Thursday, December 3, 2009

Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures

A Brief Look at Culture
This book begins by examining the context that the church finds itself in currently. This is important material because without recognizing how the world has changed, one cannot find reason to experiment with new forms or appreciate innovation in Christian community. I especially resonated with the section on examining different forms of organizational structures. To many, the Sunday organization is the image of how the church should be formed, but this model as well as the denominational structure were themselves borrowed from the larger culture at the time.

What is the Emerging Church?
This is probably the question that everyone involved in innovative ministry gets tired of answering. They answer the question first by pointing to examples of communities that formed in contrast with those that remain traditional. The term “emerging” has been applied as a wide term of communities and this universality may appeal to some. To develop a more structural definition, they identify characteristics of emerging chapters which will be developed in the following chapters.

Identifying with Jesus
To be a church, one should expect to find something in connection with Jesus. What is especially vital to the theology and practice of the emerging church is the life of Jesus. This forms a basis for how community is defined, ethics of discipleship, and the practice of evangelism. Without this example, the church loses its distinctive heartbeat in the world.

Transforming Secular Space
To adopt the perspective of Jesus is to begin to see all of life as sacred, rather than through a dichotomy of sacred and secular. This movement rejects the dualistic premise because of the definition of secularity: a place devoid of the presence of God. More than transforming buildings, the emerging movements will seek to redeem all of life, music, notably, in an effort to create authentic responses to the invitation of God.

Living in Community
In creating a space for the kingdom of God to arrive (eschatology), the church creates a space to experience this life together, forming their ecclesiology. This is a departure from the predominant culture, which is moving towards greater autonomy and (as a side-effect) isolation. The life as the church offers a contrast to this by offering deliberate relationships across barriers that exist in the wider world.

Welcoming the Stranger
In extending beyond the barriers of the wider world, welcoming the stranger aligns itself with this goal. The emerging church is one marked with concern for the social welfare of the “other”, whether that be in the local community or the entire world. Especially for the person who has felt disenfranchised by the traditional church, emerging models may speak to them because of their shared departure from those traditional foundations.

Serving with Generosity
In contrast to the culture of accumulation, the emerging church is marked by serving with generosity. While traditional churches may have dedicated tremendous energies to human services, the emerging projects places the onus for service each participant. This change in thinking is a change from social programs to an engagement with the social arenas which each person is involved. Personally, this is a real issue, as the agency I work for is largely funded by traditional churches as “outreach”. For a wide swath of people to move away from supporting these churches which I turn support us, our financial foundation will need to adjust.

Participating as Producers and Creating as Created Beings
These two chapters dealt with the marker that a key distinguisher of an emerging church was that the majority of the people were active as an expression of their life in God. They were not passive receivers of Christian information, but participated in the daily function and creation of the kingdom of God within their community.

Leading as a Body
Another key aspect of participation is that the community life determines the direction that a church would move. Authoritarian management, although efficient, is not effective in leading people. This general lack of centralized leadership may affect the statistical growth of the movement adversely, but it retains the ethos which the individual communities strive to follow.

Merging Ancient and Contemporary Spirituality
An interesting development in the emerging churches, which stereotypically have rejected all aspects that remind them of the former, traditional church, is the appreciation of ancient practices that contribute to the Christian life. To me, this is a result of de-thinking the sacred-secular divide, as the so-called “laity” are able to experience the “spiritual” practices that before were reserved for a higher class of church leadership.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church

Alan Hirsch in this work is trying to re-introduce the church to what led it to distinctive growth in its early history. He is emphatic is saying that these methods are not new, but the “forgotten” structure of the church that needs to be re-established if the church is serious about its continued existence in the world. The book is divided into two sections, the first acting as a background reader and then the second, more extensive, section expands on describing the actions of the early church and then relating them to current practices.

The Making of a Missionary
Setting the Scene, Part 1: Confessions of a Frustrated Missionary
Setting the Scene, Part 2: Denominational and Translocal Perspectives
These sections give some background on the state of the church and also reveal some of Hirsch’s motivations in preparing this material.

