Over the past several years, some have made much of the fact that church work is the ecclesial equivalent of jazz, allowing for improvisation, creative riffs played off of central themes. While that may be true, I have to confess, because of my rural upbringing, I know more about farming than I know about jazz. Church work is like farming because on the farm, there is never enough time and always too much to do, usually in conditions that are less than perfect. Perhaps most important, church work, like farming, is learning to be extremely creative with limited resources.
My father-in-law passed away five years ago. His widow, my mother-in-law, knew that someday, we would have to clean out the huge machine shed west of their house. But when would we ever get around to it? Unsolicited, nature intruded with an answer. A tornado ripped off the entire roof and west wall of the structure, and then added eight inches of rain as an exclamation point.
Being very intelligent, intuitive people, we took the hint. “We think it’s time to clean out the machine shed!” The building contained 30 years of memories. Each shelf told a story. Over the course of several long, hot summer days, the family grunted, perspired, sorted, hoisted, stacked and hauled off.
Though I grew up on a farm, I haven’t lived on one in many decades. But the machine shed triggered memories of how farming really gets done — by improvising. A scrap of plywood becomes a gate in a pig lot. A rusty wheel is removed from a broken wagon and used as a spool for electrical cord. Old coffee tins are never thrown away. They can hold nails, bolts and screws. Years ago, that refrigerator quit working, but what a perfect storage cabinet for welding rods and paint cans — or is that yogurt? Don’t ask.
But of all the farmer’s resources, nothing equals baling wire. Baling wire is to the farmer what duct tape is to the suburbanite — the all-purpose adhesive for what ails you. If your machine breaks down out in the field, miles from anyone else, baling wire can save you. If cattle have drifted into your neighbor’s pasture, you guessed it. A little twist of wire in strategic spots and boundaries are restored. Is the tail pipe on your 1966 Ford pick-up dragging? You know what to do.
What would happen if our congregations looked inside their “machine sheds” instead of looking beyond them? The 16th chapter of Acts is a first-century manual on improvisation. The Apostle Paul and his group attempt various ministry launches but are prevented. So they innovate. They end up in Europe, specifically, Philippi. But Philippi has no synagogue, their usual starting place for church planting. Do they turn around and go home, obsessing about what they lack? No, they improvise. They go down to the river bank, find some people praying and simply start where they are, with what they have. A church plant takes root and the rest is history.
How many times have we seen churches do nothing, simply because they cannot do everything? Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, what if we focused on what we do have? Start with where you are, with what you have. What we need is often right under our noses. God is calling us to improvisation. And by the way, if you need some baling wire or welding rods, I can make you a really good deal!