Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

The Wind Blows Where It Chooses: Following God’s Spirit of Change

By Jordan Sylar

“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  - John 3:1-8 


When I tell people I am in Divinity School, I sometimes receive weird looks in response. Some people don’t know what it is, or worse –– some people do. They ask me concerned questions like “You want to be a pastor… today? Will you even have a job in the next twenty years?” 

Although jolting, these questions make sense. My time in this degree has in many ways been spent wrestling with this giant elephant in the room: Where is the church going, if anywhere? Is the church going to even survive? 

The common cultural story, even sometimes at Divinity School itself, is that the church is dying. It is a scary story of doom and gloom that says something like this: church attendance is on the decline. Modern culture is entirely and unwaveringly secular. People have no interest in religion and especially no time to attend religious services. 

But I want to tell you a different and more nuanced story. The church is not dying. The church is changing. Just like it always has. Just like it needs to. Spiritual work requires attentiveness to what is happening in the current moment, what people here and now need and want.  And it takes creativity. What has not been done before? What could be done better? 

To tell you more about what I would like to do and how I think about the puzzle of an old church in a new culture, I want to tell you a story from the Bible of spiritual change –– one where someone is dissatisfied with the status quo and comes to Jesus seeking more. The advice Jesus gives him in return is compelling, and I think it has something for us as we consider our own context. 

The Story: Context

Our story begins with a man named Nicodemus. The text says he is what is called a Pharisee –– a “ruler of the Jews.” He was a member of the most devout Jewish group, and he led the people in following all the rules, keeping their customs and adhering to business as usual. 

In some ways, we can think of him as an embodiment of the state of religion in his time, but even he did not feel settled. Think of the most pious and well-respected religious leader you know. Now imagine this: they aren’t satisfied. 

They are itching for something more. Something new and different. That is where Nicodemus found himself. He enforced the religion of the Jews by day, but by night… he snuck out, hoping no one saw him, and tried to find something satisfying. That is when he knocks on Jesus’ door. 

Seeking More

This restlessness that Nicodemus had was not born overnight. I wonder how long he was playing his part, feeling the strain of upholding his religion by day and asking questions to himself in the privacy of night. 

After struggling within himself, he finally gave into that internal dissonance. He let himself admit that he was curious, and he wanted something more –– something that feels true and fulfilling beyond that which he has been told he should care about. 

I wonder if this is not where a lot of us find ourselves today–– either suffering silently because we think we “should” be religious, or we listen to that sense that the church of today is not quite what we want and so we look elsewhere. 

Spirituality is a foundational part of the human experience, and many people today are apathetic about it; they’re dissatisfied. They care so much that they can’t accept church when it is outdated, done carelessly, or self-interested. 

Many reject the church not because they are fine figuring life out on their own, but because –– like Nicodemus –– they want more. If they take time for church, they want something authentic: to be known and valued in a community, to be accepted as themselves, to hear teaching that encourages them and connects with what is going on in the world. 

Whatever your relationship with church, I want to tell you that there can be more. I don’t buy the doomsday, “church is dying” narrative. It is just changing. 

The Story Continued: You Can’t go Back 

Where we left off, Nicodemus –– the restless spiritual leader –– takes a risk. In the middle of the night, he sneaks out to see the new radical and forbidden religious teacher in town: Jesus. And what does Jesus tell him? Even with all of Nicodemus’ urgency for answers, Jesus gives him a cryptic one liner, almost like a riddle: “To see the kingdom of God, you have to be born from above.” 

Like any of us in that situation, Nicodemus doesn’t immediately understand. He asks wise follow up questions: “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

These questions get at the heart of the answer –– yes, and no. Jesus’ talk of rebirth tells us that we are free to innovate and start over, encouraged even. That God’s plans in the world often involve trying new things, looking at the world with a fresh perspective, and letting go of old habits that are no longer helpful. 

Nicodemus’ questions, however, tell us something that is also true about innovation–– we can’t go back. We can’t “climb back into our mother’s womb.” We can’t undo the past, pretend it does not exist, or ever truly start with a “blank slate.” 

We have something better: endless resources from which to create. Christianity has a rich tradition, and this church, even, has a history and connections and good people who make it what it is. All around us there is fertile ground full of potential. 

We have spiritual longings and a church that many people are not finding helpful. What do we do? We start with ourselves. We start here with the rich potential our environment offers. Then, we see where imagination can take us, how spiritual life might be transformed. We can ask what new and beautiful things might be born and re-born. We seek out what God is doing now, and how it might help those around us. 

Mystery & Potential

I will tell you the ending of today’s story: more mysterious words from Jesus: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

While this is the story’s conclusion, it serves as a beginning for us. I will tell you my true conviction, even and especially today: God’s spirit is active in the world, blowing where it pleases and showing up in surprising places. 

God made the world with precision and beauty, and God is creating still –– all around there is potential and hope. I have seen a special kind of hope at my site in Madison with lovely people, creative lay leadership, open-hearted clergy, and so many avenues for involvement in the community. With this church community, I am seeing God’s spirit blowing in real time. 

Now, I’m telling you: if you feel restless like Nicodemus, go knock on some doors. I think God wants to use you to do something real. Just like God’s spirit is mysterious, the process itself might be long and sometimes difficult, but we can do it together –– like Nicodemus seeking God out in the middle of the night, we can find new ways of life being born. 

Image | Khamkéo Vilaysing on Unsplash