A Journey to the Heart of Apostolic Genius
In attempting to classify what made the early church successful in engaging its culture, Hirsch names their method the “apostolic genius”. This classification aims to map the style and strategy of the early church leaders so that it can be recovered and put into practice in the modern church.

The Heart of it all: Jesus is Lord
Hirsch provides a model of visualizing the apostolic genius, and in the center he has the statement “Jesus is Lord”. From this center sprout the other aspects which receive the remaining chapters. To Hirsch, this is the defining statement of the church which the early leaders understood and the modern church needs to recapture. This statement is profoundly political and counter-cultural in its original context and should remain as such wherever a people make the decision to follow Christ.

Disciple Making
The message of Christ only survives by transmission, and as such the church must be determined to grow successive generations of disciples. This life-commitment is contrasted with the consumer-worldview that saturates the thinking of the church.

Missional-Incarnational Impulse
Understanding the role of the church in multiplication, the fopcus of the church’s mission should be based on proximity. Because people inhabit a geographic and cultural space, the most appropriate context for their ministry is the life that is around them.

Apostolic Environment
The growth of the early was distinguished by their leadership. In examining these criteria for the modern church, an apostolic leadership environment is one where visionaries intentionally move themselves and their communities into a mature understanding of the gospel and the transmission of the Christian message. This is not an authoritarian structure, but one that depends on the referent power of spiritual maturity.

Organic Systems
This chapter addresses the historic tendency of a movement to become an institution, which eventually leads to demise. The early church lived in the period of upswing, but the church today finds itself on the downward slope. To address this situation requires grassroots movement to continually re-discover the gospel and re-invent the community, giving rise to sustained growth.

Communitas, not Community
In developing disciples who understand the power of the gospel, there is the need for intentional interaction. This shared experience is what distinguishes the life of the Christian apart from personal spiritual experience. By drawing from this common experience, the gospel message has both an incubation area and a stage for demonstration. Communitas distinguishes the relationships that exist on top of our geographic and cultural communities which we also are a part of.

Final thoughts: It took me a little longer to get into this book, as my recent reading on the subject has been presented in a more narrative form. This book is more prescriptive than descriptive, in comparison. It presents more research than the other texts, although he regularly cites an encyclopedia CD-ROM, which I have an arbitrary bias against.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith

Doug Pagitt communicates the practice of the community where he is involved, Solomon’s Porch in Minnesota. He is deliberate in the introduction to convey that this exposition is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all formula for fostering spiritual formation, but rather a singular example of what one church is doing currently. I appreciate this distinction and find it beneficial (for this dreamer anyway) to hear a story about what someone is actually doing, to give some inspiration and a look into practicality.

Sprinkled throughout the work are the journals of a handful of participants in Solomon’s Porch. These are insightful, if scattered. There is not necessarily a common thread running throughout, except to see what Pagitt is writing about as seen through a diverse set of eyes. The journals are all intensely personal, adding a depth to the topic being discussed.

Sunday: Spiritual Formation Through Worship
A church service would be recognizable to someone coming in from another Christian context. It has the right ingredients, worship music, scripture, sermoning, communion, and prayer. But the way that these are combined take on a different flavor. Rather than being a presentation directed from a stage to the audience, those present are invited to join along with the leaders to experience the worship of God. This is only the beginning of their community life being former spiritually into the people of God.

Monday: Spiritual Formation Through Physicality
Prayer and meditation are taken out of their cerebral context and applied to physical acts. Those techniques described in this chapter are yoga, massage, and prayer postures. In yoga, participants journey into a place where they can release the tension of life and find rest in God. This opening up culminates in a silent time of prayer together before returning to life. Massage is incorporated as a healing process, giving relief from pains built up through life. Especially poignant are stories involving those who had been carrying pains from abuse be able to let those go and accept the touch from a masseuse. Masseurs pray over the clients for ways to be the hands of God reworking the mess that people carry around. Lastly, prayer postures are used when prayers consisting only of words will not do, This stimulates people’s thoughts about prayer and keeps the issue in their mind throughout the week.

