Thinking inside the box

When I look closely, I can see the fraying edges of the church-box we’re in. If I listen intently, I can hear the faint call to come on out into something new.

By Amy Butler

The leadership art of “thinking outside the box” sounds progressive and cutting-edge. Everybody is talking these days about thinking outside the box, but the reality of the practice is not all that glamorous.

I prefer the leadership art of locating the box, crawling inside, after a short period of adjustment to new environs making myself as comfortable as possible, and then staying in the box — for as long as possible.

This strategy can work quite well, for a while. The problem is that eventually the box gets a little too comfortable. As we live inside the box, the cardboard (work with me here) gets bent out of shape. The corners are not as crisp as they were when we found it. The walls become dented and slightly unstable. The close quarters that seemed so roomy before start to feel confining.

It’s clear to anyone looking in from the outside that the box doesn’t fit anymore and that something new is in order. Even from the inside it’s clear to those who are paying attention that if we maintain residence in this particular box too long it will tear, collapse or disintegrate altogether.

Any good leader who has experience with thinking outside the box knows the practice is not that much fun. Despite its limitations, the current box is largely comfortable. Nobody inside will worry that the box is falling apart, because everyone has found his or her corner, curled up and relaxed.

Navigating inside the box is old hat. Most everybody can do it with eyes closed. Staying put inside the box as long as possible (retirement?) is an easy answer to the sense of vague dis-ease that comes with an increasingly ragged box.

I have been thinking about this lately in terms of the institution of the church. Whatever box our church experience fills — lovely, comforting, wonderful box as it may be — can become confining, limiting, even deadly.

Fifty-two rank organ? Three points and a poem? Thirty minutes of praise and worship? Years and years of denominational affiliations? Eleven o’clock worship? Choirs in robes? Pastors in aloha shirts? Sit back and relax, the box is comfortable.

But observers of church life are starting to notice that the box in which the institutional church resides these days is looking a bit ragged. Even with best practices applied consistently, the church is not as vibrant in our society as it once was. In fact, the question of whether church as we know it is viable for the long term is a question begging to be asked.

I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to just ignore the question; asking it feels uncomfortable. Anyway, I like the church as I know it. It’s easy to navigate. It feels familiar. I get nostalgic just thinking about all the things I love about it.

But when I look closely, I can see the fraying edges of the box we’re in. If I listen intently, I can hear the faint call to come on out into something new. And if I’m honest, I also wonder if we’ll be able to keep church as we know it going for the long term.

But still, couldn’t we stay inside the box a little bit longer, just until we know for sure what’s next, everybody is on the same page and no one gets mad when things change?

I think God might say, “No.” There are adventures in discipleship out there for us, powerful, new creations of God’s Spirit waiting for disciples who are brave enough to leave the comfort of the box and head out to new and radical expressions of faith, to an unknown future for the church we know and love.

It’s scary, for sure. But looking on the positive side, we could always use our box to start packing.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.