A Gorilla, Fear, and the Myth of Safety

I waited quite awhile to weigh in on the tragedy regarding the young boy who made his way into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. I did this mostly because I’ve been fascinated watching the aftermath on social media. I’m not going to comment on what actually happened because a) I wasn’t there, and b) I’m not an expert on zoos, gorillas, or watching children in the midst of chaos and crowds. I will, however, comment on the crazy behavior of everyone on social media because, unfortunately, we have all become experts in that. People responded to this situation with a great deal of anger at all involved. Some called for the parents to have their children removed from their care, and there were even death threats. It caused me to reflect on why people responded in this manner. So, this post is not really about the gorilla situation at all; it is about what thoughts and emotions were behind people’s reactions and what that means for our lives.

After some reflection, I decided that it was likely that the main reason that people reacted with such vitriol is that they were afraid. It’s no secret that fear makes people do crazy and awful things, and this was no exception. Parents and others watched the video of the young boy with the gorilla and immediately thought about their own children or the children in their lives. They pictured what might have happened if the story had had a different ending. And it scared them. BUT, if they blamed the whole situation on the parents’ poor parenting skills, it allowed them to sleep at night. If they came up with a list of rules and regulations that should be put in place “so that this never happens again,” it allowed them to believe that future similar situations could be completely prevented, and they felt in control again. They could go to bed saying, with relief, “THAT would never happen to MY child. I would never be in that situation.” And it took away their fear. So the bashing continued, the demand for new rules and regulations continued, and everyone felt better about themselves, their lives, and the safety of their own children.

But, the truth is that we in America only live under the illusion that we are in control of everything. We believe that if we just work hard enough, take enough precautions, and put enough rules and legislation in place, we can keep ourselves and our children completely safe from all harm. But, that is a lie. You can be the best parent in the world and still lose a child. You can take every precaution and still see harm come to your child. We can legislate to the gills, and people will still find a way to cause pain and suffering to others. Even the best parent is not perfect and even the best situations can yield the worst outcomes. Why? Because the world is broken. It’s scary to say it, but the reality is that no matter what you do, you cannot ensure your child’s complete safety.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions. And I’m not saying that the parents in this particular situation did everything perfectly; I honestly don’t know. And I’m not saying that some rules aren’t necessary and good. But, I do know that disease, accidents, death, and violence can happen to children of very capable parents when all of the right rules are in place.

So, that’s a scary thought. And it definitely raises some important questions about how we should respond to such a reality, especially in our world of extra-cautious behavior. Many well-meaning and loving parents, both Christian and non-Christian, have clearly responded by overreacting and overprotecting. While I understand such a response (and could easily imagine myself being guilty of the same thing), I have to wonder if that response is the best one. So, I posed some questions to myself, namely the following: What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?  In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are? And, related to the first question, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

What are the spiritual consequences of overprotecting our children?

Not long ago, I took some kids from my church to a local Christian camp for a retreat. At the start of the weekend, the camp staff made it clear that the kids would be exposed to a moderate amount of reasonable “danger” in their activities (I use the term loosely…we’re not talking Hunger Games here) over the course of the weekend and that the parent chaperones should resist the urge to jump in and rescue them. The parents nodded in agreement, but throughout the course of the weekend, a group of them couldn’t resist shielding their kids from any difficulty. I started to refer to this group as “the helicopter moms” (admittedly, that was not terribly nice), and watching them was fascinating. They complained about the lack of safety when one girl faced a challenge on a ropes course. The girl was fine (she ended up with a minor scratch), and most importantly, she overcame the challenge and grew because of it, which was, of course, the point. When a group of girls (including some from my own church) complained during free time that the kids were not being fair while playing tether ball, the moms jumped in and made a bunch of rules. (When the girls had complained to me, I encouraged them to figure it out for themselves.) It’s easy to see how a good desire to protect our children can result in the stunting of their development. The camp’s (right) philosophy is that children grow when they have to overcome adversity.

