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.