“The Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World.”
That is the Sixth Great End of the Presbyterian Church. I am not sure exactly what the kingdom of heaven looks like although I have attempted to preach into that theme for over thirty years. But I have a pretty clear sense of what an exhibition is.
Google tells me that an exhibition is a display or a demonstration. Honestly, the word caught me by surprise a little. I have focused on the “kingdom of heaven” part of this phrase for years assuming that the phrase was pointing to the subject of our preaching and the character of our community. But I completely missed the fact that exhibitions, displays and demonstrations are activities that are done for the benefit of others.
It feels almost seems like a conflict in character. Much of religious teaching focuses on the need for humility in character and not doing things for show. Christians often frown on behaviors that are exhibitionist in quality attracting attention just for the sake of being seen. Yet, here in our Sixth Great End the action part of the phrase invites us to become an exhibition to the world, to display our Christian character so that others will see it and to demonstrate what the kingdom of heaven looks like.
It got me thinking about demonstration projects and the nature of church in this time. I wondered if this Sixth Great End was just thing that we all need to hear. I wondered if this one word might break through the paralysis that haunts so many of our churches who feel frozen by the annual announcements of church decline.
I wonder if we all need to start thinking about ourselves as demonstration projects. You know what I mean? Demonstration projects are experimental projects where specific ideas, approaches and methods are played out for the purpose of seeing what we can learn from them. I have seen a number of environmental demonstration projects and I enjoy meandering through them reading the signs that describe the philosophy and tell me what I am seeing. I like that they are invitations to think differently and, potentially, act differently.
Before the pandemic we in the presbytery started using the two phrases “innovation lab” and “innovation playground” to guide the vision of the presbytery to its future. The whole idea was to loosen the presbytery up for creativity, experimentation, and a playfulness that would release us from the ongoing seriousness, worry and anxiety that has weighed us down in recent years.
Of course, that was all before the pandemic. My mood changed and the presbytery mood changed after that. Encouraging a light-hearted playfulness in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, political turmoil, social unrest, and natural disasters was irresponsible at best, cruel at worst.
But the intention of that playful experimentation is exactly what this Sixth Great End is about. Not only are we supposed to be embodying the kingdom of heaven, we are to be doing it as a demonstration to the world. And demonstration projects take a commitment to creativity, experimentation and a playful openness.
- They require us to take our best ideals and find new and innovative ways to live those ideals out.
- They require us to lay the usual conventions aside in favor of unconventional, re-imagined approaches that align with our values.
- They require us to worry less about whether people will like us and more about whether people will learn something from us.
I like the idea of thinking of our Christian communities as demonstration projects.
Good demonstration projects don’t get bigger; they just get copied.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades