On Thin Ice In A Beauty Shop
I have been a pastor for some thirty years. Most of the previous decades have featured my propensity to walk on thin ice. Walking on thin ice is a risky and precarious way to go. The familiar walking on eggshells is a closely related, paranoid cousin to walking on thin ice.
In my early years, I helped create a three-church youth ministry daring to bring three churches together. We took a boatload of teens from three schools on long excursions to Myrtle Beach. We brought three competitive churches together as a result. That thin ice ministry had multiple doubters, but eventually became absolutely glorious.
Then there was a church plant within a church. We called it New Venture. We went after raw, un-churched folks with a completely outside-the-box design for church. We got exactly what we asked for when wild, rough, drunken, cussin’ folks showed up. When our church-within-a-church plant outgrew the mother church, I got fired for walking on this thin ice because the new folks were not trickling into the “real” church.
Thin ice, I’ve found, can easily crack. Thin ice can get you fired. This explains the demise of a bold, new venture.
I can remember our band playing “Smoke On The Water” during church one Sunday. It was thin ice. The skeptics frowned and a few even left the church. Thin ice, I’ve also discovered, doesn’t go well with some church folk. I can get extremely fearful of those people. That fear can almost make me forget my focus of why we actually played “Smoke On The Water” in the first place. It was for the folks who don’t go to church.
Thin ice, in my opinion,
IT, however, can scare the leadership confidence right out of me.
In a small southern Indiana town, I decided to go check out the local, legendary guitar player I was hoping would be in our band. I was told this rockin’ legend had an even more legendary, rock-and-roll past. Moved by either prayer or Satan, I ventured into a local bar and checked the dude out. Did I mention I had just arrived in this small, conservative, midwest town as the new pastor? I decided to do the thin ice thing once again. In order to have support on the thin ice… or maybe to have guys pull me out of the icy water if I should fall through… I called the church elders to go with me. We ventured into a southern Indiana bar called Woody’s at midnight on a cold, wintry Saturday night. Joe, the guitar god, announced to a very inebriated crowd, “Hey everyone, the new pastor is here!” The crowd let out a collective, “Uggghhhhrroooo.” Joe announced he might start playing guitar at our church and invited that same drunken crowd. Again, a collective “Uggghhhhrroooo” signaled all the enthusiasm they could muster.
I knew it was all thin ice. The small town gossiping grapevine fired up quickly. The doubters and local church goers could not believe a pastor was exhibiting such crude, worldly behavior. We eventually hired Joe as our worship leader and admitted alcoholic. Some left the church. Others still came, but sported a judgmental church frown. Joe became an icon of grace for our Sunday morning stage. No less than ten couples I met that fateful night at Woody’s became a part of our messy, thin ice church.
Thin ice is hard. Risk taking makes my leadership knees wobble. It’s lonely. Doubters cause me to doubt my own leadership and ability to hear how God might be directing. Did I mention this thin ice walking stuff is hard?
I must also admit this: I don’t think my actions and leadership are always ordained just because I’m willing to walk on thin ice. Risk-taking does not always equate with God-directed. I do believe, however, that we are called to get into very close proximity with the gates of hell to rescue lost people. It just makes sense that the ice is thinner the closer you get to the very flames of Satan.
A few years back, the thin ice was beckoning once again. We decided to not GO to church, but rather BE the Church. We shut down our Sunday gathering and opted to give a local, broken, elementary school an overdue makeover. The skeptics warned how slender the ice was beneath my feet. How would we survive a lost offering? Six years later, we’ve done twenty-five such Sundays. We’ll close down the church three to four times a year at a potential offering loss of over $110,000. Talk about fiscally thin ice! However, in six years of going to BE the Church, we’ve ended each year in the black, and our church has grown by over 450%. Once you survive the thin ice, the exhilaration and reward becomes a thing of sheer worship.
I’ve felt the angst of walking on thin ice once again. It seems this doesn’t get any easier the older and more seasoned you become in ministry.
A very well known playwright walked into our metro church about a year ago. I wondered how God might use this man. He’s the originator of a top-grossing urban comedy play. He’s sold out major venues and garnered crowds off Broadway.
