9.30.2007

Ball bearing or beach ball?

Seth Godin posts an interesting philosophy on business self-perception and marketing from Michael Brooke, publisher of a skateboarding magazine called Concrete Wave. I'm far from a skateboarder, and while many people who link to this post tagged it "inspiration" this is about business, not faith. Yet Michael's explanation of how Concrete Wave views its relationship to its industry and its audience offers some wisdom for those of us trying to figure out how the church makes sense in our liquid culture.

I was inspired by his final point:
4. Concrete Wave wishes to remain a ball bearing – small, hard to find and continually in the state of being polished. Our goal is to provide readers with a deep impression when they get hit with it. Conversely, we do not aim to be a beach ball – big, seen all over the place, colorful and yet leaving very little impression when it hits. A beach ball is very fragile indeed and must avoid challenging environments, because it requires so much air to keep it afloat. A weighty ball bearing can withstand both challenging environments along with the pin pricks of adversity.
The ball bearing is a powerful and beautiful metaphor for new church expressions, such as the micro-church I'm part of these days. We are, in his phrase, "small, hard to find and continually in the state of being polished." And it describes in so many ways what I love about this community. We are small -- small enough to connect with each person that joins us around the living room or patio for a gathering, small enough to be interdependent on each other for the ability to worship in community, small enough that each individual matters and gets to participate. We are hard to find -- moving from house to house, willing to embrace whoever is invited/seeks us out but not looking to create attention in order to be "attractional," in the Christendom sense. Being polished? Oh yeah -- in the spiritual sense, we see Christ's Spirit refining us in so many ways. And practically, we learning and adapting with each other, which produces growth and laughter and humility in ways that just "joining a church" hasn't, in my experience.

While his beach ball alternative is a bit harsh to describe the institutional church, there is some resonance. Institutions -- denominations and congregations -- do tend to create structures that then require a lot of effort to keep in shape. They can grow to the point that so much air (money, buildings, staff, volunteers, etc.) is required to keep them inflated that they develop a peculiar type of fragility. In this state they are often forced to leave very little impression on their participants because they are so dependent on their participation to keep the ball rolling.

Ball bearing communities, small and passionate, can make a deeper impression. In our case, we allow people to engage more deeply that they might in a more traditional congregation. By encouraging all voices, by allowing anyone to offer their testimony about how the Bible and prayer affect their lives, by engaging in serious discussion and practicing many forms of prayer, we make space for people to go deeper than they might sitting in a pew. (And if they don't that's OK, too.) I feel incredibly honored when people invite the group into their journeys, and tell their stories openly and honestly, and without the filters that I, for one, often have used in church. It is a sign of true community when believers can be vulnerable with each other, and while that hits hard sometimes, it is an experience to be valued and cultivated.

It's a limitation of such metaphors -- both Brooke's and my reaction to it -- that some readers have an either-or reaction. One must be better than the other; or, worse, one is totally right and the other completely bankrupt. That's not my intention here. Such metaphors are, for me, descriptive of what I and many others are experiencing, not prescriptions for what must be. Ball bearing communities because of (though sometimes also in spite of) beach ball congregations and denominations, and many are faithfully living within and enriching them. Others blaze their own trails. The key is that there is a place in God's kingdom for beach balls and ball bearings -- and lots of other shapes and sizes -- because God created lots of different types of people for them to make impressions on.

That's why I also like Brooke's first point:
1. I am not publishing a magazine – I am helping to document and foster change within skateboarding. The magazine is part of a greater movement within skateboarding. Concrete Wave exists to spread specific ideas. The more people we can spread these ideas too, the more success we achieve.
Those of us who are cultivating new expressions aren't trying to replace the institutional church, or necessarily trying to "compete" (another unfortunate result of the either-or reading of things). We sense the Spirit moving, and we're trying to notice the direction, document the journey and be a part of the movement. House churches, emerging churches, simple churches, congregations within congregations, new mission plants -- as well as denominations, megachurches, program-size congregations and small traditional churches -- all exist to share the same message of the Gospel, yet each contextualizes that message specifically for real people in real places and real life situations in these changing times. For me, and for many others I know who are on this same journey, it is not about achieving success. As we live out this message and it spreads to others, the kingdom of God breaks in a little bit, here and now.



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