I sat in the audience mesmerized, listening to the speaker intently.
About halfway through his talk, I began wondering if I had to walk a mile in his shoes, would I have persevered? Would I have stuck with it, resulting in the opportunity to share an incredible testimony?
I had the privilege recently to spend an evening listening to some of the brightest and most innovative people of our generation at the “TEDxKC 2013: Defy Impossible” event. One of the speakers, Phil Hansen, stood out above all the rest for me.
Hansen shared that he had decided to become an artist, but after entering art school he developed a permanent shake in his hand. He could no longer draw a straight line, and for a while he gave up art.
Yet he couldn’t stay away from his passion, so he went to a neurologist for help. Unfortunately, he discovered that there was permanent nerve damage in his hand. His neurologist challenged him to accept his physical handicap, urging him to “embrace the shake.”
Hansen found a new way to create art by using smaller, squiggly lines to create larger drawings. He also expanded his artistic endeavors to larger paintings using his feet and to building artistic structures.
“I went from having a single approach to art to an approach to creativity that completely changed my artistic horizons,” Hansen reflected. “This was the first time I had encountered the idea that embracing a limitation could actually drive creativity.”
For him, “the box” – his incurable nerve damage – was a necessity for his creativity to flourish. He had to accept his physical limitation, which led him to find ways to create art that he had never previously considered.
“What I thought would be the ultimate limitation actually turned out to be the ultimate liberation,” Hansen concluded.
I believe that Hansen’s response to his limitations holds an important lesson for the church. For a while now, the conventional wisdom for the church is that we have to “think outside the box” to solve our perceived limitations.
Shrinking attendance in worship services has led to shrinking budgets. This, combined with a loss of status in our culture, has many sounding the alarms. Is this not the reason so much has been made of the millennial generation leaving the church?
Yet Hansen’s reflection has led me to believe that instead of “thinking outside the box,” the church might need to get inside of it. In fact, as Hansen commented, we can “become more creative by actually looking for limitations.”
I wonder if local churches need to embrace the reality of smaller budgets, lower attendance numbers, other activities competing with worship on Sunday morning and the need to re-evaluate our communities in reaching out to younger generations?
Could acknowledging a shrinking volunteer base force us to make tough, but healthy decisions about the programs and visions that really matter? Could it be that we begin to focus on improving the quality, rather than the quantity, of what our churches have to offer?
This wrestling inside the box is nothing new, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with what the church should look like in his book, “Life Together.”
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.”
Sometimes, I think that when we try and think outside of the box, we fall into the trap Bonhoeffer noted, in which we begin to resent our churches and congregants simply because they do not live up to unhealthy ideals and expectations.
This temptation is the same for people who never settle into a church because their idealistic expectations of the perfect church are impossible to reach.
We dream of the larger budgets of the past, but could shrinking budgets be an invitation to renew our trust in God’s faithfulness to provide provisions for the church? Perhaps we should seek to learn from the Israelites experience of having to trust God by only taking the manna necessary for that day (see Exodus 16).
Yes, many churches are more limited than they were in years’ past. But maybe when we begin to actually embrace our limitations rather than sulk over them, we might discover beautiful ways to minister that we would have never imagined were possible.
Perhaps we will discover new ways of creating deeper communities of God’s grace that are committed to living life together in all our imperfections.
Seth M. Vopat is the associate pastor of youth and family at Louisburg First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kan., and a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @svopat.