I consult mostly with congregations of the former Protestant mainline. Occasionally someone asks why I continue with this work when it seems so clear that the end is coming—not just for these congregations but for their denominations as well. I agree that the end is coming—not of ekklesia, only of the form of congregational life so many of us grew up with. Embedded in that form are bits of our life together that I am convinced we and God can use to create something new if we allow ourselves to play.
To some extent, play is what we’ve had to do during the pandemic. The congregation I served during this time, for example, was blessed with a parking ramp. (I say “blessed,” but I’m pretty sure there were lots of heated debates involved in achieving this “blessing.”) A year into lockdown, some members had become comfortable with worshipping inside, but others with preexisting health conditions or unvaccinated children needed an alternative. Our solution was “Parking Lot Church”!
Parking Lot Church
We moved one of the bands outside, someone built an outdoor pulpit, and people brought their own chairs. Since we knew we wanted children to feel welcome, we provided chalk and plenty of space to dance and play. Over time, we discovered that it worked better if we moved closer to people instead of speaking from the pulpit (what a surprise!). We also noticed that the sun had a lot to do with which direction we faced and where people wanted to sit. We kept adapting our use of the space.
Because we did all this under the stress of a pandemic, our actions felt limited and scary—pretty much the opposite of play. But my memories of Parking Lot Church are the essence of play—birds chirping as we read a Psalm, the children’s sermon captured on the walls in chalk, and children dancing while adults sang.
Of course, it’s possible to do church work more playfully even without the impetus of a pandemic. For example, I’ve sometimes asked workshop registrants to share pictures of their church buildings. One of my favorites was a “monument” church in Chicago that wanted to reach out to the many pedestrians who passed by on the sidewalk. Members set up tables on the lawn and invited passers-by to write their hopes or prayers on squares of cloth which were then hung up on lines running from the church to nearby trees.
Congregations always pray for the world during worship, but it was so lovely and unexpected to see all those prayers transformed into flags fluttering in the breeze!
Notice that both Parking Lot Church and Clothesline Prayer involve activity and not just thinking. I’m sure each idea started with folks sitting in a room somewhere, but both had to be physically enacted outside the building in order to succeed.
Thinking with Manipulables
There is value in this kind of interactive thinking with manipulables (a word that Word refuses to recognize but that I’ve heard preschool teachers use for decades), even when the “manipulables” are only representative of elements of the problem rather than being actual parking lots and chairs and prayer flags.
In a series of studies referenced in Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind, experimenters posed a problem and allowed one group of problem-solvers to interact physically with the properties of the problem. A second group were only allowed to think through the problem in their heads. The finding was that interactivity “inevitably benefits performance.”
Ms. Paul says that “for a wide variety of problems—from basic arithmetic to complex reasoning, to planning for future events, to solving creative ‘insight’ problems… People who are permitted to manipulate concrete tokens representing elements of the problem to be solved … learn more and are better able to transfer their learning to new situations… They are more motivated and engaged and experience less anxiety. They even arrive at correct answers more quickly.” In other words, we need to move stuff around. Problem-solving is easier if we use more than just our brains.
Notice, too, that each of my examples involves nature. In the same way that Jackson Pollock was finally able to find a new way to paint when he moved out of New York City and into a dilapidated farmhouse on Long Island, we may need to move outside our beloved church buildings and into the grass and trees in order to find new ways to be church.
Imagine Something New
Toward the end of The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow offer this suggestion: “If something did go terribly wrong in human history—and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did—then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence….”
Graeber and Wengrow are referring to societal patterns like dominance and bureaucracy, but in the church we might put it this way: “If something did go terribly wrong in church history—and given the current state of the church, it’s hard to deny that something did—then perhaps it is because we, too, have lost our freedom and our capacity to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.”
In order for ekklesia to continue, we have to use our imaginations and enact new forms. This is the challenge—and also the joy—of working with congregations of the former Protestant mainline. We can’t go backward, and we won’t be able to stay where we are, but we can definitely play.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.