Church Renewal Is Like Jenga

Posted by: Richenda at Tuesday June 30, 2015 in


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.

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