We must learn to recognize that our primary job as Christians is not to keep ourselves safe. It’s not even to provide safety for others, though we do that when we can. Instead, we are called to be present where God is present and point out his activity in the midst of pain and suffering. God is there in the midst of unsafe situations. Indeed, he put his Son in the most unsafe of situations on our behalf. He sent his Son to stare evil directly in the eye and overcome it. And by the power of his Spirit, he calls us to do the same thing. By keeping our children from this holy task, we do not include them in God’s mission, we do not honor their baptism, and we stunt their spiritual growth. They may end up being safe, but they do not end up being faithful, and they never grow into the people whom God has called them to be.

In what ways do we harm our relationship with God by lying to ourselves about how safe we are?

We Americans feel safe, generally. This makes us feel in control and independent from God. Third world parents don’t have this luxury. They know that no matter how good their parenting skills, their children are at high risk for disease, early death, or being victims of crimes. This is why the gospel spreads rapidly in these areas. The people are under no illusions about who is in control. We think that we are better off than they are (and perhaps in many ways we are), but in this way, they are better off than we are. Instead of elevating safety to be the highest good, we need to acknowledge our imperfections, our inadequacies, and our need for God’s intervention in our lives. We need to recognize God’s sovereignty and pray for his will to be done, even in the midst of unsafe situations. The truth is that we can never be in right relationship with God if we believe that we are the ones in control.

We need to acknowledge that God loves our children even more than we do, but that does not mean that he will always keep them out of harm’s way. What he’s doing in the world is so much bigger than simply keeping his children safe and comfortable.  His desire for them is not merely to survive, but to bring, through the power of his Spirit, his kingdom to bear on the earth. He will and does put all of his children in the line of fire to do just that. (Ever read the story of…well, almost everyone in the Bible?) When we in the church believe that God’s main mission is to keep his people safe and comfortable, we miss out on what he is really doing, and our relationship with him suffers.

Finally, is protecting our children the most important thing that we can do for them?

I recently heard a parent say that she didn’t want her church reaching out to those in need in its community because she didn’t want her children to be in contact with those kinds of people (addicts, criminals, etc.). In her own words, her primary goal as parent is to protect her children. I understood where she was coming from, but I was also sad for her. In an effort to protect her children, she is keeping them from the places where God is most at work and where God calls us to serve.

Of course it is a natural instinct for parents to protect their children. Their love for them drives them to do it, and certainly God has created humans this way in order to ensure that the species survives. But, I don’t think that protecting their kids is the highest calling that parents have, though it certainly is part of it. Instead, parents are to parent in the way that the Father parented his Son: not by removing their children from all harm, but by teaching them to be faithful in the midst of every situation and by calling them to bring hope and healing to a broken and hurting world. Is that hard? You bet. Is it counter-intuitive and counter-cultural? Sure thing. But is it our mission? I think so. Does it bear fruit? It does. It draws us closer to the Father and allows us to participate in his work in the world. It also shows children that their highest aspiration for their lives should not be mere survival, but that their purpose is to live the life that God has called them to live, even in the midst of danger.

I remember being at a conference a few years ago and one of the speakers said, “Don’t pray for God to keep you safe. Pray for him to make you dangerous!” He talked about how when his children were afraid of monsters under their bed, he never prayed for the monsters to go away. Instead, he prayed for the children to be brave. I’ve never forgotten this. As an anxious child, I prayed for God to keep me safe quite frequently. I’ve since changed my prayers and have asked God to make me dangerous. We become dangerous to the enemies of God when we act faithfully. So, this is my prayer for all of the children whom I know and love: not that they are kept safe from all harm but that they are equipped to stare darkness in the face and beam the light of Christ straight into it. While this may not keep them free from all adversity, it will shape them more and more into the image of Christ, and that is what I most desire for them.

