Church - Circus or Carnival?

A few years ago a good friend showed us a short movie called “The Butterfly Circus”. It’s a 20-minute parable about being liberated from our despair by grace and hope and it has something to say at a number of levels. In a world where exploitation and bullying are all too common, The Butterfly Circus tells a story about what it means to recognise that you are were made for a reason. 

The Butterfly Circus

In the midst of the Great Depression, Mr. Mendez leads his humble circus as they travel around the devastated American countryside. The attractions in The Butterfly Circus are meant to inspire and instil hope in its audience, a much-needed thing during the depression. While visiting a travelling carnival, Mr. Mendez and his troupe come across Will, a limbless man, in the carnival sideshow. Mendez sees him as a beautiful creature but Will’s anger and bitterness prevent him from seeing his own potential. The man leading the sideshow says of Will, “A perversion of nature…whom God Himself has turned his back upon.” Mr. Mendez says to Will, “You are magnificent!”  but Will spits on him and Mr. Mendez says, “Maybe I got a little too close”.

Many people find it hard to believe it even when God says to them, “You are magnificent!”. When God calls people they often spit in his face. But God is patient with us and continues to draw close to us, even when we reject him.

Will runs away from the Carnival, hitches a ride in the back of a Butterfly Circus truck, and ends up joining the troupe. He suggests they should start a sideshow of their own. Mr. Mendez talks to Will about people coming to the sideshow and asks, “Why do they come? There is nothing inspiring about man’s imperfections here in this place.” In the sideshow, people are ‘used’ and their imperfections are highlighted, there is no interest in the person but rather in their deformity. At the Butterfly Circus the focus is on the person - not their imperfections, but rather their perfections; what people can do in the midst of challenges. God is not going to use or exploit us, but rather he will help us reach our full potential. Each of the performers’ talents in the Butterfly Circus is unique and so to each one is needed. 

At first, his old way of doing things and his failure to see his own gifts prevent Will from finding a place. But he is inspired by the performers in The Butterfly Circus, and starts a personal journey to find hope in his life in spite of his considerable physical limitations.

A Turning Point

One day Will is watching the performers, envying their talents. Mr. Mendez says, “Look at you - a perversion of nature…whom God himself has turned his back upon”. Will asks him why he said those things and Mendez’s responds, “Because you believe it, if you could only see what can come from ashes.” Will says, “But I’m not like them.” Mr. Mendez continues, “There you have the advantage, the greater the struggle, the more glorious the triumph.” 

One day, Will experiences an unexpected baptism of sorts, and discovers that he can swim; his new purpose frees him to be a role model for others seeking to escape their own cocoons.

The performers in the Butterfly Circus were considered “last” in the eyes of the world. One was a violent drunkard, one a pregnant prostitute, one a washed up old man out of work and finally Will a limbless man who seemed to have no potential. But Mr. Mendez believed in them and saw in them what they and others did not see in themselves. They went from being outcasts to heroes. It is God that makes the last first. In our own lives have we been considered or perhaps are still considered “last” but through the Grace of God have been considered “first”. In the Butterfly Circus, Mr. Mendez is always on the lookout for people to join the circus and is always gently sending out the call to invite people in. God’s desire is for all to be saved and come to know the truth; he will never stop calling and inviting us. The question is whether we are listening, whether we are responding.

Circus or Carnival?

The movie begs another question to me. Has the church become a Carnival rather than a Circus? In the opening scene, when the young boy suggests going to the Carnival, the man says, “We’re all the Carnival you need.” The boy’s answer is, “But they have rides!”

It’s easy for the church to fall into the trap of emphasising the “spectacular” - 

“Come to us, we’re the biggest show in town.”

“Come to the big event with the big speaker - it will change your life.”

“Come to us and we’ll tell you your future.”

“Come and see the man who’s been drunk in the Spirit for the past 15 years!”

On the other hand, a circus is a company of people who are dedicated to helping each other excel in their skills - people who are cheering each other on to greater and greater things as they work together and serve the wider community.

In commenting on why some Christians become dissatisfied with ‘regular church’ after attending big conference events, someone once said to us, “The conference is to church what the birthday party is to the family.” In other words, if family breakfast every day was accompanied by balloons, birthday cake and take-home bags of goodies, one might be forgiven for thinking that this family was a little weird! Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t expect to see great things as we gather together week by week, but where is our focus?

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:18-26 “But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.”

Paul argues that every member of the body is necessary. There are no exceptions. Those body parts that are deemed weaker, less honourable, or less presentable are all critically important. Paul rejected the Corinthians criteria for evaluating which gifts were most honourable. They had chosen the most visible or audible gifts for selfish reasons. The sole purpose of the gifts was to build up the body of Christ; the true criterion for the greatness of any gift would be its usefulness to the body of Christ.

How does this apply to the church? Every church has people who are out in the forefront, but what is really essential to the ongoing life of the church is the people behind the scenes—those who serve faithfully and quietly. In 12:26, Paul writes one of the most powerful verses in the Scriptures: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.” If you’ve ever been sick with a cold or the flu you know that a simple cold, cough, or sore throat can affect your entire body. Worse yet, have you ever had a case of food poisoning? Several years ago, I had a terrible bout with this dreadful condition. I was so sick that I felt I was going to die! This little bug didn’t just affect my stomach, it affected my whole body. I ached from the tip of my head to the bottom of my feet. I experienced chills; I had a fever; I was in agony. When one part of your body suffers, the whole body is brought down.

Paul took the theme of mutual care one step further. As members of the same body we are so closely bound together that we actually share the same feelings. What causes joy for one member delights the whole body. When one member suffers the entire body hurts. Most of us do a better job empathising with those who suffer than we do rejoicing with those who are honoured. If we could ever come to the conviction that we are truly family - like the Butterfly Circus, it would change many of our attitudes about ourselves and others in the church. I know that I receive greater joy in seeing my children achieve than in my own achievements. If we are family, why is it so difficult to see another member of our own body receive honour? Our goal should be for the Holy Spirit to use us for the good of the family itself. We must desperately yearn, as in The Butterfly Circus for the fruitfulness of others - for the butterfly to emerge in each of us so that we can fly!