What is Church?:
Living in Creative Tension
Between What Is and What Could Be

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Reading: Acts: 15:1-19
Pastor Jeff Wells
July 2, 2017

It’s tense, it’s tense! That’s what the poem described for us. We humans are generally averse to tension. We try to relieve it, resolve it, avoid it, and deny it. As much as we try to “Keep Calm and love Jesus” or “Keep Calm and Resist Evil,” tension is a part of our daily existence and, in fact, is a built-in natural part of the whole created universe. So it is not a matter of whether there will be tension or not in our lives – it’s a given – the question is how will we live in it and how will be use it in positive ways.

Tension exists within us, in our relationships, our organizations, our communities, our nation, our world, and beyond. Katie enumerated many kinds of tension in her poem. I want to focus our attention this morning on a particular expression of tension. It is the tension that arises out of the gap between our current reality and our desire or vision. We have a natural inclination and motivation to resolve this tension.

If I take this stretchy therapy band and Imagine

This gap exists for each of us as individuals. Think for a moment about the boldest dream or vision you have or have ever had about your life – now compare that with your current reality. Do you feel the tension? And maybe frustration, anger, exasperation, or even sadness? Now expand that same idea to the level of a relationship you have with someone or to the tension that can exist in a community. It becomes a lot more complicated. Take, for example, this community of The Church of the Village. I think we could legitimately say that, generally, we are on the same page with our vision for the church. We even have a 5-Year Vision and Action Plan we agreed to two years ago as a guide for moving into our future. Yet, we were formed out of different backgrounds and experiences, we have different inclinations and priorities, anxieties and fears. If we sat in a room together and discussed our currently reality and our vision for COTV, we would not all see things exactly the same way. We could not think the same things were the most important. We would not all agree on how to move forward, even if we agreed on our dream. That creates tension. And it gets even more complicated when there is overt and strong disagreement and even serious conflict.

How do we live in the tension between what is and what we envision could be? One way we could deal with the tension is to limit our vision. That would reduce the gap and therefore reduce the tension, but it also reduces what we might attain. That is certainly a strategy we humans often adopt, because tension can be uncomfortable and even painful. The alternative is to change our current reality and move it closer to our vision or desire to reduce the tension in a more positive direction. So, let me outline one possible tension-reduction process. First, we try to be realistic and honest about our current reality. Second, we articulate our vision in as much details as possible. Third, with as much love, generosity, openness, and creativity as we can muster, we lay out the steps we think need to be taken to get to our envisioned future. Finally, we keep revisiting and re-adjusting all along way as we move toward our vision. This is a strategy for creative tension. Creative tension is a process or structure for promoting creativity and change to resolve the tension between what is and what could be.

I am convinced that is what God desires of us. God desires that we use the tension to grow and use tension in creative ways to promote good outcomes. God knows that we live in the tension all the time – and God lives in it too. God is in every moment and every event in all of creation and so God is in our tension, too – not just as observer, but as inspirer, guide, partner, collaborator, and co-creator. And in our struggle with the tension, God always approaches us with an attitude of immense love, compassion, and forgiveness. God is literally a co-creative force in our creativity, in our expressions of love, in our dancing, praying, music making, justice seeking, and community building.    

Creative tension is a popular concept in organizational theory. Google it and you will find dozens of books and essays that talk about it. We are in the middle of a worship series reflecting on the question, “What Is Church?” How does the concept of “creative tension” help us answer that question? Well, we might answer by saying church can be or ought to be a space where we live together in the creative tension between our current reality and our desired vision. We might say that our vision is for a progressive, radically-inclusive, anti-racist, community committed to a more loving and just future. And somewhat more mundanely, we might agree that we want a community that is spiritually, interpersonally, and financially healthy and thriving. What makes our living in the tension as church different from the way it is practiced in a commercial enterprise, corporation, or a secular non-profit is that we believe that God is in the midst of our creative tension, our discernment, our decisions, our reflection, even our conflict. We consciously and intentionally try to collaborate with God in using the tension creatively and for good. Moreover, we have core values and an ethos for living and being together that encourage us to strive for a common spirit of love, grace, compassion, and forgiveness toward one another.

