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What the Church Can Learn from the Circus

What the Church Can Learn from the Circus

I remember, when I was little, going with my mother and brothers into downtown Orlando late one night. It was January. And despite what you might think about Orlando weather, it was cold. We were bundled up, but the cold permeated our layers, and we shivered. We were there, by the train tracks, waiting for the circus train. We waited with great anticipation. But because of some boring, technical issue, the circus arrived too late, and we had to go home to bed.

Since then, I have seen the circus arrive to town. The elephants and horses are paraded through the streets to the arena. It’s quite a sight to see Asian Elephants walking along the streets of downtown. There was excitement in the air then, as a little kid, and the circus still sparks intrigue, mystery, and wonder.

Over the last few years, I’ve produced an event with some friends in downtown Orlando called the Creative City Project. One of our featured collaborations is with Cirque du Soleil. And even from the inside, there’s still a sense of wonder and discovery about what’s possible as we think about taking the circus to the public spaces of our city.

I guess you can say that I’ve learned quite a bit from the circus. And many of those things have even shaped the way I see my role in leading our church, City Beautiful Church.

So what can the Church learn from the circus?

1. The true operation of the body.

The metaphor used in the New Testament to describe the Church is that of a body—each part serving its unique function, yet still tied together as one. That’s the circus: Highly gifted individuals platformed to shine when it’s their moment, all under the same tent, working toward the same objective.

Perhaps you’ve experienced the challenges of working alongside people. It’s tough. But at the end of the day, we have to come together because, as they say, “the show must go on.” In the circus, there’s a deep reality of how not working together could have very serious repercussions–even death. And I think it’s a good lesson for the Church. No matter the differences we sense between us and another person/denomination/ideology, when it’s all said and done, we must value, respect, honor, and support one another as we come together to fulfill our calling.

We must value, respect, honor, and support one another as we come together to fulfill our calling.

2. Creating compelling culture.

The circus has always leveraged and cultivated human curiosity. In its early days, people could come to the circus and see creatures they had literally never seen before. It was the place where myths came to life. The menagerie of animals was just as awe-inspiring and unbelievable as if someone were to show us a unicorn or a phoenix today. And the sideshow put the outcasts of society in the spotlight for all to see. When the circus came to town, they put their tent up, and the people funneled into it.

Quite the opposite it true for the Church these days. While the circus embraces the outcast and builds a culture of curiosity, the Church often attempts to attract visitors through “relevance.” While the circus creates a compelling culture, many churches simply attempt to emulate and replicate popular culture. But the Church was created to be culture creators. I’m not talking about Political Action Committees raising money for candidates and the legislation of morality. I’m talking about true cultural change. Living a life that is so compelling, so full of love, so curious that it is irresistible. How do we do that? By embracing wonder.

While the circus creates a compelling culture, many churches simply attempt to emulate and replicate popular culture.

3. Embrace wonder.

There’s little sense of wonder in much of today’s western expression of Church. There’s no expectation of discovery, and curiosity is viewed as a liability. But the early church looked much more like the circus than it does our modern, western institutions. People gathered in expectation of the unexpected. People came in faith, believing that the world really could be different. Today, our primary expression of faith is the accumulation of facts. What used to be an epicenter of wonder at the immensity of God and the anticipation of His movement has been reduced to a lecture hall. The circus reminds us to re-embrace wonder and champion curiosity as God moves and works in and through us.

The circus reminds us to re-embrace wonder and champion curiosity as God moves and works in and through us.

4. There’s always more.

I remember seeing my first Cirque du Soleil show about 10 years ago. I remember leaving and saying, “That just changed my belief of what’s possible.” I had seen acrobats at the circus growing up, but the performers that Cirque hires are literally the best in the world at what they do. Why? Because they never stop pushing the limits.

They’re like Olympic athletes. Over time, the fastest runners in the world have shaved, literally, seconds off the 100-meter dash. There’s an expectation that more is possible. Faster is possible. Higher is possible. In the circus, like the Olympics, there is no sense of settling. More is always possible.

It seems many of our churches have settled for the idea that the best was in the past, and the best we can do is to emulate those who have come before us. But no! Isaiah prophesied that there would be no end to the increase of the Messiah’s government—that his reality would be steadily advancing. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians speaks of ever increasing glory. Jesus said that we would do the things He did and even greater things.

Jesus said that we would do the things He did and even greater things.

The circus reminds us that there is no end to what’s possible.

5. Honor and expect to be exceeded.

The circus has a rich history of family. Generations of children grow up to take the place of their parents, aunts, and uncles as circus performers. Those children would be foolish to assume there is nothing they can learn from those who come before them. A lifetime of training and experience is poured into them by those who have come before. Generations of knowledge and understanding are passed along.

But that’s only the beginning. The Church seems to try so hard to make sure one generation is the carbon copy of the next. But the circus encourages innovation, forward movement. The current generation encourages, challenges, and equips the generation to come to exceed them.

The current generation encourages, challenges, and equips the generation to come to exceed them.

This is one of the greatest lessons the Church can learn from the circus. Don’t limit the possibilities of what can be by stifling the coming generation to simply replicate. Instead, allow your experiences and understanding to be a strong platform upon which the coming generation can stand and build. That’s the picture painted in Ephesians 2:20 which says we’re “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

Let’s learn to embrace innovation, expect more, value curiosity, and always hope as we press forward to become all we’re created to be.

About The Author

Cole NeSmith

Cole is the Creative Director and co-pastor of City Beautiful Church in Orlando, FL. His new book, Spiritual Innovation, helps us move from the need for control to a new level of exploration, expectation, discovery, and creativity in our faith and lives. He also creates interactive and reflective art and worship experiences through his company, Uncover The Color. He blogs at colenesmith.com and is on Twitter @ColeNeSmith.

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