Like Zoo Animals

Zoo ElephantYou may have heard about the controversy over the elephant exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo. The zoo is building a $42 million exhibit for Billy, its only elephant. There are three sides to the argument: those who say that $42 mil is too much to spend on one elephant, those who say the new “Pachyderm Forest” project is just what the zoo (and Billy) needs, and those who say that it is cruel to keep elephants in captivity, no matter how much is spent.

Reading about the controversy got me thinking about Christians. I’m a huge advocate of total church involvement in missions. I believe that the church’s gifting, authority, and accountability are vital to obedient and successful missions.

Nevertheless, church people aren’t always prepared for ministry in the real world. The way I see it, our modern expression of church is a lot like a zoo. We’ve got all kinds; the old urban zoos that are little more than cages in a central park.  The theme-park kinds of zoos with multi-million-dollar attractions. Some mimic the animals’ habitats in the wild. Others seem like they’re more for show. We’ve got zoos that were designed for conservation, rehabilitation, education, entertainment, even research. The thing about zoos is their influence on animal health and behavior.

It’s called “institutionalization.”

It seems to me that there are three kinds of Christians; those who have left the wild and have been brought into the zoo, and those who were born and raised in captivity, and those who continue to live in the wild.

  • Those who came to faith outside the church setting are quickly assimilated into the Christian culture. They are taught to speak, act, and think like a Christian (each according to the customs of his local zoo, of course.) On the one hand, this process is seen as a rescue operation. On the other, it’s a cruel and unnecessary act that strips a person of his ability to relate, understand, and survive in what was his natural environment.
  • Believers who grew up in church really don’t stand a chance in the wild. Their dependence on doctors, caregivers, guards, and spectators makes them unprepared to face the challenges of life in the real world. They position themselves in pecking order, clinging to the members of their small groups for social comfort.
  • Christians who operate outside the walls of an institutionalized church. Some simply slipped through the cracks of the programs that the church designed for them. Others came to faith through real relationships and have never found it necessary to trade real life for a safely synthetic one. These aren’t lone wolves- they move in dynamic but fiercely loyal packs and herds.

For some reason, the first two kinds of Christians are the ones the church sends out on mission, and left and right, they’re being devoured by dangers and distractions of life in the wild. We need more of the third kind of Christian, the ones outside the institution. The truth is, they’re already doing ministry , and they’re doing it better, more humbly, and more cheaply than the zoo ever could. It comes quite naturally to them. But they need the church’s approval, support, prayer, and encouragement.

Institutional church is bad for believers, bad for ministry, and bad for the environment. Okay, maybe not so bad for the environment, but you know what I mean.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.