Thursday night I paused my channel surfing to watch a story on 9News featuring two local student participants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The story reported that the two students, who looked to be no older than 12 or 13, had been disqualified in the 5th round after spelling their given word incorrectly. Then, much to my surprise, the news anchor transitioned the viewers to witness a prerecorded video clip of each child misspelling their word and being disqualified.
The choice to feature these particular highlights felt rather odd; the decision to play the video recording of the one word each child misspelled when for five rounds there must have been a plethora of correctly spelled words they could have easily replayed. I wondered how the children felt knowing this video footage would be played over and over, forever accessible through an internet search. Their initial accomplishment transformed into a public announcement and permanent record of a moment of failure. Five rounds of words spelled right, and they are represented by the moment they spelled one word wrong.
Rise – The Challenge of 21st Century Discipleship
Whether we have been contestants in a spelling bee or not, we have all been on this stage. We have stood up and spoke out and unexpectedly found ourselves laid flat out on our backs with the air knocked right out of us. Regaining consciousness, we revisit and record the experience of failure, placing the film nearby in case the urge to put ourselves out there should happen again. By adulthood we find that grace has often become an unnecessary commodity in a life where the answers are clear, and the problems aren’t ours.
This week a member from The Land’s launch team sent me a YouTube video entitled, “Building an Airplane while Flying It.” The video begins with a man dressed as a pilot saying, “Some people climb mountains, I like to build planes…in the air.” The parody is both a hilarious skit and an accurate depiction of what it feels like to engage in anything innovative. It may not be a spelling bee, but the possibility of failure is equally terrifying.
Discipleship as a practice regularly solicits this elixir toward innovation; a concoction requiring one-part terror and two-parts promise. Shaken or stirred, on the rocks or blended, discipleship serves us up and ships us out to fly a plane that is far from ready for flight. There is no reliable prediction for a launch or a landing; no guarantee of how many, or if any, will catch the vision and jump on the flight. There are no experts or cookie cutter strategies; no recipe book to help us know how to do everything right. Marked as Beloved, called and sent out, faith invites each of us to take off and learn what solutions fly and which solutions sink.
A willingness to fail is a requirement for the innovation necessary to address the world’s most pressing problems. In a country that produces 262.4 million tons of garbage, wastes 133 billion pounds of food and has 40 million citizens designated as food insecure, the call to discipleship has never been more urgent. Across institutions, from economics to education, the radical pace of cultural change is crying out for courageous action and innovative exchange.
It seems paradoxical, then, that a people identified by their faith in action would be so resistant to take flight. Modeled in the life of Christ, discipleship requires us to risk everything to bear witness to the love and grace of God as we collectively engage the greatest issues of our time; human trafficking, poverty, the globalization of violence, the crisis of our climate, just to name a few. Regardless of the issue or the urgency, the church has rarely proven eager to gamble the security of the sanctuary for the sake of the gospel. Reliant mainly on our personal experience and worship style preference, we insulate our decisions, our stories and our possibilities as we “spiritually” discern what matters most and what doesn’t matter at all.
Shortly after the end of World War II, a doctor named Archie Cochrane gathered his colleagues together to share his intent to create a study testing where patients should recover from heart attacks. Specifically, he wished to know if patients should recover in a specialized cardiac unit in the hospital or if patients should recover at home. Cochrane received an incredible amount of pushback from his colleagues who claimed it an unnecessary trial at best and an unethical experiment at worst. It seemed the doctors had already decided through years of experience and tradition; recovery in the hospital was best. When Cochrane later gathered his colleagues to share that the trial had proven otherwise, many refused to believe and continued to behave the same.
In this cultural climate of perfectionism, the prayer of Jesus to reclaim our responsibility and continue the work of God is stalled by our fear of being exposed as anything less than perfect. Committed to recording and reporting the vulnerability of another as newsworthy, even in the church, the call to discipleship rarely finds an eager audience. Disclaiming grace as its antidote, perfectionism exists as a virus in each of us, weakening our ability to thrive as community of disciples identified by risk-taking behaviors and innovative creations.
Much like Cochrane’s questioning of the recovery of cardiac patients, The Land as an holy experiment, questions where the best place is to equip and empower disciples. In spite of all our efforts to define accurately the church as a missional movement, the understanding of what a church actually is, is much closer to the presence of four walls, stained glass and, usually, an organ. Church has become a formula of specific words, rituals and rooms. A fellowship hall, youth room, pastor’s office, a kitchen and a sanctuary define a physical location called, “church.” The participation, output and impact, then, are immune from internal assessment as long as it remains respectably contained behind a brick and mortar building.
Having worked in a traditional institutional church for the past decade, the risk taken to create something new was a consequence of my own spiritual curiosity around what would happen if we changed the definition of church. If we met in a field and focused on connecting with, and caring for creation, would we still evolve into a closed social network that worshiped once a week or would the environment transform the culture of the church? Would being out in the open solicit a natural commitment to being outward focused? Would sitting in nature inspire us to care more deeply for the plight of creation? Ultimately, I wanted to know if redefining church could renew our practice of discipleship.
In her TedTalk on, “Why we ignore obvious problems — and how to act on them,” Michele Wucker shares that changing the conversation to identify and act on obvious problems depends heavily on the people around us. “If you think that someone around you is going to help pick you up when you fall,” Wucker shares, “then you’re much more likely to see a danger as being smaller.” Jesus’ prayer is that we would create and sustain a community of risk takers, fast forwarding over the footage of our falters and reframing what the world labels as failure. Although risk-taking innovation can happen beyond or within the walls of the church, to shrink the dangers of discipleship, the necessity of risk and reframing of failure must be a priority for all.
As one Body, unified in multiple forms with many beliefs, Jesus calls us into new conversations redefining our moments of failure into movements of faith. Committed to a faith deeper than success or failure, together we weave a safety net for a people sent out to bear witness to an alternative way of being in community. Redefining the church and reclaiming discipleship together we will rise, stand on life’s stage and risk the sting of failure once again, as we spell out solutions to the world’s greatest problems.