a ton of bricks. We want so much for us, for us! But life is letting go of self-ish-ness and self. We like the thought of actuation, of shouting, of power! We like less the thought of ‘being formed’ ‘being shouted’ and that the power goes to someone else.
Yet it is the truth. The material does not belong to us but to God. There is good news here for ‘self’ as well: As the material belongs to God, then we do, too.
Disillusioned by our ‘partiality’ we turn away from ourselves.
Disillusioned by our ‘partiality’ we turn away from wholeness,
refusing any agency if we cannot have it all.
But in doing that we turn away from our part.
In doing that we turn away from our self as instrument and instrumental.
our essential wholeness belongs as part of everything in God.
We may look away but God does not. For we are matter mattering. We are spiritual material. And God has done it.
Dance by Stepan Mazrov Flickr 2010 CC BY-SA 2.0
When the island began, it wasn’t an island at all. It was instead a landscape over which there was a great movement. A great flight of birds soared up, rising from the neighborhoods, cliffs, rivers, and forests, and they came together and met right at the center of the landscape of the town, singing and chattering together. That was what happened first. That was the beginning of it all.
Some of the birds were local, others had traveled from far away but all were excited for the promise of the community where they now lived. The birds formed a flock made strong by friendships and social ties and they worshiped their creator and were thankful for their blessings. The birds became a great congregation, a church.
Over time the worship grew! The flock was blessed with such optimism, steady hands, and good hearts. This was a time when nesting pairs from neighborhoods all around flocked to the church for belonging. The church provided schooling for the fledglings and social networks for the pairs. The flock fit the landscape perfectly, every breed and age reflected in it. They were a mirror of, and a cornerstone to, their community.
From the beginning these birds from all ages and walks of life formed tight bonds and became a particular flock, set apart. They built a building and dreamed of what their fledglings would become—missionaries and deaconesses and doctors—all of which must be accomplished in the precise and right way. They wanted to be the moral center of life. They hoped the enduring church they built would last forever.
They gained their own style and way of doing things. And it was wonderful! They sang hymns, led prayers, a few key leaders rose up and everyone pitched in. They wanted their church to be a good place, and it was.
Two Chicks by Justina Flickr 2013 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
For a long time, things were so busy within the church that everyone in the flock was happily occupied. There were church eggs to hatch and church fledglings to raise and church programs to perform and the Christmas Play and VBS to keep the little nestlings of the church learning the right things. Everything stayed the same, why mess with success!
New songs became the usual favorites. New ways became usual ways. New eggs hatched and the fluffy chicks cheeped and were nourished.
The years were marked by regular rains that washed the landscape, washing away the old and washing in the new. The soil shifted and rivulets formed grooves. The flock wanted to protect their lovely church from all this unknown washing and unwashing and the roof was triple checked and ensured to be sturdy. The rain still fell but the waters of time and change could not get in—a good roof is water tight! The umbrellas went up. The walls went up. The raindrops rolled away and dripped at the edges and the puddles grew. The water stood in puddles around the church, but could not get in.
Abandoned Umbrella by Liam Kearney Flickr 2013 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The rains of season after season changed the landscape over time. To the flock within the church it seemed that those who lived across the puddles were all too quick to change with the new things washing around. There were more and more birds outside they didn’t know and didn’t want to know. The puddles spilled together and formed a moat. The moat spread out and the church became an island, separated from the landscape all around it.
Then, one by one, their fledglings grew up and flew away. The young ones donned rubber boots and flew to flock somewhere else. They played bass guitar and electric keyboards and sang contemporary songs.
Lead Us Not Into Temptation by Tim Norris Flickr 2008 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
The Islanders let them and their music go, for nobody on the island wanted noise like that. But even so the island flock mourned their loss—why did their children not follow them? They worked hard and remained faithful, but they mourned. They folded their wings inward and held their feathers in close to the chest. They turned to the familiar. They were glad of each other’s company and were comforted.
And the usual favorite songs became old favorites. And the usual ways became the old ways. And there only a very few nestlings left.
No matter, thought the church, we are a strong and sturdy institution. We are a flock who love God. We know there will be birds like us who will find their proper way to us. And there were indeed a few who stepped across the water as best they could. Yet these newcomers never quite belonged. They had not been born on the island but had instead come creeping across the moat.
