Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Review: Signs of Emergence by Kester Brewin

"…for the church to retain a vibrancy about its faith, it must 'adapt and survive.'" (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 19)

I just read Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/Neworked/Decentralized/Bottom-up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving by English school teacher Kester Brewin. This books has the "Emergent Village" imprimatur on it and is highly endorsed well-known names in the various streams of the Emerging/Emergent conversation/movement. Brewin's writing style is smart and reflective without getting bogged down in scholarship or floating away with charming anecdotal stories.

Change is an unavoidable absolute, urges Brewin, and the church must respond through adapting, maturing, and evolving. There are a couple of overarching themes that Brewin uses to make his various points along the way. In resisting the term "revolution" for its proclivity towards violence and disruptive change, the author leans on the word "evolution" to describe the appropriate response of the church (my thoughts on that later). The other rubric used to move the book along is the idea that a person's life, the road to mature belief goes through different stages. This is drawn from Stages of Faith: Psychology of Human Development by James Fowler. Fowler seeks to map out the journey to a healthy mature faith through six stages. Brewin picks up on this psychological work and applies it sociologically to the church developing in maturity through history. In essence, he posits that the church has long been in a stage of naïve belief (synthetic conventional) marked by conformity. Brewin responds to this saying that it is high time to progress through stage four (Fowler: individuative reflective stage) and move on to stage five (conjunctive).

Brewin uses the posture of evolution (the concept not the biological theory) through the rubric of these stages to implore his readers to rethink/reimagine the church. Brewin then explores Jesus' movement through advent, incarnation and emergence as paradigmatic for the church. He then challenges the church to rethink its essence and structure in light of the model Jesus provided and in our ever-changing (evolving) context.

Many of the emphases introduced by Brewin are great and ones that I along with many others have been calling for, such as many of those things listed in the subtitle of the book. But I struggle more with the twin foundation of evolution and plodding through stages of faith. Brewin juxtaposes the concepts of revolution and evolution. Revolution is normally accompanied by violence and presupposes that a massive change in structure will make the reparations necessary in a society. This I can agree with. Brewin goes on to make a good argument for the exigency of continued incremental change. The way he chooses to capture that is by using the word evolution. I struggle with the word choice on this—and, no it is not simply a matter of semantics—because evolution communicates much more than simply incremental change. This is not about the creation/evolution debate really. My education has been more informed by the social sciences. Anthropology and sociology once assumed that societies evolved in their culture, religion, and social structure to become complex, pluralistic civilizations. More often than not this meant that societies would eventually grow-up to be like western civilization (enlightenment thinking at its zenith). It has since then been realized that this kind of evolutionary thinking was enormously ethnocentric as it made us the goal of all societies. The wars, violence, and abuses in western civilization in the last century have revealed that we had not actually become quite the noble society as we thought. To summarize my thoughts, evolution connotes a notion of unaided progress that does not reflect the extent of brokenness of humanity. An added thought is the idea of the survival of the fittest goes against the primary themes of kingdom of God that Jesus taught and exemplified.

An alternative word that captures the Jesus-like posture is "regeneration." Thom Wolf has described this as a "spiritual revamping" as it honestly wrestles with the intrinsicness of our brokenness (Wolf, "How is Society Changed?: Five Motifs of Social Change"). This word comes closer to describing our posture although I might tweak the definition a little. I believe the revamping must be holistic. Even though it starts with a spiritual reorientation, it must impact every corner and crevice of life.

Brewin also builds heavily on the notion of progressing through the stages of faith. While Fowler's work is insightful and offers loads of discussion material for college kids going through the fourth stage, individuative reflective, it remains psychological observation. I'm reticent to use a psychological matrix to discern the future of the people of God. For example, Brewin implies that passing through the "dark night of the soul" is a prerequisite to mature spirituality. While it can be observed that faith can grow deeper during times of hardship, we are encouraged to enter the kingdom lie a child would (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17).

This is all to say that Brewin develops his ideas of the emergence of the church on a less than stellar foundation. Yet, he offers some rich material in the midst of his work. Here are some of notable things:

  • Incarnation- Brewin posits that we, both individually and as the church, must undergo the Incarnational process in the pattern of Jesus.

    "As we wonder how the church could change…I am going to suggest that, like God, we must be born again. That we must re-emerge. That there will be no revolution, only evolution. That what will be in the future body of Christ must be what Christ was: the embryonic cooperation of divinity and humanity." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 67)

    As cultures and societies continue to change we must continue in the process of facilitating new birth. This, once again, is imagery that is more suited to regeneration than evolution.

  • New organization/structures- Culture is not static. The structures and organizations of society have undergone inestimable change. "Yet our models of church have not kept up with this radical change." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 74)
  • Decentralization- Bewin draws from theories of complexity in grappling with how to be church in an increasingly urban and complex society. He uses examples of ants, brains, and cities in helping understand decentralized structures that operate beautifully. These examples are fascinating, but I do wish he had drawn more from the Scriptures.
  • Urban reality- "Urbanization has marched on at huge speed over the last centuries, but our theology has not." (Brewin, Signs of Emergence, 122)
  • Gift- Lewis Hyde's book The Gift shapes Brewin's commentary on the commoditizing of the church. The church should reframe its approach to the world as offering a gift and not operate in economic terms.

Overall, the book was interesting and provides a good challenge to explore practicing the Way of Jesus in some fresh ways. I believe the author uses some unhelpful rubrics for developing his ideas, but some of his ideas are good. The added bonus is that I learned how ants operate, which I had long been curious about.

Boomers: Where are they now?

