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I take the position that the Christian community no longer lives in a favored position with its host culture. This evidence is in front of us; diminishing family life, mixed gender signals, erosion of common courtesies and on and on. To reach this culture Christians must be more like leaven than a church-centric, attractional-Sunday-center. Individually, many of us are in missional-praxis, but if the established church is to survive the next decade its leaders must start thinking with a corporate responsibility and accountability laudable in building a culture of believers who strategically “go” and seek the ‘missing’ on the missing’s turf.
I find a degree of difficulty in articulating a primary missional stance. I must concede that my failure, in the past, to expressively characterize the difference between a primary missional praxis and the praxis of the establishment church has limited the reader’s scope, breath and range of what I’ve attempted to convey. This time I hope to do better. But it’s possible you will walk away from this piece slightly confused or even thinking that we agree, when we might not. If after reading this article there are differences in our understanding, those differences will most likely be in the change needed and the corporate responsibility necessary. It falls at the feet of church leaders.
It’s important to mention that I’m not totally 100% opposed to the established church. But what I am opposed to is church leadership upholding their primary stance of ‘tweaking’ or making relevant the Sunday morning event to the point where you begin to think that they must think that people will come and rush the entrance when their doors are opened.
Faith Communities Must Become Portable
In the last half of the book of Luke and throughout the book of Acts the reader encounters a series of road stories. You find Jesus on the Emmaus road, Philip on the road to Gaza, Peter on the road to Cornelius, Paul on the road to Damascus. If you’re the least bit curious you have to ask, “Where is everyone going?” And the answer is they are moving away from their spiritual center—Jerusalem—and out into the world.
As one reads the New Testament, especially the book of Acts, it becomes apparent that Christianity is depicted as a movement away from the center of religious activity and out into the fringes of the world. Jesus’ portability was seen in the inordinate amount of time he spent with prostitutes, tax collectors, government officials, and fishermen. Our addiction to centripetal ministries has kept us away from the people Jesus’ misses. We’ve been called to leave our temple and enter the court of the Gentiles and engage people on their turf—territory that is comfortable and familiar to them, where government officials assemble for city council meetings, where art museum curators show their prizes, and where the missing ones willingly sit with ‘people of the way’ to discuss life-issues over a glass of wine or a latte. Reaching this generation requires Jesus’ followers to step out of the boat of church life and into the streams of culture in pursuit of something unprecedented, even downright miraculous. It means we replace our preoccupation with church and begin walking the fringes of the mission field.
Stilted Religion or an Adventure with a Cause
Much of what I see in the established church today has no fire. She has become ensnared in a kind of “institutionalism” that withers in the labyrinth of its organizational structures. But maybe most serious is the people in the pew’s failure to find a worthy cause for which to live. People can live in churches for years and never discover any greater reason to live than a career, a few more possessions or a little more fame. Sad indeed.
Years ago I took my son fishing on a small creek below our home. We found a Budweiser can floating on top of the water and my son reached down and snatched it out of the creek. Inside the can was a small Rock Bass. When smaller, it must have swum unsuspectedly into the can and then, failing to find its way out, soon became too large to get out. When I freed the fish from the can, he had already begun to grow in a curve.
That story suggests the way I have experienced religion. It held out for me the promise for a fuller, richer life where problems could be handled and freedom experienced daily. In reality it brought additional problems—church politics, power plays, the resistance to new ideas and new ways to reach the lost, just one more thing to become frustrated with. Instead of finding freedom, life seemed stilted—I found myself growing in a curve. Remember Jesus? He established the greatest adventure the world has ever seen and did it in the midst of massive religious failure. We can do the same. But we must become portable. We must.
It appears we are discovering that faith based messages embedded in the arts, which we thought had no perceivable Christian connection, can become a powerful tool in the hands of artistic believers. It can widen the scope of faith for those who can’t see God outside the confines of a subculture, while creating dialogue with those who have no faith at all, or at least who think they don’t. God created everything; the spiritual and the sacred, ecology and stewardship, art and creation; everything is interconnected as an expression of him.
The 20th century was a unique period in human history. It was the only century in which the arts and faith were separated and antagonistic. Before the 20th century, the arts were an important part of the spiritual. It wasn’t the exception but the rule. It was an era when Christ’s people drove culture as opposed to seeking ways to be culturally relevant. Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Last Supper, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, and Raphael’s Epiphany, all cultural icons with deep ecclesiastical roots. Oh, and monks still make the best beer.
If we could broaden our minds as to what constitutes a church activity we might not limit the life of the church to an hour per week on Sunday mornings. When leaders do that it’s easy to see how some forms of art might have a hard time finding their place. But when we recapture the idea of church life that draws us into vibrant, daily, life-changing community, then we can begin to imagine an artistic element to our body life.