Welcome To Seattle by Tony Fischer Flickr 2010 CC BY 2.0
The favorite things of the church, the favorite songs and favorite ways, stayed strong. But even so the church declined. The flock dwindled. There were so few hatchlings. Money was tight. Strength waned. The Spirit gasped for breath. The church lamented, what had become of it! They blamed the faithless, ungrateful outsiders and cursed the changes and those who brought them.
There was a remedy for this church and for many like it. There was a remedy and that remedy was to drain the moat. For this was a church that belonged at the center of the landscape—the place of its birth. It was not called to be a hermitage or to the solitary life or to be a city on a hill. It was called to be the hands and heart and love of God, it was called to the work of building God’s kingdom in the world.
But before they could drain the moat, they had to see it. A challenge for the Islanders was that they had gazed inward at each other for so long that there were many who were not aware the moat even existed.
It didn’t happen overnight, but in fits and starts the work began. A first few noticed the moat and sounded the alarm. This start raised the Spirit and it blew across the moat and bubbled up from underneath. Those within the walls felt the Spirit blowing in and it ruffled their hair and their skirts and their feathers and was generally untidy and uncouth! Be silent, they demanded! Do not rock the boat! Some of the Islanders crossed their arms and glared at the disruption, declaring the breezes unwelcome and that they taxed the system too much. Others laughed as Sarah had done so long ago, to think that life could come anew to this once lovely place.
Should I Trust You by Karen Flickr 2007 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A few of the Island leaders began to push for change and renewal. They thought and thought what they could do, they formed teams and planned projects. They instituted new programs. They thought, ‘if only those outside could know how good the Island was!’ The moat drained slowly in drips. The sturdy few remaining broke out hammers and planks and built a bridge, then two. They prayed that the outsiders would come across. They worked hard. They raised banners that said, ‘Come! We are good! Be like us!’
This was a good effort! It was hard and important work. But it did not have the outcome the Island leaders had hoped. It was not enough. A few outsiders did cross the bridge, but they did not stay. The outsiders did not speak the language of the Island. The outsiders and the Islanders did not recognize each other and they struggled to communicate.
The Islanders discovered that the bridges and the programs would not be enough to get those outside to come to church. The Islanders realized, too, that they could no longer wait on the Island for the outsiders to get a clue and come to church. They discovered that it was they, the Islanders, who had to clue in and plug in to the landscape around them.
A few of the Islanders were furious and experienced feelings of deep betrayal. In their grief and anger they cried out, ‘how dare discomfort and trial come after so many years they had served the Island well. How dare the favorite songs and the right ways of doing things be changed!’ They refused to support the new work. They stood at the edge of the moat and wailed and snatched the tools from the hands of the bridge builders and cast the tools into the muddy water.
Screaming IMG_4282 by Mark Dumont Flickr 2013 CC BY-NC 2.0
The moat was deep and set into the soil and the tools sank to the bottom. But, the moat could not withstand the work of the Spirit. God saw the suffering of the people on the island and moved to encourage and comfort them. God spoke to them in the words of Ecclesiastes, in the story of Sarah and Abraham, in the courage of the first disciples, in the words of the apostles.
God was faithful to his Island flock, God did not reject them or judge them in their hurt or their anger. Instead, God called them back from their isolation, inviting them to learn anew the language of the landscape and serve the nestlings and pairs and wise ones there.
Deep down the Islanders had the same wish, to again be a vital part of the work of God and the Spirit in the world. Their longtime faithfulness had given them many gifts. They had forged a strong community and a strong sense of belonging. They had studied scripture and formed bonds spanning well over a hundred years. They had planted a good and lovely place of worship right at the center of a wide and hungry landscape, a landscape of pairs and nestlings and wise ones.
They slowly turned. They tucked their sorrow up and donned new rubber boots. They looked across the moat at the twinkling lights and all the nests beyond. They stretched their wings to test their balance. They were saints in the making but they could not yet fly. And they realized then for the first time that the moat could not be crossed. It had to go.
Red-BreastedNuthatch by Richard A Flickr 2010 CC BY-ND 2.0
With their characteristic diligence, they began to drain the moat. Dry land appeared. Foot paths formed through the mud. They walked hand in hand across, lending support to each other, calling out courage for the frightened ones. They entered the landscape with the good news of God in their hearts. They met the new flocks where they lived and they said, ‘We are a strong and lovely community of God. How can we help you?’