Curious about where the boomers are? Click here

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Scharold’s Critique of the Emergent Church

Kristen Scharold has written a well-articulated piece in First Things, "The Emerging Church and its Critics." She tenders a review of the much discussed Why We're Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck and uses that as a departure point to reflect on her own critique of the emergent church. She does a good job of communicating her critiques without name-calling or heresy-hunting. Her primary charge (as I understood it) was that the emergent church lacked conviction. This lack of conviction has propelled an overreliance clever writing, attractive events and artsy worship. She echoes DeYoung and Kluck in stating that the emergent folks are doing with postmodernism what the mainline churches did with modernism.

She makes some good points in this regard. Much of the buzz surrounding the emergent church has been eyebrow-raising book titles, conferences/parties in the Bahamas, and a savvy use of technology. The theological articulations tend to be trying so hard to unbox (or deconstruct) Evangelical theology that it has not actually theologized (if that makes sense). What I am trying to say is that too often the position taken is: don't take a position (of course, there are many exceptions to this). The emergent church is warm and friendly and likeable, but is it positioning itself to introduce the radical transformation of the kingdom in all corners of the earth?

Having said that, I think there is an irritating tendency to hear all things emergent and emerging through the megaphones of only a few voices. This is unfortunate. The range of expression and conviction in the emergent church is stunning. I have been very frustrated by some writers/bloggers/speakers and encouraged and challenged by others. Scharold describes Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian as understanding "that it is important to contextualize doctrine but that you cannot change doctrine." That is true in one sense, but it is superficial understanding of doctrine and culture. The reality of who God is and what he has done and promises still to do is fact, and a fact to be celebrated jubilantly. But our expressions of this fact in a specific language, recited in a certain order, referencing chosen verses all take place in the midst of contexts so thoroughly tainted that what we call doctrine cannot be considered the final product. Western articulations of doctrine are something to be read, studied and cherished, but also critiqued. Doctrinal statements and confessions are incomplete. An example of an area of undeveloped theology in the west is a theological/biblical grasp on the spirit world. Paul Hiebert, Charles Kraft and many others have been attempting to alert the west to these realities seen so easily by followers of Jesus in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Sometimes we think of theology like a candy bar with peanuts and caramel. And all we need to do is change the wrapper it is in. Maybe we change language on the wrapper for the country it is or change the design to suite the culture or the generation. But it turns out that another culture thinks nougat is imperative to the candy bar and that there were too many peanuts in the one from the west. We need to go back to Scripture and soak up all that is stated and work out the articulation of Scripture's contents in our communities. We need to be challenged by other communities that also read the Scriptures and follow Jesus and mutually challenge each other to see our blind spots. There is a tension in all of this. There are some that want to change the wrapper on the candy bar with just peanuts and caramel and there are others that want to say that whatever you want in your candy bar is just fine. The analogy breaks down at this point (as most do) before I start talking about an uber cosmic candy bar. The point is that we must approach our traditional articulations of theology/doctrine humbly recognizing that we need to perpetually return to Scripture, the way of Jesus, and the indwelling of his Spirit.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Are the Houses Starting to Change the World?

Andrew Jones has provided a couple of links to articles on the strategic value of organizing in small communities on his fabulous Tall Skinny Kiwi blog. These articles are not really saying anything new, Jones himself had blogged on it a while back and articles in mainstream media were already surfacing in the early 2000's (e.g. Laurie Goodstein, "Seach for the Right Church Ends at Home,"
New York Times). In the Huffington Post article, the number of those that have experienced a house church is 70 million. That is an extraordinary number and it is telling. The trend is growing and might not be too far from becoming mainstream. And then we have to be careful. It is the mainstreaming of something that changes its character.

  • Focus on the form- There will be a subtle temptation to become more focused on the house church structure than on the allowing the structure to foster a community of growing Jesus-followers. The form is being mimicked by business and political strategists, which have very different bottom lines. We will need to ensure that we are characterized by our Jesusness and not our external forms or structures.
  • Cool and easy- Whenever the church or a movement within the church becomes the accepted norm, it becomes attractive to the casual Christian. The true good news of Jesus demands a followship that is anything but casual. House church, simple churches, small faith communities will need to work very hard to maintain the radical intensity of a community committed to the way of Jesus.
  • Comfortable- House churches can become comfortable, sedentary, and even institutional just like any other church or organized group of humans. There will arise a need for house churches and networks to establish themselves with longevity. The need for this feeling of something more lasting is understandable but antithetical to the need for the continued self-emptying of the church. The church must be willing to constantly go and make disciples, which may cost that expression of the local house church in process. The going of the church is painful and uncertain, but essential.

Don't get me wrong. I love churching in a small, simple, reproducible manner. I love bringing the church into our homes and our homes into the church. But if we really want to change the world, we must remain centered on Jesus and learn from the pitfalls of the past.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Reflections on Forgotten Ways 6: Preserving Unity While Fostering New Movements

This post is a return back to our discussion on Alan Hirsch’s book, The Forgotten Ways. Hirsch is promoting a radical change in mindset that fosters free-flowing movements. The observation is made that new movements tend start on the banished fringes of the church establishment:

“As we shall see, vital movements arise always in the context of rejection by the predominant institutions (e.g., Wesley and Booth), But because vigorous movements of mission almost always create movements of renewal, in the end they do go on to produce renewal in the life of the broader church (e.g., Pentecostalism).” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 56)

I am very thankful that God has raised up these people throughout history that have been influential in catalyzing a return to the radical way of Jesus. Hirsch notes that while these new movements start off as a rejected entity by the established church, they end up sparking new life and renewal in the wider church. My struggle is that even while this is a good thing in many respects, the original movement ends up becoming just another calcified institution in the diverse collection that make up the worldwide church of Jesus. In other words, with each new movement there is a new denomination (sometimes more than one, Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, etc.). Therefore, in fostering new movements, we are thereby fostering new denominations, thus further fracturing/splintering/schisming the church.

