We just recently installed an invisible fence in our yard. Then I discovered that keeping the dog contained in the yard wouldn’t happen overnight, it would require training. For 2 weeks I was to make sure the activated collar was placed on the dog, and then I was to take him outside on leash. Whenever he would get close to the boundary, I was told to call out, “Watch out, watch out!” If he came back towards me, I was to reward him. Within a day, whenever I said “Watch out” he would high tail it back to me.
The same week, I was invited to talk to a presbytery about the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement. “Is there anything specific you think I need to share with the presbytery?” I asked my host. “Yes, we tried a new church development several years back, and it ended really bad. We got burned. And the presbytery is skittish about new church development.”
I’ve had that same conversation with several presbyteries over the last year. Our past failures become like an invisible fence. And anytime we start talking about taking a risk, it’s as if there is a chorus calling out, “Watch out, watch out!” Without even realizing it, we’ve developed systems and norms that steer us away from taking risks and sometimes even reward us for keeping the status quo. Pretty soon, we don’t even test the boundaries; we just stay where we know we’ll be safe.
But Jesus didn’t ask us to be safe. He asked us to love our neighbors and to make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them about the with-God life. We will miss out on a lot of opportunities if we stay inside our invisible fences. We may have to take some risks if we are going to venture into new territories and new lives. With risk comes the possibility of failure. But it also comes with the possibility of lives transformed through the grace and power of Jesus Christ.
I work with a ministry team that is courageous enough to take risks. There is always discernment involved: is this what we truly believe God wants us to do? Does this fit with the core values and priorities of our church? Do we trust God with what we can’t see or control? And then, when it’s time to take a big risk, we say: “Blaze of glory.” Because we know this may or may not work out. We can’t know the outcome from the outset. We can only trust that God is in this. And if it fails, well…at least we go out in a blaze of glory, being faithful to God even if the coffers run dry. (And anecdotally, the coffers have yet to run dry.)
I will train my dog to stay in an invisible fence. But I won’t train my brothers and sisters in Christ to stay there. Because God didn’t call us into this covenant relationship to be safe, God called us to love and be loved. And that means we’re going to have to cross some boundaries and take some risks.
I am sensing that this is a kairos moment in the PCUSA. Will we be shackled by the voices crying, “Watch out, watch out!” Or will we find the courage to take some “blaze of glory” type risks, for the sake of the gospel?
Shannon Kiser is the director of the East Coast Presbyterian Center of New Church Innovation based out of northern Virginia. She is field staff for the Office of Church Growth, and parish associate at Riverside Presbyterian Church, a church planting church in Sterling, VA. She is involved in the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement, and works with presbyteries, existing churches, and potential planters to fan the flames of new, creative ministries. Shannon lives in Springfield, VA with her husband and two daughters.