The mainstream church needs feisty, determined, experimental communities

In 2017, in the lead up to International Women’s Day, sculptor Kristen Visbal installed a piece of guerrilla art on the pedestrian island right where Broadway splits at Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan. Her sculpture was titled Fearless Girl, a four-feet tall depiction of a defiant ten-year-old girl, her feet planted firmly on the ground, her hands on her hips, her head held high.

I refer to her as guerrilla art because, while the city of New York granted Visbal a 30-day permit for her sculpture, its position was contentious and only ever intended to be temporary.

That’s because Visbal positioned Fearless Girl right opposite one of the financial district’s most iconic tourist attractions, Charging Bull.

This huge bronze bull was sculpted by Arturo di Modica in 1989, and gifted to New York to be installed near Wall Street as a reminder to financiers, bankers, hedge fund managers and stock brokers that the US economy was a wild beast, and that their job was to limit the damage it could do to the poor and vulnerable.

Charging Bull is a symbol of muscularity, power, strength, unbridled energy.

That was until Fearless Girl came along.

The relationship between these two statues is an intriguing one. Fearless Girl is unquestionably enhanced by the presence of Charging Bull. Instead of facing up to some unseen foe, she’s staring down a wild beast! That’s some girl-power!

But it’s what Fearless Girl does to our perception of Charging Bull that is the intriguing part.

He is softened by her presence.

The oversized hooves that previously looked like they are pounding the earth in readiness to charge, now appear to have come to a screeching halt.

The lowered head, which once looked like it was preparing to gorge us, now appears to be cowering before a superior force.

In fact, when we view Charging Bull over the shoulder of Fearless Girl, he looks… friendlier?

The relationship between these two sculptures is a fascinating case study in art and perception, but more recently I’ve seen them as a metaphor for the church.

Many people view the church a bit like Charging Bull. They think of it as solid, unyielding, powerful, masculine. And potentially dangerous. They read stories about cover ups of child sexual assault by priests. They see evangelicals boast about delivering hardline conservative governments to power. They hear the Sydney Archbishop tell LGBTQ+ activists to “please leave” the Anglican Church, or John MacArthur tell Beth Moore to “go home”.

These days I think it’s fair to say the church isn’t perceived as either gentle or friendly.

But throughout its history, the church has given birth to small, experimental, hardy, little communities that have come out and stood as a counterpoint to the mainstream church. Like Fearless Girl to Charging Bull, they are made of the same stuff but they are more accessible, more gentle, more playful.

In the 1970s in my country of Australia, a number of alternative communities did just that. The House of the Gentle Bunyip (Melbourne), the House of the New World (Sydney), and the House of Freedom (Brisbane) were intentional Christian communities that sought to live out the radical lifestyle of Christ. The Gentle Bunyip took as one of their purposes to help other Christians to “escape from suburban bible-belt Christianity”.

Sure, these alternative communities were feisty. They were highly critical of what they saw as the domesticated faith of the mainstream churches. They demanded a return to the biblical tradition of resistance and defiance, and reminded us that there is more to life than conformist obedience or shameful accommodation.

By the 90s, there were others — Middle-Earth in northern Sydney and the Waiters’ Union in inner city Brisbane. These two experiments developed into networks of households with a common life, committed to serving the poor and disadvantaged.

By the 2000s, a plethora of experimental churches sprang up — South Melbourne Restoration Community, Cheers (Perth) and Glebe Cafe Church, the Plunge Service, and Small Boat Big Sea, all in Sydney.

And this didn’t just happen in Australia. In Auckland there was Cityside Church. In the UK there was Grace and Moot.

I think of these communities as “fearless girls” to the mainstream church’s “charging bull”. While their critique of the church might sting, their presence helps make the church appear friendlier.

I know this for a fact because for 15 years I was part of Small Boat Big Sea. I lost count of the number of times people told me that communities like ours filled them with hope that there was a different way to be church.

Recently, I wrote about the dinner church movement and the work of Fresh Expressions, and I’ve been inundated with messages from people telling me what a source of hope and new life these kinds of communities have been for them.

Mainstream church leaders are often highly critical of these experimental communities (no doubt because the new churches are so critical of them). But I’m convinced the charging bull churches need these feisty, determined, experimental fearless girls. Desperately.