Please don’t worry; I would not allow my child to play in a gorilla pit as a character-building exercise. I would, of course, do everything in my power to prevent such a thing from happening. I do not consider putting proper precautions in place at zoo exhibits and vigilantly watching children (though no parent can do so perfectly) to be “overprotection.” These are normal and good protective measures that should be in place and should have been in place in Cincinnati. My point is not that we should allow our children to enter into unsafe situations willy-nilly, but that we should not allow fear to rule our lives. More importantly, the fear should not be stilled by overprotection and countless rules; it should be stilled by trust in a loving God who is at work setting the world to rights. It is a dangerous place. But, praise be, we have a more dangerous God.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe


Moneyball and the Missional Church

I love the movie Moneyball. I have a love of sports movies in general, and I love underdog movies, as well, and Moneyball certainly fits both of those categories. But, that’s not really why I love it. Every time that I watch Moneyball, it screams “CHURCH!” It’s all about ministry in the US today (if you look at it through those lenses). It inspires me to keep going when I just want to give in. So, I thought that I would write a blog post about some lessons that the missional church can learn from Moneyball. But, first, a re-cap of the movie’s plot:

Moneyball is based on the true story of the Oakland A’s baseball team. The A’s were facing a difficult challenge: they had a tiny budget compared to teams like the Yankees. Therefore, they weren’t able to get—and keep—the big-name players. So, the general manager, Billy Beane, decides to take a different approach. He realizes that he can’t put a team together the same way that teams like the Yankees do. So, he starts looking for a different model. Instead of buying big-name players, he focuses on buying runs. He hits all kinds of challenges on this road. But, in the end, he comes away with a winning team, a team that had a record-breaking, 20-game winning streak.

Now, when I’m making an analogy between Moneyball and the church, let’s be clear that I’m not talking about anything to do with money. I’m talking about the difference between the attractional church model (the old way of looking at things) and the missional church model (a new way of looking at things—actually, it’s an even older way of looking at things, but that’s neither here nor there). In the church, we often talk about things that don’t really matter anymore. “If we only had (fill in the blank…better children’s programs, a really charismatic youth pastor, exceptional music, etc., etc., etc.), then our church would thrive again!” These conversations are exactly like the conversations that the scouts have in the movie. They’re talking about things that simply do not matter anymore (a prospective player having a good body, an ugly girlfriend, or a funny way of throwing the ball). They should be talking about how to buy runs and therefore wins. But, they have a flawed understanding of how the game is played today. They’re still talking like they did when the financial playing field was more even between teams, back when money wasn’t the main focus. Billy Beane tries to change the conversation. And—amid struggles—he does.

And we can learn a lot from him. So, in no particular order, here are the top four things that the missional church can learn from Moneyball.

  1. No one—inside or outside your organization—is going to get what you’re doing. It’ll be harder to fight the people on the inside.

Billy Beane struggles with this throughout the entire movie. Once he embraces this new way of thinking and hires his new assistant, Peter Brand, who also embraces this way of thinking, he heads off and starts making decisions. No one understands what he’s doing, even after he explains it. And they all start going nuts. Billy asks the scouts, “What’s the problem that we’re trying to solve here?” They all start talking about how they need to replace their top players. He tells them that that is not the problem. It may be the surface problem, but it’s not the root problem. He says, “The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game. And now we’ve been gutted. We’re like organ donors for the rich. Boston’s taken our kidneys, Yankees have taken our heart. And you guys just sit around talking the same old ‘good body’ nonsense like we’re selling jeans. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We’ve got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.”

That’s the problem for the missional church movement, as well. The old guard is trying to solve the membership problem, the problem of getting butts in the pews and money in the plate. But, that isn’t the problem. It might be the surface problem, but the deeper problem is that the culture can no longer hear the gospel. We’re not speaking in words that they can understand. That’s the problem that we need to solve. Anyone can get butts in the pews. It takes more to transform lives. What’s more is that the more that we try to solve the surface problem without addressing the root problem, the closer we come to death.

Throughout the film, Billy continues to butt heads with the other leaders. Eventually, he has to fire one of his top scouts. He has to let go of some players who are preventing the field manager from playing in the way that Billy wants him to play. The field manager may be the toughest nut to crack. Billy puts a team together that, if played the way that they are designed to play, will win games. But, the manager refuses to play them that way because he doesn’t believe in the theory behind it. So, it fails. Billy tries to talk to him, but he ignores him and keeps doing the only thing that he knows how to do.

