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Playing Small

January 25, 2004

Ian Lawton


When we started our e-zine about two years ago, some people raised some questions about it. The title, SMACA, seemed a little aggressive. The articles were expressing very definite opinions.


Evangelicals were offended by some of the opinions expressed. Liberals were offended that opinions were expressed. Just when the liberals thought they could claim SMACA as their own, out came the article about sacred music, and then SMACA had passed into 'sacred' territory so to speak. It had offended one of the great liberal Anglican maxims; hold any opinions you want, just don't mess with the liturgy, don't challenge tradition and certainly don't tinker with church music.


So the accusation came in that SMACA was not loyal to the liberal ideal of unity, where nothing should be too extravagant or forceful lest someone be upset.


None of this worried me too much. After all, if the church has only an evangelical edge which has no compassion, and a liberal centre which has no passion, it has no hope. As Spong says, the church may die of boredom, but it will never die of controversy. And so SMACA is part of what seems to be catching on around the world now; a movement called Progressive Christianity which serves to distance itself from both evangelical and liberal branches.


It may be offensive to some, and yet it might just give the Church a future. The truth be known; the Church needs extravagance and controversy, passion and purpose. It brings to mind Jesus fishing with his disciples. They needed fish, and weren't having any luck so Jesus gave them so many fish the boat nearly capsized. That's not a very liberal solution to a problem.


The Church for too long has played small, hoping that no-one would notice that fewer people need it the way they used to, hoping that no-one would ask the questions which might threaten unity; questions about hierarchy and structure, questions about the nature of God and personal responsibility.


The Church is afraid, like Peter was afraid, so it plays small like Peter played small. The big question of our local church - in an extravagant and definitive building with a passionate and purposeful past - is whether St Matthew-in-the-City is going to play small, or is it going to stand up and be counted as cutting edge, even when that edge leaves it at odds with the institution, even when it must threaten unity in the interests of vision.


This is uncomfortable because it involves competition. The Progressive Church has to compete with the Evangelical Church for the imagination of the community. At the moment, the Evangelical Church, with its often short lived conversion fever and piety, with its Alpha Courses and charismatic meetings, is winning the race and the Liberal Church is not seen nor heard.


The Progressive Church has to have the guile, the strategy and the energy of the Evangelical Church, but the openness and empowerment of a liberal ideal.


We tend to baulk at the notion of competition, especially in a place like New Zealand, with its famous tall poppy syndrome (TPS).


I read this comment by Sir James Fletcher, which shows up well the tall poppy trend of this country. The 85-year-old patriarch of Fletcher Challenge, which was NZ's largest company till mid-1999 when it was broken into four separate businesses, says business in New Zealand is limited by the country's TPS: "I had two prime ministers tell me to my face that Fletcher Holdings had grown big enough. There was very much a tall-poppy syndrome in business, that you were not encouraged to grow because of fear of dominance and lack of competition. That's still around today." (NZPA, 2000). Tall Poppy Syndrome suggests that its only possible for one person to grow if another shrinks. To protect the group, the system, the achiever must be brought back to size.


So, my hope is that ideas such as SMACA will keep flowing out of St Matthew-in-the-City and that it wont get caught up in the liberal church form of tall poppy syndrome. One of the very pleasing comments I get about SMACA comes from people who never go to church worship, feel no need for church worship and may never get to church worship in the future. Some are Spong's exiles, the "church alumni association" and some are quite happy and the church has never played a role. The feedback to us is that some weeks issues are raised which touch their humanity,  questions their meaning of life. When I get that feedback I know that the hard work is worth it, and I know that the church can still have a boat full of fish. It just might not look the way we expect.


Today's gospel story offers us a psychological profile of Peter. In other places we see him ducking for cover when trouble is near, and urging Jesus to do the same. He is uncomfortable with conflict and now we can add to this tendency the quality of playing small. When confronted by extravagance and greatness, by the charismatic figure of Jesus who refused to ever accept the word 'can't', Peter's language here betrayed him. "Get away from me," he said, "For I am a sinful man." In the face of extravagance, his reaction was to want to hide and moan. That reminds me a little of the Primates of our Church, when faced with the enormous opportunity of affirming human sexuality in its diversity, they played small and opted instead for their own version of unity.


The Corinthians reading has a classic outburst of false humility, the likes of which we see often in churches when people abrogate responsibility to an external God. Peter declares himself to be least of all apostles, not even fit to be an apostle. He then declares that he is what he is, as if pleading for the Corinthian church's acceptance and respect.


Progressive Christians will feel so secure, so empowered by their belief in a God who is within, between and beyond that there will be no external God to appease, and no kowtowing to a central hierarchy. Free from the need to compare and prove themselves, people of different faiths and lifestyles will hold no threat to progressive Christians.


Surely our aim is to be able to inwardly declare, "I am what I am," allowing ourselves the freedom to keep changing and growing, while our essential humanity remains what it is. It can't be rocked or shaken by other people's criticisms.


The call is for boats overflowing with fish, lives lived with an abundance of balanced self belief and power. We have an opportunity as we move more towards a self empowering subject God to stop playing small.


I read a book which outlines the way people play small in job interviews. I was quite taken by it, as it seems to relate to all situations.


Ten Ways People Play Small


Step 1 - Do What They're Good At Rather Than What They Are Gifted At

Step 2 - Hold A Limiting View of Themselves

Step 3 - Stay In Their Comfort Zones

Step 4 - Embrace Perfectionism

Step 5 - Not Realize They're Playing Small

Step 6 - Create Too Much Drama

Step 7 - Overanalyze Problems

Step 8 - Concentrate on Money Rather Than Passion

Step 9 - Question Their Qualifications

Step 10 - Focus On "Shoulds"


Ten Ways To Stop Playing Small


Step 1 - Tap Into a Time When You Have Embraced Your Greatness

Step 2 - Live Each Day Without Limitations

Step 3 - Bring Positives Into Your Life to Reinforce Greatness

Step 4 - Follow Your Passions

Step 5 - Cultivate Your Intuition

Step 6 - Have A Vision Of Where You Want To Go

Step 7 - Cultivate Your Curiosities

Step 8 - Have A Good Sense Of Who You Are

Step 9 - Find Ways People Have Done Things Unconventionally

Step 10 - Notice Each Day What You Enjoy


I would like to declare Peter the patron saint of the small playing liberal church. If John was the evangelist, with his carefully reasoned apologetics, and if Paul was the patron saint of the evangelical with his carefully reasoned chauvinism and homophobia, then Peter is the patron saint of the liberal with his self-effacing fear and avoidance of conflict.


As a member of the new progressive movement, I would like to say to Peter, as Jesus did when Peter tried to convince him to give up the vision in the interests of unity, "Get behind me Satan!" For with such indifference the church will surely fade into oblivion.


To give him his due, Peter did improve, and the Acts stories have Peter showing a lot more courage and focus. But the Peter of the gospels inspires little hope for the current church.


If all that sounds arrogant and extravagant, so be it. If it is arrogant, then I have a problem. If it sounds arrogant, because it is uncomfortable, then so be it. There are too many fish out there, with hearts and souls which long for the message of self-empowerment and self-assurance and life filled with meaning for us to play small. If we're going fishing, we might as well fill the boat to overflowing.

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