Re-Imagining the Story: Can the Mainline Church Put Away Childish Things?

Elizabeth Drescher’s recent piece on “Bearings” asks the question: “What if we had the next great awakening . . . and everybody slept in?”

As a church pastor, I’m beginning to wonder that, myself.

There are times when being a mainline church pastor feels like being Sheriff Woody from the “Toy Story” movies—adventurous in ways good and bad, called to orchestrate the games and goings-on of a whole parallel world that feels hidden in plain sight. So many mainline pastors try to be responsible shepherds, even as flashier, hipper causes and personalities, both inside the church and out, grab the hearts of the people to whom we’ve dedicated our lives. (I could go on.)

In fact, Drescher’s piece makes me wonder if the final installment in the series, “Toy Story 3,” is really a cartoon at all. It might be a parable of the mainline church.

If you don’t remember “Toy Story 3,” at the beginning, Andy—the now-grown boy who owns all of the toys referenced in the movie’s title—is days away from leaving for college. His toys haven’t been played with in years. Many of the toys we’d come to know from the first two movies in the series have, ominously, disappeared, leaving a somewhat random group of the most beloved and most sturdy, plus the ones who just happen to have held on, somehow.

The toys are preparing for a dismal fate: being boxed up and placed into the indefinite twilight of long-term storage—but only after an inevitable cull that will separate the survivors still further.

Yet for Sheriff Woody, the mission of remaining available for service to Andy, their boy, remains urgent. He tries to keep the other toys focused and committed to that mission. He works to ensure that they will be ready if Andy ever returns to play with them . . . however improbable that outcome may seem on any particular day.

In the piece that he wrote for “Bearings” a few weeks ago, Adam Copeland recalled an old Stanley Hauerwas line that bemoaned the modern pastor being “a quivering mass of availability”—and Sheriff Woody is certainly that. His loyalty to Andy means that he will flatter, plead, demand, cajole, and even guilt-trip his fellow toys into staying, remaining available to Andy even if it means going into a box in the attic.

It isn’t easy. Some of the toys see the writing on the wall. They recognize that their mission with Andy is concluded and that they won’t be missed. Over Woody’s protests, they salute and slip away.

And then, to complicate things still further, it emerges that when Andy leaves for college, Woody will get to go along—not to be played with, but for purely sentimental reasons. He’ll get to live . . . sort of.

Sound familiar?

So many of our churches are made up of the beloved, the sturdy, and the ones who just happened to have held on—somehow.

We who remain, ordained and lay, love the life for which we were created: to love and serve God and neighbor, to spark the imagination, to help people imagine remarkable new worlds that they may go on to build, to be communities of wonder and joy and sources of solace.

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In that respect, our mission, like Woody’s, has not changed. Like him, we know the importance of what we have been placed here to do. And, also like him, we don’t want to forsake the hope that our respective “Andys” will return. We look for “our boys” (and girls) to come back, to re-engage with our work, and to have their own children develop connections to us.

Sometimes, though, we, like Woody and the rest of the toys in Pixar’s movie, are bound for disappointment. In those moments, it’s important to remember that it’s not Andy’s fault that he’s outgrown us, and that Andy hasn’t necessarily outgrown God—any more than he’s outgrown joy or play or the work of the imagination. The love we’ve shown him has taught him well and will sustain him in all kinds of ways.

It’s just that now he finds God in other places.

 Whether it’s finding new people to serve, or new ways to embody the mission, we are at the moment of change—and we ourselves will be transformed.

We were right for one stage of his life. Now we may not be. Our mission is not concluded, exactly—this side of the eschaton, it never is—but we cannot continue the mission in the future as we have conducted in the past.

Whether it’s finding new people to serve, or new ways to embody the mission, we are at the moment of change . . . and we ourselves will be transformed.

Hoping that Andy will return to play the old games and draw on us like he used to, in the ways we’ve come to love, is just our way of showing how much we love him, and how much we treasure having been with him. But thinking that he will “awaken” one day and actually take those old games back up again is little more than a sentimental notion.

Adam Copeland was right when he said that despite the “transactional mentality” of our times, what people want from their pastor still matters less than what they actually need. He correctly argued that there is a need for pastors and churches to challenge as well as comfort us (perhaps especially in such a transactional age).

