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.


Mark said...

Man was that a mouthful!! And so right on. I am really feeling that whole idea of operating in a "different" world right now where I am. I really don't thik I can or even should try to change it, but I am definitely speaking a different language and I'm sure there are times when I make them think I'm a little too far "out there". I'm just not asking the same questions so I come up with different answers.

Edward Fudge said...

Thanks, Greg . . . and God bless!

Keith Brenton said...

So, uh, Greg ... are we talking about a whole new set of wineskins here?

Greg Newton said...

Sure, Keith . . . but do we know what that well-worn metaphor looks like? Some seem to believe that an incremental modification of a long-standing practice is a "new wineskin" . . . but I doubt you're one of those.