I am not an “ecumenist” in the sense that it has often been used in the last century, but Scripture seems to be unequivocal on the point of unity of the church (John 17; 1 Cor 1; Eph 2; 4; Rom 12 and many more). A point that is rarely demonstrated among believers. I’m not suggesting that we sacrifice the freshness that new movements bring to the universal body, but that take the command of unity seriously. Here are some quotes that might challenge us to strive for unity:

“The time is always ripe for re-union. Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions toward re-union, if it is only by their prayers.” –C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “Answers to Questions on Christianity, p. 60

“Spiritual unity and visible unity are not truly alternatives: the alternative to visible unity is visible disunity, and that is a witness against the gospel.” (Geoffrey Wainwright, from Grenz, Renewing the Center, 303)

Unitive ecumenism…needs to be reconceived. It can no longer be thought of, as I have done most of my life, as a matter of reconciling relatively intact and structurally still-Constantinian communions from the top down. Rather, it must be thought of as reconstituting Christian community and unity from, so to speak, the bottom up.” (George Lindbeck, “Confession,” 496, quoted in Volf, After Our Likeness, 19)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Preaching: Lost in Translation

(This post is a re-post from a now-dormant group blog. Some have found some of these ideas helpful in their contexts.)

The concept of preaching has become highly distorted manifold ways. One source of this distortion is the English rendering of the word “preach” in place of several different Greek words. “The Greek New Testament, however, contains 54 uses of eunggelizo (“evangelize”) and, by way of comparison, 61 uses of kurusso (“preach”). In current practice these are both translated synonymously as “preaching.” The English reader is not able to make a contextual analysis of the intended meaning of the term—as he always reads 115 uses of the word “preach.” (Johnston, Thomas P. “Toward Translating “Evangelize” as “Evangelize”, 93) Nate Krupp explains this occurrence:

“There are five Greek words that have all been translated into the English word ‘preach’ and all similarly mean ‘herald, publish, announce, proclaim, tell’ the Good News. All of the instances where these Greek words are found in the New Testament are in the context of announcing the Good News to the lost and are not found in the setting of the believers’ gathering. Preaching is to take place out where the lost are: door-to-door, the streets, the market place, the fields, the highways and by-ways.” (Nate Krupp, God’s Simple Plan for His Church)

If preaching is properly understood as proclamation focused on the lost, then preaching in the church body must undergo revision. As it is commonly practiced in most churches today, preaching is really a persuasive speech by one considered a professional. For some preachers this is the perfect platform for polemics. Bonheoffer observed this proclivity: "Does not our preaching contain too much of our own opinions and convictions, and too little of Jesus Christ?" (Bonheoffer, Cost of Discipleship, 36). Other preachers are content to entertain or offer pleasant possitivities to their parishioners. And others earnestly desire to communicate God’s truths to believers, but are forced into the formulaic and static medium of the sermon. Preaching among believers in the New Testament is not necessarily from a pulpit, it can be dialogical as seen by the use of dialegomai to describe Paul is in the synagogues ‘discussing’ his faith (Acts 17:2; 18:4) and among believers at Troas (Acts 20:7). In Acts 20:7 dialegomai is often translated as preaching, but that is not an accurate translation connotatively. ‘Preaching’ now connotes a monologue delivered, whereas dialegomai is more often used in the sense of conversing or discussing. Secular business author, Peter Senge notes a similar practice among the early Greeks:

“To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually. Interestingly, the practice of dialogue has been preserved in many ‘primitive’ cultures, such as that of the American Indian, but it has been almost completely lost to modern society.” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 10)

There is no question that Paul is teaching the gathered believers, but it is a difference between ‘speaking at them’ and ‘speaking with them’. It seems that the New Testament emphasis has more to do with teaching than preaching. Even the concept of teaching has been skewed by changes in the educational system since the industrial revolution. Wolfgang Simpson challenges us to consider the aim of teaching in the New Testament: “The goal of the teaching is not increasing knowledge, but helping people to obey and serve God and His purposes (Rom. 1:5).” (Simpson, Houses That Change the World, 83) One church planting manual directs us to the notion of learning from teaching:

“We evangelical Christians tend to emphasize the importance of good teaching. This is missing the point. The essential is that people are genuinely learning and applying Scripture to their everyday lives. Statistics show that we learn far more by actively participating than by hearing alone. Scientists tell us that we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see and hear and 70% of what we hear and see and then say ourselves. In house church, we have the opportunity to involve everyone. In New Testament times, teaching was far more interactive; for instance, the word used for Paul’s lengthy teaching in Ephesus is the word ‘dialegomai’ from which we get our word ‘dialog’ (Acts 20:7). Jesus tells us that we are to teach new disciples to obey His commands.” (Church Planting Handbook, 116)

The emphases in Scripture on character formation and learning Scripture presents a significantly different image than what is commonly practiced today. This is not to say that the form of preaching that has become so pervasive today should not exist. It has a place, but it should have refocused goals for truly nurturing the believers.

How did we get to this point of place such importance on a monological sermon delivered by professional clergy? It has often been stated that the Reformation movement left a few things unreformed, among them was ecclesiology. The churches of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli inherited many structural aspects of the church from the Catholic Ch. Rigid worship, hierarchical decision-making were not challenged like views on salvation, use of the vernacular, and meaning of Holy Communion.

