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.


as cindy has already adverted, we’ve been experiencing some internet connection difficulties over the last month. but i hope we have them straightened out now. something about IP addresses and passwords and the need to meet up with one of my neighbours at a local cafe.

this missing month has been full of seeking direction, making surprising connections, and then losing both just as quickly, only to stumble on them once more. it began with a church-planting conference the second week of may. cindy and i have played with the idea of starting new churches since well before we were married four years ago; our seven months in macedonia with a church-planting mission helped put a little flesh and bone on the real life struggles of growing new churches. this idea has lain dormant for the last two years of my grad program, but with its close, new possibilities our pushing up all over the place.

so we found ourselves attending a nine-hour series of seminars everyday for a week up at trinity evangelical div school (a good half-hour without traffic/hour and a half with traffic drive from our apartment). going in, i had serious misgivings about how “evangelical” the conference would be. some more liberal friends earnestly warned me that the evangelical free church in america (the organization putting on the conference) supports the subjugation of women and prohibits any critical, scholarly investigation of faith and practice. the last thing i wanted was tutelage in how to prop up the status quo.

what i found during the week, however, was an organization wholeheartedly dedicated to the multiplication of local congregations as a testimony to the gospel. far from towing some doctrinaire line, they are more than ready (for better or for worse) to latch on to whatever innovations or reformations that will help “transform consumers into disciples.” the experience was definitely a mixed bag, admittedly. for every mention of neil cole’s organic church, there were five references to willow creek and seven to saddleback. and the appropriation of new ways to be the church often veered off into the realm of gimmicks and charlatantry. but more than the long hours of powerpoint and occasionally-rambling speakers, the new relationships really made the week worthwhile. i met people living out the communal, humble, honest gospel from cor d’alene, idaho, from duluth, minnesota, from flint, michigan, from some city in norway. one conversation would revive my convictions about the church’s responsibility to be working for social justice in its neighborhood; another would challenge me about prayer; a third would pull me out of my usual shy and introverted self into dialogue and interaction. i saw right in front of me the sort of Jesus-following life that i want to be living.

but now its three weeks later. my dreamings and schemings about what the church might look like have cooled. i find it more difficult to see myself as capable to pull people together into a community that proclaims Jesus in its pattern of life as much as in its worship–at least at this point. don’t i need more training? wouldn’t an mdiv help fill out the academic grad degree in theology i just finished?

at the conference a guy named jeff from anchor point community church presented on the topic of prayer during one of the first or second day “preparation” seminars. true confession: i’ve always struggled with prayer. i either feel like i’m whining to God about my somewhat trivial problems or i feel utterly overwhelmed by hurt in the world–far too much for me to express in words. plus, God already knows about this stuff, doesn’t he? but jeff spoke primarily on prayer as listening for God. i’m sure i’ve heard this elsewhere, but this was the time that it stuck with me. in prayer, he said, we are quieting ourselves, abandoning for a moment all our concerns to our Father’s wise caregiving, and waiting for him to speak to us in his Spirit. we wait and listen.

this is where i am now, waiting and listening.