Jesus may be the answer, but seriously, listen closely to the question.
A dear brother who passed away this past summer, Richard Regier told me the following story. Richard had a gift for not allowing shallow piety to stay around long. His piety was deep and a bit wry, and more than a little rough around the edges. When we would laugh about the church trying to give shallow but pious answers to difficult questions, we would call those "fuzzy brown squirrel" answers. Answers like, "we just need to pray more," "we just need to study the Bible more," or, "we just need to let them know Jesus is the answer." Now those aren't bad things, it's just that they don't often get to the real issues at hand. So here's a brief rendition of the story Richard told me....The preacher asks all the kids to come forward during the service for the "children's sermon." He begins, "Good morning, kids. I'm going to describe something to you and I'm going to ask you what I'm describing." The children remain quiet, wanting to hear the details so they can get the answer right.
The preacher goes on to describe the mystery creature. "What is small and has little pointed ears? It also gathers food in the summer and fall and buries it around the yard. In the winter it goes to find its buried food to help it survive through the cold months. It has tiny black eyes, a fuzzy brown tail, and easily climbs trees. What is it?
As this point the children are quiet, and looking a bit uncomfortable. Then one child raises his hand and answers without conviction, and a confused look on his face, saying, "I know that the answer is Jesus, but it sounded like a fuzzy brown squirrel."
Had the conversation taken place anywhere else, I suppose the kids would have mentioned the squirrel first of all. But since the story takes place in a church, the range of correct answers is limited. In congregations, there seems to be sets of answers that are always "appropriate" regardless of the questions.
But the old answers don't work.
Six years ago, I was among a group of people working with church leaders. One of our group was Alan Roxburgh. Alan had just published the book, The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition
. In this book, Alan describes how Christian leaders were lost in contemporary culture for lack of clear maps, misunderstanding the different terrain of cultural connection, and the loss of a satisfactory and effective Christian-centered world.
This past week, Al posted on his blog, at The Missional Network
, that the disconnect Christian leaders experienced six years ago appears to be alive and well. Al was working with a congregation and wrote about them,"The people of this church are currently looking for another way of reaching the people around them. One idea was to place a box on the wall were people in the community could place their prayer requests so that the people of the church (most of whom drove in to the 150 year old church building) could pray for them. These and other ideas where shared. These are good people. They know the world has changed, that their church is not connected to the neighborhood and that the Spirit is calling them into the neighborhood. But their focus remains stuck in the narratives of how to help people and meet their needs. Such actions are not wrong. Indeed, this is a part of the calling of God’s people. That’s not the point! What I am observing is that these long established defaults are so deep and so powerful that good people in our churches simply don’t know what else to do."
Shifting from Default
There are "long established defaults" that limit our thinking, and above all, our imagination. The limited imagination of the church is reflected in the little story about the fuzzy brown squirrel. How can congregations begin to hear differently so that the old defaults don't become first responses? Or, how do the default responses actually become the imaginative applications of being church?
1. Change the question
The church doesn't have to respond out of habit. Rather than asking how do we reach new people, perhaps the question how do we let new people reach us. What would it be like if we entered our neighborhoods and communities as aliens, seeking the hospitality of strangers?
It doesn't take long to realize we have sheltered lives once we spend some time in other places. We don't have to go far out of our way - to a hospital, a prison, a shorter-term mission, we can just hang out in the neighborhood. A few years ago I was a substitute teacher at our local high school. I heard sarcasm, swearing, laughter, anger, mostly in the form of stories. Stories about others, about the weekend experiences, and occasionally about the assigned homework. But in hearing stories, you hear the values, hopes, and expectations of others.
3. Learn a new language
I am still surprised when I meet grow up, mature people, who do not know what a "tweet" is, our how to "update their status". The landscape of social networking has altered the ways in which people relate. Certainly, there are drawbacks from the habitual dependence on smartphones to manage our relationships. But not engaging it it does not improve our connections either.
4. Tell some stories
There are lots of people who want to inform me. They want to define things. There are some things that are best described that way, but wikipedia might actually do a better job of explaining some things to me. There are lots of places to go for definitions, news, instructions and directions. But there is no other place to go to find what has shaped a person's values, what has touched them deeply, or how they became the people they have become other than to hear them out. In listening to the stories of others, offering our own stories as an interface, the two stories acknowledge the meeting and the creation of a new story, a shared story.
I Want a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel to be a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel
The only reason the story about the children with their piously correct answers is because default happens. It happens when churches try to do what others have done because it worked elsewhere. It happens when the same methods of searching out answers are used decade after decade. It happens when answers re-tread previously journeyed paths.
When Isaiah spoke for God, asking, "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it?" (Is 43:19). It is not God that is restrained into the default answers. If we keep discerning the same things over and again, it is we who need to change. God is already doing a new things, along with our communities, our neighborhoods, the larger world. Why would the church expect itself to be the only things static and unmoved?