July 2, 2008

over the past few months, i have been engaged in a conversation with the efca about my desire to help start new churches.  as part of the application process, i had to write up my vision of what the church(es) i would start would look like.  as cindy and i are still a good three or more years out from doing anything non-academic, what i see is necessarily and unfortunately vague.  unfortunately because the church is such a particular, concrete reality, it’s difficult to see it apart from its particularities.

at any rate, it’s been a good exercise in clarifying what really are my core convictions about the what it means to be the church.  i think the heart of my past reflections on church (see my old blog post here) are still present, but i’ve had to work some reconciliation between my natural anarchist bent and the need for institutional structures for the church to be both workable and faithful to what the church is.

confusing?  read on…

My Church-Planting Vision

I see a church larger than a building, bigger than its programs. I see a church spreading out until it touches the edges of its members’ relational networks. I see a church living as the presence of the gospel both in interpersonal relationships and in its geographical neighborhood. I see a church that is listening and waiting for God to send its members out to begin new church-communities.

My vision is not just a church but a growing network of local, neighborhood church-communities. Some of these communities look like storefront congregations, some look like cell groups, some may even look like the stone edifices of long-established denominations revitalized from within. This multiplication is one of the results of a different way of thinking about what it means to be the church. Most basically, this new way of understanding church amounts to giving up a model where the church, in its programs and outreach, is a means to get individuals to heaven; instead we begin following Jesus as he talks, listens, heals, and eats with people, promising them that this kind of fellowship is what his Father’s kingdom is like.

The heart of these communities’ new way of being the church is koinonia, both as fellowship and as participation. This reflects Paul’s overriding concern for the communal life of the churches and his continual, theologically-motivated depiction of believers as “in Christ.” This together with Jesus’ parables about God’s kingdom, his moral concern with social relationships, his habit of eating with all sorts of people, his promise that his death founds a new community, and his prayer that this community love one another in unity—these support a vision of ecclesial koinonia that is grounded in Christ and oriented toward the eschaton.

In practice, this looks like church-communities built around shared meals. These meals happen in two contexts. First, and most importantly, these meals happen in members’ homes (backyards, alleys, nearby parks, etc.). These gatherings are the stuff of which the life together of the community is most basically comprised; without this casual time spent together, the church would not really be a church. But because these meals are inevitably bound to end up clique-ish and in-grown, and because, on the other hand, the gospel establishes one community full of all kinds of people (not just one’s friends), a second, institutional meal is necessary. This meal (which the New Testament terms the Lord’s Supper and the church appropriated as the Eucharist) ensures the present incarnation of the gospel witnesses truly to God’s coming kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, a kingdom where all people are called to live to God together, without divisions on the basis of cultural heritage, socioeconomic status, politics, age, health or gender. Though this weekly celebration meal looks more like a potluck than a sacrament, it is the promise of God’s coming kingdom and the pledge where this kingdom is already making itself present.

While one of the primary roles of the church-communities is just this getting together, these conversations and these relationships, the communities also takes seriously Jesus’ command to participate in this fellowship in remembrance of him. When it remembers Jesus in his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, the community is reflecting on its own life “in Christ”–its life that bears the same shape as Jesus’ life. This demands an attentiveness to Scripture as the place where we find stories of God’s action in Jesus and in history and attentiveness to our culture where Christ’s life is now being lived out in us.

This remembering also takes place in the two contexts. In homes, it looks like conversations or, perhaps, the structured discussions found in many home Bible studies. In the institutional life of the community, it somewhat resembles a sermon. Yet in its institutional life, the church-community maintains a tension between a strong commitment to honor God’s revelation with openness and study, and a fluid organizational structure that assumes that God’s Spirit may speak through any of its members. This fluidity shows up as a teaching-preaching role shared by the entire community (as reflected in 1 Corinthians 12-14). This shared role is ordered and doctrinally accountable to the leaders of the church-community (as prescribed by chapter 14).

Leadership in the church-community is understood less in terms of control than as accountability: the leaders are those accountable before God to ensure that the community is growing in Christ-likeness in thought, feeling, and action. This leadership model makes possible the rapid multiplication of church-communities. First, it requires the entire community to listen for the speaking of God’s Spirit, for the Spirit may speak in surprising places. This listening develops an attitude of obedience, whether obeying means joining in a praise chorus, throwing a barbeque for our hungry neighbors, campaigning for fair-housing, or sending members from our community to start a new community. Second this structure reveals and equips those God calls and gifts to lead. A shared teaching, preaching, praising, organizing, cooking, cleaning, etc. responsibility provides natural opportunity for the communities to discover new leaders in their midst. These practiced leaders in this community become the accountable leaders in the next community, arranging meals, listening to and proclaiming God’s Word, safeguarding doctrinal and practical orthodoxy, and so forth.

