by Amy Chumbley

Remember your excitement when you were a child when you thought of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which billed itself as the greatest show on earth? Remember the big red and white tent? The popcorn, hotdogs, peanuts, and snow cones? Remember finding your seat and waiting in anticipation for the death-defying acts performed by the trapeze artists? Do you remember the silliness of the clowns and being awed by the majestic animals? 

While I loved seeing the animals, at the same time, I felt sad for them. I recall the ringmaster dressed in his white costume with his tall black boots. I can still see the whip in his hand and hear it snap as he waved it around in the air. It scared me. It must have scared the animals too, because they responded by obeying. It seemed that some responded slowly, almost grudgingly, but they did as directed and then they were rewarded with a piece of meat and a pat on the head and sent back to their cages. 

Sometimes I wonder if the way we do church is a little bit like a circus.

Usually there’s a big building instead of a tent, coffee and donuts instead of peanuts and popcorn, entertainment by the musicians instead of the clowns, and then there’s the preacher instead of a ringmaster. So, who are the animals in this scenario? Aren’t those the select few who show up faithfully every week and serve wherever and whenever asked? I used to be one of them. 

I was an animal born in captivity. I’d been in church my whole life, present every time the doors were open— VBS, prayer meetings, Bible studies, camps, and home groups. I didn’t even realize the performer I had become. I didn’t recognize I was wearing shackles, or being controlled, or jumping through hoops, or that I had become addicted to the applause. It all seemed so normal. I felt loved. I was rewarded with a good reputation and leadership titles instead of a piece of meat and pat on the head. 

But the love and rewards came from an obedience that was rooted in fear: fear I would be rejected, shamed for not doing my part, and worry that I’d let others down. Fear that Jesus would love me less. Maybe my fears were unfounded, maybe I had misinterpreted what I had heard and seen, maybe I would have found grace and acceptance apart from my “good works.” I recognize it isn’t fair to paint my perception as reality. I just know these were my thoughts and feelings. 

I needed to know I was loved. Period. Not cherished for what I did or didn’t do. In my heart, there was a growing discontent. I internally wrestled with it for a long time. I wondered what was wrong with me. I asked myself what the source of this restlessness could be. I questioned why I didn’t have joy or peace and wondered why I had the desire to run.

There were so many meetings, so many expectations, so many “shoulds.” It all began to feel like a weight on my chest and the anxiety was mounting until one day I realized that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (II Corinthians 3:17) Maybe this desire to run didn’t mean there was anything wrong with me! Maybe the desire to run, to experience freedom and abundant living was the prodding of my Father!

The Untamed One, the Lord of All, called to me, “There is more, much, much more. You were not created to be controlled by man. You were not created to perform. I didn’t create you to wear shackles, nor live in cages. You are not here in this world to be controlled or used by others, nor to perform for them. I created you for freedom.”

Over the past few years, church has become very different for me. It isn’t in a Sunday morning service, a sermon, or Sunday school class. It comes in the most unexpected, ordinary, and unplanned ways, times, and places. It’s in a shared meal, in an honest conversation, in laughter and tears. It’s bigger, more diverse, and more wild than I ever dreamed!

Amy Chumbley and her husband Eric are both Kentucky natives. They’ve been married 28 years and have two adult children, Megan and Sam. They also have two fur babies, Lucy and Shoshanna. The Chumbleys enjoy traveling, hiking, walking their dogs, and spending time with our kids (when possible). Some of Amy’s favorite things include 80’s music, hot baths, and a clean house! She enjoys organizing and decorating homes and hosting get togethers and game nights for friends.