Unicorns were the topic on the radio talk show. “Unicorns” being startup tech companies worth a billion dollars before they even open for business. They used to be so rare as to be dubbed “unicorns.” Now, the talk show host said, “Unicorns are running all over Silicon Valley.” The worry of a bubble is on the horizon, however. How long can unicorns proliferate and run free? The experts went back and forth and then a caller weighed in wanting to talk about not only unicorns, but dinosaurs and cockroaches. Dinosaurs? Those are the large, publicly traded companies soon to be extinct, or so this caller thought. Cockroaches? Those are the survivors of the business world, small, flexible, able to thrive in difficult conditions. The fate of the unicorns according to this savvy listener? Well, who knew?
The conversation got me thinking about the church. In this climate of rapid change, growing numbers of “spiritual but not religious” and adaptive challenges, is the church a unicorn, dinosaur or cockroach? The obvious choice is dinosaur. We are an antiquated institution, an outdated model, burdened with property, structures and systems that don’t serve the world well anymore. Our beloved polity and all the resources that keep it moving seem clunky. I picture a black-and-white TV with wire rabbit ears. Someone has to move them around when the picture gets fuzzy. We need to get up to turn the channel. So obsolete and cumbersome that you have to pay someone to haul it away. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is playing on their smartphones.
The church is a dinosaur.
But if the church is a dinosaur, many congregations are (dare I say it?) cockroaches. They have survived in hostile conditions. The population that once inhabited the pews has moved to the burbs. The physical building needed expensive repairs. The ability to pay a full-time pastor went away when the people in the pews left and took their pledges with them. And yet, they remain — many of them not on their backs with their legs wiggling in the air, but upright, moving and seemingly impossible to kill or contain. These are the congregations that regroup, revamp and renew. Sunday school rooms become afterschool tutoring centers, fellowship halls transform to soup kitchens, sanctuaries are venues for community events. Leadership challenges are viewed as opportunities for seminary interns, part-time pastors, commissioned ruling elders and a committed group of members to exercise their gifts.
Many of our churches are cockroaches.
Then there are the unicorns, that rare breed of congregations that imagine they can fly. They have the audacity to believe that through them God is changing the world. Unicorns are brave. Their rarity attracts attention — though not all of it is the kind that builds up, as sometimes beauty is met with disdain or hate. Nonetheless, unicorns can be no other than what they are, so they persist in advocating for the least, bumping up against the powers that be, sending out missionaries, raising up leaders, their very presence refuting all those who say, “I don’t believe in unicorns.”
A few of our churches are unicorns.
What all of our churches are comprised of, however, is sheep. All churches are, at the end of the day, a flock of sheep with one shepherd and a good one at that. We will only live faithfully — as dinosaurs, cockroaches or unicorns — when we recognize that it isn’t our church at all. It is Jesus’ church. Without the care and leadership of the Good Shepherd, we will surely perish. It is our recognition of the protection and provision of our Shepherd that enables us to move about among wolves, without fear and as a witness to the power of the One we follow. Once aware of our sheepishness we need not worry about our survival; the Shepherd will take care of us. Our only role is to be sheep, following the Good Shepherd. Our faithful sheepishness invites Jesus to use our antiquated dinosaur-like buildings, our nimble cockroach-like startup ministries and our rare, unicorn-like beautiful moments, to bring others to the fold and transform not just Christ’s church, but God’s beloved world.
Grace and peace,