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.


Mark said...

We've also used the nickname "Dysfunctional Fellowship". One of the great things about DF is the acknowledgement of our messiness, embracing it together, and committing to one another to walk together through it. The idea of coming to church to be "fixed" is another area that was a 180 degree immediate flip flop. Nobody promises that if one comes to DF they can be fixed, but we do promise to walk through whatever together.

Frank Bellizzi said...


I've been intrigued by the first two installments. I hope you'll keep writing and thinking all of this through for me and the other readers.