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!



Anthony Parker said...

I’ve read with interest your thoughts, and I respect very much how 'in process' you are. I found the idea of 'no membership,' or rather 'open membership' especially interesting and, in many ways, appealing. I think that the idea of ‘membership’ has lost its appeal because we’ve changed the paradigm of church from organism to organization. The biblical model of membership is being members of a body, not a club.

But if that is the case, then the idea of membership shouldn’t be rejected, just redefined. And membership in a body does require some idea of loyalty to the entire body. In a crude sense, it is a matter of self-preservation. My spiritual survival depends on the well-being of the body.

I find it puzzling, then, how your emphasis on community corresponds to a de-emphasis on membership. It seems that the two would go hand-in-hand. Maybe we’re just talking about semantics, and redefining membership.

In the same way, my loyalty to Christ implies, in concrete terms, loyalty to his body; and his universal body does not exist apart from its local manifestations. There has to be some way in which I can fully take my place in the universal body without denouncing loyalty to its local presence of which I am apart. And that means accepting responsibility for paying the light bills, as well as responding to the needs of others in that community.

I guess I’m struggling with this because I am also very much 'in process' and we will face some decisions over the next year or two as to what kind of community/body/church we will be a part of after we move to the States.

Keith Brenton said...

Maybe we just need to change the word - from "membership" to "fellowship."

The more I try to picture what Jesus had in mind for His fellowship, the less I see the church and the more I see the kingdom. There's a difference.

And the difference is important.

Church is concerned about governance, programs, administration, finance, order, doctrine, institution - and membership. It's what happens in the epistles and has to be corrected so often there.

Kingdom is concerned about the welfare of others, the Kingship of Christ, about holiness, about giving, about selflessness and Christ-likeness.

I said in my blog "I'm not sure I believe in the church anymore, but I believe in the kingdom." I don't mean that church is bad; church just needs to de-accessorize everything that isn't the white robe given by Christ.

Greg Newton said...

Anthony - you raise good points. Obviously, I/we are not anti-relational community, but I believe that at least for our context membership is so construed to support of an organization that it is not discipleship to Christ. At least for us, we have no problem in being relationally dependent and rejecting organizational obligation.

We do run the risk of the lights not being paid because we don't say that people have a responsibility to sustain some organizational identity. MArk and I are perfectly willing (called even) to dare the group to be faithful even if that means we have to find another way to put food on the table.

Our group has no budget - and will likely never have one. I do get paid, but my assurance that my needs will be met is all about God living in my brothers and sisters - a totally relational confidence.

To me, unless we are willing to lose the institution entirely, we are not ready to participate in a functional organization redemptively. The temptations are too great (at least for me/us).

Greg Newton said...


You say well what I think - the Church as those who are responding "from below" to the Kingdom which descends "from above" is properly aligned when we are commited not to who we are, as those responding. but to the Kingdom which makes us the Church.

Should we ever have believed in the Church?