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.