Another way of looking at this is Pete Ward’s metaphor of liquid and solid church. In his thinking, the mainstream church is solid, centered as it is on a weekly congregational gathering, paid staff, property and tradition. But liquid churches are more like networks, households, hubs and connecting nodes. They are often lay-led and more nimble and creative.

The solid needs the liquid more than they realise. The solid mainstream church needs fluid, flexible ways of being church to flow around it, lifting it slightly, moving it forward.

However, the sad reality is that these communities often don’t last long. The House of the Gentle Bunyip ran for 15 years, the House of the New World for ten. The same for Middle-Earth and Glebe Cafe Church — ten years.

This week, Small Boat Big Sea closed after nearly 20 years.

But then again, Fearless Girl didn’t last long at Bowling Green either. The family of Arturo di Modica petitioned the city to relocate her because they believed her presence altered their father’s original vision for his work. Visbal’s sculpture was moved outside the New York Stock Exchange building.

And that’s maybe because they’re never meant to go on and on. If they did, they’d become as solid as the churches they’re standing in contradistinction to.

I was honored to be invited to speak at the closing gathering of Small Boat Big Sea. Many current and former members came from far and wide to acknowledge the good work we did and to mourn the end of such a creative and influential little community. We thanked God for guiding us and looking over us and using us for his glory.

We stood in an important line of succession, the very Aussie tradition of obstinate iconoclasm. But more than that, we tempered people’s view of the church, reminding some of them that not all Christians or all churches are charging bulls.

 

 

 

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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11 thoughts on “The mainstream church needs feisty, determined, experimental communities

  1. As a Darling St Church person, I love your reference to Plunge Church

  2. This is an especially inspiring and moving post Mike.

    1. Thanks Matt. You and Nadia were mentioned with love on Sunday, and you appeared in the final slideshow of the evening. So wished you could have been there.

  3. The three sister houses, New World, Freedom and Gentle Bunyip started in the mid 70’s rather than the 80’s. I lived in the Bunyip in ’76, the year after it started. Other two started before that. Freedom was still going (in a reduced form) when we returned from Bangladesh in 1991.

    1. Thanks, Neil. That was my mistake. I have corrected it.

  4. As a paid holy man in a trad church, I look at the freedom and lightness of these smaller, more creative expressions of our gathering as disciples and wonder why we can’t seem to duplicate that inside where we are? I need to be paid…my family needs to eat. You yourself Mike owe your living to people being trained to exist inside traditional churches (is a Baptist church a traditional church when looked at from the point of view of an Anglican Church?) I would give several teeth to get that same freedom and creativity from within the monolith.

  5. Another great post Mike! Sorry to hear SBBS has closed… we visited a few times from the Central Coast on our journey navigating our way out of institutional Christianity (a journey well and truly prompted by you and similar folk). Interestingly, we’re back at the same church we left when we started this jourmney… hopefully a little wiser than in our youth! We’re less idealistic but still critically minded and with a gentler and larger view of what’s important and what’s not.

    Thanks so much for the part you’ve played in re-shaping the vision of what’s possible.

  6. ps – I get the sense that as many refugees of institutional christianity (people like us) return to more established churches, many of these places will be altered from the inside out, or “fresh expressions” born in parallel to the established expressions. Perhaps soon the Lion will lie down with the Lamb (or the Charging Bull with the Fearless Girl)…

  7. Thank You Michael for yet again encouraging and challenging me albeit in the midst of educating and saddening my heart . As I write this I am looking at three pictures on my “thinking wall in my office : One of the Raging Wall Street Bull, One of the Fearless Girl and one of the Fearless Girl standing defiantly in the path of the Raging Bull who really does look less raging in her presence

  8. Robert, may I use this in an upcoming sermon I’m giving at our church? This is the exact juxtaposition I’m finding in my message from Matt. 21.

  9. This post was both eye-opening and inspiring! We are currently reflecting on and mourning the loss of our dissolved (but highly creative) “liquid church”. Thank You for helping put words to our thoughts and emotions regarding the past ten years of our life and ministry! You are a blessing to us and many others. Please keep assessing and pressing!

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