Cynthia Weems says that our churches have become like fine china — perfect and proper but locked away in a cabinet except on special occasions and increasingly irrelevant. Renewal requires a different, less fragile image of Christian life — the biblical image of a potter constantly reworking a flawed vessel until it becomes useful.
When I was a little girl, my grandmother told my sister and me that she had purchased two sets of fine china for us. My brothers did not get such china, but we two girls would have our pick … when we got married! When I was in my late twenties, I went to stay with my grandmother. She told me, “Cynthia, since it doesn’t appear you will be getting married anytime soon, I am going to give you your china.” “Hot dog!” I thought. I was about to move into my first parsonage. Fine china would surely come in handy!
The China Cabinet Church
For years, I struggled with the misguided impression that a healthy Christian life was something like a pattern of fine china. Proper, perfect, matching the rest of the crowd, no scuffs or cracks, all shiny. But through tears and heartache, I learned that the notion that our spiritual life is meant to be unbroken, perfect, matching, and untouched is false.
But let’s be honest. There is still something about the North American Church that screams “china cabinet” — something beautiful with everything matching and not one piece out of place with plenty of place settings for the whole family. The Christian life is like a matching pattern in a cabinet locked and unused most of the week. Ouch! We have an image of the church that does not match our experience of life.
One evening, I asked my thirteen-year-old daughter what words come to mind when she looks at my beloved grandmother’s china. She said “Pretty. Fragile. Untouchable. Distant. I don’t think about that china much. Only on special occasions.” My heart nearly broke. She only eats on fine china at Christmas and Easter! I don’t want my daughter to feel about the church the way she feels about my grandmother’s china: pretty, but useless. Irrelevant.
The Potter’s Wheel
Fine china is not the picture we see in scripture of how God works with God’s people. Instead of pretty patterns, locked cabinets, and matching sets of breakable dinnerware, God shows us the messy, unpredictable results of sitting at the potter’s wheel. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet is told to go down to the potter’s house where he sees a potter working at his wheel. The vessel he was making was spoiled, so he reworked it into another vessel. And then the word of God came to Jeremiah, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” (Jeremiah 18:6)
Churches that imagine their life more like a potter’s wheel and less like a china cabinet seem to be the ones that are thriving. These are churches that have embraced new communities of people who speak different languages and come from different cultural traditions; churches that have embraced the realities of an urban environment and the changes that come from being situated in the middle of tall buildings; churches that welcome new partners like non-profits, tutoring programs, homeless ministries, schools, and even real estate developers. These are the churches that are thriving and can see a clear future. Not an easy future, mind you, but a clear, missionally focused future.
As the image of the potter’s wheel makes clear, God knows what to do with our flaws. God knows where our ministries have “gone wrong,” and God can rework and remake them. But we must let go of our grip — the grip that is necessary for fine china that we don’t want to break but a grip that is not necessary when we humbly ask God to guide us.
We all know that fine china ends up in one of two places. Fine china is either in a locked cabinet snug in the corner of a dining room or found in a rummage sale. We don’t want a future like either of those for our churches. A different future requires a different image. It requires a dream that our churches will daily be in the hands of the potter, the one who guides our molding and shaping. If we seek to transform lives, our churches must be transformed first.
This article is adapted from a presentation delivered by Cynthia Weems on the floor of the Florida Annual Conference in May, 2019.
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