What do you do when the world you’ve known begins to unravel?
A close friend of mine has said to me several times, “It might feel like things are unraveling, but at least we know who holds the string.”
The first time I heard it, I didn’t understand what he was trying to say. I knew he was bringing comfort to churches and leaders who feel like their ministries, churches and worlds were falling apart around them.
Yet, I didn’t fully grasp the implications of his statement until I thought about it in another way.
My wife is an excellent crafter whose greatest gift lies in knitting. By working with yarn and needles, she is able to create just about anything to which she sets her mind.
However, there are moments in some of her projects that things don’t look quite right and she has a couple options.
The first is to “frog” the whole project by pulling on the end of the string until she is back to the casting-on point.
The second option is to “tear back” to a spot where the stitches are correct and move on from there.
There is a strange third option as well. Sometimes she really likes a particular yarn for its color or texture that she had previously fashioned into a scarf or bag. Then one day she decides, “I think I want that to be socks!”
When this happens, she finds the end, unravels the existing completed project that has served its purpose, sometimes even for years, and begins to turn it into something completely new.
This reminded me of Jeremiah 18:4-7, which states, “The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”
“Then the word of the Lord came to me,” Jeremiah continued, “‘Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord. ‘Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.'”
This verse speaks about a different medium than knitting, but the same principals apply.
The image Jeremiah uses reveals that, as with my wife’s knitting, the project can be “frogged,” “torn back” or repurposed.
My favorite image is that of taking something that has already served a wonderful purpose and reworking it into something completely new with the same yarn or clay.
This offers a hopeful metaphor for the local church, which currently stands at a crossroads, of sorts.
We are in the midst of a significant shift, and sometimes it feels like the world is unraveling.
Christian churches across North America have served a great purpose and function in a particular model for the past 50 to 75 years. Over the past few decades, that world is unraveling.
The world of mega-churches, “attractional” worship events, large conferences, denominationalism, CEO-style pastors, rule makers, boundary setters and institutional loyalty is becoming less influential.
But there is the hope that, much like the clay and the yarn, the local church is going to be used for a new thing.
The church will go on, God’s people will still be the church, but we will most likely look different.
We will be reworked into another vessel that seems good to God for fulfilling God’s purposes in the world.
To continue the metaphor, we had a good run as scarves, now God is making us into something new.
It will be painful and slow because we were really good at being “scarves,” and our programs, buildings and structures are designed to lead “scarf people.”
But it is time to allow this world to unravel and become something new.
It is still not clear what God is making us into just yet. Identifying and learning from trends in local church life, as EthicsDaily.com shared recently, is an important tool in discerning God’s design for us.
I think it might have something to do with “missional church” concepts, asset- or gift-based ministry, listening to others more attentively and a return to parish ministry images.
But I could be wrong, as crossroads rarely reveal the road ahead, but rather disclose options for new destinations.
We are in a place of adaptive challenges that require new skills for new issues. The key will be to love God and love others while retaining strong theological centers founded on Scripture and soft edges.
Throughout, we should remember the words of my friend, “The world we were familiar with might be unraveling, but at least we know who holds the string.”
Perhaps God is the one pulling on the string to cause the unraveling so he can make something new with the same yarn.
Greg Mamula is an ordained American Baptist minister and serves as the associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of Nebraska. He blogs at Shaped By The Story, where a version of this article first appeared. You can follow him on Twitter @GregMamula.