By: Alex Wirth
What kind of church do you daydream about? Most of us think about our own churches all the time, but what would it mean to really dream about them?
Push yourself past the regular and into the impossible. What daydream ministry idea have you pushed aside because it seems too ridiculous or unreachable? Be specific. What is the faith community that only you, uniquely and wonderfully made, could come up with?
How come you’ve never made it happen?
For a class in seminary, I once scribbled pages and pages of notes, trying to chip away at an idea of my daydream ministry. This is what came out: My daydream ministry was to offer sanctuary to the homeless in Long Beach, California, where I grew up. That dream grew out of a specific need I knew about: Every year during the Long Beach Toyota Grand Prix, my hometown arrests all the homeless people for loitering so that they don’t bother any of the out-of-town race fans. My dream was that the church would house the homeless for that weekend instead—feeding them deeply with delicious meals, performances, classes, and worship. The weekend would culminate in a mass demonstration of the homeless and their church-people allies, taking to the streets and using their voices to assert their right to a place at the community table.
What I dreamed of wasn’t so much a ministry as a pop-up, social-service/ advocacy/ teach-in revival. It got me an A in the class, but that’s about all it did. I live in Chicago now, and we have plenty of homeless people, but no race cars.
I’m not telling you about this idea because it is particularly good, possible, or even plausible. I’m sharing this idea precisely because it’s impossible. It’s a daydream. It’s a moonshot. Impossible thinking is exactly the kind of thinking we need if we want to update our congregations and our capital “C” North American Church. Everything’s impossible before it isn’t. And nothing is impossible with God, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Impossible thinking is Gospel thinking. Impossible thinking puts a smartphone in your pocket with more computing power than the computers that put a man on the moon. Gospel thinking got the disciples to leave their nets, follow Jesus when he called, and see the impossible.
Steve Jobs tried something different. He gathered a group of talented engineers that he called a “crew of pirates,” and they invented the Macintosh. Google could never think of a suitable name for what they were trying to do so they left an [x] as a placeholder and got to work building a driverless car. When Lockheed Martin tried the “impossible,” they designed and built the USAF’s first jet fighter in just 143 days. They called their team Skunk Works®—so that has become the proper noun for corporate advanced research labs working on seemingly impossible ideas. A skunk works functions fast and light with relative autonomy from the parent organization, pulling talented people out of corporate structures, giving them creative freedom, and expecting radical innovation. Skunk works labs have become so important to the way companies innovate, according to Forbes, that many are doing away with their special skunk works divisions and running their whole businesses on this model. Even Walmart has a skunk works.
I’m going to compare Jesus and his disciples to a skunk works in a moment. My dad is a pastor, and he’s going to make fun of me for this. I can remember standing in his office, looking at his shelf of corporate management books and swearing an oath to Dorothy Day that I would never conflate corporate strategy and church leadership. My younger self had a lot of heart, but he was wrong about a lot of things. (In fact, my younger self was wrong about almost everything having to do with actually being a pastor. Whoops!) So here we go:
Jesus calls his disciples out of the regular structures of their lives to work on impossible ideas. It’s a textbook skunk works for disrupting the established religious order. Think about it. Jesus and the disciples work fast and light, shaking the dust from their feet and not fretting failures. They work on the Sabbath. They challenge cultural and religious norms. They wear jeans when it isn’t casual Friday. They bring their dogs to the office. Ok, maybe not the last two, but the parallels are there. What could be more like a skunk works than saying you are going to teach fisherman to be fishers of people?
In Matthew 4:18-22 Jesus says, Come follow me and I’ll show you how to fish for people. Without any further convincing, Simon Peter and Andrew leave their nets and follow. It’s just a simple call. Come. A simple, impossible call. Fish for people. A moonshot. In a gospel skunk works you need someone to have the impossible idea and others with the vision to see past impossible toward a new heaven and a new earth.
Astro Teller is the director of Google [x], the company’s far-out skunk works lab. His semiofficial title is Captain of Moonshots. Almost everything at Google [x] seems semiofficial. Everything is highly secretive. Everything sounds impossible. You’ve heard of some of their innovations: self-driving cars, Google glass, a global wifi network broadcast from suborbital balloons. If it isn’t against the laws of physics, Google [x] will take a stab at it. What would Google [x] make of trying to teach fishermen to fish for people? They’re probably already working on it.
What we’re talking about here is the Grand Risk of the Gospel. God came to be embodied as a human like us and set out on an impossible project: to renew the world without destroying it. The Grand Risk of the Gospel is that the impossible, life from death, is the only thing that can save us. In calling us to lay down our nets and follow, Jesus calls us to be renewed by a moonshot, an attempt at the impossible. We’ve always been working on ideas that are against the laws of physics. Christ died and came back again. We’re ready to see the world totally innovated, completely disrupted, brand-new. Aren’t we?
I wonder if the disciples knew how much failure would be involved? Most corporate skunk works are hoping that 80 percent of their projects fail as a measure that they are pushing themselves far enough toward science fiction-esque innovation. A 20 percent success rate seems ridiculous to most of us, but to them that’s the goal. The desire for creative freedom trumps the drive for perfection. A skunk works rewards failure because it’s about manufacturing the spark of creativity that leads to radical newness, not just making a new widget.
When was the last time your congregation tried something it was almost sure would fail? When was the last time you took a Grand Gospel Risk without worrying about the eventual sustainability and financial stability? When was the last time your community tried a worship style or a radical new ministry that flunked major?
Our communities need to be taking Grand Gospel Risks. We need to leave behind all of our tangled nets if we are going to be the body of Christ in this world. And it won’t be safe. You’ve got to know that before you take a Grand Gospel Risk. It won’t be cost effective. It won’t build hospitals and new Christian education wings, like in the glory days. Most of it will fail, maybe even all of it. But we’d be in good company. In Jesus’ lifetime, his ministry failed. It was because of the ultimate moonshot of his resurrection that we are a church at all. Grand Gospel Risks won’t build churches or new worshipping communities or anything tangible. But maybe by taking those risks, we’d end up with disciples of Jesus Christ.
Is it too late though? Shouldn’t we have done this in the 50’s and 60’s when we were flush with funds and parishioners? Wouldn’t we be reaping the benefits of a culture of innovation today if we’d funded and supported whatever bonkers ministry ideas they had back then, whether they worked or not? Who knows? Who cares? Let’s start now. With Grand Gospel Risks and Impossible Thinking and Moonshot Ministries will our church grow? Maybe. Probably not. But just think: We’ll be surrounded by disciples of Christ, fellow faith innovators, and we’ll feel the Holy Spirit in places where we’d only ever felt the wind.
What’s the church you daydream about? Find some others to dream with and take that moonshot.
Alex Wirth has his Masters of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and does building maintenance and social justice work at Lake View Presbyterian Church where he is a co-pastor with his wife Megan. Alex generally sticks to a punk rock, do-it-yourself mindset like Jesus did. Alex is on twitter: @alexwirthlvpc.