This happens in missional church thinking all the time. When one staff member or volunteer or even a small group within a church get the missional bug, they start making changes. And, most missional church people expect some resistance, especially from older people in the pews who are accustomed to a certain way of thinking about the church. But, what no one ever tells you is that it’s other leaders who will bring you down. You can design a missional ministry perfectly, but it will never be effective if it’s not implemented in the right way. And, many of the people in charge—in your congregation, in your presbytery, district, whatever—do not want it to be done in this new way. They will take what you’ve designed and they will apply it to the old model, and when it doesn’t work, they will point the finger at you. Which brings me to…

  1. When things go wrong, you will get the blame. When things go right, others will get—and willingly take—the credit.

There are scenes in the movie when Billy is listening to commentators on the radio. When the team is failing at the beginning, all fingers point to the general manager’s office. When they start to succeed, the field manager gets all of the credit. This is frustrating beyond belief to Billy’s assistant, Peter Brand. He knows that the field manager was the reason for the failure in the beginning and not at all the reason for the success toward the end. He asks Billy if he’s hearing what the commentators are saying. Billy just says, “All I heard was seven [wins] in a row.”

While I can’t tell anyone how to develop this kind of thick skin, I can say that this is exactly what is needed in order to do missional church work. If you’re in it for the credit, walk away now. If you can’t handle taking the blame when it’s completely undeserved, walk away now. It just comes with the territory. You have to be willing to be the villain and watch the real villain be heralded as the hero. It’s not easy.

The problem is that the movie ends well for Billy. He doesn’t get fired. In fact, he gets offered a very lucrative position with the Boston Red Sox (which he does not take). In the missional church life, you very well might get fired (if you’re a staff person), and you might be driven out of your church (if you’re a volunteer). The reason for this is…

  1. This way of thinking is a threat to those who have been doing it differently for so long.

When the Boston Red Sox offer Billy the position at the end of the season, they acknowledge that Billy has been beaten up for this way of thinking. They explain to him why what he’s done is a threat: (I’ve removed the curse word for this family-friendly blog and put in a slightly nicer word.) “It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat [crap] crazy.”

There are people in the church who have been working (or volunteering) in the church for many, many years. It’s been their life’s work and their passion. They’ve been doing everything that they know to do. And they’re still failing. Then, you come along and tell them that they’ve been doing it wrong for all that time. The threat of their life’s work being a total waste of time scares the living daylights out of them. They don’t want to face that reality. They would rather just get rid of you and keep the delusion that their way of doing things works. It’s easier to lie to themselves than it is to face the truth. And you are expendable. They will expend you. And then they will dig in their heels and continue to do the same thing that they’ve been doing, even more.

The problem with that is, of course, that it doesn’t further the Kingdom. They really do need to change their ways in order to bring the gospel to bear on their community. They really do need to face the fact that how they’ve been doing it isn’t working anymore. Some will. Most won’t. Keep going. Jesus will have his church. I recently heard a sermon where the preacher suggested that the real fear that people have is that they’ll discover that Jesus was there all along, working and ministering, without the help of any of us. Yeah. That’s a real threat. We like to think that we matter in this process. And, of course, we do…but probably not as much as we think that we do. Be sensitive to the fact that you’re criticizing how these people have spent their whole lives. And then gently and firmly coax them into a new way of being.

  1. You can’t do this alone. You have to get people on board.

Billy starts the season out without really explaining his vision to anyone. You get the impression that he just sort of expects it to be obvious and that he thinks that it doesn’t really matter if people get it. That changes midway through the film. There’s a montage of him explaining things to the players. He tells them that he wants them to walk more, he doesn’t want them stealing or bunting. They slowly start to get it, and things start to turn around. I’m not sure that he ever convinces the field manager or the scouts. The movie doesn’t really go into that. But, I think that the point is still the same: you need people on board. You need to cast a vision. You need a small group of people who get it and who will help you execute the plan. The main leaders may never get it. Work around them. You may find some unexpected partners. But, either way, you need a team.

There’s no easy way to do this missional church stuff. And nothing, not even Moneyball, can give us all of the answers. But, when it gets tough (and it WILL get tough), take some inspiration from this movie. A new way of doing things is always going to be a threat to those who are doing it the old way. But, for the last 2,000 years, the church has managed to speak to all different kinds of cultures in all different times and places. And by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do it here and now, as well.

