Monday, May 30, 2005

Installment #3

In continuing to respond to a letter from a church leader who is seeking revival in his congregation . . .
I reread your request about how to get off “dead center” and saw something that I don’t know how to understand: namely that you have listening/praying leaders and yet, at least you, feel that something is being missed. Do others feel like something is lacking? Is God calling your congregation, and despite sincere listening, the call isn’t being heard? Is God calling, people sense the message, but don’t know how to act on it? Are you hearing it and others are not, or do others hear it too? Do many hear it, understand it, but fear acting on it? Is the problem hearing, understanding, or acting? – some part of all three?

If people aren’t hearing a call that you hear, it may be because you’ve had the experience of that small, vibrant community you mentioned. You, better than I, understand the nature of the Spirit’s prompting – which seems often to be a message which needs interpreting. The process of us working through the discernment is one aspect of why the message was given. Do others know God is calling, but struggle to interpret the message?

Being able to convey the concept of a land of “milk and honey” so that people catch the vision in God’s call is important. For those who’ve witnessed it, they want to be there. For those who don’t know it even exists, how can they hear the call?

If others are not aware of what can be, and so don’t sense God urging them onward, a guide is necessary. In many ways we spent four years preparing for our jump, but others had labored for years before me in the recesses of discontent within the hearts of seekers. Anyone who knew what could be, started sharing that with others and helping them taste the possibilities. At the time that this group began moving they had longed for something with the vague shape of what we now do. They were hungry and thirsty for community, ministry, living out of “one briefcase” (faith intersecting with all of life), and moving beyond southern civil religion – but the group needed guides who could describe the forms this experience of faith would take. The guides didn’t have to do much convincing, for when they described how things could be quickly a majority seized on it and affirmed “that’s what we’ve been wanting!” The majority were not being equipped by the Spirit to put the longing into some form, but the confirmation was there throughout the community for each step. Obviously, we have still had our troubles discerning, and nothing is ever unanimous. There are some who consistently struggle more than others to catch the vision.

I am writing so that I may understand (a stream of consciousness here) rather than putting this down as an essay. You’ll have to bear with my process.

Where my thinking is taking me is to a place of recognizing the importance of visionary people – but not in the entrepreneurial sense. We don’t need people with grand visions of their own imagination, but who have a “Kingdom sense” and can communicate it. The means must be Kingdom expressions. Having Kingdom ends is not enough to justify any means.

For me, God showed me what could be through watching God build churches in Africa. He’s shown that to you through that unconventional church (and many other experiences as well). The question is, what can we do to help others see what congregational life can be like when it is a daily expression of living in Christ rather than membership in an organization? For us it was experientially realized, not informationally through seminars and classes. It might happen at a convention, but I doubt it unless the people are already extremely primed. Conventions are forms that are too institutional (like lectureships) where often things come down to “how to” classes – which feed the wrong mentality. The form is too institutional to convey a non-institutional freshness.

I think that perhaps sharing, even for short periods, in congregations that have the life you are seeking for your community is the way to go. Different experiences will help people realize that it is not about a certain configuration. Two couples from here visited Church of the Savior. That is a good place to see very authentic Christian life being lived out. Besides personally witnessing community I think that narrative can serve as a vehicle for experience – even though instruction does not work well. The Emergent idea of conversation is powerful too.

I guess these ramblings are coming down to how you can guide others into hearing more clearly the call of God: creating dissatisfaction with where we are, longing for more of God, and experiencing how that longing can be met in vibrant community. I know . . . I’ve said nothing new. Maybe this “methodology” could be wedded to my earlier thoughts about “abrupt” change and intentional negation of our worst religious pitfalls.

Keith Brenton commented on my blog saying “wasn’t I talking about new wineskins?” Yes, I am trying to give some detail to what it means to have new wineskins. That is something we have heard said, but how well do we know what it takes to have new wineskins? I guess that is what I’m trying to describe as best I understand it- but I am afraid that you will likely find little new in my thoughts. I wish I had better answers!


Thursday, May 26, 2005

Addendum to Initial Installments

As I think about two of the ideas I've put forth:
1) The type of change I am discussing must be an instantaneous leap to a new paradigm and not incremental progression,
2) Those jumping to the new paradigm exist as an open community among others,
I believe these aspects are seen in the Jerusalem church.

