God of the Ship of Theseus: A Thought Experiment for Church Identity

The other night I was gazing upon the city skyline, and I counted about a dozen different cranes rising over the buildings.

I started wondering: if every brick and every slat of every building in Boston were eventually replaced, would it still be Boston?

In philosophy, there is a similar thought experiment: “The Ship of Theseus.”

To explain the Ship of Theseus, I give you Marvel Comics’ final episode of the show WandaVision, where the superhero Vision is confronted with essentially a clone of himself. They are trying to figure out which is the true Vision, so they turn to the Ship of Theseus.

 

 

The Ship of Theseus in an artifact in a museum. Over time its planks of wood rot and are replaced with new planks. When no original plank remains, is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Secondly, if those removed planks are restored and reassembled, free of the rot, is that the Ship of Theseus?”

One of the two superheroes named Vision replies, “Neither is the true ship. Both are the true ship.”

This thought experiment applies to churches, too. The congregation I pastor is only a little bit over 50 years old, and we still have some of the original planks and bricks of the church. Not the building anymore, sadly, but the people!

50 more years from now, when this church has its 100th anniversary, and no original plank remains, will it still be South End Neighborhood Church?

Yes. South End Church 50 years ago, South End Church today, and South End Church 50 years into the future—it’s all the real South End Church, no matter how much the parts and the people change.

Our task, then, in the presence of God, is to ask and prayerfully discern: what makes us us? What are the consistent ties that bind us together, past, present, and future?

And if we’re a ship, where are we going? Where is God leading us?


I keep hearing commentators make a big deal (as they should) about how this is the Boston Celtics’ 22nd NBA Finals appearance. The first few times I heard that stat, it was jarring. There is literally nobody on the team for whom that statement is true. Even Al Horford, their veteran, hasn’t been to an NBA Finals before.

But of course the team has. And there is something in the ethos, the DNA, the blood of this organization that serves as a through line, making the Celtics still the Celtics, even though none of the same people from the last Finals-making team are there now.

Organizations and churches and cities—like the ship of Theseus—have a culture, what some refer to as a thisness.

Those of us who steward these organizations in the present moment have the great privilege of discerning together just what that culture is—what is worth preserving, and what is worth culling, all in favor of living out our deepest identity and calling.

 

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