Dream 2 by Sario Reale Flickr 2009 CC BY-NC-ND 2.00
An Old Church by Bo Nielsen Flickr 2010 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Never have there been so many good people so perplexed about what to do with ‘church.’ We have all read the books and blogs and stats and prognostications. We know that ‘church’ is no longer the static, unchanging block we had hoped to build, the center of a strong community in the likeness of the temple mount, brick, mortar, steeple and all. This change is called ‘decline,’ and calling it decline helps us name our grief in the face of a much harder word for us—change.
But. Our God is called the ‘unmoved mover.’ And like it or not, we are being moved.
With grief in our gut it is hard to see change as anything but downward from the top. But I am not sure if that is really a faithful way to think about it. If this ‘decline’ is about movement, let us remember that our mover is God.
I have come to believe that it is far more faithful to see the church not as static but as seasonal. I have come to believe this fallowness we feel as our pews empty is a prelude to a new beginning. The world—this gorgeous creation that God made—every second turns. Nothing about it is static not even the cornerstones. As the poet tells us, there is a time for every season under heaven.
Think of it this way, Abrahamic faith goes back many thousands of years. For two of those thousands there has been Christianity and church. So what I am saying is that there have been far worse freakouts about ‘decline’ before this.
Primal Scream by Daniel Go Flickr 2010 CC BY-NC 2.0.jpg
For example, the crusades. Also, the inquisition. Following every rising summer there’s a fall. Think of all those gorgeous 12th century European monasteries, built in a rush of mother orders, daughter houses, and copiest monks. By the 1400s these monastic monuments were falling apart. I mean real decay, collapsing walls and the like. Their cold and hungry occupants took to selling whatever they could of what they had to stay ahead of real starvation.
And yet, somehow, the church is still here after all those ups and downs. Somehow the Western Pope still claims apostolic supremacy, priests still wear Greco-Roman dalmaticas and bishops still wear those silly mitered hats. Our Reverends are not just Very, but also Very, Very Reverend, thank you very much.
What, then, is this season we are in? How and why and where can God be moving us? And, far more to the point, how do we explain to our congregations about this new thing that God is doing?
I like visuals. Here are a few:
This photograph is a visual representation of a pastoral church. Notice all the sheep together at the center of an enclosed corral. Notice the shepherd at the front. It is his job to see to all the needs of every sheep. In the Pastoral season of the church, the Pastor is very shepherd-like, indeed.
LeadingTheFlock by Christina Flickr 2007 CC BY-NC 2.0
Here is another visual.
This image shows an ‘in-group’ Pastoral church. The sheep cluster at the center and gather with each other. The corral is built with sturdy walls, declaring the authority of those within and keeping out any wolves of questionable character. The gate becomes narrow indeed, and if you do make it in, you still may not make it into true acceptance. In the best case scenario, you are born ‘grandfathered in.’
Erstwhile escapees, misbehavers, and instigators beware. There is a behavior code at this church and you best look to it lest you drink damnation on your head. Stay within the narrow gate and keep ye in the fold or the shepherd’s dogs will chase you and nip painfully at your heels.
Oh My Goodness by Kurt Nordstrom Flickr 2004 CC BY 2.0
We like to say that it is only the mainline church that is experiencing this ‘decline,’ but make no mistake. The mega-church operates along very similar lines. When care is needed for the flock it is the pastor who is wanted to do it. The pastor gathers in, the pastor lays to rest, the expectation is for the pastor to be all things exactly in accordance with the needs of the sheep—in our lookish culture ‘looking cool’ is a plus. Comforter, protector, mind reader. Mega Churches are stocked full of pastors for this reason. They are led by what I call Charismatic MegaPastors, drawing the followers—hopeful and goggle-eyed—into the fold.
The Pastoral Church has within it is a particular kind of church and spiritual ideal. This next image captures that ideal beautifully, it is an illustration reminiscent of a 1950s story book.