Tuesday: Spiritual Formation Through Dialogue
Pagitt walks through a night in their Bible discussion group, as well as his feeling of pastoral concern for those outside their community. Beginning the study, they have an exercise which reminds them that every participant is an individual who has been shaped by families, experiences, and communities. Each personal context is to be appreciated as they move forward. Studying scripture is vital to them because they see the texts as members of the community and as such has a right to direct their perspective.

Wednesday: Spiritual Formation Though Hospitality
Replacing the idea that evangelism can happen in a vacuum by propositioning, Solomon’s Porch engages those in their community by hospitality. To invite someone into the community is to invite them into your home and serve them. This is not only a stark contrast to normal American life, but also shows the life that is possible if they want to be a part of the community, no strings attached.

Thursday: Spiritual Formation Through Belief
In examining the process by which a person comes to believe something, Pegitt points out that it is not simply the allocation of information, but the process that information works through the grid of our experiences. When information is presented, a person asks if it is consistent with other things they know to be reliable, how its acceptance will affect other valuable areas of life, etc. The role of the community is to work together to navigate through the grid so that information can become belief and belief can become action.

Friday: Spiritual Formation Through Creativity
In telling his story of coming to faith, he describes finding a church full of people who default to reasoning to navigate life. His inclination, however, is for those for whom reason is not the strongest current in their thought. The creative members of the community find a place where they can be vulnerable with each other but also display their work proudly because it is made by, for, and within the community.

Saturday: Spiritual Formation Through Service
This is probably the chapter most people hoping for a traditional structure would identify with. For many, it would seem that discipleship could be equated with involvement in church volunteer projects. Because of the many needs of an institutional church (ushers, bulletin folders, chair movers, car parkers, etc.), there is rarely a surplus of volunteers. Once the church service ends, however, the work of the church is relegated to the paid staff. In this community, however, service is not what is done within the community, but with those outside the group in order to show them a glimpse of Christ’s love and humility.

I just realized that the aspects of community life that the traditionalist would most identify with would be from Sunday and (to a lesser extant) Saturday. This seems to be the point of Pegitt’s work, that to re-imagine the life of the church is to find those ways to incorporate spiritual formation into every day of the week and grow together in our experience of God by opening ourselves up to the myriad of ways to connect with the sacred.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The New Conspirators: Creating the Future One Mustard Seed at a Time

Tome Sine takes what he sees as a new wave of Christian practicioners and seeks to communicate what ties them together as they develop a share in the people of God. He organizes his task into five pertinent conversations. Each one would be worthy of expansion, but his overview of the movements will be a valid primer for understanding this aspect of renewal within the church.

Conversation One: Taking the New Conspirators Seriously

In this introductory chapter, Sine takes time to introduce the new players on the stage. He identifies four “streams”, the emerging, missional, mosaic, and monastic. It isn’t until near the end of his description of emerging that he makes any kind of attempt at characterizing the stream. For the bulk of the section, emerging would be identified with any type of new church understanding, which is a category too broad to be useful. Gibbs and Bolger’s definition is used, and is helpful, that emerging churches are those communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures. Missional, it is pointed out, is less of a specific distinction and more of a broad descriptor for other church models. Mosaic intentionally incorporates the dynamic of cultural diversity within the global neighborhood. Monastic are those communities that dismantle the individualism of modernity and replace them with alternative models for life together.

Conversation Two: Taking the Culture Seriously

This section identified the realities that make this era in human history distinctive from the recent past. First in his discussion is the implication of living in a post 9-11 world, where the western world, and America especially, is forced to try and understand other cultures globally. This diversity in global cultures challenge the assumption of the superiority of the Western worldview, including ideas of Christendom and the role of the church. Second is the role of the “imperial mall”, as corporations compete for market domination. A striking image is what the author describes as marketers seeking to colonize the imagination of youth, planting the future for their profitability.

Conversation Three: Taking the Future of God Seriously

This chapter attempts to unpack the eschatological expectation of the dominant Western church and reframe the future action of God. Most notably, God’s action makes a move from being event-oriented (apocalypse) and life-centered (having pertinence on actions today). This renewal effort permeates the new groups as they find meaning in social justice, social responsibility, and the practical expressions of faith. The imagery used is to see humanity’s response to God being a “homecoming” back into the way that God made possible through Christ.

