Can We Wait for God's Spark?
The Parish Paper
December 2016—Volume 24, Number 12 Copyright @ 2016 by C. Jeff Woods
God sparks innovations, but only on God’s terms, and those terms usually involve disruption. From burning bushes to wood that burns even when soaked, God’s sparks manifest themselves in unusual ways. We can choose to ignore the spark or even squelch the spark. But, if we take notice of it, the spark soon becomes a roaring fire. What are the conditions for God’s spark? And, does the spark look different if people rather than God initiate the encounter?
How Business Views Disruption
The average life of a shopping mall or center built today is fifteen years. And if the shopping venue does not make a radical change at least half-way through their expected fifteen-year tenure, it may not even last that long! Geoff Colvin recently wrote that the most innovative companies today, “see their business as disrupters would see it.” They never stop self-disrupting their own companies.
For example, Amazon disrupted bookstores twenty years ago with their online selling model. Then disrupted itself with Kindle e-readers replacing its own books-by-mail model.
They have continued this disruption by opening and successfully operating brick-and-mortar bookstores, even while the traditional bookstore model continues to fail.
Fortunately, congregations do not have to self-disrupt. God is here to do that for us! Sometimes congregations forget how often they have had to respond to disruptions in order to faithfully minister in their present location. A church that has existed for one hundred years has probably had six or seven makeovers resulting from neighborhood swivels and societal swings. Congregations are indeed resilient. But, God must sponsor their transformations.
For instance, through a discernment process, a Milwaukee congregation challenges its members to draw from three equal sources whenever the church launches a new ministry. Equal shares of the start-up cost must come from: (1) those launching the ministry; (2) other congregational members; and (3) nonmembers or community partners. Asking nonmembers to support new ministry ideas can be disruptive and involving community stakeholders can make the ministry launch much more messy and problematic. However, this church believes the community’s involvement confirms that this is the direction in which God has encouraged them to go and have accepted the disruption proposed by God.
God’s Disruptive Spark in the Bible
Sparks from God are indications that God has heard us or wants to reveal something to us. What happens when God initiates the contact? The book of Matthew reminds us that God’s initiative contact is usually disruptive. God’s encounter with the mother of Jesus was certainly disruptive. When God visited the shepherds and asked them to go to King Herod to inquire about a new king, that news was not received warmly by the current king. Jesus rocks John the Baptist’s world by asking John to baptize Jesus and presenting standards for an utterly new lifestyle in the Sermon on the Mount. The disruptions continue and become more personal as Jesus eats at a sinner’s home and shatters Sabbath protocols. Walking with Jesus means living a constantly unsettled life.
Can We Seek God’s Spark?
The book of Matthew also reveals instances in which humans initiate contact with God and we quickly discover the importance of faith in such encounters. When Jesus calmed the storm, he asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). However, when a man brought his daughter to Jesus for healing, the man openly expressed his faith, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live” (Matthew 9:18). Likewise, when two blind men came to Jesus, he asked, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9:28).
No matter who initiates the contact, we quickly learn that God must sponsor the change in order for the spark to grow into a fire. We see this communication breakdown with God in a community where the owner of a local diner purposely hires and trains former prison inmates and other persons who have difficulty finding work. When the owner was asked if he had contacted local clergy to invite them to be part of his community ministry, his response was surprising. “Yes,” he said, “And it was a disaster. The clergy kept asking the employees uncomfortable questions about their background. They made it clear that they would want them to attend their congregations if they helped.” The clergy wanted to be a part of the spark, but could not handle the flame.
What if today’s burning bushes are far away from the Sunday morning crowds? What if God is sending us sparks of innovation on a regular basis, but they are more dangerous and disruptive than they are comforting and successful by our standards? A congregation in Nebraska recently witnessed God’s spark by walking their neighborhood. Some nearby apartment dwellers became concerned about these strangers who were regularly walking their neighborhood and asked what they were doing. The neighborhood inquirers were quite surprised to learn that church members were simply trying to better understand their neighborhood and the people in it.
As it turned out, the apartment residents welcomed their intruders as they had spiritual questions that they were too intimidated to ask anyone else. The entire group explored these spiritual questions together. The people in the apartments have not come to the church but the church members have learned as much about God as the apartment residents. God’s spark is being fanned, but not in ways that we could predict.
Perhaps many of our requests for sparks from God are seemingly ignored because we are seeking a specific outcome, such as congregational growth, our own comfort and safety, or retaining our leadership status. Congregational change does not happen unless God sparks it, and not only must we have enough faith to oxygenate the spark once it appears, but we must also be prepared to accept God’s end result.
Are You Ready for Congregational Change?
“A small green apple cannot ripen one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts…We must wait for God.”
Look for God’s pre-emptive spark and once you find it, block it from distractions, and fan it with flames of trust.
, August 1, 2016, 22.
Ryan Bort, “Amazon Is Opening More Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores,” www.newsweek.com/amazon-opening-brick-and-mortar-bookstores-494216.
James Finley, Merton’s Palace of Nowhere
(Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2003), 114.