“Protestants, with the exception of ‘High Church’ Anglicans and some Lutheran churches (for example, the Swedish Lutheran Church), have tended to hold a ‘lower’ notion of church in theory, but in fact they too have often been quite concerned about the church’s visible structure and polity. In any case, Solle says that Protestants express this perspective by putting undue emphasis on the importance of proclamation and preaching in the church, to the neglect of action in the world and the development of true community.” (Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today, 41)

In fact, John Calvin campaigned hard to make the sermon the central point of a church gathering (replacing Communion). While the Reformers attempted to eradicate the distinction between the clergy and laity, they also sought the preaching of right doctrine. The insurance of right doctrine demanded a preaching office (die reine Predigt), thus once again reinforcing a bifurcation of clergy and laity. “Yet, in fact, contrary to the theory of fundamental non-distinction, it encouraged the practical recognition of a secondary status of the ‘laity’ in comparison with the ministry, the breeding of an attitude of passivity in the laity as a whole, the accentuation of the significance of ‘office’ (das Amt) and its leadership.” (Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, 66) “Its counter-effect was that the laity gradually got into and, generally speaking, accepted the position of the ‘ignorant’, the spiritually non-adult.” (Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, 66)

Please hear me when I say that I am not against “preaching” or feel that it is wrong. I do question whether it should be our default form of discipleship. If our focus is on helping people grow in the image of JC, then our methods of discipleship must reflect that. It is my belief that to accomplish this, great levels of interaction will be necessary. Less monologue and more dialogue. Perhaps even less talking and more active ministry with discipler and disciplee side-by-side good newsing (“preaching” in your translation) a world that does not yet know Him.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Book Review: Surprised by Hope

In my educational background I have taken numerous New Testament and theology classes.  In doing a survey of the New Testament, I can't remember having much time left in the course for the book of Revelation.  And theology, we ran out of time to deal adequately with eschatology (study of last things).  Add to this the fact that I have always been a bit weirded-out by those end-times junkies who perpetually forecast the rapture any time we have more than one earthquake or there is a war in Southwest Asia (the Middle East).  All of this is to say that I arrive at N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, with very unformed opinions about the subject.  The book, put simply (perhaps too simply), explores our future as understood through scripture. 

Bishop Wright is a New Testament scholar, prolific writer, and a widely sought-after speaker.  There is no question that he is a gifted communicator and lucid thinker, and he brings those gifts to this book.  Wright has laid some ground work in some very dense works on New Testament theology and sets up the need for this book.  A key theme of Wright's is God's desire to "put the world to rights."  In this book, we are able to understand a little more about what he means.

Wright begins the book by illustrating the many varieties of confusion the church has about our future or what happens when we die, heavily critiquing the Platonic notion of the physical world being nothing more than a shadow of reality.  Wright builds his argument in various stages, but distilling it down, he establishes the incredible event of Jesus' resurrection from death (which he did more definitively in The Resurrection of the Son of God), his ascension, and coming reign.  Then the rest of the book is essentially the worked-out theological implications of that for those declaring their allegiance to Jesus.  Wright resists the only-spiritual idea of our future, and that ultimately we will be enjoying the goodness of God's creation in the transformed new earth. 

This challenges the standard images we have of a soft, glowy life up in the clouds.  It also challenges how we live now in light of our future.  He draws heavily on 1 Corinthians, where Paul indicates that the things we do now, will have impact into the future. Wright makes his points well and communicates to a wide audience. His portrayal of our future hope is beautiful and helps make sense of some of the bizarre images we have in Scripture. If what he describes is the best way to understand Scripture, then it has enormous implications for the church and its mission (which is partly his point in writing the book).

Not everything is resolved for me. I wish Wright had a chapter or appendix addressing some of the passages that might seem contrary to the view he is offering. For example, one that is frequently brought up by those that want to continue to treat the earth as one big trash dump, is 2 Peter 3:10. Relatedly, is the new earth made new through miraculous transformation or is it a totally new planet? As I stated at the beginning, this is not an area of theology that I have reflected on very much, so I would welcome insights from y'all.

For a chapter-by-chapter description of the book with a few points of explanation and well-placed questions, see Scot McKnight's blog.  I am too lazy to retrace each step Wright takes in developing his argument.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reflections on Forgotten Ways 5: Bored with meat and potatoes worship

Alan Hirsch tells the story of how his church in Melbourne became the object of the spirituality customer. They became the trendy church for people from the burbs to get their urban-hipster worship on. While this touches on the deeper, more troubling issue of consumerism and spirituality, we’ll get into that discussion later. For now, I just wanted to highlight the reality of corporate worship inflation.

“We discovered that if a community member left SMRC [the church they started], for whatever reason, they found it much harder to go back to a ‘meat and potatoes’ style of church, because they had acquired a taste for ‘spice and garlic,’ so to speak. We found that a lot of the people who left just wandered around and couldn’t reconnect anywhere.” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 44)

This quote reminded me of a quote from early Brian McLaren:

“We are prone to guilt-tripping ourselves and others even though guilt trips take us nowhere but backward. For example, we glorify extraordinary revival experiences so as to feel like failures during ordinary times, not realizing that if last year’s extraordinary revival experience continues for more than a few weeks, it becomes the new ordinary experience. If last week’s worship was awe inspiring, this week’s must at least equal it in emotional force; otherwise, someone is sure to tell us we are backsliding and will threaten to go down the street ‘where God is really moving.’ The result in some churches is an ever-inflating hype, which might seem exciting from the outside, but from the inside is pressured, desperate, and pathetic.” (McLaren, Church on the Other Side, 105)

This is a very insightful observation. We need to be aware and honest about the hype and the emotions that come with it when involved in corporate worship.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Reflections on Forgotten Ways 4: Staving off institutionalization, cont.

