Throwback Thursday: A Roller Coaster Guy in a Merry-Go-Round World


This article originally appeared on Aug. 13, 2009. I revisit it today not because of any current frustration with my own leadership roles, but because I’ve recently completed a course in Christian leadership that reminded me of some of the tensions in which those of us in leadership positions often find ourselves.

I love metaphors. I think there’s a reason Jesus speaks so much in that form through stories and parables. Metaphors draw pictures of concepts in a way that speaks to our commonality of experience.

Regular readers–both of you (insert smiley face emoticon here)–will notice that lately I’ve been wrestling with expressing some frustrations in the arena of church leadership. And last night, in one of those times when my brain wouldn’t shut down and let me sleep, this whole Merry-Go-Round/Roller Coaster metaphor started to creep into my imagination. And it speaks to a lot of my current sense of restlessness.

Folks who know me will get it when I say I’m a Roller Coaster. Wildly erratic at times, rushing at full speed from place to place, tossed about uncontrollably. If it wasn’t for the belts and harnesses I’d fly off the track. Life to me always has been and always will be a thrill ride. An adventure. An experience to throw myself into without worry or regard to where it’s going to take me or what it’s going to do to me.

Other folks, though, are more like Merry-Go-Rounds. Enjoying a nice, pleasant, easy pace. No jerking around. No sudden acceleration. No adventure. No need for belts or harnesses. No puking at the end of the ride.

Merry-Go-Rounds don’t understand Roller Coasters. They’re too uncomfortable. Too unpredictable. Too uncontrollable. Too messy. Too dangerous.

We Roller Coasters, similarly, don’t get the Merry-Go-Round life. Circling around and around and around and around. Seeing and experiencing the same things over and over and over again. Too comfortable. Too predictable. Too ordered. Too safe.

Roller Coasters want everyone to be Roller Coasters. To experience the thrill. To be utterly and thoroughly exhilarated by the very wildness of the ride. To fly off into the unknown and be totally at the mercy of the ride.

Merry-Go-Rounds have no desire to be Roller Coasters. Merry-Go-Rounds wonder why Roller Coasters can’t just straighten the track, flatten the hills, and be more…well…stable. More cautious. More under control.

Now I’m not talking about extremes here. I’m not about to go jump out of an airplane or bungee off of a bridge. Nor am I talking on the other end of the spectrum about folks who just do nothing and settle for a bland, couch-potato type of existence. I’m just talking in broad generalities.

If you’re a Merry-Go-Round, please try not to get mad at me here. Because I love you. I just don’t get you. Going around and around and around makes me dizzy. It’s not pleasant or peaceful at all. In fact, I find it stressful. Unnatural. Because when I look at Jesus, I don’t see a Merry-Go-Round. I see a Roller Coaster.

And yet, in many ways, there is something about “church life” that is much more Merry-Go-Round than it is Roller Coaster. It is the most counter-intuitive thing I can imagine. And I think the reason is, we’re much more comfortable PLAYING church than BEING the church.

Playing church is comfortable. It’s safe. It’s predictable. It’s plannable. It’s showing up on Sundays, singing nice songs, passing the plate. Casserole dinners. Shaking hands in the aisles. Not offending anyone. No risks. Polite prayers. It’s a Merry-Go-Round.

Being the church is dangerous. Unpredictable. It’s stepping into the war zone of culture and addiction and poverty and brokennes. It is battling the demons that entrap total strangers while forcing yourself to face your own. It is risking everything to follow Jesus wherever he leads you. It is loud, powerful, hands-in-the-air, tears-in-your-eyes worship. It will fill you with adrenaline one minute and empty your stomach the next. It’s high-fiving your friends right before you barf on your shoes. Roller Coaster.

Admittedly, some Merry-Go-Rounds will never embrace Roller Coasters. Some folks will always be content to spin around and around, their biggest thrills coming as the horsies bob up and down. Smiling and passing the potatoes. Playing a nice comfortable game of church.

Others will long for the rush of the Roller Coaster, but live a life afraid of leaving their friends on the Merry-Go-Round. Worried that the Merry-Go-Rounds will resent them for changing rides. Afraid to leave the game and live the life. Trapped in an endless cycle of regret. Resenting both the Merry-Go-Rounds that hold them back and the Roller Coasters who live with wind in their hair and hearts pounding out of their chests.

Those who will take the risk and ride the Roller Coaster will be filled with life in a way that can never be experienced on the Merry-Go-Round. We will suffer as much as we rejoice. We will cry as much as we laugh. And we will love every minute of it.

We will always love our friends on the Merry-Go-Round. But we can’t ride with them.

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