AJ, my three-year-old son, and I went to the museum in Fort Worth recently, because his mom (my wife) was out of town. We got to the entrance and purchased our tickets and I asked about the children’s section. The woman helping me probably assumed AJ was older as per his height and certainly did not know about his autism. I politely listened to her talk about an exhibit that I knew was beyond AJ’s attention and comprehension. So we went onto to the children’s section, and to my disappointment most of the items were too complicated for his interest, but he seemed happy to be among the energy of the children. He does not interact with other children but he does enjoy the energy. We then went to the water area, and if you know anything about AJ, water is as exciting as letters and numbers. AJ ran around in circles and got soaked. AJ was ecstatic and so was I.
After I got him into the dry clothes I decided to go by the exhibit that was recommended. I bet we were the quickest through as it was all much too complicated for this tall non-communicative three-year-old. So we went on to the store where AJ was again happy to be among the energy of a crowd.
I share this story because I have read many discussions about what the church should or will look like in the future. I believe it is an important conversation–a conversation that has occurred since Paul. We all know there is no formula for church success, and if one thing works for a specific community, it will not necessarily transfer to another, even if the communities look similar. I am sure most reading this are saying that I am stating the obvious–I am because I keep running into people who write or talk about church as if they were the ticket sales person at the museum. The generalizations and assumptions seep in even to the best intentions.
I must admit for a moment out in the water area, I felt awkward because AJ did not play with any of the water things properly. I then noticed his smile and heard his squeals of joy as he splashed in the water. Those moments are wonderful, such are the moments when he writes letters and words, and recites the alphabet. These are not normal for his age, but it is what we utilize with his teachers and specialists to encourage better communication. We go through a lot of hard work to truly share these happy moments with him, for he now lets us into his enjoyment and we have great hope.
As church, we need to do the hard work of discernment and research for each community, new and old. We need to encourage each community to work for its own vision, finding its joy, its specialties, and work as a community to discover God’s vision for each community. It is hard work, especially because it is too easy to see programs working at other congregations, especially in churches that look similar, or too easy to depend only on leadership, be it pastor, board, or just the key active lay leaders, to “sell” the vision to the congregation. New church plants are clearly individual and unique, but humans often look to others for ideas, and that is fine for established and new church starts, if you are honest about your community’s vision from God. What are your community’s unique gifts and joy? The answers will lead the church toward the work needed for discernment, and it will be fun.
It will be hard and unique work and the result is a vision that truly calls out of the normal, secular, world, and the Body of Christ will run around influencing the world, for we will be following the “happiness” that surpasses all understanding.