Okay, so the previous post never really got into the discussion on institutionalization. Well…in a way it did, but only insofar as it established the deeply institutionalized nature of the church because of its inherited Christendom mindset. Alan Hirsch articulates a danger of institutionalization on the church:

“We can observe from history that through the consolidation and centralization of power, institutions begin to claim an authority that they were not originally given and have no theological right to claim. It is at this point that the structures of ecclesia become somewhat politicized and therefore repressive of any activities that threaten the status quo inherent in it. This is institutionalism and historically it has almost always meant the effective expulsion of its more creative and disparate elements (e.g., Wesley and Booth). This is not to say that there does not appear to be some divine order (structure) given to the church. But it is to say that this order is almost always legitimized directly through the community’s corporate affirmation of calling, personal character, charismatic empowerment, and spiritual authority. It always remains personal and never moves purely to the institutional.” (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23n9)

This quote has two parts to it. First, Hirsch lays out a critique on the effects of institutionalization. And secondly, he introduces an alternative path for the church. We’ll begin with the effects of institutionalization. We are all familiar with institutes, and rarely consider them positively. We think of HMOs, government bureaucracy, and taxes. We also think of churches. In our quaky shift to a postmodern worldview, there is a strong anti-institutional emphasis (Cooper, “Contributing Factors in the Resurgence of Paganism in Western Society”, 12). Institutions have become symbols of power in society. We are in an age where the Congress is considered a playground for lobbyists and priests are equated with child molestation. Is it any wonder that we have some trepidation about institutions?

Consequences of Institutionalization

Some might wonder whether institutionalization is such a bad thing. It is not that institutionalism is this insidious evil that must be purged from the planet, but rather it subtly sends us messages that are contrary to the message of Jesus and scripture.

  • Institutions become the focus. Working in the humanitarian relief and development sector I see clearly a tendency among the agencies intending to relieve abject poverty around the world. These organizations know that they need financial support to accomplish their tasks of relief and development. In order to acquire this financial support these organizations must sell their projects as being the best ways to help those in need. The problem is donors do not really understand the principles of sustainable development. These humanitarian agencies then begin to do projects that appeal to the donor-base in order to keep the financial support for their organization flowing. Soon there is an obsession by the humanitarian relief organization to self-promote in order to become the organization that people want to give to. Churches have easily fallen into this subtle trap of promoting the church in order to maximize their opportunities to introduce people to the way of Jesus. In order to perpetuate these opportunities staffs, buildings, high-tech equipment become necessary. But soon these things get everyone distracted on to these things. Loren Mead warns us: “We must also be aware of our temptation to expend all our resources and energy in shoring up collapsing structures, holding onto the familiar long after it has lost its possibility for new life.” (Mead, Once and Future Church, 6). It is imperative for the church to have a kingdom focus. Thus the church must be willing to die so that the kingdom might prosper.
  • Institutions operate under a different paradigm- Leadership, decision-making, and productivity are all elements to institutional life that go subtly unchecked in a church context. Nasty elements of power and money slip into the mix and soon the church looks more like a government or corporation than the family of God. Even the notion of the legality of an institution in a state can lead towards a tension with kingdom values. I recently heard about one church that writing their by-laws in accordance with the wishes of the state law. In it they are required to list a president of the organization. Even though, this church disagreed with the idea of having one person listed as a leader (as opposed to a plurality of elders), the felt coerced to comply with state law as an institution.

Inevitability of Institutionalization

Another relevant thought is that institutionalization is inevitable. If we can’t stop it, then why try? This is a valid question. James Cobble observes that: “the church exists as a sociological reality subject to the same forces and laws which govern and shape the development and life of all social groups…. As a sociological reality the church reflects the political intrigue, bureaucratic development, social stratification, class conflicts, and boredom that occur in all social institutions.” (James Cobble, The Church and the Powers, 93-94) In a sense, institutionalizing is a reality.

“Institutionalization is unavoidable for an organization that wants to continue existing and growing beyond its first generation. It was precisely the formation of church leadership and organizational structures that led to the stabilization of the church.” (Gehring, House Church and Mission, 299)

The late Paul Hiebert frames it as succeeding generations inheriting something as the way things are done. (Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections…, 160) Soon this results in what Hiebert calls a loss of vision and a hardening of categories. Although I concede there is an element of inevitability, there are some helpful ways to respond or slow down the process of institutionalization.

Staving off institutionalization

  • Continue to return to the biblical story and images- As has been emphasized in too many sources to site, the images for the community of Jesus in scripture are primarily organic not organizational. Body, bride, family, vine all attest to the dynamic, organic nature of the church. If the church is willing to periodically take a fresh look at these images in comparison to their current practice it could be enlightening. It might surprise some to realize that Robert’s Rules of Order was not used in the early church.
  • Centered on Jesus- This is one of the chapters in Hirsch’s book, as he claims all legitimate movements are unequivocally centered on Jesus. Related to this is a conceptual framework of focusing on the center (Jesus) rather than on the boundaries (who is in and out). A better explanation deserves much more space, Paul Hiebert has an incredible chapter on this (see Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections…, 107-137).
  • Resist premature institutionalization- When a new church plant begins with a budget, a building, and a payroll, it is already an institution. I have seen more than one church plant ruined by the acquisition of an old church building from a dying church. What was once a dynamic group of Jesus followers journeying together became an institution discussing issues of property maintenance, building use policies, and janitorial salary. We must be diligent in allowing things to be as simple as possible.
  • Continue proceeding outward- Humans quickly fall into rhythms and habits that become fossilized. We must force ourselves to continue move where there is need. I have heard many say that their church will look at starting another one once they are established or stable. A church should never allow itself to become established, it should be characterized by sending and going, even to the point of its own terminus. We return the notion of an institution becoming its own focus. A church should always be pointing to Jesus and the kingdom.
  • Foster and encourage radical new movements- This is what Hirsch refers to in the quote at the beginning of this post. We must help the Wesleys and Booths in our churches be radical followers of Jesus and lead others in doing so.

