As I sit in the mandatory 14-day quarantine with my COVID stricken family, I’ve had some time for reflection on the past year and what I see coming on the horizon.
Unfortunately, my wife and children have suffered the worst of the symptoms. My COVID test was negative, even though we’ve been in the same house, breathing the same air, and eating at the same table. According to our doctor this means either: A. My test results were false, or B. I already had the virus before and have built immunity. Early in 2019 when traveling through Israel and multiple states in the US, I became sick with a strange and powerful flu. No one had heard the name “COVID-19” back then.
Nevertheless, this has not been exactly a restful time, as playing nanny, and keeping up with digital engagements at a minimal level have been all consuming.
I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve yet to have a Sunday off since the onset of the pandemic. What I have realized for sure is that a time of rest is in my near future.
One of the realizations that I’ve come to, sitting in the COVID cloud in my home, is that I have never experienced a more discouraging year in ministry, and there have been some real doozies.
As someone who tries to be a missional innovator, one of the hardest moments is when you spend a lot of time and effort trying to create something…
and no one shows up.
This is a statement that resonates with many Christian leaders I’ve worked with this year.
It’s not uncharted territory for me.
The first ten years of my life were a time of semi-normality and safety. Like many children born in the crack epidemic of the 1980’s, I was abandoned by my biological mother at birth, my biological father was unknown up until a couple months ago. I was adopted by my grandparents. But my grandfather died when I was ten. This sent me into a downward spiral of crime, addiction, and juvenile incarceration.
I was your run of the mill innovator those first ten years. I remember having a little copper piggy bank with one leg missing. I was focused on filling that thing with coins and cash. I did the normal stuff, mowing lawns, lemonade stands, catching caterpillars, and picking up pecans for my grandpa. I made my own version of handwritten graphic novels on big sheets of paper folded over and stapled at the seam. I put on shows, comedy, dance, acting, all that. I created menus for a back porch café (my grandmother was my only customer).
I spent a lot of time by myself, in a sense using my imagination to reshape the reality of my abandonment and isolation. The neighborhood boys used the hill in the front of our house as a bike ramp. They would subversively come flying by, hit the hill, fly into the air, and haul tail down the road, as my grandpa ran cursing after them.
One year, I was probably eight or nine, I decided I would turn my backyard into a theme park. In a previous life, grandpa had his own home décor and yard ornament business back in NYC. He was the kind of man who could build anything. He built a small home with his bare hands in our backyard for my great-grandmother to live in. We called it the bungalow.
The back yard was a veritable treasure trove of old tools, supplies, and building materials of various kinds. I began the normal process of innovation, rearranging those materials in new and creative ways. I turned my monkey bars into a kind of monorail system, a wheelbarrow rollercoaster, stacks of milk crates became a climbable tower, ropes crisscrossed the air between trees as a kind of zipline system. Those were some of the key attractions.
After weeks of mapping out the space, designing the rides, and creating a kind of flow that I would serve as a tour guide through, I hand drew some fliers. I went down to the homes where a couple of neighborhood kids lived and invited them to come check out my park which would open Saturday at 9am. The cost was only a dollar, much more reasonable than Disney World or Bush Gardens! Some kids I handed the fliers directly and others I left on their front doors.
The big day came, and I dressed up like Indian Jones, ready to host the crowds of neighborhood customers through the park, fully in character of course. My dog Rambo would be my assistant.
The day passed by slowly and not a single person came. Finally, I resorted to leading my stuffed animals through the adventure, along with Rambo, who seemed to enjoy it very much.
I can remember the sense of rejection and failure associated with that day. I imagine it probably added to my sense of not-enoughness, being a child no one really wanted.
I wish I could go back to that little boy and hold him in my arms. Tell him how amazing he was. Tell him he was God’s beloved. I imagine I would pay the dollar and experience his park as well.
This experience perhaps prepared me for these pandemic times. I continue to create theme parks with my imagination, now in the form of books, sermons, trainings, PowerPoint slides, and new Christian communities. However, I’ve given up the heroic-solo leader bit these days.
My team and I have spent thousands of hours, planning to take people through an experience, designing worship, and creating graceful forums in digital space where people can encounter God. We’ve learned to take existing technologies, and reassemble in new creative ways that glorify God.
Much like that Saturday, most of the people who we invited never show. But when I look back into the eyes of my eight-year-old little self, I see a spark of creativity that the world could not snuff out. I remember the joy of just creating, designing, dreaming, and putting old things together in new configurations. Perhaps at no time in my life was I more connected to my creator, co-creating with him in the seeming isolation of my childhood.
I was created to do that, I enjoy it, and even when no one shows, the work is still good, beautiful, and true. And while the people who were invited may not show, the stuffed animals sure had a great time.
Today, again, people are starting to show up. Not the ones we planned for, but many others, those “outside the camp” if you will (visit the Living Room Church here).
My colleague Rosario Picardo and I have written a whole book about how to do this, releasing this week: “Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age.”
Perhaps building something and no one showing up is the way of ministry. Yet it’s the joy of creativity that must be recovered in this work. Even when no one shows up, we can have fun with Jesus.
Some voice deep inside keeps telling me if I just keep going, just keep creating, just keep having fun with Jesus that there is something wonderful on the other side of all this.
If you’ve been building things throughout the pandemic, and the people you created them for are not showing up, know that you are not alone. Be encouraged, God is with you.