Peter describes the leap to a new world in his call for separation for the corrupt generation and submission to the name of Jesus . . . accepting completely the one who'd been rejected profoundly. The fact that those making this jump were distinct is seen in the statement that "no one else dared join them" (Acts 5:13). The paradoxical verse which follows says "more and more . . . were added to their number." To me it is language that decries any incrementalism: a little in and a little not. People didn't come gradually . . . they either were living there or they weren't.

And yet this distinct group which had leapt to acceptance of Jesus as the messiah still lived daily in the temple, among those who'd not made that jump. Everywhere, they continued in the synagogues. They spoke about new realities with a welcoming posture to anyone willing to begin living in the Kingdom.

Their story seems to me to illustrate how revival takes place. In essence, they were participating in a revival of Jewish faith. Avoiding the tired controversies of "saved" and "not saved" we can envision a revival in Christian congregations through reinvigorated faith, self-understanding, and action in similar terms. A new vigorous community erupts through God's Spirit among what has become stale. This is not about judgemental statements against those (like myself) who've been caught up in fossilized religion. The new community emerges abruptly, and is anything but exclusive. It is distinct and simultaneously inclusive.

In a similar fashion, a new Christian faith emerges within old communities, not to be iconoclastic, but to be inviting and hopeful.

Tibi gloria, Domine!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Installment #2

See the previous post for the beginning of this subject:

I have continued to think about your query and to look for what I can say. As you know, none of this “life in community” follows a formula, though there may be some aspects that are common to such a journey. So let me dive into another of my opinions – one which is related to my earlier installment on making a clean, new start rather than attempting an incremental journey.

One of my missions professors, Dr. Ed Matthews, gave us this advice: when you go to your field of work, find out what stereotypes the people have about missionaries and Christianity, and break them. Where we were in Africa, two groups in particular, had been there for close to 100 years – the White Fathers of the Catholic Church and the African Inland Mission. One of the stereotypical ideas the local people had about Christianity was that one term for followers of Christ was “readers” because being a Christian was so closely tied to literacy. Among that tribe where functional literacy was well below 20% to me that was a problematic stereotype.

This doesn’t mean that I was going to criticize all that other missionaries had done before me, but to see where the people of that culture had put missionaries and Christianity “in a box” and then intentionally create a new hearing for Christian faith. To me this does not necessarily mean being iconoclastic, but showing the unbounded character of Christian faith, deepening the mystery, and exposing new aspects to surprise the local people.

We learned the tribal language and not just the trade language, which was something the Catholic missionaries did but not the Protestants. We tried to find ways to create a fresh hearing for the Good News among people who had experienced a Christian witness for 100 years but were still 90% traditionalists.

When I take this idea and apply it to my thoughts about reinvigorating a Christian community today, I think that a group must take some radical positions to directly challenge where there has been lethargy, “in the box” thinking, and routine. This is a very contextual endeavor.

Taking an example from our community, we felt led to break out of an institutional mindset that bred loyalty to congregations – their funding, their programs, their progress. We wanted to create a new vision for discipleship to Jesus in daily life rather than succumbing to the tendency to enjoy membership in a church much like membership in a country club. To hit this problem head-on (for ourselves, to remind us how we are susceptible to such thinking) we did away with “membership.” Since no one can be a member of Disciples’ Fellowship, we were actively opposing our own tendencies to revert to “institutional” promotion, thinking, and identity. We also started to use the knock-off from the Southwest commercial saying “You are now free to move about the Kingdom” as a way to intentionally capture our desire to see the body of Christ rather than our local congregation.

Obviously, someone in another context might see no sense in that intentional stand. They probably shouldn’t. When we talk about “not being Sunday-centered, preacher-centered, campus-centered, or sermon-centered” – again we are identifying the particular weaknesses that exist for us.

The general point I am thinking about is that not only does a clear change need to happen at a moment in time rather than gradually, that change needs to involve some distinct paradigm shifting which is a redefining of the weaknesses and negative tendencies of a group.

When you say that you feel that your congregation may be over-staffed, over-propertied, and self-centered then, if I were in your situation, I would do things to turn those aspects around 180 degrees. The same idea is suggested by Jason Zahariades in his article on
“Detoxing from Church.” Like people suffering from an addiction to chemical substances, we need a radical detoxing unlike the “moderation” which is possible for those not addicted.