In Matthew’s Gospel we have our most explicit references to the church of any of the gospels, yet there is nothing that hints of the elaborate institutional behemoth that church would become. R.T. France, regarding Jesus’ community in Matthew, concludes:

“The structure is informal, but the sense of community is intense. And overarching it all is the consciousness of the presence of Jesus and of the forgiveness and pastoral concern of ‘your Father in heaven’.” (France, 252)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Reflections on Forgotten Ways 3: Staving off institutionalization

At the heart of the Hirsch's book is the notion of overhauling our entire understanding of church and Jesus-followship from an institutional Christendom mentality to a dynamic movement that touches and transforms every community into which it flows. Right now, he argues, the church has an institutional ethos and we allow most of our activities to revolve around that ethos. He states, however: "I have come to the unnerving conclusion that God's people are more potent by far when they have little of what we would recognize as church institution in their life together." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23) This is one of those statements that many people will quickly agree with but not see all of the implications of it. The reality of what Hirsch is saying is that we still have an institutional Christendom mentality. And for many Americans, Christendom and the American idea are confused. As I begin to unwrap this, I want to articulate more clearly about the notion of Christendom. I will not do justice to this subject, as it is a book-length subject. Although I have not read the book, Stuart Murray has a book on this topic, Church After Christendom. I really enjoyed another book by Murray called Church Planting: Laying Foundations.

The idea of Christendom is that of an established institution of the church that has a geopolitical involvement. Many would point to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (313 CE) as marking the beginning of Christendom. It was during this time that the church began to build larger buildings, hierarchical power structure became more established and even worship had a resemblance to a Roman emperor processional. It also became a time when the church began to dabble more with the affairs of the state. This trend continued to the point that the church was intrinsically tied to the affairs of the state and relied on its powerful influence on the state. Michael Frost works out how this looked by the middle ages:

"Furthermore, by the end of the twelfth century, everyone in Christendom had been divided into parishes large enough to support a church and a priest but small enough to allow easy access to the parish chapel for services. Tithing became mandatory, so everyone was 'taxed' to support the parish church and its priests. It was a brilliant system for ensuring both ecclesiastical administration and pastoral care. The laity was expected to pay its tithe and attend Mass. The clergy were expected to perform sacramental rites such as baptism, marriage, funerals, and weekly Mass, as well as provide for the poor. The result of nearly two centuries of Christendom is that Christian have become used to the idea that their faith is primarily about attending meetings—worship meetings, weddings, funerals, prayer meetings, and so on. Even today, in our thoroughly post-Christendom world, when the essential work of the church in providing religious, liturgical services has become irrelevant, Christians (including many exiles) can't separate the idea of Christianity from the weekly Mass or worship service. Even those who have ceased attending church services have great difficulty imagining what it means for a group of believers to church together without picturing a liturgical meeting of some kind." (Frost, Exiles, 277)

Why does this matter? This Christendom mentality or ethos has carried forward through the Reformation until today. The late Lesslie Newbigin describes the force of Christendom (what he calls corpus Christianum) in shaping western culture and unequivocally posits that we cannot return to those days.

"…two facts are fundamental to an understanding of our present situation. One is that we are the heirs of the Christendom experiment. We who belong to the Western world live in societies that have been shaped by more than a thousand years during which the barbarous and savage tribes of Europe were brought, slowly and with many setbacks, into a community conceived as the corpus Christianum, a single society in which the whole of public and private life was to be controlled by the Christian revelation. Much of what we take for granted about normal human behavior is the fruit of that long schooling. However much we rebel against it, we are its products.

    The second fact is that the corpus Christianum is no more, and we cannot go back to it. The religious wars of the seventeenth century marked the final destruction of Christendom's synthesis of church and society. From the eighteenth century onward, Europe turned away from the Christian vision of man and his world, accepted a radically different vision for its public life, and relegated the Christian vision to the status of a permitted option for the private sector." (Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 101-2)

In essence, Newbigin, Hirsch, Murray, and many others argue that the era of Christendom is long gone and cannot be regained but that much of the established church has not yet recognized this unalterable fact. Even harkening back to the Reformation commenced by the bold actions Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and many others, much of theology underwent a radical renewal. A fresh reading of scripture inspired a fresh articulation of our salvation and Christ's work on the cross. Yet, in terms of ecclesiology, they continued a Christendom-type ecclesiology (only without the papal authority). Today, long after the church has been relegated to the private sphere of life, the church still carries with it a mentality of enormous influence and establishment.

Hirsch is calling for the church to undergo a kenotic movement (from the Gr word kenos, devoid, empty) described of Jesus in Phil. 2. This self-emptying process allowed Jesus to identify more fully with humanity. The church, in like manner, must be willing to enter communities humbly and incarnationally. Just as Jesus encouraged his followers to take up their cross on a daily basis, so must the community of Jesus followers, the church.

(more on institutionalism to follow)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Reflections on Forgotten Ways #2: The seamlessness of incarnation and proclamation

"There is a time for 'in-your-face' approaches to mission, but there is also a time to simply become part of the very fabric of a community and to engage in the humanity of it all…. If relationship is the key means in the transfer of the gospel, then it simply means we are going to have to be directly present to the people in our circle." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 133)

My wife and I read Alan Hirsch's book together. In the margin next to the above quote she asks "Is relationship the key or is proclamation?" Her question is a good one that started me pondering. Here Hirsch falls into a false dichotomy of incarnation and proclamation. When we look at the example of Jesus, we see a seemless movement of incarnation and proclamation combined. The radical otherness of the way of Jesus cannot be effectively shown only by becoming "part of the very fabric of a community." The way of Jesus challenges us to act and speak in an alternative manner that betrays a reign-of-God worldview.