I see a church beyond the once or twice a week meeting, beyond paid and part-time staff, beyond programs and Sunday School classes. I see a church beginning with people, with their relationships and their needs, which is where Jesus’ good news of God’s kingdom comes to meet us. It disrupts assumed distinctions between the people who run the church and the people who go to church by taking up the New Testament’s insistence that these two groups are really the same. In the end, it pushes the church beyond itself, multiplying into a growing network of church-communities that proclaim Jesus as Lord of our normal, everyday lives.

i’d greatly appreciate your feedback, your witty criticisms, and your speculations about which theological voices are showing up where.  blagodaram.


around our dining room table, cindy and stumbled our way into an interesting conversation while we picked at our dinner of salad greens, polish sausage, microwave-baked potatoes, and yogurt. cindy is taking a summer class on the modern catholic novel (e.g., graham greene, flannery o’connor, etc.) that has led into a lot of discussions about grace, revelation, creation, and natural law. between this and my recent interest in barth, we’re lucky our dinner conversation doesn’t become a food fight.

on monday night, the connection between ontological and hermeneutical assumptions was at issue. somehow paul ricoeur functioned as the jumping off point for the whole to-do, but i can’t quite remember how. it ended with the two of us washing dishes and making some tea while i pontificated on the difference between what, for lack of better terminology, i call the abstract stance and the narrative stance. cindy eventually handed me the dish towel and politely excused herself on the pretext of reading for class.

still, i think i’m on to something (that’s probably already been said). i should credit barth (and, indirectly, von balthasar’s treatment of barth) with directing me to the happening character of God’s relationship to us. most emphatically in Jesus, but in God’s history with israel too, God comes to us in events, in actions, in moments of time. the word history itself betrays this event-like, actual character, and it provides an excellent entrance into story or narrative as the conceptual framework that structures our theological and doxological reflection.

this sort of active, happening understanding of our relationship with (or, perhaps better, relating to) God seems to pervade the new testament, or, at least, it promotes a better reading of many passages. mark, matthew, luke, paul, and john of patmos all embrace an eschatological vision that waits for God to bring all things together at the parousia through the final intervention of Jesus. debatably, john can be added to this list too. what this story-shaped stance produces is an openness to God’s continued action, the conviction that he exceeds every particular revelatory event (with the exception of Jesus, who in turn superabounds every formulation of his identity–why else do we have four Gospels?), and hope, a hope in God finishing the story he started.

the alternative is to abstract. this impulse develops early in church history, finding full-bodied expression in the work of the second-century apologists. in place of the unfolding action of narrative experience, theology becomes static, synchronic. one might blame the influence of hellenistic philosophy, the cultural play-dress-up that christians use to gain some intellectual capital. one might blame a lot things. in this view, God quickly moves from person to principle, the event of God’s breaking into our world become theoretical points, and hope becomes a conclusion. things are much more manageable (albeit pagan).

the way i see it, relating to God is not something that can be developed a priori (like marechal, de lubac, or rahner) or a posteriori (like bits of thomas, most of the scholastics, schleiermacher, etc.). it can neither be an assumption nor a deduction. it is something that happens, something we wait for, crying out “how long?” only when we see ourselves as standing in the middle of a story, between the “in the beginning” and the “amen,” do God and reason come together.

at church on sunday we sang a song that has been running through my mind ever since then. it’s a folk-gospel-influenced tune written, if i’m not mistaken, by a couple in the church. the lyrics basically follow the first few verses of isaiah 2.

we tend to gravitate there:

In the last days the mountain of Yahweh’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of Yahweh from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of Yahweh.

perhaps rightly so. we discover ourselves in a world brimming over with violence, with self-interest erupting into the clash of nation-states and the clash of spouses, friends, coworkers. a future emptied of these painful altercations, where that energy is redirected to productive creativity rather than sharp-edged retorts and piercing statements (or, to switch fields, rather than to the military-technological complex)–what more could we request?

but perhaps it is more testament of our haggard, world-weary souls than to the warm-and-fuzzy character of God’s eschatological intervention. a close look at the text will begin to point us in this direction; setting the text in its broader context drives this point home with unsettling insistence.

first, a careful reading of the passage moves emphasis from a hoped for utopia to the sure and expected exaltation of Yahweh. what will be established in the last days? the mountain of Yahweh’s temple–the worship of Yahweh. Yahweh will be worshipped above every other god, every other idol, every other false security. people from every part of the globe will come to take part in this, and they will want to learn how to live in his ways, how to be the people of God (like Israel).

but note: moral education is not the cause of the beating of swords into plowshares. this is not the eschatological glorification of the classroom, of self-help books, of courteous behaviours; it is not the apotheosis of what in the end amounts to the best of the status quo. this is God breaking in, God interrupting, disrupting the way we have been doing things. moral education falls short.

