Saturday, November 26, 2005

Reviewing the Journey

I keep thinking about this journey we've been on for almost three years. What I mean is that I reflect on where God has been leading us, how in general terms it is what we vaguely imagined, but how in specific ways we have moved along in ways I didn't imagine.

There are at least two reasons this keeps churning over in my mind: 1) as a congregation we continue to talk about what we are to be, reviewing and adjusting our sense of community and mission to hopefully tune our walk to the Spirit's rhythm, and 2) we've had and receive opportunities to discuss with others how they might embark on a similar trek through non-institutionalized Christian life.

Our general idea of being a congregation that does nothing to further its own existence but only seeks to be involved in God's Mission in the world has been an interesting goal. This value has led us to have no weekly contributions, to abolish any sort of church membership, to de-emphasize the Sunday gathering so as to not let it be the penultimate mark of faithfulness or Christian life, to remain largely unstructured and unorganized, and to choose to meet in a leased building.

This concept has also entered into our reluctance to do much with having signs. Anything that moves our focus off living for Christ daily and onto building up "our church" has been suspect. By implication all marketing is out. So is any proselyting of people to come to "our church."

This is not to suggest that sharing this vision has been all that easy. We've all had to struggle with tendencies to fall back into institutionally-focused ways of thinking and acting. It is easy to want to ensure our own existence by planning for our corporate future, and harder to allow God the freedom to do whatever He wants.

One leader of another church in town, on hearing of our original vision of being a church that welcomed and accepted marginalized people, remarked that one couldn't build a church with people like that. In other words, you need resources to build a church . . . and when you focus on the needy - they "consume" resources rather than provide them.

Interestingly enough, our congregation - which continues to try as best we can to simply do what God asks and not to think of our own institutional needs - is having no trouble finding resources to do whatever is needed. Obviously, God really is faithful even when we aren't planning our own path.

What I take away from my review is not a prideful "pat-on-the-back" for how well we are doing, but a gratefulness for God's faithfulness and a sober realization that we must continue on the difficult path of being willing to lose everything - even our community - for the sake of God.

A few weeks ago I came to the decision that my role is not to "defend" the journey we are on, but to simply be on that journey. A non-institutional community won't try and preserve its non-institutional character. Such defensiveness is an institutional trait. A truly non-institutional group will remain such by staying focused on life in God rather than the nature of its own existence. As soon as I start defending rather than simply being - I've become more concerned with how we exist in this world rather than how we participate in God's Reign.

So . . . when we lose it, we gain it. And if we try and keep it, we lose it. Imagine that!

Monday, November 21, 2005

More on 'Leadership'

We rejoined the Christian calendar - actually at the end with "Christ the King" yesterday. I am looking forward to the rich movement of Advent through Easter.

Don Hill led a good discussion class yesterday about what it is like when people exist together as an organism of life rather than a static organization.

One of the real challenges that came out was the tension between being a Christian within the hierarchies that exist in the world and the lack of such among believers. Since I do not long for a utpoian Christian society, I think that as believers we live counter-culturally in a world that will continue to need hierarchies, and yet the Kingdom will come among us when we have only servants and no positional leaders. That cannot be replicated in the world, and cannot by definition be forced on others. Only a group that chooses this may experience it.

We do have giftedness which encourages us to fulfill different roles in the Christian community, but there is no gift of telling everyone else what to do. There is a giftedness of suggesting creative ideas, and even visionary possibilities, . . . but each responds to these as the Spirit directs and not as the visionary instructs.

Again . . . leadership is about the willingness of others to listen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Epistle to Dothan

First, the text from a seminar on being missional for those who are thoroughly modern:
Advanced Consulting Skills for Missional Transformation: August 1-12
This specialized 2-week training is for those who wish to increase their diagnostic skills to work out of a missional framework with church systems. Participants will learn how to probe more deeply and productively into the complex theological, interpersonal, and organizational dynamics of the church.

Discover and learn to use a powerful diagnostic model in your consultative role that will help churches to -
* clarify the end-results they are seeking,
* identify the multiple factors at work,
* put complex situations in perspective,
* integrate and apply a variety of concepts and theories,
* define and evaluate progress on a missional journey.

Participants will learn to use the Systems Model of the Church within the context of a powerful feedback and learning process for the church. An actual intervention with a local church will serve as a significant learning tool. As a result you will be able to incorporate many new skills into your ministry.
Yes . . . this text was accompanied by a diagram of the aforementioned systems model with nice arrows, text, and flow chart flavor.

I'm glad someone is creating charts about being incarnational.

On to the next subject . . .

