I have learned to hate the phrase “think outside the box.”
It’s a great phrase, though. In fact, it’s the “go-to” expression of many in church leadership. I’ve heard it uttered at church conferences. I’ve heard it uttered in creative team meetings. It’s a real catchphrase among those trying to plant churches. I’ve probably said it a hundred times myself in the past 15 years as I’ve tried to do new, creative things.
The problem is, I don’t think people really know what it means anymore.
It’s supposed to mean to go outside of given norms and expectations to accomplish what it is you want to accomplish. Take risks no one has taken. Try ideas that no one has thought of. Get out of the “box” of your everyday thinking so that you can succeed in a way no one has.
Like I said, it’s a great phrase. But now it bothers me. Why? Because everyone uses it. At the risk of sounding paradoxical, the phrase itself is now “in the box” with everything else. It has been dumbed down.
Let me take a second to make sense of that statement.
When it comes to church and reaching people for Christ, there’s no denying that what we call “out-of-the box thinking” has allowed pastors and other ministers to do some amazing things. I have seen churches leverage new, creative ideas in the ways they’ve designed their services, their ministries, and even their facilities to reach people in creative ways. Thousands upon thousands have come to Christ because of their efforts. Their creativity has reshaped a lot of our expectations about what is possible at church.
But what was once creative and new and exciting has now become “normal” in many ways. I can remember how one contemporary church popping up in a community would rattle the nerves of the local established churches so much that it would get phone calls from people to complain about how they couldn’t be a “real” church because they were so different. Now, in the same areas, there are dozens of churches that do ministry nearly the same way. Even many of the traditional churches that once spurned such ideas have merged contemporary formats into their DNA. What was once new is no longer new. It is now the new normal. What was once outside the box is now in a new, larger box.
So why does this bother me (and why should you care)?
Let me make it a bit more clear. Take these two sentences which might be uttered by a person who attends a church:
Church 1: “I put on a coat and tie and worship at a traditional church that meets Sunday mornings at 11:00 in a sanctuary where we sing hymns and hear a sermon.”
Church 2: “I put on jeans and a t-shirt and attend a contemporary church that meets Sunday mornings at 11:00 in an auditorium where we sing praise songs and hear a message.”
To those inside church culture, the differences in these two sentences are the stuff of much debate and even conflict on “how” to do church over the years. The arguments are legendary. “You can’t use electric guitars in church because it sounds like rock music.” “You have to dress up for church to ‘put on your best’ for God.”
But the reality is that both churches – in spite of their differences of style, dress code, and pew or chair preferences – are really not that different. Just take away the the descriptors:
Church 1 and 2: “I put on (clothes) and (go) to a church that meets on Sunday mornings at 11:00 in a (room) where we sing (songs) and hear (a speaker speak).”
Both churches, in spite of their obvious differences, are still really just playing in the same sandbox – a box of Sunday services where people sing songs and listen to sermons.
Of course, singing is a vital part of worship. Sermons are one way the Bible can be taught. Coming together communally, whether in a traditional setting or a contemporary one, is a good thing.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we are truly thinking “outside the box” because we have learned how do creative lighting that matches our worship backgrounds while synced to a click track, or because we figured out how cover the latest pop song.
Sure, those things might be innovative within the box, but they still happen inside that Sunday morning box. It is a box mentality that assumes that the most effective way to change the world is to swing open our church doors on Sunday, dangle the bait of something creative or unique about OUR meeting time in front of people (and maybe even invite them with cool business cards or video promos), and hope that they are so wowed by our ingenuity that they either make a decision for Jesus or they like our “show” enough to come back.
WE NEED TO BREAK THE BOX.
I worry that 2000 years of our “innovations” may have actually put church INTO a box, rather than helping it break out of it. As effective as our efforts are (and they ARE effective for many people), I worry that we have become so accustomed to Sunday morning church that we do not see that church can and should be so much more than that – and become FAR more effective at spreading the Gospel than we ever thought possible.
Look at the description of the early church in Acts 2:42-46 (NLT).
The Believers Form a Community
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity.
Much of this can and does exist within the Sunday morning box (which is why we seldom question it). Devotion to teaching and fellowship and sharing meals (The Lord’s Supper)? Check. Miraculous signs and wonders (and an amazed crowd)? Check. Meeting in one place? Check.
Much of our “out of the box” thinking thrives in the first half of this passage. But here’s where the box breaks:
They “shared everything they had.” In our consumer-driven society, is it characteristic of people to want to share? Heck, even churches are hesitant to share their innovative resources (but, ironically, they will sell them).
“They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.” We have to admit that it’s difficult to embody this when our focus often shifts to something like a building campaign for a new facility with fancier seats and L.E.D. lighting.
They worshiped “each day.” In contrast, we treat Sundays like Super Bowl games we are getting ready for, then, once we are done, we spend our weekdays getting ready for the next one.
They met in homes and shared their meals. They knew how to exist as the body of Christ outside the walls of a building. They knew how to be a community. Yet, it is often too easy for us to want to shut people OUT of our lives with our privacy fences and our calendar schedules.
Therefore, as uncomfortable as the second half of this passage may make us, we cannot ignore it. Why? Because “each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.” (v. 47). Each day. EVERY day.
They refused to “have” church. They were determined to BE the church.
For them, this new life in Christ was not a religion. Though they met and gathered and worshiped and baptized, they were not bound to institutions and programs and specific gatherings. Church was not compartmentalized as a specific area of life (along with job, family, etc.). For them, their community and their faith was so raw and so exciting, it drove their everyday lives. They lived it. They breathed it. It was magnetic. People were drawn not merely to signs and wonders, but to this dynamic community of people whose lives were transforming inside and out.
So we need to break the box. There is nothing wrong with what makes our Sunday services and/or other programs unique and alluring to those we are trying to reach.
But to limit ourselves to those efforts – to remain in the box – is to deny ourselves the true power of the body of Christ at work in the world.