The Church And The Monkey Trap

Have you ever seen a video of a monkey trap? I was going to put a video on here but some of you might be offended by the content so I’ll just describe it to you. You’re welcome to go search for a video online, they’re pretty easy to find.

The idea is simple. The monkey gets trapped because it sees something it wants and won’t let go. Therefore trapping its hand in a jar. Historically there are cultures that have trapped monkeys in the wild. They would take a jar or a coconut and put a hole in it large enough for the monkey to put its hand inside. Inside the jar is something the monkey wants, often rice or another food substance they just simply can’t ignore.

The monkey puts his hand into the coconut and grasps the rice only to realize that he can’t get his hand out again. Mind you, the hole did not change size. The opening is the same size it was when the monkey put his hand in. The only difference is, now the monkey’s hand is closed around the rice. The hole is just large enough for the open hand to enter but too small for the closed fist to pull out.

I really think this is what we’re seeing in the institutional, denominational churches in North America. We are the monkey in the story. We live our lives and things are going well. As we look around, we see the values of society and culture shifting around us. Sometimes shifting faster than we can even define.

Add to the scenario that we see our numbers shrinking as churches are closing, pastors retiring, men not going into the ministry – it’s a situation that causes great fear and anxiety for some people. Enter church as monkey.

If we were to define the parts of this analogy to meet our current situation, we’d see the church is represented by the monkey. The rice inside is the way we’ve always done it. Really it’s anything that has become something we just can’t loosen our grip on (aside from the proper teaching of the Bible – really that’s the only non negotiable in the mix). And the jar is the culture war surrounding the church, the crisis of leadership in the church at large.

The church has its hand in the jar because that’s where we live. We have our churches embedded in communities and neighborhoods. Our hand is in the jar. It’s hidden in that jar and somewhat safe inside there. But we’re not called to hide in that place. We are to stand out and live differently, but how do we do that when culture shifts so fast?

When we feel threatened by the cultural shift around us, we clench our fist. In this case, we grasp whatever is known and comfortable. These things are actually, in and of themselves good and historically proven. For the church body to which I belong, that thing we are grasping is historicity, traditionalism, and structure. These are the rice in the coconut that we don’t know what to do with so we just cling to it more tightly.

The problem is the church is supposed to love God and love our neighbors, but we are not able to love our neighbor if our hand is stuck in the jar. The longer we hold so tightly to the things we have in the jar, the farther away from serving the culture we move. Now before you get all honked off here don’t hear what’s not being said. I’m not saying throw out the tradition and history. That’s absurd and will actually do more harm than good!

Know when the structures of the past will work and when they won’t. Understand that structures in the life of the church can’t be a one size fits all kind of deal. Every congregation is unique in its expression of faith because every community that it serves is unique. Forcing an historic structure, no matter how good and worthwhile in its day, to a thriving modern environment at best won’t always work. And at worst will hinder the expansion of the gospel in that context.

The solution? Let go a little.

If the monkey would loosen the grip on the rice, it would be able to get its hand out of the jar. When it releases the rice, it’s still a monkey. Letting go did not change the fact that it was a monkey. It just allowed that monkey to be free. Likewise if the church would loosen its grip on some of the things to which it clings, we could be released to do more ministry in our individual contexts. It won’t stop us from being the church anymore than releasing the rice changed the monkey from being a monkey. It won’t change us from being Lutheran either. It will simply make the church more able to pivot to meet the needs of the people in and outside of the church.

Look I get it. There’s comfort in the known things. There’s something cool about the liturgy and the formal structures of things. But to say that it’s the only way it can be done is bordering on being a pharisee, you know the very people that Jesus told were white washed tombs! I surely don’t want to be considered a pretty coffin – fancy on the outside and dead on the inside.

The church is a people gathered and on mission to make disciples. How, where, when we gather are not really things the Bible addresses. More than anything I want the message of the gospel to be spread to the ends of the earth. I want to see my friends and neighbors come to know and believe in Jesus. I believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, but I also believe that this one structure of how we do church life isn’t the only way to Jesus. It’s good and meaningful but it isn’t the only way. If we loosen up a little while clinging tightly to the truths of the Bible, we just might see the gates of hell start to fall like Jesus promises to Peter.

In short monkeys, it’s time to let go of the rice so we can get our hand out of the jar.


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