Empty Circles

By Josh Woodrow

Let’s play a game—you’re probably familiar with it. Would you rather…?

Would you rather sit with entrepreneurial leaders advancing innovation or sit in an empty circle of chairs embarrassed, confused, and alone?

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question aimed at determining whether you’re introverted or extroverted, but it is helpful in determining your aptitude toward reformation. I recently attended a training event with the organization that coined the term “social-entrepreneur.” Seriously. They actually invented the term that dominates the landscape of social activism and advocacy today.

As I entered the emerging space of pioneering justice, anticipation excused itself and anxious nerves began to flutter. Steam rose from hot cups of freshly poured organic, fair trade coffee and mini-croissant breakfast sandwiches dribbled a trail of crumbs to the space created for our dialogue. Just before the training began I realized I was sitting alone in a circle of multi-colored chairs balancing blueberry yogurt on my Moleskin.

After a few minutes of breaking the ice I discovered that I was the only spiritual leader present. I was embarrassed and confused but resisted the urge to get up and sneak away under false pretense. As the only clergy representative I had to remain.

Reformation is a term typically associated with spiritual innovation or religious renovation. While the Protestant Reformation is the most notable display of decrying unjust practice, reformation is as old as the Church itself. It is where local experience and global influence join to shape new patterns of practice. Nowadays, we sit in largely homogenous churches unwittingly establishing a cocoon of introspective reformation. We encourage the cry of social justice to bellow out as if it can’t be contained. But are we as concerned with inhabiting unflattering rooms and remaining in the circle of chairs in the long, slow building of change?

Opportunities exist in a variety of diverse circles filled with multi-colored chairs that we can not only learn from but offer insight to as well. Uncomfortable as sitting in an empty circle may be, or feeling alone in a full circle, it is the first step to reforming. It is a necessarily isolating experience to take part in reconstructing anything.

As I waited to introduce myself to the rest of the group, the bottom of the Styrofoam cup returned my anxious stare. Deep breath. Judgment time. When the elevator pitch carousel arrived at my seat I offered up a brief overview of my work: “We believe the Kingdom of God isn’t segregated so our churches and communities shouldn’t be either. That’s why we pursue spiritual, racial, socioeconomic, and educational reconciliation.” I wondered if anyone saw my eyes nervously twitch.

After our introductions, the Social-Entrepreneur trainer strode confidently toward me. “I was excited to hear your inclusion of spiritual reconciliation in your introduction,” he said. “I think it’s vital for change-making but is usually excluded from the conversation.” As he spoke, my embarrassment about being the lone clergy was replaced with the weight of representing the Church. The spiritual perspective I brought to the circle of chairs wasn’t pitied but envied!

Over the course of the two-day event the insight I offered was taken seriously and I was invited to multiple circles during breakout sessions. No longer was I sitting alone but engaging with diverse leaders all working together toward reforming our community. If I had given into the temptation to slip away under the cover of coffee and croissants the opportunity for reformation would have slipped through my fingers. I had to remain alone in the circle. In order to pursue reformation, you have to stay in the circle too.

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. What if reformation isn’t astonishing or complicated but habitual, rhythmic, and repetitious?  Being ordinary encourages boldness because you’ve got nothing to lose. And being bold is a radical move because you have everything to gain; and, in that, there is recognition that you have been with Jesus. Why? Jesus was radical not because he performed miracles and signs but because he redeemed the ordinary.

Take a look at the historical landscape of justice and you’ll see the greatest reformation took place under the command of ordinary people. Too often the intimidation of louder, recognized voices threatens to mute the quiet voice inside your gut that says, “Speak out.”  At the heart of justice is the willingness to lend your seemingly ordinary voice to the larger conversation. By practicing the ordinary things you’ve heard, seen, and received you’ll earn the right to sit in any circle, because people will recognize that you have been with Jesus.