If believers in your community are addicted to too much staff, their property, and an inward focus – then I think a big jump is essential. Maybe nothing concerning the internal nature of the group will be discussed for a year – consciously and overtly changing the dialogue. Letting everyone know that we aren’t going to talk about . . . because, though those matters are good, we’ve neglected other conversations of the Kingdom. Maybe the staff is reduced, or maybe they start doing ministry to outsiders only (and do nothing for the internal maintenance of the group). Maybe the property is sold, or maybe in some way a new paradigm is introduced by some new use that makes it clear that the addiction is being broken. I like the idea of using the 12-steps of substance addiction as a process of thorough-going repentance.

We joked about being in church-recovery, or Church of Christ anonymous classes. That was the attitude that we had to adopt. I’m not sure, as I’ve said before, how this is worked out in your context as the practice of faith. Please accept this humble second installment - which may be simply the misguided thoughts of an outsider.

Peace to you.

Monday, May 23, 2005

From Institution to Fellowship of Believers - 1

Recently, I was asked how our fellowship of believers made the change to head towards what we are becoming . . . so because I want to kill two birds with one stone, here's part of that as a post. Unfortunately, you will have to do without this person's question and description of his own church situation. Suffice it to say that he is part of a very good congregation, but which may suffer from institutional lethargy - and he longs for a more vital, outward looking, missional/incarnational community.


I take very seriously your request, which is why I am going to answer in several installments. I want to be able to think about this and let it simmer for a while. But I can respond initially to one thing you raise in your letter - Could you see an established church really transforming into what you now are?

I think it could happen 1) if the leadership is willing to take risks and pursue the vision, and 2) the fact that significant numbers of people may decide to not go along for the journey won't kill the effort.

If there is a united and courageous group of leaders, I think something can happen, but it will be a “cultural” change – which will be as difficult as that language suggests. We are not talking about organizational, methodological, stylistic, doctrinal, or some lesser change, but the most fundamental restructuring of the DNA imaginable. I believe that I am telling you nothing new.

Of course, such a thorough-going change is easier to adopt in a new context – rather than to infuse it into something familiar, just because the old places, structures, environment, configuration, etc. all are repositories for the old church culture. They are memorials which tend to lead people to associate familiar concepts of church with where they have practiced them. Again, nothing new here, but only my take on the added difficulty of doing something profoundly different in a location and with people who have long-established habits. Take those people out of that setting, and they know there has to be change, and I think they will be more accepting of it. If a family moves to New York, they expect to experience some change even if they would rather not. Changing at “home” is possible, but more difficult.

My second comment, and the thought that first “jumped to mind” (was prompted by the Holy Spirit? – that must yet be discerned) is that incremental change cannot get a group to this new culture. Using another subject to illustrate- there is no “incremental” pathway from legalism to accepting grace. Understanding the radical difference may come incrementally, but the leap is “all or nothing” in a moment. A person goes from trusting in his or her own actions to bring righteousness, to abandoning all hope of that and desperately leaping to a whole new paradigm that exists in an entirely new universe. Even if done imperfectly (there is certainly more to learn) the jump happens at a specific time. There is no middle ground – a little legalistic and a little grace-dependent. The gradualists want to believe in middle ground to lessen the impact, to manage the change – but not when we are talking about mutually exclusive matters.

We cannot assess where we are, figure out where we want to be, and then create a series of gradual steps to get from here to there. We can do this if the change is not at the depth of the fabric of things. But I think we are talking about a Copernican revolution that involves how we relate to God, what “church” is, how we are to exist in relation to the non-confessing world, what leadership is, the role of believer-to-believer relationships, how we view our Sunday activities, what being a Christian means, etc.

My own assessment of our congregation, in ways that I believe are not at first even evident to many outside observers, is that we are in a different world completely. I think the Emergent thing is like that – but many seem to be going to Emergent events to “get ideas” to apply in the usual modern incremental (tweak the model) fashion. I don’t think it will work.

That is not to say that every person who shares life with us here is in that new world – but if they hang around they learn the new culture. I guess every individual doesn’t have to “jump” to it at the same time, but the identity/focus/configuration (those words aren’t good, but I don’t know what to use) of the group must jump all at once to something new. Obviously, many people have to be “in” that first jump. Others will feel the disequilibrium, but their move may come later.

I am probably rambling, but I think this incremental versus instantaneous distinction is vital. Most churches that are established want to eat the elephant one bite at a time and hope people will be able to handle the change in small bits. If we talk about leadership, there is no incremental way to go from top-down authoritarianism to bottom-up servanthood. You stop the old way, switch to the new way, and deal with the whiplash effect. Now if you want to tweak the top-down to make it less arbitrary, maybe less mean-spirited, less personality centered – that can be done incrementally because there is a continuum to move along gradually since there is no fundamental change happening. It is just a new form of top-down.

