By Eddie Pipkin

I took this photo a few weeks ago at Clearwater Beach.  I’m really into sandcastles.  I’ve built hundreds (some even with my kids when they were younger).  The one in the picture is not distinctive in any way – it’s a nice effort by some nice folks on a spring break getaway.  What struck me as I took the picture was not the artistic or engineering virtue of this fortress of sand.  What struck me was the way the tide was coming in, and wave after wave, the castle was slowly sinking back into the beach without drama or complaint.  It was designed to be temporary.  Perfect for the afternoon, but not a project for the ages.  What struck me in the moment was how healthy it would be for us all to function with a little more sandcastle attitude.

One of the things that causes us angst as leaders is the tyranny of “permanence perspective.”  Perhaps it is our natural focus on the eternal, or perhaps it is the slow-moving, complexly layered structure of our decision making (in most local settings), but whatever it is, there is an existing presumption that anything we do that is successful will immediately and forthwith become a permanent feature in our constellation of offerings.  [This reality is not something we name as a goal, but it’s the reason we do things like announce the “First Annual Run for the Homeless 5K” – ‘first annual,’ of course, is not a thing, but there’s a presumption that once we put in all the work for the initial iteration of something, that something is going to stick around with us as a new and inviolable tradition.]

As we set about to design anything, our subconscious is carrying the burden of organizing programs and events that are inevitably destined to become a part of our permanent structure.  We can’t afford to take too many off-the-wall chances.  We are, by default, steered towards more conservative choices.

But what if we thought like a sandcastle.  What if we went into the planning/brainstorming process with the expressed intention that we are going to try out a variety of things that are, by definition, temporary.  What if we regularly employed this strategy, provoked our leadership teams to try this strategy, and communicated clearly to our congregations that we are embarking on this strategy.  It wouldn’t take long to build a culture that was far more flexible, experimental, fluid, and creative.

If you are an Excellence in Ministry Coaching blog nerd [and if such a person exists, please let me know, and I will have a t-shirt crafted for you pronto], you may note that I wrote a blog a while back that took an apparently opposite point of view when it promoted “legacy” thinking: focusing on what matters in the long term.  But are these ideas opposites after all?  Here’s a long quote from the legacy thinking blog:

As we think about the way we spend our ministry time, it’s worthwhile to think about whether we are investing ourselves in efforts that will pay dividends far down the road.  Obviously, a lot of our days are consumed with logistics and details, but are these logistics and details in the service of things that fade away or things that last?  Jesus showed the importance of investing in the future:

  • Jesus invested in building relationships.  Jesus left the logistical details of the ministry to others.  He practiced a wonderful kind of “slow leadership,” however, in which he spent time growing relationships with integrity and purpose.
  • Jesus invested in developing leaders.  This is a very specific kind of relationship building in which people are empowered to understand and utilize their gifts.  It is not enough for us to proclaim that “everyone is gifted by God” and “all parts of the body are important.”  We, as leaders, have to cultivate other leaders and turn them loose to do the work to which they are called.
  • Jesus invested in establishing bedrock, core principles and dreaming big dreams.  Again and again, in his interactions with all the people he encountered, Jesus communicated his vision and shared hope.
  • Jesus understood his community and invested himself in advancing that community.  This is perhaps the determining factor for the local church’s long-term impact.  Good preaching and good music are accessible from anywhere these days, but a uniquely local connection is specific and relevant.
  • Jesus was always focused on eternal goals.  Eternal goals can be reinforced by giving the proper perspective to the day-to-day details.  Dishes must be washed.  Meetings must be scheduled.  But any seemingly mundane task can enforce eternal principals if engaged with the right perspective and attitude.

If we are leading programs or studies or preaching or teaching, all of these normal functions should be tuned to serve higher, long-lasting goals.  It’s a question worth asking: is what I am doing (and how I am doing it) right now going to matter five or 10 years down the road?

I would argue that none of the principles espoused in the legacy blog are inconsistent with sandcastle theology.  In fact, they are arguably enhanced by them.  More leaders can have more opportunities to be empowered if there are more short-term, non-permanent projects happening.  Dramatically more community engagement is possible in this model.  Far more people can be engaged.  Because there can be a greater variety of kinds of things happening, different kinds of people will be part of that engagement.