Our trip to fellowship with the believers in Dothan was a blessing. They have a truly wonderful storefront space which dissallows standard preconceptions about "attending church" or "listening to sermons."

The location and functionality of the area lends itself to multiple uses . . . and they are thinking about ways of letting it be a place of commnity and conversation . . . for whoever. Really good.

What we talked about was not at all sterile and systematic nonsense- you know, the type of mechanistic planning evident in the example I copied above. We ended up in very real-life discussions about sharing faith, building community, setting boundaries, accepting others, clinging to faith in God's mysterious working - observing general principles from our discussions of specific situations.

I was blessed by the opportunity to talk and worship with the Christians there. I am confident in God's working as clearly evident in their ministry to one another. I know that the same care and guidance will be shared with everyone whose lives they touch.

As one of the others who went from our Birmingham fellowship remarked as we were driving home, it seemed like a very New Testament church-like thing to do . . . the sort of thing Paul would write a letter about:

To the saints in Dothan, grace and peace to you, from and through our God, who has richly filled us in our inner being with every gracious gift.

I give thanks every time I think of you, and the joy you have in serving the Lord. May your patience and love be expressed to one another in grace for the sake of Christ, so that you may continue to offer hope and care to anyone who is suffering and discouraged.

For you know that today many are fleeced in churches that seek only their tithes in order to service their debt. Many are promised earthly rewards for their faithfulness, which only leads to a crisis of faith. And others labor under fear, guilt, and shame as they seek to please God believing he will only save those who are worthy. Many have settled for membership in a religious club not knowing the way of a disciple.

All these are the children of God, and need to hear again the Good News of God's grace through Jesus. They need to find others willing to listen and bear their burdens; those willing to be patient as they walk imperfectly on a journey in Christ through the Spirit. Their hearts are sincere and good, but do not know the way of our Savior who gave us life in him rather than a church to attend.

There are many others who search through the confusion of today's culture, unhappy with the religious nature of the churches they have rejected, but struggling to find God. They have an inner awareness of needing the transcendent, and relationship, and hope and love, but the only churches they know seem in their eyes to offer little of this goodness.

You will be the body of Christ to each one you accept, encourage, and instruct in love. Do not worry that your efforts should produce great gatherings of many people, or impressive movements, for God is Sovereign and He will do His work to His glory! It is enough for you to be faithful in offering whatever is in your hand to give. The fishes and loaves feed thousands even when we do not see who is being fed. We should not be limited to wanting to minister in ways where we can see the results. Our work is by faith.

I have seen God among you, and enjoy His presence and be thankful. God is doing much, and all of it will be both glorious and difficult. Rely on the Spirit at all times. Honor everyone above yourselves and others will see God.

Grace and peace to you all in Christ, and may he supply your every need for the ministry to which you have been called. Be content with the mystery of God's working, finding the faith He gives sufficient for your contentment. Live in Kingdom you have received. The saints who meet at Disciples' Fellowship greet you.

Or something like that . . .

Friday, November 11, 2005

Dothan Trip

Several of us leave tomorrow to spend a couple of days with Christians in Dothan, AL who have begun on a journey similar to ours. The similarity is not necessarily in the details, but in the overall values.

I look forward to sharing in conversation, fellowship, and worship with them.

We'll see what the Spirit has in store.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Community and Coercion

One thing that was impressed on me during our years in Africa is that ecclesial power is illusionary. In that situation you realize how powerless you are - and how foolish it would be to believe you can control those people.

I used to tell the Tanzanians "Budula wane buli giki, butogwa wingwe wa kudegeleka" (my power is this, your willingness to listen). I was being honest. They could walk away, do anything they wanted, and totally disregard me. There was nothing I could do to make them do what I wanted or said.

All Christians are volunteers. In Tanzania the word for believers also meant "agree-ers". What binds us together is uncoerced agreement. We agree to submit to one another. We agree to follow God's leading. None of this can be forced.

So often guilt, shame, and fear are used to wield power over people even in matters of faith. "Jesus gave us the power to bind on earth and in heaven so if you don't do what we say we will consign you to hell." The threat of excommunication kept medieval kings in line, if not because of their own fear, because their subjects would rise up in revolt against an excommunicated sovereign.

Spiritual blackmail has no place in spiritual formation. No fellow believer rules over me spiritually, and I rule over no one. We are all brothers. And yet I willingly submit to the instruction, guidance, and interests of others.

Trying to live out this reality in a community is challenging because all models that I am familiar with, have a hierarchy at the core. That hierarchy is based on illusory power, but those at the top of the structure attempt to wield it nonetheless.

Being free to pursue God, and yet indebted to love others, is the tension that keeps us in relationship without the coercion of human power.