Cultural dialogue is something Christians should have been doing all along in society, but were prohibited in the last century because of a flawed worldview that segregated Christian inspiration from the mainstream. Captivating culture again and giving it meaning through the eyes of faith rest solely on the shoulders of the Christ-follower. But a flawed doctrine called dualism left ‘cultural dialogue’ an unexplored arena for over two generations.
The sacred/secular schism, called dualism, theologically elevated the sacred at the expense of the secular. But to consider the secular a threat to faith is to give enormous ground to the enemy before a battle has even begun. We have claimed so little in this world. We have been like children playing in a wooden sandbox on the edge of a beautiful white sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see (and we brought our own sand).
When people come to see art, they encounter God. Whether it’s watching a dramatic performance, listening to a new rendition of Amazing Grace accompanied by an acoustic guitar, enjoying a solo, or a sculpture or painting, something happens when people’s creative juices are primed by the arts.
There are a couple of churchy axioms that I struggled to practice with consistency.
It’s said that Christians are to “hate the sin and love the sinner.” I have to admit that I’ve never found the power to do that with any consistency. I would image if one did they could turn raw hate into creative hate. And that would be good. But the evil I hate wants to stick to the person the way skin sticks to the body. Every now and then I can tear the sin from the sinner’s skin but not on a regular basis.
The life Jesus calls us to live always cuts against the grain. Separating the sin from the sinner doesn’t come easy. And neither does loving another person with unconditional love.
I’m sitting at my keyboard trying to remember if I have ever heard the words ‘unconditional’ and ‘love’ used together in the same sentence outside of a church community. I can’t answer that with any surety because I have a deeply rooted christian belief that is three decades strong. I write and read often. The terms are certainly not unfamiliar to me but I wonder about the hundred’s of thousands outside the christian faith. Do they know anything about the ultimate expression of love without condition?
The phrase ‘unconditional love’ reflects on the voluntary sacrifice of God’s Son. I understand. But the idea that the love I practice could be called unconditional is a little perplexing for me. The notion that ‘I can do this’ dissipates in my day-in-day-out practices toward others. I try with the best of intentions but end up projecting my expectations on others, only showing them favor and love when they satisfy my needs and follow my own requests. I don’t mean to act or behave in this way, but in that moment it’s very stealthy. It might be the result of my early years of living without Jesus. Habits can be terribly stubborn. No, I’m not all I need to be but thanks be to God I’m not all I use to be either.
Unconditional love is totally uncommon. But uncommon doesn’t mean impossible; it just means uncommon. Through the years I’ve seen a handful of people who practice unconditional love. These are the ones who quietly serve others right where they are. They don’t wait for tomorrow to make a difference; they are making a difference today.
I wish I could end this short piece with the declaration that I consistently separate the sin from the sinner and practiced a selfless, unconditional love. But I have a way to go. Yet I refuse to throw in the towel because my head knows that those who show this ‘other-worldly-love’ are released from the consumed self. And those who receive this love are soon released from the limitations others have placed on them.
They shove him out of the way and hiss, “Disappear!” Hurriedly they grab her by the arm, push the door open and make their way down the alley toward the temple, disrupting the dawn. Her weeping and their shouting can be heard from across the courtyard. The “legal custodians of conduct” toss her into the middle of the crowd gathered to hear Jesus teach.
Confused she sits in the sand bracing herself with arms behind her. She looks up at Jesus. Her lips pressed. The furrows on her forehead reveal her disgust at such an embarrassing arrival.
She feels shame.
She feels failure.
She feels sickened.
The Pharisees are dressed in their smug self-righteousness. “Adulteress!” We caught her in the act!”
Their statement conjures up images of doors being kicked open and covers being pulled back. This woman has nowhere to hide. She is forced in the most public way to face the shame of her illicit moment. Her act was disgraceful and immoral. But the greater travesty in this moral mess almost goes unnoticed:
1. Two people are required to witness such an act. Question: What are the chances of two people accidentally witnessing this forbidden passion?
2. And where was the other half of this guilty party? Why wasn’t the man brought forward and thrown to the sand with this woman?
The silence is deafening.
The drama intense.
The same finger that engraved the Ten Commandments on rock writes in the sand. What did he write? No one knows for sure. Maybe He wrote the names of everyone holding a rock. Maybe he wrote “Not Guilty.”
At that moment the older men looked to the younger men. And the younger looked to the older. Maybe during this moment each briefly reflected on their own lives. And then all you could hear was the dropping of twelve rocks and the shuffling of feet.
Jesus and the woman were left alone. The jury is gone. The woman looks into Jesus’ face expecting condemnation. Jesus ask, “Where are your accusers? Is there anyone here that condemns you?”
“Then neither do I condemn you, go now and sin no more.”
