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Collective imagination: The church can build what it first imagines

You might remember the 1980s baseball movie, “Field of Dreams.” In the movie, Kevin Costner’s character has a wild dream to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his Iowa cornfields. The movie unfolds as Costner’s character pursues his dream while people think he has lost his marbles and criticize him for putting his family into financial ruin. I’m reducing the plot, but the movie traces the story of a man who imagined what no one else could see and relentlessly pursued that dream.

You likely have a story of pursuing a dream — whether or not that dream came to pass. In my first call, I lived and worked in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The first thing I learned as I relocated to that area was that the housing prices were unaffordable for many. As a young professional, I had a hard time finding a place to live, and ultimately had to turn to the resources of my family and my congregation to help me make the move. I found that problem was shared by those in service industries — nurses, teachers, firefighters. And I came to learn that seniors in our city, who had been there for decades, could not afford to stay as the housing prices skyrocketed and their fixed incomes stayed the same.

I started dreaming about the forested land around the church and whether it could be developed into housing that was priced for just these folks. I imagined an apartment building with seniors living on one floor and another floor for young adults moving back to town after college. I pictured the older adults and young adults in our congregation there. I dreamt about those generations supporting one another in their daily lives.

I started talking to other staff members and congregation members about the idea. I talked with folks who had experience in housing development. I met with a nonprofit development company and walked with them through the forested land around the church. I talked with officials in the city’s zoning office. I talked with city council members about the need for housing. I talked with church neighbors about the location and the vision. I was feeling so good about the progress we were making. The apartments were becoming even clearer in my mind.

I drove to work one morning and there was a sign on the land: New luxury townhomes. Starting in the $600,000s. Needless to say, my vision had not included luxury townhomes or more than half a million dollars. The next day the trucks started rolling in to clear the land.

Just like that, the dream evaporated. And just like that, I was schooled in power and privilege and how little it matters what the right thing is when there is financial gain to be had. I learned how strategic one has to be to get the kind of change I want to see in the world.

Fear, hope, risk, energy, hard work, collaboration, anguish, stubbornness, doubt — these are the feelings and the actions that I associate with chasing that dream. It strikes me that these same feelings and actions are the ingredients of a life of discipleship and are particularly needed in seasons of great change.

The famous line from “Field of Dreams” is: “If you build it, they will come.” Costner’s character imagined what others could not perceive or see: a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield.

I wonder if the church has taken to heart this mantra: “If we build a church, they will come.”

If we put a building on the corner of First and Main and hire a pastor and open the doors at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, they will come, right?

If we hire a youth director, we will attract more teenagers.

If we call a young pastor, we will attract young families.

If we go back to worship in person, more people than ever will come join us.

“If we build a church, they will come,” seems to be our mantra. Now we are finding it not to be true. I wonder if a better mantra might be one I have learned from community organizing: “We can only build what we can first imagine.”

To state the obvious, the COVID-19 global pandemic is a major disruption to life as we know it. In addition to the medical crisis, in the United States the pandemic tore down the veil so that we have been forced to look at cracks in our collective foundation — cracks such as systemic racial injustice, deepening economic division and political faultlines. That has come with the backdrop of changing weather patterns that created havoc in many places over the past year — from hurricanes to wildfires.

Every person I know is weary from all the disruption and change, from the uncertainty and the decision fatigue. Our collective desire seems to be for some normalcy, some familiarity, for something to be easy. I want to make the case that we resist that impulse in service of discipleship and building the kingdom of God.

Author and activist Sonya Renee Taylor wrote: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.”

We can only build what we can first imagine. Perhaps our call right now is not to return to normalcy, but to open our imaginations once again to stitch a new garment.

In her book “Emergent Strategy,” adrienne maree brown writes that vision is “the farthest into the future we can see as group” and “saying aloud what we long for.”

We have a rich history of that kind of visioning in the church. Scripture gives us images of a lion lying down with a lamb, a river that flows in the city, justice rolling down like water, each one sitting under a fig tree without fear.

Our tradition gives us beautiful images. How might we go about building them in the here and now?

Here are a few shifts in mindset that might help us in the imagining and the building.

  1. From doing for to doing with. Church leaders have long been in the mode of building for people and hoping to attract them to attend or participate or give or join. How can we shift to engaging with others and asking them to help shape the ministry they want, need and are willing to commit to? (And how can we do that in a way that doesn’t just ask folks to join committees?) When we can make that shift, there is a different level of ownership from all involved.
  2. From tweaking to transforming. Tweaking asks us to make small changes to improve what we’re already doing. Transforming asks to let go of what we assume to be true and to gain new perspective. For example, when Apple intentionally made its highly popular iPod obsolete by introducing the iPhone, they were transforming rather than tweaking. (Spoiler alert: It worked out for them!) How can we open our minds to gain new perspective on how we gather as church — for worship, for formation of children, for service in our communities? “What if…” exercises can be helpful here as we try to break out of familiar patterns and tap into our imaginings.
  3. From busyness to clarity. Getting clear on why we are doing something has the effect of helping us shake free of the logistics of the activity and the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality. Deeply interrogating why we do something frees us up to think about the different ways we might accomplish that purpose most effectively with faithful and transformative ends. Sharing commitment of that clarity strengthens commitment and community.