TheGoodShepherd50 by WaitingForTheWord Flickr 2011 CC BY 2.0
The best part about the above image is that at the heart of it there is truth in its sentiment. This image, with Jesus as healer and comforter, shows us a real and worthy aspect of good church. There is nothing wrong with the Pastoral Model. It has some measure of existence always. For even in the winter, some seeds will sprout. It has its valid season. For about 100 years now, the Pastor Model in the US has been at the idealistic center of church.
I believe we are moving away from the Pastoral season and into the Apostolic. I am contrasting the Pastoral model with the Apostolic model for church. But beware reading a negative comparison into this post. Change does not need either negative or positive comparison to be valid. Change just is. We needn’t justify change because ‘before’ was awful and ‘next’ is the best. We also needn’t denigrate change by calling it ‘decline’ simply because ‘next’ is different than we expected.
The harm, the pain, the infighting, that all comes from disappointment and disparagement. Change makes a gap between ‘then’ and ‘now’ and gaps are uneasy places to be. Add to that the frustration of unmet expectation, or a negative patina, and the gap becomes precarious and confusing. The Pastoral Model tells me I should get back into line. What do I do if that line no longer exists? The pastoral sheep is legit anxious. He asks, if I ‘should’ do one thing and am doing another, can that can be called ‘bad?’ How can I be a good sheep, now?
To this I say, Are the autumn leaves bad? Would the summer tree think so?
Here’s a bit of truth: The Pastoral Church led by a good, unfailing, and mindreading shepherd is waning. What is rising is a new age of apostleship.
What does this look like?
The Apostolic Church is about ‘moving outside the walls.’ We have heard that phase 1000 times, but what does it really mean? It means commissioning is no longer the purview of an elder with a stole or a bishop with a pointy hat. It means that ‘church’ as ‘the people, the ecclesia’ is called to move with love and humility and purpose from the corral out into the world. It means we recognize the Holy Spirit blows where it will and makes priests of us all.
Here is an image, a mural, from St Mary Abbotts Parish Church in Kensington, London.
Pasce Oves Meas photo by Lawrence OP Flickr 2008 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
You can see there are still sheep, but what is happening here is the Spirit is being brokered through Christ to the church leaders and members and the ability to broker the power of God, as God’s own doing, is spread.
The Apostolic Model is responsive to those in need of food, shelter, and comfort. But it does not keep the faithful comforted at the center of the church. Instead it empowers them—warts, wool, and all—to move actively and powerfully in the world. The Apostolic Church does not put the sheep at the center of an enclosure, but instead it meets them at the center of where they are in the world moving them closer and closer toward the reality of the kingdom of God.
Here’s another compiled graphic. See how the gates and walls of the corral are open. The sheep within gather for ‘church’ as do the sheep outside.
For those of us trained in the Pastoral Model this looks like terrifying chaos. But it also looks like pentecost, and like Acts, and looking at it I can hear the words from Matthew, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Here, there is no in-group to police the borders and keep the wrong sort out. That is not a primary concern of this type of church. And here, the Pastor is not responsible to meet every need of the wooly in-group. Instead the Pastor offers teaching, exhortation, love, direction. ‘Go and make disciples, go and be learners, walk with power in the Spirit, by your work and your love let the world see the greatness of God.’
Here’s an example of this in action.
I took a trip to El Salvador and had the honor of meeting three nuns, Sisters Naomi, Hortensia and Valentina, in a village called ‘New Hope’ Nueva Esperanza. The sisters run a hostel in the village which is their home. The hostel is not about corralling people in on Sundays for services. Instead, it is designed to be an outpost, a place of service, a way to reach, bless, and walk alongside the real people that God loves.
With unimaginable courage (this is El Salvador!) these three amazing women move from their center out into the world. They teach, encourage, rebuke, bless, visit the sick, counsel the bereft, challenge toxic politics, run a pre-school, support students from kindergarten to university, provide and assist with medical care, build a medical and dental clinic and so much more. They have kept the history of the village—the truth not the lie we too often wish to tell about who we are and what we do. They feed the hungry, clothe the naked, rally for the release of every captive, and remember the dead. They are God’s witnesses in Judea, in Samaria, in Jerusalem, and to the ends of the earth.
That is apostolic church.
