Allowing Good Things to Run Wild
By Dana Robert Hicks
Worshipping a God that is open, changing, relational, influential, and empowering inspires us to create space to allow good things to run wild.
“And the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
— G.K. Chesterton
I don’t remember much from my Introduction to Sociology class with Dr. Stellway 30 years ago, but he made a comment that stuck with me— “Sociologically speaking, a conservative is someone who has something to conserve.” People who benefit from the status quo do not usually want the status quo to change.
While true in a political sense, this observation is also accurate when it comes to theology. Those who hold God as unchanging, immutable, and all-powerful tend toward a theology that is static and fixed. Some people are even willing to use coercive power to ensure the status quo. Rousseau, Mark Twain, and Voltaire have observed that God created people in God’s own image and people returned the favor. When people don’t want things to change, their god also tends to be unchanging.
But God’s love is uncontrolling, influencing, empowering, and never coercive. Consequently, the most basic definition of healthy leadership is “influence.” Great leaders lead through influence, not by control or coercion. Usually the people who make the deepest and most positive impact do not hold the titles of power; rather, it is those who operate from a moral authority and create change through influence. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu, and Malala Yousafzai are all examples of people who had no formal position of power, yet wielded incredible influence.
Leaders who lead with moral authority and influence change the course of human history. Leaders who lead with power, fear, and control are at worst despots and at best control behaviors through fear of punishment. Henri Nouwen observed, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
Jesus is the ultimate example of a leader with no formal position who changed the course of human history. He never wrote a book, never commanded an army, never held a political office, never wielded power of any kind, was never on TV, and did not even have his own website. Yet no person has had a greater influence on the trajectory of Western Civilization than Jesus has.
Jesus did not come to start an institution or a religion; he came to start a movement. Movements are going somewhere and have end goals. For Jesus, that somewhere was what he called The Kingdom of God—a topic he talked about more than any other subject. The Kingdom of God is a place where everything is exactly the way God wants it to be: a place where nobody is marginalized or left out. It is a way of life in which love and not power is the currency. It is a place where good things have the room to run wild.
The early followers of Jesus were not initially known as “Christians,” nor did they claim to be starting a new institution or a new religion. They were simply called “Followers of the Way” (Acts 22:4). They were part of a movement that had no power, no money, no military, and no clout in the Roman Empire in which they lived. Yet within 300 years, they had re-ordered the entire culture of the Roman Empire by following this “Way” of Jesus. As a matter of historical record: The Jesus movement transformed the way the Roman Empire viewed women, children, minorities, the sick, and the marginalized.
Every movement follows a predictable pattern. Movements begin as de-centralized, small, and not very organized. They are usually just a handful of passionate people who believe in a great vision for the future. As the movement grows, gains ground, and things begin to change for the better, someone in the movement observes, “We have put a lot of effort into this movement. We need to find a way to preserve the gains of the past for future generations.” It is at that moment that a movement starts to become an institution. Somebody must be a steward of the assets and resources—to make sure the staff has health insurance and that all the correct forms are filed with the IRS.
This isn’t all bad. Movements and institutions should have a symbiotic relationship: movements progress; institutions preserve the gains of the past. Movements create culture; institutions preserve culture. Almost every great institution in our world finds its roots as a radical movement. This is why the old joke rings so true: “A conservative is someone who worships a dead progressive.”
Institutions are not bad, but when we confuse the institution for the movement, we can trick ourselves into thinking we are serving the movement when we are actually only propping up nostalgia from the past in the form of an institution, or thinking that managing the organization is the same thing as being the church. Brian McLaren once observed:
One of our most common temptations is to turn the way into a place, to turn the adventure into a status, to trade the runway for the hangar, to turn the holy path into a sitting room—even if we call it a sanctuary. When the movement becomes an institution, those whose hearts call them to pilgrimage get restless.
Christianity represents its founder best when it is a movement. When the Jesus movement was “The Way,” it changed the world. When it became “Christianity,” it relinquished most of its power to the Roman government. The Jesus movement went from a force to be reckoned with to the ushering in of the Dark Ages. I saw a tweet recently that summed up the history of the Jesus movement this way: Christianity started out as a movement, moved to Greece and became a philosophy, went to Rome and became an institution, spread to Europe and became a government, and came to America and became an enterprise.