Conversation Four: Taking Turbulent Times Seriously

Given the importance of the present from the previous chapter, a sense of urgency rattles the ethics of these groups. The author identifies different areas of brokenness which different economic strata are faced with. His categories are the global rich, vulnerable middle, western poor, and global poor. I appreciate his effort at identifying both struggles and benefits of each position, rather than simply sanctifying one end of the spectrum or the other.

Conversation Five: Taking Our Imaginations Seriously

This final chapter could just have effectively been placed first. The author reminds the reader that creation is being renewed by God, and a key aspect of that creation is the imagination of his people. By thinking beyond the bounds of our tradition, each reader could be a part of a new movement of God’s people. The author invites the reader into the conversation to decide how to live a faithful life in community in the pursuit of God.

This chapter was probably the most pertinent to my ruminations on my future project and life in the church. I want to be a part of a community that is continually reevaluating, revisiting, reimagining what and how it can reflect a part of grace and truth to its community.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Bridges of God

In Don McGavran’s book, he is formulating an evangelistic understanding based on what he sees as “The Crucial Question in Christian Mission” (also the title of the introductory chapter). The crucial question is simply, “how do people become Christian?” He does not ask with any soteriological curiosity, but practically, how do people hear the message of the gospel and decide to live under the Lordship of Christ. For McGavran, present practices in missionary evangelism revealed a categorical al misunderstanding of conversion. This misunderstanding, in turn, perpetuates ineffective and inappropriate evangelism strategies. In particular, McGavran is seeking to understand the phenomena of exponential church growth—simultaneous conversions (note plural) of an entire group rather than the aggregate conversion focused on individual response to evangelism.

The Unfamiliar in People Movements

Before progressing too far, McGavran defines the People Movement for those unfamiliar, i.e., the Western church. His image of a People Movement is an evangelistic multiplication as entire families/tribes/clans come to faith. In the process of coming to faith, they retain their distinctive cultural supports which enable others to join without needing to adopt a new cultural framework.

People and the New Testament Church

To lay the groundwork for restructuring the method of the Church, McGavran examines the record of Acts to see how large groups were brought into the life of the church. Starting at Pentecost, he sees the 3,000 added as proof that the individual method is not the original approach. He also notes the extensive familial connections in the greetings in the epistles as evidence for the strategy of Paul. For example, in the letter to the Romans are listed the names of dozens of family members who Paul has never met. But through these family connections, the gospel finds fertile ground in the acceptability of the family unit.

Down Through the Centuries

It is interesting to see the growth of the church painted in broad strokes to express the dominance of the people movement process historically. This history leads up to the Enlightenment in Europe, after which the collective-worldview began to give way to the preference for individualism.

The Characteristic Pattern of the Great Century

The Great Century which the author speaks of is the time which the church woke up to its mission to take the gospel message to areas outside of European Christendom. This approach has a structural emphasis located in the mission station. In this approach, the mission station becomes a barracks for the church against the greater culture. When people come to faith, they also adopt the way of life of the foreigner and sever ties with their familiar life. The mission station and expatriate staff become the new support system for the converts and the culture is marked by extreme insulation.

Gathered Colony Strategy in the Light of People Movements

In comparing the insular strategy of the mission station with that of the People Movement, there is only one context where the author sees the former remaining pertinent and that is in the area hostile to the Christian message and the church needing a safe place to live and base their evangelistic activity. I do not agree with this exemption, as the protected church will always seem at odds with the community that it is trying to reach.

Co-operating with Growing Churches is Today’s Strategy

Given the premise that there are enough contextualized church movements in existence in different areas of the world, the task before the Western church is in determining their cooperation. In this and a later chapter, McGavran addresses the financial relationship between groups and moves toward an equitable understanding of how the global church is meant to support one another. By comparing the cost of planting new churches and training pastors with the operation costs of mission stations and the services they spawn (hospitals, schools, etc.), he present the People Movement as the most profitable venture that the church can undertake.

