You remember the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” don’t you? Sent out by their mother to make their way in the world, they live in fear of the “Big Bad Wolf.”
Their first order of business is to build their houses.
Choosing the path of most convenience, the first two pigs constructed their homes from straw and sticks, respectively. They each met a grisly fate when their structures proved no match for the huff and puff of the wolf.
However, the third pig wisely chose to build with brick. Safe in his sturdy abode, the third pig learned from experience and eventually outwitted the wolf.
Several years ago, I read a fine piece by Max Case, a former Methodist campus minister in Indiana, who suggested that the shift from first- and second-pig thinking to third pig thinking is essential if we are to be successful as God’s Easter people.
Innovation, creativity, adaptability and an unswerving belief in resurrection is to mark God’s people.
It is easy for the 21st century church to fixate on our vulnerability.
What is your “Big Bad Wolf”? Is it a disinterested culture, a secular mindset, shifting demographics, an overbearing government or a cumbersome church bureaucracy?
First- and second-pig thinking sees our churches as victims. We believe we deserve better than we get; we are defensive and annoyed that our privileged place in society has been compromised.
When that spirit invades a congregation, the resulting adversarial approach to a surrounding community and culture begins to infect and destroy our witness.
While there are real and significant challenges to our survival as local congregations, what if we used the threats we face to teach us valuable lessons?
I went back and read the fairy tale and was reminded of how the third pig devised ingenious methods to confront and triumph over the Big Bad Wolf.
Once the wolf realized he could not blow the brick house down, he began a series of invitations designed to lure the pig out of the safety of his shelter.
Instead, with each invitation – whether to pick turnips or apples or go to the fair – the third pig learned from the wolf and outsmarted him.
Case suggested that “Third Pig Thinking” comes to see the “Big Bad Wolf” less as threat and more as teacher. In so doing, the third pig employs a radical shift in thinking.
He tries things that pigs do not normally do. He innovates and outsmarts his opponent. He takes risks that ensure his survival.
Seeing the wolf as our teacher means wise congregations will learn to adapt, innovate and become proactive in the ways we engage our world and our culture.
Rather than see culture and change as the enemy, we studiously begin to learn from them how to be relevant and to not only survive, but thrive in this new world.
Jesus led the way toward this kind of thinking. Every parable turns a preconceived notion of reality on its head to teach a new way of seeing and doing. “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”
Unclean is declared clean. The law regarding food or farming or worship or gender or class is supplanted by unrelenting love and grace. Rituals are replaced by relationships. Money is shown to be a poor replacement for meaning.
At every opportunity, Jesus is using the “Big Bad Wolf” of prevailing culture to teach a new way of abundant living.
Isn’t that the example Paul gives us as he moves out with the Good News message? The opposition and headwind serve as a foil for the movement of the Spirit.
Early in Acts (Acts 4-5) a series of encounters with opponents serves to propel the early church into unforeseen success as they use the opposition to their advantage.
Rather than drive them to huddle in fear, the challenges provoke them to greater faith and the startling awareness that suffering hardship and suffering for their faith was a worthy honor.
Compare that spirit to what characterizes far too many of our congregations. Facing a hostile culture, we angrily condemn the trends and tides of the day and find ourselves cowering in our buildings filled with anxiety and dread about our future.
Please understand: the huffing and puffing of 21st-century America is real, dangerous and substantial.
Thankfully, God’s Spirit is alive and well in his church. It is also blowing life and energy into tired and fearful congregations who choose to believe that we can have a dynamic future.
Such a future will emerge, as we are willing to practice creativity and thoughtful innovation under the Spirit’s guidance.
That kind of thinking can save a little pig, and it might just save your church.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.