There is a weariness with proclamation because it has been equated with an "in-your-face" approach that conjures up images of men in clothing from another era yelling in English (also from another era) armed with a signboard with flames on it. Proclamation of the great news of Jesus does not have to be so angry (nor should it be). But it does beckon us to say and do things that don't mesh so easily with the fabric of the community. In order to urge people away from false and temporary allegiances, uncomfortable things need to be proclaimed. But the manner of our proclamation should always be overwhelmingly characterized by our love. Part of demonstrating our love is to live incarnationally. On the next page, Hirsch offers us a glimpse of how an Incarnational posture can communicate God's love:

"But one of the profound implications of our presence as representatives of Jesus is that Jesus actually likes to hang out with the people we hang out with. They get the implied message that God actually likes them." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 134)

Reflections on Forgotten Ways #1

After having provided a brief over view of the Alan Hirsch's book The Forgotten Ways, I will begin to cogitate on some of the things he explores in the book. In some cases these reflections will be directly wrestling with an idea in the book. Other times, something Hirsch has written might launch me onto something only tangentially related to his book. I should also warn you that my reflections may not be in the order of the book, my apologies in advance to those who prefer linear order.

"Edward de Bono, no theologian but definitely the leading specialist in creative learning processes, remarks that if there is a known and successful cure for an illness, patients generally prefer the doctor to use the known cure rather than seek to design a better one. Yet there may be much better cures to be found. He rightly asks how we are ever to find a better cure if at each critical moment we always opt for the traditional treatment." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 50)

It is this mindset that makes me fond of this book. We need to employ our God-given creativity in fostering the way of Jesus so that it becomes normative in more lives. Essentially, Hirsch is suggesting that we need more investment in R&D. This process will consume resources and may not show a lot of results initially, but it is necessary as culture and worldviews continue to morph. The rebellious nature that we have all been born with continues to develop immunity to the true goodness of God's kingdom.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Book Review: The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

After too much time of toggling back and forth between several books, I have finally finished one. Alan Hirsch's book The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church is a remarkable book and worthwhile read for any follower of Jesus. After a stellar debut with The Shaping of Things to Come co-written with Michael Frost, I was skeptical that this book would have anything new to contribute. I was please to find out that my skepticism was misplaced.

Hirsch and Frost have travelled the world (particularly the post-Christian west) in search of Jesus movements that are actually connecting with those that do not yet know or follow the ways of Jesus. They combine their extensive travels and interviews with diverse reading in sociology, theology, and missiology. Their gleanings about the church in a post-Christian context became the stuff of The Shaping of Things to Come. In Forgotten Ways, Hirsch takes a step back at the macro-picture and looks at large-scale, dynamic movements of Jesus. Through the telling of his own experience with church planting in Melbourne, he indicates that a focus on starting a church is already a limiting/confining focus. He repeatedly references to two movements that created an impact for beyond what one church could do. The early church and the church in China during the last 50 years are the two movements that he points to as illustrating the dynamics of a movement. Hirsch argues that movements of these proportions have some characteristics that are vital in seeing a movement of Jesus happen.

Hirsch's overall analysis is spot-on, the church in the west (and most of the world) has lost its movement essence and has morphed into an institution that is remarkably similar to any other institution. "I have come to the unnerving conclusion that God's people are more potent by far when they have little of what we would recognize as church institution in their life together." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23)

The traditional church (and many contemporary and even emerging churches) is stuck in an attractional posture. That is, the church has a "come to us" mentality, particularly centered around a service. There is a big effort to make the service appealing to its costumer base through music, preaching style, and programs. Evangelism is centered around trying to get non-believers to enter the doors of the church building so that they may hear the good news of Jesus expressed. This has been the dominant approach for the last seventeen centuries, even though there are many incredible and beautiful exceptions to this, it should be acknowledged as the default approach. In the past this approach has had some success in places where there was a spiritual vacuum or where institutional Christianity was highly honored and appreciated. It is rare to find contexts like those anymore. In fact, the failure of the church in reaching those who don't yet follow Jesus is clearly evident (for relevant statistical quotes see the appendix below).

This is contrasted with a missional posture, where the church proceeds outward to the world. This posture takes more literally the wording of the Great Commission to "go" and make disciples of Jesus all over the world. In other words, the church is going to people that don't know Jesus instead of waiting for them to come to their opulent, multi-functional church "campuses".

Hirsch retraces the story of his own efforts in Melbourne where a community of believers were introducing new people to Jesus in a post-Christian setting. Due to a more attractional and non-movement orientation, this church soon became latest, hippest spiritual hotspot. The outward motion morphed into an inward motion.

In The Forgotten Ways, Hirsch describes the features he sees as foundational to a Jesus movement. These features are chapter titles:

  • The Heart of It All: Jesus is Lord
  • Disciple Making
  • Missional-Incarnational Impulse
  • Apostolic Environment
  • Organic Systems
  • Communitas, not Community

In these chapters some rich material is explored and proffered. Hirsch's wide range of reading is impressive and helpful in offering well-rounded ideas. There are points when the idea sounds good, but one wonders if it is really possible. The early church and China each had unique characteristics which catalyzed these extraordinary movements. The soil in those two places were ready for lush growth, but not every context has the type of soil to sustain a movement. Another aspect that receives little attention is the local cultural context. The local cultural context may present obstacles to these different characteristics that may prove challenging. There is a tension in acknowledging the universal characteristics of a Jesus movement and allowing the good news to root itself deeply in each culture.

