Centrifugal or Centripetal: The Proper Place of Center

Did you ever experience centrifugal force by playing on a playground merry-go-round when you were a child?  I remember delighting in pushing the merry-go-round so fast that kids would go flying off the edges.  Of course it was dangerous and sometimes kids got hurt, but that was part of the fun.  If you stayed in the center you were safe, although dizzy.  If you stayed at the edge you might get flung off if the merry-go-round went fast enough.

Centrifugal force on a Merry-go-round
Girls playing on a merry-go-round

Is your church centrifugal or centripetal?  As I’ve been thinking about churches resuming normal worship services and activities, this is a question that came to mind.  Centrifugal and centripetal are both words with strong Latin bases.  Centri, of course, means “center.”  Fugal means “fleeing” and petal means “seeking.”  If your church is centripetal, then people come seeking God and prefer staying inside the church.  If your church is centrifugal, then people come seeking God but eagerly go back out into the world to serve in ministry.

Seeking center and fleeing center are both important activities in the church.  There is a hymn called “Come and Find the Quiet Center” that seems appropriate for centripetal times.  We need a place to reconnect with God, to feel our faith strengthened.  We get frazzled and frayed by the distractions of the world.  Coming to the center of our faith, coming to church, helps us heal and find wholeness again in our faith.  Our faith is personal, but strengthened by the gathering of community in church.

However, if we only stay in church, if we only seek the center, we forget that faith and ministry go hand in hand.  Jesus calls us to make a difference in the world.  As Christians, we are supposed to work for justice and mercy.  We might be safe within the walls of the church, close to the center of our faith, but we are not heeding the call of Jesus.  In order to do that we have to leave the center and go out, seeking the places God calls us to service.  In order to be of use to God in our jobs, in our relationships, in our communities, we have to leave the center and go out into the world.

Jesus sends out disciples
Jesus sends us out

The last year has been a time of pause in many churches.  Worship services, mission trips, outreach events, and meetings were often put on hold as we tried to find ways to work around the pandemic.  I’ve seen so many wonderful and creative examples of churches finding new ways to do ministry.  And most of them don’t involve our church buildings – our faith centers.  It seems like this is a good time to consider which of our ministries are drawing us in and which are sending us out and what the best balance should be.

We need times to draw near to God in our church buildings.  We need to seek the strong center in order to find strength for our daily lives.  But we also need to remember that Jesus sends us out, away from the center, in order to carry his message and his ministry to the world.