My dad was six-foot-one—a fair sized man. As a child I thought he was pretty much what God intended when creating men. Big. Strong. Smart.
Obviously, my dad was a lot of things I wanted to be. But early on, what I focused on was height. Whatever else happened, I wanted to be taller than my dad. I’m not sure why that seemed so symbolically important to me. But it did.
I had dreams of playing in the NBA, so I practiced basketball all the time. I shoveled off the driveway, and played all through the harsh Michigan winters. I had a dream.
I obsessed about the fact that I needed to grow—and it wasn’t happening nearly as fast I thought it should. I didn’t do anything stupid, like hang upside down with weights strapped to my wrists, trying to stretch myself beyond six feet tall. But I sure thought about it. I could see the whole NBA thing going down the toilet if I didn’t outstrip my dad’s height.
But then one day, when I was seventeen, it dawned on me—as if out of the blue: “I’m five-foot-ten-and-a-half, and I’m not going to get any taller.”
Based on this difficult reality, I had to readjust my expectations. Yes, I grew up with all those messages about “You can be anything you want to be … as long as you believe in yourself.” But come on, that’s a load of crap. No matter how hard I wanted it, no matter how much I “believed” in myself, there was no way, given the limitations of size (and talent, if I’m being honest with myself) that I was ever going to play in the NBA.
We all bump up agains limitations about which we can do little or nothing at all. I’m not talking about those things we can do something about. There are some things that fail for a lack of effort, or smart planning, or good execution. If you can change something to help you achieve your goal, then, by all means, that’s what you should do.
But there are some things that no matter how hard you try, no matter how smart you are, no matter how badly you want it, chances are pretty good that you’re stuck.
So often, we take this “stuckness” as a sign of defeat, an indication not that maybe this thing is unrealistic for us, but that we’re somehow defective, incapable of succeeding. Rather than embracing our failure to do a particular thing, it’s so easy to default to “Of course, I didn’t succeed at that; I’m a failure.”
But what if we saw that failure not as an ontological statement about our fitness as human beings, but as just another data point in the struggle to do something important?
Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be playing with Magic Johnson, I experienced a great lightening of my load. It freed me up to do something else, to start to think more seriously about my writing.
So, I was thinking about the church this way, and it occurred to me to ask: “What are the unrealistic expectations that keep us practicing for something we’re never likely to see?”
You know what I’m talking about, right? How many landlocked churches in declining communities have repeatedly beat themselves up over the years because they retain this unrealistic fantasy about playing in the NBA, about finding just the right combination of young clergy, hip programming, professional families, and the serendipity of new neighborhood development? If they could just …
So, rather than leave that pipe dream behind so that they can find out what amazing things God might do with them, they cling to it with the hope that if they just “believe” in themselves, they’ll magically be transformed into something they saw laid out in the pages of the Christian Century.
But let’s do a little thought experiment: What if you stopped making plans for a future membership explosion? (I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. I’m just saying, “Imagine.” Play along for a moment.)
What if your congregation never got another member? What if you could no longer afford to wait for somebody to join and finally make of you what you’re convinced you ought to be? How would that change what you do, and how you understand what is required of you, given what you already have?
If you put aside the idea that there’s someone (or a whole bunch of someones out there) who are going to come and save your congregation from extinction, what might that do to the way you do ministry?
- Well, for one thing, it would finally let you stop doing cost/benefit analysis on doing the right thing. You wouldn’t have to wonder if you opened a latchkey program for low income families, for example, whether you might get any of the parents to come to your church. You could just make the decision to do it or not based on whether or not you thought it was what God wanted.
- It might also free up psychological resources. Having set down the terror that there’s something wrong, that there’s some secret everyone else seems to have access to but that has remained elusive to your congregation, you might begin to value the people and the gifts that you already have. Instead of thinking that there’s some superstar out there who will magically reshape the contours of the landscape in which you serve, you might finally see that you have some pretty amazing people there right now—none of whom is destined to be Billy Graham or Mother Teresa, but who are capable of living faithful, committed lives in pursuit of the reign of God.
- You could invest more time and resources in “non-useful” stuff like spirituality. Since you’re not in an endless pursuit of something useful, which you’re certain will turn you into a megachurch, you can begin to devote your energies to practices that seek not some tangible return on investment, but the presence of God. Since your calculations about utility have taken such a broadside, you can begin to make investments in areas that confound conventional wisdom.
- It might ease the financial stress. You’re not saving all your stuff to bequeath to some future generation of young people, that most likely doesn’t want all your stuff anyway. They’re too busy to maintain it. You could finally use it. You might recklessly spend money from the endowment not to tuck point the brick that’s falling apart, but to establish a food bank for migrant workers, or to fund suicide prevention efforts, or to do advocacy work for non-violent felons. I don’t know. Use your imagination.
- It might finally prompt you to get back to work. Instead of waiting for the stars to align, so that you could do remarkable work, you might just start doing remarkable work. Since expectations will have been recalibrated, you won’t be plagued by the fear that doing something new and courageous will prevent the world altering revival you’ve always been sure was just right around the corner. You won’t have to be afraid of failure, because nobody expected anything significant from you anyway.
Go ahead. What do you care? Your future is now.
Bonus: You start living like this … and you might find that all those people who’ve avoided you all those years just might start showing up to see who the lunatics are that are running this wild outpost of faithfulness.