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  • Michael W. Newman

Barnum and Bailey Church?

The elephants are no longer marching. The jugglers are no longer juggling. The trapeze artists have stopped their trapezing. Even the ringmaster has hung up his top-hat. You may have heard the news: after 146 years, the Barnum and Bailey Circus bid its final farewell. The Greatest Show on Earth is over. A staple of the American entertainment culture for nearly a century and a half, Barnum and Bailey has closed its tent-flap for good.

What happened? How did P.T. Barnum’s unrivaled entertainment extravaganza decline and disappear? It may be a sign of the times:

America’s entertainment preferences have changed. A two-hour live variety show with acrobats and animal acts that costs a lot in time and money to attend is not what mainstream culture wants to access these days.

Marketing couldn’t bring people in. The show depended on filling the seats, but people’s lives have changed. The word “circus” no longer evoked an exciting and attractive gathering place. Even clowns have become more scary than funny these days. And then there’s the animal issue.

Yes, having animals in captivity do tricks is not only rubbing PETA the wrong way, it’s become a bit of a cultural taboo. Freedom for animals is the trend in our nation. No matter how well-treated the circus animals are, people are not gravitating toward confined and controlled creatures.

Some people are worried that the church will suffer the same fate as the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Recent research indicates a rising percentage of people unaffiliated with the church. Will the church go the way of the circus?

I can answer with complete confidence: Never. Why? First, of course, there is Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the advance of His church. But there are additional factors:

The church is not rooted in personal stylistic preferences. Throughout the centuries, the church has adapted its language, its ministry focus areas, its meeting places, its communication methods and more. The church has never been a static “show” stuck in a specific historical era. With the unchanging Word of God held firmly, it has met people in new places, seasons and mindsets with the Savior for all time.

In addition, the church is not dependent on attraction. Jesus indicated that it was quite the opposite. He said, “Go!” God is a sending God. The gathering part of church happens as people receive the means of grace and support one another in the higher calling of being shining lights in a dark place.

Finally, the church is not about captivity. The resurrected Savior who sends His bold Spirit of truth also sends His people on a journey of adventurous freedom to reach others who crave life and freedom. The church is not domesticated; it is a wild and unpredictable sharer of God’s goodness and grace.

Of course, if you want to diminish the church to become an attractional gathering with a fixed style that walls people in so they can be safe and unstained by the wild world, you may very well create a Barnum and Bailey church. But it’s not the church God created, and it’s not the church God sustains and sends today.

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