instead, Yahweh is the judge–his word goes out and settles the disputes (for disagreements exist as long as we preserve a multiplicity of perspectives). his ruling, his judging, his leading excises the need for implements of war. “do you have a problem? take it to the Lord…”

second, the context of this passage undercuts both triumphalist appraisals of our current system (no, it’s not going to get us there) and separatist, elitist tendencies to hole up in our sanctuaries and homes to wait for God to fix a world already gone to hell. the immediately preceding first chapter of isaiah already firmly establishes the ambivalence of the day of the Lord concerning those who view themselves as the people of God. the chapter is filled up with accusations, threats, and the occasional plea for israel and jerusalem to change their behaviour (“come, let us reason together”). even the temple cult is indicted–God is sick to his stomach at the thought of the innumerable sacrifices and feasts. judgment begins in-house.

the larger portion of chapter two that follows on from the swords-into-plowshares text returns once again to this promise of judgment on God’s people. the people are double-hearted, holding to superstitions from the east and magic from the west. their houses are full of gold and silver idols, their stables full of warhorses and chariots, and their hearts with pride and trust in everything but Yahweh.

but a day is coming… they will run to the hills, hiding in caves and spiderholes. they will be humiliated and and Yahweh will be exalted.

The arrogance of man will be brought low and the pride of men humbled;
Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day, and the idols will totally disappear.
[…] Stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils.
Of what account is he?

connections between the two portions of chapter two are tenuous. are we dealing with two different oracles? are the two portions of one piece? what is the relationship to the material that follows in chapter three? i can’t answer these questions. but we do have the blatant contrast created by the juxtaposition of these dissimilar visions of the day of the Lord as they stand in the text before us. perhaps it is better not to say two visions of the day of the Lord–it is one singular vision that entails both terror and hope.

a refrain from two books i have been reading recently comes to mind. both john howard yoder, in for the nations, and johann baptist metz, in the emergent church (written in 1976–this is a very different emergence metz is talking about, maybe one that’s more useful), consistently return to christians’ responsibility to be suffering, following as disciples the suffering messiah. isaiah’s presentation of the day of the Lord directs us once again to what this might mean for us. we sin and incur God’s judgment when we dub with messianic significance our programs and, moreso still, our successes. God’s way is not to baptize our programs (or our lack of program), our communities, or our service to our neighbours. these are good things, but they are not our hope. our hope lies in the declaration given in the resurrection that God has won, that worship of Yahweh will one day break forth and dissolve the impulse for us to spend billions of dollars on keeping a standing military or to speak guardedly around certain coworkers and relatives. our hope is in Yahweh, Yahweh alone.

in my reading thus far, i’m beginning to pick up on some dynamics between the celebrities of church history.

augustine is the ur-hero.  everything a church scholar could ever want is rolled-up and tied with a bow in augustine.  he has a conversion narrative that does not fail to take advantage of theologically or piously teachable moments; he has extensive correspondence both warding off the heretics of his day and setting straight the unruly, rural churchmen; he writes the obligatory de trinitate (who didn’t back then?); he not only offers collections of expository sermons but includes a manual on how to interpret scripture as a bonus; he divines the ethical shape of his times and spells out it out in a manifesto.  he’s got it all.  he’s practically paul come again in the flesh, but only better.  wordier.

i’ve been tracking augustine through all sorts of my reading so far.  particularly st bernard.  on grace and free choice basically plagiarizes on the spirit and the letter.  aquinas is chock full of augustine citations.  and luther is next on the docket.  we all know augustine’s influence on that guy.

origen is the archetypal anti-hero.  he mixed his philosophy and his faith and came out on the wrong side.  plus he castrated himself (many scholars seem to think that’s enough said).  he interprets scripture, he speculates on the trinity, he speculates on all sorts of things.  but no one approves (especially after jerome’s censure of him).  too much plato, not enough Jesus, they say.  and did i mention he castrated himself?  he did.  he castrated himself.

origen seems to set the model for people the church is going to disapprove of.  if it looks like a greek and smells like a greek, well, it must be heresy.

at least this is the case until thomas.  tomas d’aquino cuts through the surf just right.  or maybe our faith bears more similarities to aristotle.  at least it stomachs it better.  thomas is the new hero–like augustine but more refined, chastened, cultured.

but if you read too closely, you get the suspicion that thomas and origen are closer on the family tree than we often think.  just switch out aristotle for plato, and the summa starts to sound a bit more like on first principles.  God bears no real relation to creatures, only a notional one…  faith cannot believe anything false–for its mode is the First Truth, and faith can only believe after its mode… yada yada yada.  he just toes the line better, perhaps.

in honesty, though, he was a smart cookie.  a real smart cookie.