A word of caution. I am not simply talking about ‘mission.’ I am not talking about jet setting in from on high, drunk on privilege as if you bring the super-powers of Jesus with you in a wad of cash. This is not about building a school for poor people in whose gratitude you plan to bask. There are real problems with ‘mission’ of this type. I speak instead of truly humble service. I speak of the spirit of Mark 10, sell all you have and follow me.
Nueva Esperanza is in El Salvador, and the needs of the people in that country are different than the needs of people in Kansas, or in Washington State. But the idea is the same. Going ‘outside the walls’ is not as simple as just peeking around the corner, hosting an ice cream social, or broadcasting Sunday worship on social media and closed circuit TV. Going outside the walls is about a fundamentally different way to understand the relationship between the people and the divine, the shepherd and the sheep.
Therefore go. Repent of this word ‘decline.’ Dare to touch a life, dare to plant a seed, dare to clothe the naked, dare to see and hear and heed the call of the next-rising church.
Jenga by Ashley Mckinnon 2012 Flickr CC BY 2.0
Most of us have had the fun of either participating in a game of Jenga or watching one. The basics of the game are that you begin with a solid stack of small wooden bricks, and you stack them in a sturdy square shape many layers high. Each layer has three bricks.
To play the game, you pull out a brick from a layer and place it on the top of the stack. Doing this creates new layers for a growing tower. The goal is to remove and stack the bricks without unbalancing and toppling the tower!
Jenga3 by Herman Rhoids 2012 Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
The result, inevitably, is that no matter how faithful you are in stacking bricks—and some of us have become experts at this—
Jenga work by Santibon 2008 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
—no matter how faithful you are, eventually, the bricks will fall and you will need to start again.
Anyone who has ever played the game knows that when skilled players are involved the Jenga game tower can get very tall as brick after brick is removed from the pile and stacked up high.
Millie contemplates giant jenga by Courtney Coco Mault 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Pretty soon, as the tension mounts, all attention is rapt and captured by the game. By the time the tower gets tall, with each brick that must be moved there is the looming reality that the tower will fall. The players’ hands get sweaty. They clench their teeth. They hold their breath. Perhaps they grip the table to hold it absolutely still. Or perhaps they don’t dare touch the table at all!
Either way, players and witnesses alike are held captive by the process. Balancing the tower takes up every inch of the room. Don’t move! Don’t talk! Don’t even breathe! Hold absolutely still because any motion at all—the slightest breeze—will bring the whole thing crashing down.
Jenga by riNux 2006 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
It can feel like we are in a place in the life of the church that is exactly like this point in a Jenga game. Our church towers are stretched tall and we are totally invested in the hope that somehow—miraculously or by sheer willfulness—we can keep this game going. To do so requires absolute concentration and a very narrow focus. Every request to move a brick is a trial and so every request is met by dread and cold stares, even outright hostility. Can’t you see we barely got this? Don’t you know the stakes?
My own stomach grips just thinking about the effort. I know from seeing it that the folks that serve on the committees in charge of keeping that tower up are exhausted by the effort. Their church life has turned into an ordeal and they grip that table for sheer life holding off every tiny disruption because each one could spell doom for all that has been built.
Jenga Warfare by Chuck Burgess 2008 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I get this. I have seen it and I have myself felt my heart gripped with terror that something will come along and exhaust the meager budgets and declining manpower of the local church. I have been the recipient of hostile glances, and thrown a few of my own—stand back! Can’t you see the tower teetering! If you bring that toddler in here the whole thing is doomed!
In the church renewal effort it is really easy to point fingers at the nervous Jenga committee with the chronic heartburn and say all would be well if only they would lighten up. In reality these folks are just stuck in the system. Exchange any person in this scenario with another person and the result would likely be the same. Those tasked with keeping that tower up—and worse yet, tasked with the inevitable trial of moving the next brick!—are going to need a lot of Mylanta. A whole lot. Given this task as a test of faithfulness even Job’s three quiet and serene friends would totally freak out.
So here is what we do.
1. We name the problem —with a little humor. We are trying to keep the structure of the church up and steady despite the fact that the structure is no longer sturdy or effective. If you think about it, it’s a little crazy to imagine a game of Jenga going forever and if that is what we are aiming at it is no wonder we’re going crazy.
Jenga 1 by Jon Hayes 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
2. Breathe. Recognize that we are investing a tremendous amount of energy into holding absolutely, impossibly still while blockading the table to prevent anyone outside the system from coming anywhere near it. We cannot hope to win or get a life like this.