When we talk about relationship building in our local churches, what we most often mean is getting people anchored in structures that are designed to bond them long-term.  Hopefully, these are healthy accountability structures, but that’s a crapshoot.  It’s interesting to think about how our impetus with regular visitors is to guide them relentlessly towards membership, a weighty, formal, permanent-sounding commitment.  [On a side note, a recent FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast made the point that this obsession with membership contrasted with no focus on membership is one of the differences between shrinking mainline denominations and growing non-denoms.]

To call it sandcastle theology is to acknowledge the peripatetic nature of Jesus’s ministry and the make-it-up-as-we-go vibe of the early church.  Jesus does not invest himself in setting up formalized systems, programs, or recurring events (“First Fridays with Jesus!”).  I love that word, peripatetic, which means he was on the move, investing himself in relationships with eternal impact, engaging ministry in the moment as he found it.  It is possible to be true to the core values of relational ministry and not get bogged down in structures and schedules.  The early church, fired up by a passionate infusion of the Holy Spirit, carried this vision forward, but in the New Testament letters, we begin to get a sense of the sausage making that will come to take up so much of the bandwidth of organized ministry.  For people called Methodists, so much of our identity and commitment to accountability is wrapped up in formalized structures.  Wesley’s whole process was bringing a rigorous routine to progress as a disciple.  Stability and predictability stealthily predominate as core values.

But imagine that we take a step back and think about sandcastle principles:

  • Maybe we should design more things to be temporary. If we try out a series of temporary things for a six-month period, we can evaluate those things at the end of the time frame and see which ones might be worth investing in more fully.  Our current pattern is to try something with a pre-determined bias that if it goes well (or even sorta well), we’ll be keeping it. This new approach gives us permission to try lots and lots of different things without the stress and baggage of worrying that they might be “just okay” or an outright swing-and-a-miss.
  • Maybe we should, therefore, get off the treadmill of “anything we ever do that is successful has to become a permanent fixture forever.”  This change in attitude allows us to escape the paralyzing fear of failure that keeps us from experimenting and taking risks.
  • Maybe we should recognize that if we train the people in our congregation to expect experimentation, “limited time only” programming, and one-off events, they will be much more willing to embrace change. They won’t be quite so caught up in defending every square inch of every time-honored tradition.
  • Maybe we can use this as a path to escape the prison of perfectionism. By the way, this perfectionism obsession isn’t limited only to event planning.  It is also reflected in things such as worship structure or discipleship curriculum.  If we have labored to define the “perfect” worship structure, then we’re locked into never changing it.  If we have defined the “perfect” discipleship curriculum, we then offer that same option for twenty years straight.  It doesn’t adapt, doesn’t shift in ways that might engage (or re-engage people) in fresh ways, doesn’t account for changing context.  Switching things up regularly – but in the safe space of “we’re just going to try this temporarily” – can lead to new insights and fresh perspectives.

By the way, this “temporary experiment” strategy isn’t limited to institutional implementation.  Once a culture of trying things for a season becomes a familiar part of a congregation’s DNA, it can be a part of the personal spiritual journey of individuals.  This is a powerful tool for sustained spiritual growth.  It frees people from the shackles of “one-size-fits-all” discipleship and empowers them to try on a lot of different approaches for prayer, Bible study, and service.  While many local churches offer people limited options for serving, studying the Scriptures, and growing in prayer (with a subtle but pervasive message that the one way they are showing folks how to do those things is the true and correct way, and real spiritual growth means doing it exactly that way with no variations), giving people a whole menu of options and encouraging them to ‘try something on to see if it fits’ empowers them to find their own groove.  And we all know that finding your own groove (in spiritual disciplines as in all things) is the path to sustained spiritual growth.

How about you and your congregation?  Is sandcastle theology something that could breathe new life into old, familiar ways of doing and being?  Do you regularly do things for a temporary season?  Do you have freedom to experiment, or are you bogged down in fossilized structures?  Are you reflexive and responsive or limited by your convoluted structures?  How could sandcastle theology help?