We’ve had to engage these shifts over and over and over as our normal patterns of life have been disrupted. It has not been easy, but in many cases we have done it and done it again. We now have the opportunity to – as Taylor says – stitch a new garment. Let’s not try to recreate something from the past; rather, let’s engage the present and imagine a different future.

We live in an age in which “church” as we’ve known it is in decline by all the traditional measures. We don’t like to admit it, but:

  • Membership is down in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and every mainline denomination.
  • For almost every church I know, budgets are a challenge and budget anxiety is real.
  • Our buildings are aging and often becoming an albatross rather than an asset.
  • “Regular” church attendance, for many, now means coming to worship 1-2 times a month.
  • Once the church was at the center of community, now we’re being pushed aside — or worse, ignored.

The reason it feels like the ground is shifting under our feet is because it is. When I start to feel unsteady, I usually try to grab on to something familiar.

In this season of church life, it is easy to turn insular, to shore up, to double down on what we have always done. It is easy to fall into grief and despair and to long for the sweet used-to-be things and to slip into wishful thinking. We wish for booming church budgets and standing-room-only Sunday mornings in the sanctuary. We imagine teenagers who want to come to worship and millennials who tithe. Underneath many of those wishes are comfortable, Western, white, middle class, capitalist values we’ve absorbed without thinking. Those values are not where our grounding lies. Our grounding lies in Jesus Christ.

If Jesus is our authority, our grounding, then perhaps our imaginations – when it leads us to values and judgments that largely mimic culture – have been too small.

When I pause and think about what keeps me up at night, it is usually not what preoccupies my waking hours. What wakes me at 3 a.m. is not a desire to fill the pews or increase the number of devices logged onto YouTube on Sunday morning. It is not learning more about the book of Matthew or 1 Thessalonians — as important as those books of the Bible are! The things that keep me up at night are:

  • The gun violence that is growing more common in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood. I’m raising a son on these streets and in this community. I don’t want violence to plague his childhood or that of any child.
  • Feeling tremendous gratitude for the Black women who love and nature my son at day care for eight hours every day, while knowing their salaries don’t allow them to have their children in the same center.
  • The weight my family has felt, having suffered a miscarriage this year.
  • The dread I feel about the unseasonable flooding my dad reports from his land in Oklahoma, and that my family in the Pacific Northwest were stuck inside for more than a week when smoke from the wildfires made it unsafe to breathe the air. It’s the environmental havoc that we are creating and the fear I feel for our children who will bear the brunt of our recklessness.

I care about these things because my faith teaches me that we are interconnected with one another and bound up together. Our faith teaches that in God’s promised day, the poor will inherit the kingdom and the peacemakers will be called children of God, there will be no mourning and crying and we will be stewards of this good creation. I want my engagement with my church, the place that nurtures my discipleship, to help me navigate these changing cultural waters and these urgent needs in the life of my community.

Maybe our future is not in bringing back what once was, but in imagining new things. Our faith invites us to imagine big things. Not to wish away what is, but to take what we have and imagine new things.

This reminds me of the Apollo 13 mission and the crisis of a failing oxygen system. The astronauts had to take all the pieces they had on board and imagine an entirely new way to route their oxygen supply in the lifeboat while they preserved power in the space shuttle for the return home.

That’s our task in our own crisis. We’ve got amazing resources at our disposal. We’ve got buildings. We’ve got networks. We’ve got rich theology. We’ve got amazing people. We’ve even got money.

What we need is a creative spark, the imagination to dream up the new things. Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book “Big Magic,” says the secret to creativity, to imagination, is choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear.

adrienne maree brown also writes of imagination and cautions us to imagine beyond our fears. She writes: “Imagination has people thinking they can go from being poor to a millionaire as part of a shared American dream. Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. … We have to imagine beyond those fears.” She continues: “We have to ideate – imagine and conceive – together. … This is collaborative ideation — what are the ideas that will liberate all of us?”

These women teach us to imagine together, which strikes me as such a Presbyterian thing to suggest. We believe in communal discernment, in shared power. We believe in collective imagination.

Instead of fearing the cultural disruptions or being overwhelmed by them, what if they were opportunities for us? What if we (particularly white congregations) got deadly serious about learning about how our country has baked racist practices into our way of being and then combat that systemic racism? What if we redoubled our efforts to stand with the poor and work against the increasing income inequality in our sermons, our education, our outreach efforts, our votes? What if we got serious about our stewardship of the earth? What if we actively created hospitable spaces for all generations?

We don’t achieve these things by dreaming them up in a vacuum. We get to them by being curious, by paying attention, by expanding who we know and learning about each other’s lives and what matters. We get to them by being clear about who we are and why we do what we do. We get to them by acting together to be a blessing to one another and to build the kind of community and world we want to live in. A community that looks ever more like the promised day of God that Jesus taught.

Jessica Tate is a Presbyterian minister based in Washington, D.C., and an International Coaching Federation-trained leadership coach. Jessica, her husband John, and their son Huw can be found most weekends kayaking, hiking or – if Huw has his way – at a playground.