3. Unfreeze. Move your body. Recognize that neither the bible nor the game of Jenga come with a bottle of glue and so the building blocks of ‘church’ are not supposed to get glued into an impenetrable, immovable fortress and neither are you.
4. Be realistic. There are only so many bricks. Anyone who plays Jenga knows that the game cannot go on forever. At some point the whole point is to start again. Each tower is built only once for the purpose of that one game. You build, rebuild, and rebuild. That’s the whole point.
5. Be Assured. If you are Methodist like me, assurance is part of our core teaching. God loves you and loves the church. We cannot fail or mess it up, God will continue to work in the new things that await us. We really can let go and let God and still be good people with strong faith. God is not fooled by our efforts to hold the table really still. God knows exactly how Jenga works. Sometimes it is just time for a new game.
5. Let the game play out. Just do it. Step back and breathe and pray and pray more and let the tower do what it must. Let other people try a brick, if it falls well maybe it needed to fall. Do not let an unwieldy structure suck the life and energy from your faith. Let it go. Let it fall. Be freed of captivity to a system that would give you heartburn without giving you Life.
6. Start anew. If you were really hoping and really holding on, when the bricks fall there will be an audible ‘Aahhh!’ when it finally goes—
Jenga 3 by Jon Hayes 2009 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
—and there will be mourning.
Jenga Loser by JThornett 2007 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
But here’s the great thing about Jenga:
1. You don’t start over with nothing. You get to keep all the bricks you had, every one. When you start anew you will have exactly the same resources you had to work with that you did when you were hunched pop-eyed over the listing tower. These resources can now be applied in new directions and for new things!
2. You don’t lose anything. Every brick still matters. No brick is discarded in the renewal. (Yes, people can and do leave during renewal processes. But in Jenga you keep every brick. That is a standard of faithfulness I admire.)
3. You will see new things. For every change you make in the structure, you will create new windows of possibility. Look through these new windows, channels, and alleys and discover new insights and perspectives!
Jenga by Mikel Ortega 2009 Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
3. Try and try again. Once the big scary tower is down, the bricks on the ground are transformed. No longer are they the pendulous weights of Armageddon, now they are tumbled in the energy of possibilities. You can assemble them in any way you like. If they fall, they don’t fall far because you are trying new things. If what you are assembling doesn’t seem to be working, try again!
4. Play. Freed of captivity to doom you can play a little! That toddler doesn’t seem half as terrifying once we are all in the business of church together.
Destroy the Jenga tower by Mark Evans 2010 Flickr CC BY 2.0
All ages worshiping together is the gold standard of community. As your church commits to renewal new work and new play will bring new relevance and new celebration into church.
You Lose by Jason Ternus 2001 Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
Pretty soon you will be seeing new possibilities for Jenga everywhere.
Jenga Chips by Stuart Caie 2008 Flickr CC BY 2.0
Imagine what is possible now that your energy is freed for renewal. The questions that will arise will help us shape the structures of the future. What kind of shape do we need? What structure will really help us build a new church?
5. The Holy Spirit will show up. As you engage holy work you can simply expect the holy spirit will be with you. Are you watching for it? New things will arise from under the rubble. When you step back from the table and let the bricks fall, you will discover that there is life all around you.
You will also discover that these seasons of renewal are ancient and far more enduring than you ever imagined. By participating in the seasons of church you are participating in the most sacred work we know.
Jenga Stack by Jorgen Schyberg 2006 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
No one should be asked to hold onto a game of Jenga beyond what is realistically possible. And no one should expect anyone else to do it, either. Demanding a freeze on what must be renewed is an unfaithful and unreasonable task, one that leads to heartsickness not to life. It really is possible to let go. It really is possible to step back. It really is possible to be assured that if God is doing something new it will be sacred and it will be good.
Jenga Abbey by Chisel Wright 2007 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
And, in stepping into the new church, you will not be losing the old one. You will get to be part of all the good that God has done with all the Good that God is doing and will do.
Church renewal is about recognizing the shifting bricks as important building blocks for a lasting faith. They build and they shift and they rebuild and they fall and they build again. That is church work. That is kingdom work. That is the work of the people of God.