What can we learn from the early church and the example of the Council of Jerusalem? What a time of great tension within the church! They were reaching out and bringing in new people, they were excited to share with others their experience of God in Jesus the Messiah. But some were hesitant, too, some felt the need to erect barriers to admission to the new Jesus movement. Remember, all of the early leaders were Jews, steeped in the tradition that they were God’s chosen people – they needed to follow the religious rules and keep themselves pure and separated from Gentiles. So a dispute arose about circumcision in particular, but about the rules of purity and separation more broadly. Paul and Barnabas, inspired by the Spirit of God, had a vision that God’s love and grace should include all the nations. And they didn’t wait for a council to tell them it was OK. They just started baptizing and welcoming people into the church. That created a lot of conflict and tension. The leaders who wanted to stick with the old ways said, “Being a Gentile is incompatible with our traditional teaching.” Some were slightly more open, and said, “Perhaps some Gentiles could be admitted, but only if they are willing to stop sinning and become Jews.” Others said, “Well, I sympathize with you, but it’s against The Book of Discipline… I mean the Book of the Law, so you’ve just got to wait until the whole movement decides to change the rule.” Fortunately, a majority of the leadership were open to seeing that God was doing a new thing – that, through them, God was building a new way. Imagine what would come of the fledgling Christian Church if the vote had gone the other way. It would surely have been a huge set back. It might even have split the movement.   

I have to point out that all of the persons on the Council of Jerusalem were men and they were all Jews, so just like in our own denomination, the leaders talked about and made decisions about Gentiles rather than being in conversation and dialogue with them. Still, they worked with the tension to come to a creative resolution that helped to move the church forward.

I want to share a personal and unplanned experience of addressing tension. I want to be clear that I don’t tell this story to judge the church or the individuals involved, but as a positive example of creative tension. In 2009, in the church I was serving at the time, a group of fifteen members signed a letter containing a list of concerns, complaints, and grievances. Some had specific concerns while others just seemed uncomfortable with or even opposed to the direction the congregation was going. This letter and what was behind it immediately changed our current reality and increase our tension in a big way. This felt like a dangerous situation. It could have developed into a big fight with opposing factions. But the core leadership of the church looked at the situation and thought creatively about how to respond. Instead of a counteroffensive, we decided that a lay leader, a member of the Staff-Parish Relations committee or the pastor would meet with every person who signed, listen to their concerns, and try to find a ways to address them. Only two persons refused to meet with us. We learned so much in that process. We could have stopped there, but we saw this as an bigger opportunity. Retreat focused on engaging conflict and disagreement in healthy ways. Nearly every person who signed ultimately contributed in significant ways to moving the vision forward and the whole experience made the leadership and the congregation as a whole much stronger.

Our nation is in the midst of struggling mightily with the tension between our current reality and what many believe the U.S. could be and should be. We cannot predict the outcome, but we know that many people are working creatively with the tension to move toward the dream of a loving and justice nation. The United Methodist Church as a denomination is experiencing its own “Council of Jerusalem” moment as we grapple with the issue of exclusion or inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual persons. We feel a huge gap between our current reality as a denomination and our vision of a loving and just church. But Methodists in New Directions, and others, and individual congregations and church leaders have been using the tension creatively to move toward our vision. And in our own community of the Church of the Village, we are trying to live in the tension between what is and what we think the Church of the Village could be. And we are trying to do it with a lot of love, care, thoughtfulness, nimbleness, flexibility, and listening to one another.

It’s not always easy or comfortable. But it is worth the effort. Conflict and tension hold within themselves the possibility of blessing and of new outcomes not previously envisioned. To practice “creative tension” requires an openness to the Spirit of God, a clear vision, a willingness to listen, and the ability to compromise. Also, let’s be clear there is never a “final” Jerusalem Council that decides everything perfectly and for all time. There is always tension. There is alway the need to live with it and work with it creatively. So, don’t run away from the tension – embrace it! Learn and grow from it. Lean into it and learn to use it creatively, engaged with God and in community with others.  

We can live creatively in the tension within ourselves, in our relationships, within our community, and in the United Methodist Church and beyond. With God in our midst, in our moments, in our current reality and in our desired vision, we are building a new way.  

God is building a new way (3x)
Sending love and power our way
God is building a new way

We are building a new way (3x)
Feeling stronger every day
We are building a new way

With God we’re building a new way (3x)
Creating our vision day by day
With God we’re building a new way.