Do you have thoughts on Moneyball? What insights have you gained from the movie? Please share!

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways is the missional church way of thinking a threat to my own congregation and its leaders?
  • How would I respond if I were to be ostracized for my thoughts on being missional?
  • Where is Jesus in all of this?

Translating the Gospel

I recently had a conversation with a pastor who was frustrated with his congregation. His church had an opportunity to minister to 14 young couples, but other than the pastor and his wife, no one seemed to be all that interested in getting to know the couples. He explained that these young people were, for the most part, professionals who worked in the church’s community. They were the kind of people whom any declining, mainline church would love to have as part of their faith community. By the pastor’s measure, the church members should have been falling all over themselves to get to know these people. He was astounded that the church elders had no interest in finding out who these young people are, what motivates them, or what they believe.

I, however, was not surprised. This attitude is very typical of declining, mainline churches. They are more than happy to welcome those who are different than they are (young people, people of another cultural background, people of another socioeconomic background, etc.), provided that they enter in on the church’s terms. As long as these individuals assimilate to the church’s way of being, believing, worshiping, etc., they will happily get to know them. But, they have no intention of meeting these individuals on their own terms.

When confronted about this phenomenon, these church members will often respond by saying something along the lines of, “These young people are so consumer-driven. That’s not what the church is about.” True enough. But, what ARE we about?

We ARE about bringing the gospel to bear on the culture. In every time and place, God has called churches to translate the gospel message to the communities around them. And many declining, mainline churches in the US today are failing miserably, because we have not learned about or engaged with the culture. Instead, we are assuming that the culture is the same as it was in the 1950s, so we’re ministering that way. We’re speaking that language. But, the reality is that the culture has changed, and we need to master a new language in order to translate the gospel to a new generation of people who desperately need to hear it in their native tongue.

Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that I have shared with you that God has called me to be a missionary to Mars (it turns out that there are a whole lot of people living there, you know!). I’m really excited about this, and I tell you about my plans to go to a specific region on Mars and build a church. But, I decide that I’m not going to learn the language. I’m not going to learn about the history or the traditions or the culture. I’m pretty convinced that just by my being there (and perhaps by being friendly), the people of Mars will come to me. And, not only will they come, they will learn my language and my history and my traditions and my culture. Once they do all of that, I’ll be able to share the good news with them. This is my plan for reaching the people in this region of Mars. Sounds good, right?

No. It sounds ridiculous. It IS ridiculous. And a church in 21st century North America that refuses to learn about the surrounding culture sounds just as ridiculous. Every church is a missionary in its community, and that means that it must learn about the community. It means learning about its specific region and neighborhood and the people who live and work there, and it means learning about this generation of young adults. It doesn’t mean condoning their beliefs, behaviors, or assumptions. But, it does mean understanding them.

It’s true. Millennials are a narcissistic bunch. This is the “me” generation, the “selfie” generation, the generation who had helicopter parents, and the generation in which everyone got a trophy. That level of narcissism can be off-putting, especially for those in the Greatest Generation. But, off-putting or not, if you’re going to translate the gospel for them, you have to know them.

The good news is that there are many positive qualities about millennials. In fact, the positives may outweigh the negatives. They are an incredibly hopeful bunch. They are positive about the future. They believe that change is possible. (Our president won his election on “hope” and “change.” His campaign folks chose those words intentionally. They resonate with this generation.) Millennials are not nearly as cynical as those Gen Xers. They believe that their whole life should be integrated, and they want to have an impact on the world through their work, lives, and families.

When millennials have faith at the center of their lives, they can have a tremendous influence in the world. But, until the churches in their communities learn about them and begin to translate the gospel into a language that they can understand, we will have a generation of people who never experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ.

Church, it’s time to learn about this rapidly-changing culture and to begin to speak a new language. Let’s share some ideas about where to begin.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways is our church like the church that is mentioned at the beginning of this post?
  • What are some steps that we can take to begin to learn more about and engage with our community?
  • What churches are doing this well? What can we learn from them? (I think that Tim Keller and the folks at Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC are doing a great job and would be a great place to start.)