Note At our church for a number of weeks we are playing Jenga! We have Jenga on the chancel and entry, and in our parlor and the fellowship hall. The idea is to have the courage to let go of the systems that have power over us but are not life affirming for the church. Jenga becomes a metaphor for the work of renewal through material, tactile play. We can experience building and rebuilding and survive each fall—even begin to look forward to what will occur in each next small season! We are looking to build new and renewed structures that can and will affirm our faith.
Christians say some corny things, and that corniness can seem a little cringe worthy—even to other Christians—sometimes. The words of our faith, when straightforwardly presented, can sound absolutely cheesy—even our best liturgy such as “the Lord be with you.” “And also with you.” I catch myself at the grocery store caught in this goodwill pattern. When the clerk says, “thank you, have a great day,” I will reply, “and also you!”
Perfectly legitimate words of ritual and Christian experience can sound painful out of context. The cheeziness of heartfelt Christianity when it bursts into the mundane world brings real world wincing. Take for example an overly loud public declaration of Christian concern, like “honey, that just makes me want to lay hands of you!” in the middle of a downtown Starbucks. You are going to get some wincing and some guffaws. This whinging stems from what we might call our ‘cornball coping mechanisms.’ All that goodwill coming directly and fearlessly at you is a tense thing in a public place. That tension must find release somewhere, and one of the ways we release that tension as a culture is in humor.
Cornball comedy is comedy that is so direct it makes you cringe, and then you have to laugh just so you can get the muscles in your cringed-up shoulders to release a little bit. Cornball comedy makes fun of us humans at our most vulnerable and in our most unsophisticated moments. We are awkward if well-meaning creatures, and ripe for a little ribbing. When the comedy is just right, it hits cult or meme status.
I can think of an example right now, the movie Blues Brothers. This is a movie where the very misguided lead characters try very hard to actually do the right thing for the first time in their lives. They have a clearly defined need: to learn how to be better people in the world. They have a clearly defined goal: to save an orphanage from foreclosure over debt. But, they have a very cornball understanding of God and goodness, which they articulate with cringe worthy hilarity and declarations such as the much memed “we are on a mission from God.” The words stick. They are simultaneously wondrous and horrifying.
It is helpful to remember as you shudder and moan that we all start somewhere. For the Blues Brothers, their befuddled and hackneyed path to redemption is really not that different than our own. All of us are forced to use phrases that sound too corny for life when we are trying to communicate the things on our hearts that matter. Phrases like “we are on a mission from God,” and “can you share the words on your heart right now?” and “let’s all sing and love each other” are an example. That last sentence is one I heard a child say, and even as I giggle at the plain-speak of children (so cute and so corny!) I realize, too, that God asks us to open ourselves to just this kind of innocent trust and simplicity if we really want to heal our lives and change the world.
If the words are clumsy, the truth is made plain. Christians are a missional people. We are on a mission to make the world a better place. We work to feed children, care for the disabled, and develop social systems from the grandest to the lowest levels to make this world a better place for all. We are clumsy, we are inexperienced, and we are drawn forward into mission by the call we feel within us. We get the sense that there really is, truly and deeply, something more to our chaotic rascally lives than punching time clocks, frequenting happy hour, and hitting snooze for five more minutes. We, each of us, have something real to offer. We, each of us, bring gifts that are vital to the work. And we, each of us—and more importantly all of us together—are indeed (groans notwithstanding) on a mission for God.
And think of it this way, if it helps, that there is a reason the secular world has appropriated the language of faith for its own uses. It is precisely because these words and actions and phrases hold power that they become, even out of context, a means though which the larger conversation finds itself socially engaged. It’s a start. We as a Christian people by no means have to leave it there.
As we work together on embracing Christian faith in the midst of an evermore secular world, we probably need to get comfortable with being cheezy now and then. We probably need to give ourselves permission to be clumsy and sometimes feel a little awkward and out of place. It is simply the truth that we do not to know the path ahead. We do not even know if we will be one of the next wave to truly cross the threshold into something new, or if we will be among the ones who will wave that next wave onward into places we ourselves will never see. But in either case it is not the end that matters but the beginning. We are called to a new beginning, a renewed vision, and a next-chance to make a difference. Our earnest simplicity and our willingness to risk a little cornball will be essential to the task.