Many people admire the life and teachings of Jesus but tell me, “I am not really in to organized [institutional] religion.” Most people do not want to join an institution, but a movement can be inspiring. What might it mean to re-capture the ethos of the Jesus movement in our day? What would it look like to create avenues to allow good things to run wild?
The Book of Acts describes the very beginning of the Jesus movement in which tongues of fire rested on the disciples’ heads. Peter then preached to the bewildered crowd and quoted the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Holy Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will have dreams. In those days, I will pour out my Spirit on my servants. I will pour out my Spirit on both men and women. When I do, they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18; NIRV)
My Pentecostal friends like to focus on the tongues in this chapter: when the Spirit comes, people will speak in tongues. My Evangelical friends like to focus on the 3,000 who joined their ranks: when the Spirit comes, people who are far from God will find their way back to God. But the crux of Peter’s message is found in this short statement: When the Spirit comes, people prophesy. They will dream dreams and see visions.
When people are in captivity or are oppressed, one of the first things they lose is their ability to dream, to hope for a better future, to dream that our lives will be better tomorrow than they are today, that our children will have a better life than we had. We lose the ability to dream that everyone will have food, clean water, and shelter, that people’s bodies will not be violated by slavery or violence, that racial inequality will be something only read about in history books. So, Peter says when the Spirit comes, people will dream dreams and have visions of a better world.
In the movement of Jesus, there have been moments in which his followers were the dreamers and visionaries of the world. They lived on the cutting edge of innovation, change, and social issues: ending or healing human trafficking, sickness, the marginalization of women, and child exploitation. Sometimes Jesus’ followers were on the cutting edge of art and technology. They dreamed dreams and saw visions of the Kingdom of God here on Earth as it is in Heaven. They created space for good things to run wild.
Sometimes when I am speaking to groups, I ask them to participate in a thought experiment with me. I ask, “What was the greatest innovation or social change in the 20th Century that was spearheaded by the church?” Without exception, whenever I ask this question, I get blank stares. There in fact may be some great innovation or social change that the church has spearheaded in the 20th Century, but the fact that they really must dig deep to think of it is telling. The movement of Jesus used to be on the edge of social issues, but now the church reacts to technology, change, and justice issues by trying to preserve the past rather than leading into the future. The church today is not a movement of dreamers and visionaries for what the future can be. In the United States, at best, it is an organization for people who like to study and are nostalgic for the past. At worst, it is an institution for administrators and managers who are attempting to control others’ behavior through power and domination.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter speaks to the huge crowd and tells them that when the Holy Spirit comes, not only will they dream dreams and see visions, but they will prophecy. By prophecy, I don’t think Peter was talking about some spooky foretelling like a tarot card reader. I think Peter is referring to the rich tradition of the prophets from the Hebrew Scripture who spoke truth to the powerful. Prophets in the Hebrew tradition were quirky people who were not very popular in their day, but looking back, everyone realized they were way ahead of their time. They did not defend the values of their day. They shaped the values of the future. Instead of blind allegiance, they questioned, examined, and took a knee to the moral defects of their time. They dreamed dreams and saw visions of a better world, they prophesied by speaking truth to the powerful, and they brought the Kingdom of God to Earth a little bit more.
The kind of people who dream dreams, see visions, and speak truth to the powerful have a very particular kind of God that they worship. If we worship an unchanging, all-powerful, dominating god, we will create institutions in “His”1 image that are unchanging, static, controlling, and coercive. If we worship a God that is open, changing, relational, influential, and empowering, we will create life-giving movements as we dream dreams and see visions of the possibilities that God has for our world. We will create space to allow good things to run wild.
Dana Robert Hicks is the founding pastor at Crosspoint United Methodist Church in Boise, Idaho. He also serves as the Director for Leadership and New Campus Development at the Cathedral of the Rockies and as adjunct professor of Missional Leadership at Northwest Nazarene University. He earned his D. Min. from Asbury Theological Seminary. You can find his personal website at www.danahicks.org.
1 The gender-exclusive language in reference to God in this context is intentional and meant to be ironic.
To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.