If a church is going to move from self-centered keepers of the faith to Kingdom outposts to bless a non-confessing world, that cannot be done little by little. Trying to do it gradually usually means that it never happens. What one can do in an established church is to start creating a new church within the old church – the new one operating in a whole new way. People are invited to join the journey. Of course, through time the difference will become apparent, and often that can be painful and difficult. What many want is incrementalism. “Can’t you preach about grace and yet say things to emphasize the old essentials?” – as if those were compatible and the switch could happen gradually.

For me, the new emergent paradigm of church is so radically different that it cannot be ushered in through old means. In other words, the new pattern is not top-down, so it cannot be brought in through a top-down mandate. That would be a contradiction. The new is lived, not organized and implemented. So I think ultimately you are looking at people opting out of old ways, adopting new ways, and jumping to a whole new paradigm. If the “leadership” agrees, they cease to be “leaders” in any modern organizational sense and begin living a new reality. Can your congregation endure the whiplash and enter the new world? I don’t know.

My fear is that you’ll actually act on what I’ve written. I’m not even sure of what that would mean at this point. Let me think on this and maybe that will come in a later installment.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Three police officers thought they might be making a drug bust Wednesday night when they rushed in, but found instead my friend and his son had taken another friend home from our prayer meeting and had just stayed to chat. Not that these officers didn't have a reason to suspect something illegal . . . they're just not aware of what divine transformation has been happening. They busted in on the fellowship of believers in Christ!

Oooooo . . . I love it when our witness is starting to make a real difference - when our presence is salt and light in places known to be otherwise.

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Okay, I admit . . .

Sometimes my ideas don't sound so good the second time around.

I still get a twinge of feeling left behind when I read/hear of others progressing in the profession of ministry.

I am still way too judgmental of those selling out ministry as a profession.

I sound like I am better read/more knowledgeable than I really am - I probably spent last night getting my butt whipped online in Halo 2 rather than reading . . . (insert notable author/book here).

I really do think that most heavy metal songs are redeemable if they're honest about life.

I am still unforgiving towards some people who have wronged me.

My thoughts are very heathen even if my actions aren't. I'm really scared of "snapping" and doing what I think about.

I'm not too certain that confessing like this is a good idea.

I wish God would put an end to all the silly stuff that is promoted on the INSP network.

That last confession means God would have to put an end to my silliness as well.

I'm a really judgmental idiot.

I need to think more before confessing - so really stupid statements like that one about the INSP network can be filtered so I can keep up the pretense of not saying dumb and self-condemning stuff.

I thought of something to confess, but I'm not going to say it here.

I get impatient with others.

I really do want to praised by men and women - though I know that is very dangerous.

Sometimes I worry about the future.

I don't want to get seriously sick for a long time.

I'm not real sure how I feel about definitely not being young anymore. I want to age graciously but don't know if I'll do that well.

I am too intently concerned about criticism - which is ironic because I knowingly do things that will generate it.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

On Wanting

"You cannot have what you want."

"But what I want is good . . . it is of God," the disciple protests.

"Even so, if your desire is anything other than God himself, your longing has become a competitor . . . an idol. There is more to be considered than simply the 'good' or 'bad' of a thing. Your longing might be ill-timed, secretly self-flattering, or good your your own eyes, but only God knows what is truly good. Our vocation is to seek God himself, and to allow him to order the things of our lives, the times, the relationships, the possessions, the opportunities, and the experiences as he desires. Much is wasted by disciples who believe that God has shown them what is good and they pursue it for him, rather than understanding that God has shown himself to be good that we might long for him."

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Evangelical Conversion

My last post, needs an addendum. Not only does the situation with the individual I am sharing life with in our faith community prompt a discussion of differentiating between self-serving "felt needs", that are the chief concern of many churches as they seek to "appeal" to the spiritual consumers out there, and a contextualized message that reveals God's grace as it is poured out into situations of human suffering, it also raises a question of typical evangelical notions of conversion (what a long sentence!).

This person does not need, nor would he understand right now, lots of talk about personal sin, eternal consequences, and "conversion" to take care of all that. His need is more immediate - not in heaven by and by. As I explained, the Gospel to him right now is good news about hope, peace, and sanity through Christ which rescues him from a chaos that is a lifestyle. Sure it includes "sin" - but that's not the problem. It is life as he knows it.

