[gravatar email=”firstname.lastname@example.org” size=”100″ title=”Ryan Neal” alt=”Ryan Neal” class=”user-picture” align=”right”]I am surrounded by cowboys. So are you. I see aliens. So can you. Well, I can’t guarantee that cowboys and aliens are in your midst, but I’d say the odds are pretty high. More specifically, I predict you have both cowboys and aliens involved in your ministry, at every level.
Let me back up a minute to explain what I mean.
Intrigued by the title and the cast (including Daniel Craig & Harrison Ford), I recently watched “Cowboys & Aliens.” Let me begin by saying this is not a (full) movie review, but rather a title to frame and situate a ministerial topic. But, allow me a brief explanation to describe why I’ve chosen this frame…. The movie is (mostly) appropriately titled, portraying a new twist on an old theme: good guys v. bad guys. By my calculation the movie is about 2 parts old western, 1 part alien-adventure.
If you’re having trouble thinking how this might work, imagine if someone edited two very different movies, representing two genres, to create one tertium quid cinematic experience, like: “Tombstone Trek: The Back-to-the-future Next Generation” or “Star True Grit Wars.” I’m not yet convinced smashing these two worlds together quite works, but Jon Favreau (director of Iron Man & Iron Man 2) makes a pretty good attempt. I’m drawn to westerns, so I thought it was worth my time and it’s certainly netflix-worthy, if you like either, or both, genres (note: each genre has its family “unfriendly” elements which are on full display: coarse language and alien/fantasy violence).
The premise is simple enough: pick a date in the distant past (1873), situated in a Western location (Arizona), add a man of few words (Craig), plus a saloon, horses, chaps, pistols, a knife-wielding expert, something worth fighting over (gold), and throw in a clearly identifiable enemy, and you have the makings of a standard Western. But here the twist is that the standard enemy has been replaced with aliens.
Even before seeing the movie I became convinced that cowboys and aliens surround me. I think most of us, if we stop and think about it, have experienced something like a battle between cowboys and aliens. Rarely do the cowboys wear hats or ride horses (and it’s been over a year since I’ve seen anyone in chaps), but cowboys are around, you just have to know where to look. And it’s the same with aliens. Other than in this movie, I’ve yet to see anyone had two three-fingered hands extending from the chest, but I’m still convinced that I have friends who have a lot in common with aliens.
In a vast oversimplification, I’m going to label the cowboys as defenders of the status quo. Cowboys pride themselves on not being fooled by the latest trends, most of which don’t pan out in the long run. In the movie they relied on resources prevalent in the 1800s: following tracks while riding horseback, pistols and knives were their weapons of choice, and their allies made good use of bows and arrows. Their most advanced, luxurious form of transportation is the stage coach.
My second vast oversimplification is that aliens are those who want to overthrow the status quo and bring in a new way of doing things. In the film they rely on speeding insect-looking “space ships” at a time when the cowboys had never experienced flight, much less seen such heavy machinery dropping heavy artillery on them, from the sky. They had immense fire-power which made pistols and knives appear weak and immediately dated.
In the movie the aliens attack the cowboys first. And, to provide the necessary interest and tension the movie sets the scene as a zero-sum game: either the cowboys or the aliens will win, and the other must lose.
Cearly, the parallels I am trying to make are part fanciful, part tongue-in-cheek, but depending on your imagination or group of friends I am convinced that there is a kernel of truth here.
My guess is that some of you can identify with the basic premise in your current or past ministries. In ministry this set-up can be as destructive as it was in the movie. If the cowboys think they must win and the aliens must lose, the odds are high the ministry leadership might be wounded as collateral damage in the cross fire, or will end up choosing sides with metaphorical blood on their hands.
And my guess is that if you’ve been in ministry for more than a few months you’ve encountered a battle, and perhaps you have the scars to show for it. If you haven’t yet, there’s a good chance you’ll experience your own “cowboys and aliens” conflict over one, or more, of these: Sunday night services, worship choices or style, multi-site, which technology to use and how much, whether to add another service to the Sunday schedule, or which person should fill a ministry opening. And in each, there is likely a division between the cowboys and aliens. The cowboys make compelling points about how things are done best (the current model), while the aliens argue why a change would be better (the new model).
In ministry, however, unlike the movies, our guiding impulse needs to be encouraging unifying cooperation rather than destructive competition. We need to find ways for the cowboys to work with the aliens and for the aliens to discover why it is that cowboys like how things are currently. We need to create a space where it’s not cowboys v. aliens who compete to the death, but rather cowboys and aliens working together for a common goal, for the mutual benefit of the body (1 Cor 3.4-9).
Interestingly, for the longest time I thought (assumed, misread) the movie title was Cowboys v. Aliens, which is indeed how the film sets the scene. But, for the title there’s no “v” between the two groups; instead there’s the gloriously winding, twisting, pretzel-like ampersand: &.
From this point forward I am declaring the ampersand as the sign of unity and reconciliation in a church. When a church has two groups in opposition the likely characterization is “Us v. Them,” “Young v. Old,” “Traditional v. Contemporary,” or alas “Cowboys v. Aliens.”
In ministry one of the main leadership strategies must be to turn as many of these versus relationships into ampersands (Eph 4.1-6). The ampersand unites what a versus separates. It’s not “Cowboys v. Aliens,” it must be “Cowboys & Aliens.” A church divided and in conflict will struggle over who is right and who is wrong, and who wins and who loses. Identifying elements of unity and bringing two seemingly opposed groups together is imperative if a church is to advance the kingdom of God and show the world the power of God’s transforming love and grace. The battle we fight is for a lost world, and we need to be unified in our efforts.
Help your church to reconfigure, rearrange, refocus, and ultimately be reconciled, so that competition is replaced and cooperation becomes the norm. Be a church of the ampersand.
Dr. Neal earned a BA in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He then pursued theological and ministerial training and is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDivBL), and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (MTh; PhD). He is married to Jennifer, and they have four children.
Dr. Neal’s teaching and research focuses on the relationship between biblical interpretation and theology. His Ph.D. research focused on systematic theology, specifically questions raised in contemporary German theology. He is the author of Theology As Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of Jurgen Moltmann’s Doctrine of Hope, and has published a variety of essays, articles, and chapters on theological topics. Dr. Neal has presented papers in several academic venues in England, Scotland, New Zealand, and the United States. Most recently he presented a paper on eschatology at the University of Notre Dame.