Important Aspects of This Strategy, The Marvelous Mosaic of God, Marching with God to the Heart of the Nations

The most important aspect, in my opinion, is allowing the mission station model to cede its seat of prominence in our thinking about how missions ought to be conducted. Recognizing that the indigenous work of evangelism takes place as the message is contextualized and barriers to the Christian community are removed, the world Christian is freed to explore the entirety of humanity as it constitutes all of God’s people.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Total Church: A Radical Reshaping around Gospel and Community

Authors Tim Chester and Steve Timmis tell the story of their church plant in the UK and the rationale behind the direction they have followed. The book was written quite pragmatically, as if this is the long-hand version of a manual of how to do church in their community, called The Crowded House in Sheffield. The book is divided into two main parts, Part One being the basis for their understanding of the church as a gospel community. Appropriately, the titles of their chapters are Gospel and Community. The remainder of the book examines the ramifications of this gospel-community-perspective on various aspects of the Christian life.

Why Gospel: The gospel is what gives meaning to the group of people who gather. It is the story which unites the people and establishes their identity. The focus on gospel also incorporates the living message of God given to humanity in the person of Jesus. This message is distinctive in history, and prevents the church from becoming solely defined by their feelings, associations, and opinions (essentially, the gospel keeps them focused on God instead of themselves).

Why Community: The context for the gospel is not isolation or an ethereal spiritual plane, but the day-to-day common life of people. The community life is the laboratory for experiencing the message of Jesus, testing it and discovering its power.

Given these two necessities each area of church life takes on a distinctively different tone. Each chapter expands on the ramifications of gospel-community in the different aspects:

Evangelism: In gospel-community, evangelism is not debating others into cognitive submission of theological truths, but the incorporation into a group-life that is faithful to God. Evangelism, then, is not event-centered (such as passing a tract) but invitation-centered. Someone may experience an aspect of the community life, which would draw them deeper into relationship with the people.

Social Involvement: This chapter focused on the directive for God’s people to be concerned with the wellbeing of the vulnerable in this world (orphan, alien, widow). The gospel-community is in a position to respond directly due to their consistent presence in the lives of those vulnerable. To come alongside of and walk with the downcast is a living proclamation of what God has done for humanity in Christ.

Church Planting: As the community welcomes people into the life together, it is entirely organic for the community to expand into other vicinities. This missionary activity, taking the community into new contexts, is intentioned to follow where the spirit of God leads in order to bring more members into the communal life.

World Mission: A considerable shift from the institutional church, the perspective on world mission cannot be perpetuated when there is not an institutional sending church. Mission, to the gospel-community, takes on a different life as each member is expected to live the gospel-life in their context, whether in the neighborhood or the neighborhood of people who doesn’t look like you.

Discipleship and Training: In the community, the responsibility for discipleship and training is removed from the responsibility of a single person or program and is an integral part of life together. As a group of people each struggle to live the gospel life faithfully, discipleship occurs in the encouragement within the community.

Pastoral Care: Much like Discipleship and Training, every member of the community is responsible for the care of its members. Some may be more suited in different situations, but the focus is on the community as a whole processing through any distress in life.

Spirituality: I was impressed by the authors’ disregard for the disciplines of silence to connect with the spiritual. Their dilemma with meditation, solitude, etc, came from the tendency for these acts to become solitary ventures into the world of God and not contribute as readily to the growth of the community.

Theology: Not surprisingly, the theology of the gospel-community is word (gospel)-centered and community-centered. This understanding creates an active church, establishing a mission-centered theology. Theology that dismisses these center-points are categorically contrary to the life of the church.

Apologetics: Unlike the historical model, the apologetic of the gospel-community does not depend on debate, but the transparent invitation to those outside to experience the life that members have found together. As such, a victory does not by obliterating an opponent, but by welcoming someone into the fold and seeing their growth.

Children and Young People: The obvious benefit that I see in the gospel-community is that a person is exposed to a wider of variety of Christian mentors. By seeing how committed Christians address nuanced life decisions, a teenager especially can establish a similar approach to the difficult decisions in their life.

Success: Just as the gospel-community has taken the behaviors of the institutional church and undone them, the rationale for success is dynamically different as well. By shifting away from the criteria by which we gauge success in the world, the gospel-community finds fulfillment in faithfulness expressed in the life of its members. This is in contrast to the tendency to rate efforts by numeric growth and financial stability.