He's 82 days clean and sober today. I'm discipling him, but right now that has nothing to do with understanding atonement. Instead it is about having a Savior from the chaos here and now. I don't even ask the evangelical "big question": Is he saved?

He is becoming more like Jesus - the Spirit doing alot in 82 days. Anxiety is down, paranoia is waning, peace and sanity are invading a disturbed life. That may not be the norm for evangelical conversion, but it is spiritual transformation.

Making disciples is all about sharing life with others so they find the God who is seeking them. If we quit worrying about who's saved and lost, and just start discipling everyone (the nations) we might actually start doing what Jesus was talking about. Discipling does not follow conversion. Discipling is everything; those who put faith in Jesus are those who have been discipled to some extent, though they, just like me, are still being discipled.

Evangelical patterns of making everything about conversion with discipling being a later stage tries to make orderly and neat what is a messy process. How all of this occurs will never follow a precise and predictable sequence. Trying to make every person start at the same point and journey according to some formula only means we often miss the prevenient discipling of the Spirit in those we encounter because we were wedded to our own flow chart. Unlike Jesus, we have the same conversation with everyone, while he had personally relevant conversations with people as recorded in the gospels. Seems like Jesus was discipling everyone - richman, poorman, beggarman, thief (or adultress).

Monday, May 09, 2005

Felt Needs & Desperate Needs

Over the last couple of months our community has been sharing God's love and His Kingdom with a man who has been heavily involved in the "under-culture" of drugs and crime. The "kick-proof" doors on his house aren't there to keep the criminal element out, but to keep the police from getting in before the drugs can be flushed.

In the last three weeks, in separate incidents, three of his associates have been arrested on his property, for drug possession and driving a stolen vehicle. Last week, two of his "friends" were involved in a police chase that included the attempted murder of three officers, the theft of two vehicles, and ended with the death of a woman who was a passenger when the high speed chase ended in a head-on collision.

This man has been finding Jesus . . . which leads me to think about the whole 'felt needs" discussion. Generally I don't like the felt needs approach because it often transforms God into "a means for my own agenda." The needs people "feel" are generally totally misconstrued addictions to themselves. Allowing Christian faith to be shaped by the perceived needs of the unregenerate or immature regenerate will result in shallow Christianity.

However, the situation with this individual has reminded me that the legitimate aspect of a felt needs discussion is that the work of God in Christ must be shown to be relevant to where people are. I've not talked to this man about Jesus in terms of personal salvation and the forgiveness of his sins, but for him Jesus offers a strength to overcome his own addictions and a new way of living without all the chaos. Jesus is peace, a refuge . . . his Higher Power because his own life is unmanageable. He falls back in faith on the sovereignty of God as he is overwhelmed by the inscrutable nature of his life.

We cannot retool Jesus to make him the answer to whatever felt need a person has, but we should demonstrate in a way that starts with robust theology that Jesus is a Savior in the midst of our desperate needs. That is contextualization of the good news of grace in terms of human life.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

On Being Irrelevant

A recent statement issued by some professors as their affirmation of the identity of their denomination was done to "clarify" where they stand and believe their denomination ought to stand. Unfortunately, anyone familiar with Churches of Christ will recognize the standard subjects: baptism, Lord's Supper, and a cappella singing . . . and the thoroughly discredited notion that Christian unity can be achieved through a common interpretation and practice of ancient church forms.

Hasn't that been tried? Isn't it a modern idea that human understanding and agreement will be the basis of Christian unity? Unity does not exist through common practice and belief, but by the Spirit despite dissimilar human practice and belief.

While I don't doubt the sincerest desires of these men (several have been my teachers) it is a clear example of institutional irrelevance. Concern for the preservation of the organizational identity of the denomination leads to focusing on 'internal' discussions over disputable interpretations.

We have an urgent need for Christian faith and life to be theologically incarnated in today's challenging cultural contexts. At least for me, nothing can be more irrelevant than spending time defending historical interpretive positions for the purpose of clarifying and preserving denominational identities. The three matters chosen as an identity show how form-oriented the discussion remains for what Churches of Christ have been.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Praying with St. Augustine

God of life,
there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders
and wear us down;
when the roads seems dreary and endless
the skies grey and threatening
when our lives have no music in them
and our hearts are lonely,
and our souls have lost their courage.
Flood the path with light, we beseech you;
turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise.
Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you.
Grant us purity of heart and strength of purpose,
That no selfish passion may hinder us from knowing your will,
no weakness from doing it;
But that in your light we may see light clearly,
and in your service find perfect freedom;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-St. Augustine