I wonder what would happen if our churches tried to help us differentiate our wants from our needs with regard to the “Andys” in our lives. What if our pastors challenged themselves and their stalwart churchgoers to engage in some self-reflection regarding the people we most want (need?) to take notice of us?

Perhaps we would figure out that it isn’t enough for us to want them to need us. And it’s not even enough to admit, if we’re being completely honest here, that maybe we just need them to want us. Ultimately, there are more important things for us to do than spend too much time fixating upon whether Andy’s ever going to come back. Sure, we might want him to return—that longing certainly is understandable—but the world needs us to be doing things other than fantasizing about possible reunions.

  • We need to love the world. Fundamental to our Christian theology, in all its strands, is the recognition that loving is central to the task of being human. We cannot be who we have been created to be without it. But love isn’t something we offer only on our own terms. By its very nature, love is about discovering new terms together.
  • We need to celebrate the places where God’s Spirit is at work, because we love God. Our celebrations can’t help but routinely take us beyond the walls of the church, and even outside the familiar language of the church. Instead of going out to explain and testify, we need to go forth to marvel and learn—from nature as the “theater of God’s glory” (as Calvin called it), and from the stories of people and what they do, and from culture in its many forms.
  • We need to remember our own limitations. Even as Christians. Maybe especially as Christians. Because so much of our witness is around concepts like liberation, freedom, eternity, salvation and election, it can be easy to lose sight of where our activity ends and God’s begins. But the activity that really matters is God’s. In a community that so often straddles the line between righteousness and self-righteousness, our interactions with the broader world may be God’s way of calling us to account.

As we examine the overarching narrative of the Church, what’s coming to an end these days is a particular chapter in the life of the Kingdom of God.

Yet there’s a larger story that continues, and we may be surprised to discover that many in our congregations are ready to reconnect with that story.

“ . . . if the imagination is to transcend and transform it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment . . . nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name.”

– Adrienne Rich

At the local congregation I serve, we make time every week during the early service for a Q&A immediately following the sermon. Last Sunday, I mentioned the recent Pew study, and it was the first time that many people in the group had heard of it.

They were astonished to learn that there are now more religiously-unaffiliated “Nones” than there are Catholics (though the fact that Nones outnumbered Mainline Protestants like us was not a surprise for most).

They had a lot of thoughts about what the Nones were missing, and a lot of fists to shake at the dominant public voice of Christianity, which they believe plays a prominent role in turning the Nones away.

For a moment there, we sounded a lot like Sheriff Woody and his gang of remaining toys.

Finally, someone said, “You know, my daughter was raised in this church, and lives not far away, but she doesn’t come around anymore. I guess she’s a ‘None.’ You know what would blow her mind? The fact that we are sitting here in church, on a Sunday, talking about this at all. She wouldn’t believe we can actually think this way.”

As the new chapter that lies before us begins, deciding what it means to “think this way” is a central task for everyone in the mainline churches.

As poet Adrienne Rich has written, “ . . . if the imagination is to transcend and transform it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment . . . nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name.”

Our churches are being invited to just such a task, re-imagining much and experimenting in ways that may seem “radical” or even frightening in order to reaffirm the transcendence and transformation that are forever at the heart of our mission.

We’re not at the end of something; we’re at the beginning. Is it a new awakening? Perhaps, but only if we rouse ourselves from what often seems like a long slumber in the mainline Church. If we’re really able to conceive alternatives to the dream of a return to 1950s-style congregational growth, maybe we won’t be hitting the snooze button, after all.

Photo credits:

Cover photo:  Florian Klauer, Untitled, n.d. Via Unsplash. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0  / Desaturated from original.

Inside photo: “The Last Toy Story Supper,” by Sergio, August 1, 2010. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0.

Maxwell Grant

The Rev. Maxwell Grant is the Senior Minister of the Second Congregational Church of Greenwich, Connecticut.  He is a 2006 graduate of Yale Divinity School, where he was awarded the Mersick Prize for Preaching. He has also served as Pediatric Chaplain at Yale New-Haven Hospital and as the School Minister at Collegiate School in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @maxgrantmg, and he blogs at www.maxgrant.net.

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