Recently, a friend gave me a copy of a book by Sam Wells called Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. It’s way more interesting than its title suggests. And even though I’m only about a quarter of the way through it, it’s already given me lots to think about. I know it’s risky to quote from a book you haven’t finished yet. But I’m going to do it anyway, because in many ways I think Wells gets right at the kind of church — and the kind of disciples — I want us to be.
As a culture, Wells says, we like heroes. Heroes are people who are at the center of the story. They know how to get things done, and they do them in spectacular fashion, in the face of limited resources and with exceptional strength, smarts, or resolve. We love heroes, and secretly (or not so secretly), we’d all love to be one.
But the church is no place for heroes, Wells says. The church is a place for saints. On almost every count, the saint is the opposite of the hero. The saint isn’t at the center of his own story; instead, the saint plays a bit part in God’s story. The saint doesn’t rely on her exceptional abilities or scarce resources; the saint depends on the abundance of God’s strength and power. The saint doesn’t need to have great gifts or qualities; the saint needs to be faithful.
But for me, the kicker comes in the way Wells describes the reaction of the hero and of the saint to failure. Because a hero is self-dependent while a saint is God-dependent, “A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation.”
With this definition, being a saint can feel far scarier than being a hero. Letting people see our cracks, our failures, our brokenness is no easy thing. What if we’re mocked or rejected or just plain disapproved of? It’s a risk, for sure. But it’s worth it, Wells says. Because saints aren’t called to this kind of humility and transparency just for the sake of it; they’re called to it because it’s part of the way that God’s love, his grace, and his power are made visible to the world.
Do you get that? Our dependence and our need for God and for each other aren’t unfortunate byproducts of sin or hurdles that God has to get over. They’re part of God’s plan. They’re just the way he wants us to be.
It’s a simple idea, but it’s a radical one. It’s an idea I know that I wrestle with. I hope you will too. Because if we do, I think we’ll start to look more and more like the kind of community, the kind of church that Wells describes:
The story of God tells how he expects a response from his disciples that they cannot give on their own: they depend not only on him but on one another for resources that can sustain faithful lives, and they discover that their dependence on one another is not a handicap but is central to their witness.
It’s exactly the kind of church I want us to be.
(Both quotes from Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2004. p. 44)