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Mark Sandlin Headshot

Church Where the Sidewalk Ends

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There is an amazing dearth of imagination in the Christian Church when it comes to things "new." Which, frankly, is amazing. Well, in terms of recent history, maybe not so amazing. In terms of biblical text, however? Really, truly amazing.

We're talking about the God who doesn't just do a new thing but calls it first saying, "Look! I'm about to do a new thing" -- sort of a Divine version of Babe Ruth's called homer in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Yet, even the most imaginative and creative people in the Church seem to have a problem imagining and being creative in thinking about what church might look like if it doesn't look exactly like what church currently looks like. Like, you know?

The whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite children's books, "Where the Sidewalk Ends" by Shel Silverstein. In the poem of the same name, Silverstein encourages the reader to follow the "Chalk-white arrows" the children mark to "the place where the sidewalk ends." It's a place of imagination and limitless possibilities, a place outside the well defined boxes we expect to find on a sidewalk -- beyond the solid footing of the known and into the sometimes shifting sands of the unknown.

But we churches? We like what we like. And what we like is what we know. And what we know is what it's like right now. Like, you know? Don't confuse us with history and facts. Waters don't get muddied on our well-poured, concrete sidewalks to heaven. We won't let them. We insist.

As more and more people's lives move toward being more and more transient and they find the need to be more and more flexible, is it really any wonder that they also find institutions which highly value the status quo less and less relevant? It's part of why the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) are an ever increasing portion of our population.

By my observations and estimates, those of us in the Church sometimes lack the imagination of the God we worship to do something new. What we need is a Church where the sidewalk ends. The problem is, even our most imaginative and creative people can get stuck reveling in the cracked parts of the sidewalk. When we do, it is hard not to think our cracks are more formative and informative than the craters where the sidewalk ends -- mostly because it's really all we know.

Frankly, it's very a very human thing to do. Truthfully, there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Sadly, there are simply not nearly enough exceptions.

Two recent books demonstrate two different approaches to understanding life where the sidewalk ends rather clearly: Lillian Daniel's "When 'Spiritual But Not Religious' Is Not Enough" and Diana Butler Bass' "Christianity After Religion." Both authors are absolutely exceptional writers, both are Church folk who have been in the Church for their whole lives and both provide interesting insights about Church and the SBNR. The insights are starkly different when it comes to the SBNR.

In many ways, Daniel's book is two books. More precisely, it's a book with a couple of extra chapters added. The majority of the book is a look at how messy it is here on the sidewalk we call Church and how spiritual community in the midst of the mess is not only a brave thing to do, but a unique journey that can be found nowhere else. When it comes to life in Church, the book is on point, insightful and at times beautiful. For a book that is written with so much imagination and creativity, I'm more than a bit surprised at it's lack of imagination and creativity when it comes to understanding who the SBNR are and what they should mean to the Church.

That's where the couple of extra chapters are: standing on the sidewalk begin "bored" by the people where the sidewalk ends even though Daniel doesn't seem to have spent enough time with them to justify being bored by them. Even the picture she paints of them isn't particularly true of the majority of SBNR. It is, however, a not-so-surprisingly easy picture of which to be dismissive. And she is. In many ways the book is an apologetic that says things are messy on the inside of the Church, it's a good kind of messy.

If you live on the Church sidewalk and want to feel good about it while, at the same time, feeling challenged to improve and grow in the messiness of the sidewalk, then this is the book for you. If you are a SBNR person and you want to be reminded why you don't want anything to do with the Church then this is the book for you. If you are in the Church and want to understand the SBNR and figure out how to do ministry together, may I recommend Bass' book?

Bass' book is more about understanding, from both a contemporary and historical point of view, that the sidewalk is, indeed, ending. She is then bold enough to look at the messiness within the Church and suggest that it needs to change. Without doing the work for the reader, she gently pulls them toward imagining what life where the sidewalk ends might look like.

Church where the sidewalk ends. Church after Church ends (or, at least, after the way we currently practice it ends). For all of its messiness and the growth that can happen there, it is ultimately limited and insular when it stays on the sidewalk. True, we are called to be in the world but not of it -- but that still calls us to be decidedly in it. It is time for the institution of Church to once again live more fully into the image of its God who is continually doing a "new thing."

It's time for those of us in the Christian Church to exercise our imagination and boldly step off of the sidewalk.