In essence, I don't challenge any of these characteristics, in fact, I applaud them. But I do sometimes feel like the language has a sense that if we just get the right ingredients together, we can sit back and watch incredible things grow. I get the same sense from a number of different people and groups (especially in the missional stream of the emerging church movement) that emphasize organic growth (for other examples see Neil Cole's Organic Church
or Christian Schwarz's Natural Church Development). Once again, I don't disagree with most of what is being stated. I am very much a proponent of understanding and practicing church more organically and less institutionally. It is mainly with that which is lacking in these books that I struggle. It is an amazing amount of continual work that is required in seeing this kind of incredible growth. At our house we just had grass put in our yard. I am no gardener (I am 100% city boy, hence the name of the blog), so when the grass sod was laid I thought, "awesome, I'll just watch that grass take root and grow." How foolish was I? As soon as the grass was put in, it stopped raining. I had to spend hours watering that grass. And then the weeds. The weeds were and are a constant menace that requires constant attention. It is oddly reminiscent of the gospels in Scripture, isn't it? Jesus told a parable about sowing seed and all that can go awry, including weeds sown by the enemy (Mt 13:24-30, 36-43). It was also evidenced in how much Jesus invested in the twelve and how many times they showed that they did not get it. Then we see the earliest churches having all kinds of problems in the earliest stages.

(For the record, I don't think that Neil Cole, Alan Hirsch, Paul Kaak, and others are trying to gloss over this or believe that it is not messy. Their focus is on empowering the average believer to become radically involved in a movement of Jesus. I simply think another volume needs to be written to help prepare those willing for the difficult road ahead, already foreseen by Jesus.)

The church is in desperate need to transition into a movement and cut away the institutional scaffolding. Hirsch has some terrific things to say in helping us move in that direction. But it is going to be messy and painful. We will need to go into this with a sound theology of suffering and endurance.


Church Growth Failure-

"75 percent of the churches in the United States today are declining, 24 percent are growing, but only because of 'transfer' Christians form other congregations; only 1 percent of the churches are growing as a result of reaching unchurched non-Christians." (Statistics from Leonard Sweet, "Leadership and the Church in Contemporary Culture," George Fox Evangelical Seminary, Portland, Oreg., May 16, 2002 cited in Gehring, House Church and Mission, 303)

How much do Americans love church? "Despite what we print in our own press releases, the numbers don't look good. According to 2003 actual attendance counts, adult church-going is at 18 percent nationally and dropping. Evangelical attendance (again, actual seat-numbers, not telephone responses) accounts for 9% of the population, down from 9.2% in 1990. Mainline attendance accounts for 3.4% of the national population, down from 3.9% the previous decade. And Catholics are down a full percentage point in the same ten-year period: 6:2% from 7.2% in 1990. Of the 3,098 counties in the United States, 2,303 declined in church attendance." (Sally Morgenthaler as quoted in Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 35)

"In a dialogue between Michael Frost, many members of the faculty of Fuller's School of World Mission, and me, it was generally acknowledged by all there that church growth theory had, by and large, failed to reverse the church's decline in America and was therefore something of a failed experiment. The fact remains that more than four decades of church growth principles and practice has not halted the decline of the church in Western contexts." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 45n10)

Disenfranchised Believers-

"Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood, integrated, and influencing the world." (Barna, Revolution, 11)

"As someone who has been involved with young adults all my professional life, I venture to suggest that there are more people aged twenty to thirty-five who claim to be followers of Jesus who are outside the institution of the church than there are in the church at any given time." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 70n29)


Sunday, May 4, 2008

More on technology and its effects

In my last posting I cogitated on the sociological ramifications of wireless technology and what it would do to families and communities. This was inspired by an article in The Economist. Well, if I had kept reading I would have discovered a few more articles about the same trend. One article in particular, "The new oases," is interesting. Of particular note to me was the discussion on Third Places.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Implications of Increased Wirelessness

In a recent issue of The Economist, an article titled "Our Nomadic Future," prognosticated that the increased reliance on wireless, easily transportable products is going to change "lives, culture, politics, cities, jobs, even marriages dramatically." With computers and phones (now often the same device) being wireless and work tasks increasingly being relegated to the use of those objects, people are more mobile. Large office spaces with a maze of telephone cords and a labyrinth of cubicles are fast becoming an unnecessary expense. People are telecommuting from home more and more, instead of hassling with traffic jams and parking stresses.

At one time, technology was the key influencer in creating separate locations for home and work. This development led to significant changes in the sociological dynamics of families, communities, and cities as a whole. The separate domains of work life and home life seeped into our worldview perceptions of a public/private bifurcation. Lesslie Newbigin describes the consequences of this:

"The home is no longer the place of work, and the family is no longer the working unit. The way is opened for a deep divide between the public world of work, of exchange, of economics, and the private world that is withdrawn from the world of work and remains under another vision of how things are. In the public world the workers in the factory are related to each other anonymously as units in a mechanical process. They are replaceable parts. They may not even know each other's names. In the home people are known to one another as irreplaceable persons, and their mutual understanding as persons is what constitutes the home. Moreover (at least during the first 150 years of the Industrial Revolution), it was the men who operated the public world of the factory and the market, and the women who were relegated to the private sector. The fissure in society divided the sexes: the man dealt with public facts, the woman with personal values. The man was the producer, the woman the consumer (even though, in fact, she worked as long and as hard in the home as her man worked in the office or the factory). Today's feminism, which is characteristic of modern—as distinct from traditional—societies, represents in part the revolt of women against these distortions." (Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 31)

This development does not mean that a complete reverse is on the horizon. We can't return to a pre-industrial era, rather we are entering a post-industrial era. Nevertheless, one must be mindful of the consequences of this transition. The mobility of those working is going to have ramifications on family life and community. The article in The Economist has observed that traffic patterns are already changing from rush hour to "daisy-chain" patterns. Parents will find themselves around their kids more, but may find that they are more distracted than ever due to ever-present connectedness to the "office." What will the sociological, and even epistemological, ramifications of this change hold for us?