Several months ago, we began talking about doing his play at our church. He knew he would have to tweak a few things for this to work. He did. He also knew his loyal crowd would show up. This was a crowd our church might not normally attract. It was at this exact point I began to embrace the thin ice, again. Connecting with people who might not normally connect with church always prompts me to lace up my skates. My hopes centered around a creative chance of getting people into our church doors, perhaps increasing our church’s diversity… perhaps leading to the gospel.
The play was recently shown inside our church walls for four consecutive nights. Hundreds of laughing, good-hearted, folks walked into our church building. I was able to personally welcome each and every one.
But… the show had a couple moments that made me turn to my wife and ask, “Think I’ll get fired for that one…?” The play unpacked the crazy intricacies of an urban beauty shop. It highlighted, with great humor, our world’s dysfunction and brokenness. There was marital dysfunction, sexual dysfunction, relational dysfunction, and gossiping dysfunction like you want to tell your neighbors about.
There were two or three brief dysfunctional moments that made me feel the thin ice beneath my feet. My angst was not from the people belly laughing and enjoying this professional production. My struggle was from knowing how thin ice doesn’t usually play well in church world.
Although this well-known urban comedy ends well with redemption of love and marriage, the theatrical dysfunction displayed within a church building, I wondered, might sink me. Thin ice can do that.
I remember seeing Donald Miller’s film, “Blue Like Jazz.” I took my older, teenage girls to see this PG-13 rated flick. There were a bunch of immoral actions and lifestyles portrayed. Drugs and alcohol are prominent. Sexual content and same-sex attraction are displayed on a college campus setting. The “F” bomb is dropped, and anti-God sentiments are made. Should this film be shown within the walls of a church? Tough call. Thin Ice. In the end, “Blue Like Jazz” is about how God’s grace and forgiveness win out. There’s redemption. It’s raw, but it’s the storyline of God being lived out in our messy world. My girls said this was the best “Christian” film they’d ever seen. I’m confident I would have thin ice fears showing this film inside a church building.
Recently we showed the movie “Ragamuffin” at church. It was also rated PG-13. Drunkenness, smoking, and abusive family dysfunction were very much a part of the plot. In the end there was tremendous redemption and grace. But I wondered if this would be more thin ice to navigate. It wasn’t, but the thin ice worry crept slowing through my veins as the movie rolled.
I really DO get age appropriate material. With four children, I really do understand. However, for three decades I’ve wrestled with taking on the risk of thin ice for the sake of lost people. I can revel in the mere chance of creatively getting the good news of Jesus into people’s lives. I actually believe and will lead in risky ways because the Church IS a hospital and not a gated club of holy people.
What IS the dynamic of being uncomfortable with certain things inside a church building, but strangely casual with many of those same certain things within my house? Thirty years of ministry makes it necessary for me to remember how the Church is contained within me and not within specified bricks and mortar. My ability and fears to walk on thin ice should be exercised both within the church building and within my life.
It’s incredibly interesting how nobody from my church has sent a complaining email about our recent urban comedy. I’m a grateful pastor at a great and gracious church. My wise and Godly wife tells me perhaps I don’t give the people around me enough credit. I think she’s right. I’m confident people who allow me to lead in risky, thin ice walking ways have angst too. That’s fair.
I believe, perhaps, God has led me to just the right church with just the right people who are redeemed-but-messy, and are hoping to point other messy people to the gospel of Jesus.
I write this blog NOT to justify my actions and leadership, but merely to get the anxiousness out of my heart. I don’t write to convince as much as I do to inform. I don’t mind thin ice, but it can make this pastor incredibly apprehensive. Like a fast-drip IV of espresso, my heart flutters and my sleep is robbed when I venture out onto the thin ice. So… it’s just good for me to get this out and down on paper.
This thin ice walking stuff is how God wired me. Sometimes it’s right. Sometimes it’s wrong. But always, always… the motive and the hope I have for walking on thin ice is sincere.
This past Sunday, we got exactly what I was hoping for. Dancers, singers, and attendees from the comedy play showed up for church. I even saw a few performers on the steps praying during our decision time. Our diversity seemed increased.
Thin ice can be risky.
But thin ice can be powerful.
Jesus walked on thin ice with hookers, tax cheats, and various sinners. Religious people were completely uncomfortable with such thin ice shenanigans. However, after Jesus walked on thin ice, he would then walk on water to show folks He was God.
I hope God continues to enable me to walk on thin ice, and point messy people to the One who walks on water. Although hard and unnerving, it’s worth it every time.