A few years ago I asked my non-Christian friends a simple question. “Tell me a couple of things that come to mind when you hear someone mention ‘Christians’? The two top responses:
1. They go to church more than I do.
2. They are judgmental.
Sometimes I think we forget the truth about ourselves.
I have another friend.
He has a rock mounted on a plaque with the inscription, “First Stone” (John 8:7). He keeps it on his desk as a reminder.
I don’t know what happened to the woman in John 8. Maybe she went back to her husband. Maybe she became a close follower. I don’t know. But what I do know is grace arrived and loved this woman in the middle of her failure and shame.
When you get to heaven you will likely view
many folks whose presence there will be a shock to you.
But don’t be astonished, do not even stare,
doubtless, there will be many folks surprised to see you there.
How do established ministries and churches practice love and life beyond its traditional margins? It’s a great question with a multitude of possibilities.
From my point of view there is no better way than to give as much time to the culture you find yourself planted in as you give to the people you live in community with. Twenty years ago someone convinced me of the importance and value of giving one day a week to those who live in the world outside my church office. So with books and papers in tote I would visit a local Starbucks every Tuesday. There I would spend time preparing my sermon, but more importantly it was a place where I established a handful of friendships with non-Christians. With time and trust I was able to listen to the myriad ways non-churched people viewed church and Christianity.
With time I became enamored with the idea of creating safe places for the culture I lived in. Every week I would approach the elders with new ideas. More often than not I felt I scared them with what I thought were good ideas on ways to love people and nudge the church, little by little, beyond its traditional understandings.
Yea, my ideas were considered weird and crazy two decades ago. But I’m still convinced that whatever we do as outreach must have sufficient momentum to resist the centripetal attraction of exclusive, self-obsessed Christian fellowship and must be sustained by more than just a commitment to mission—it will require a whole way of being Christian, a culture, a lifestyle that is comfortable functioning without the regular weekly church structure, that is able to draw on a diffuse set of spiritual resources, that is innovative and creative in generating community and in providing mutual support. At the very heart of it all must be an instinctive enthusiasm for developing a “cross-border” spirituality. For too long evangelical spirituality has been driven by Bible study. In my humble opinion faith communities need to shift in the direction of a less confident, exploratory mode of relating to God where we explore our way out of the narrow confines of traditional evangelicalism into a missional space where theological reflection becomes more meaningful.
There is no particular template for cross-border communities. They could be small or large, short-term or long-term, personal or impersonal, organized or disorganized. Cross-border communities will be dependent on the development of an outlook, a way of life, and a sense of personal empowerment for the apprentice of Jesus in this complex and crazy world that we live in.
Perhaps one key criterion would be the need to get ourselves to a point where in relating to the non-christian we can say that we are on common ground. To find a common point where our journeys converge so that we can build relationships on the basis of spiritual commonality.
Talk about love and life beyond the margins. Just think about the possibilities.
When I retired my world shrunk tremendously. No longer do I see the hundreds of daily interactions between people and groups of people. Now I dine with my wife daily and eat and talk with three male friends twice a week. My first thought is maybe I’m not the one to comment on racism. Yet, I’ve often written on subjects I didn’t know much about. When that happens I sprinkle my thoughts with questions as opposed to dogmatic absolutes.
I grew up in the turbulent 50s and 60s. As a child I remember watching George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, block African Americans from entering the University of Alabama. I remember John F Kennedy sending the National Guard to Alabama to open the University up to Afrian American students. Racism in the 1960s was huge and it producing a decade, or more, of battles between White and African Americas. There were laws, statutes and ordinances that separated white and black America.
• African Americans attended separate schools and churches
• African Americans could only used public bathrooms marked “for colored only”
• ate in a separate section of a restaurant
• sat in the rear of a bus
• prejudice commercials lit up early television
We’ve come a long way since those early years of racism. But that doesn’t mean I deny that racism exit today. Yet I believe it’s a different kind of racism? One that has morphed into ‘racial microagression,’ a type that is more of the daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities. And whether intentional or unintentional, they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Personally I see a marked difference between the racism of today and the early racism I grew up with. I’m sure someone everyday faces racial microaggression but I’m wondering if these are pockets of problems as opposed to problems in mass?
I have a few questions
1) Is racism really nationwide and spreading as we’re led to believe?
2) Is it possible that there is a calculated divisiveness meant to split this nation?
3) African American Presidential candidate Ben Carson, who I highly respect, has said that racial issues are being stoked using the principles from Saul Alinsky’s playbook (Rules for Radicals)?
4) Is it going to take another 09/11 before we, once again, call policeman and fireman heroes?
Yes, there have been a number of young unarmed African Americans gunned down. But why disrespect authority? My mother always warned me, “Obey your authorities and you’ll be just fine. Disobey them and something bad could happen. Maybe unproportionately bad.”
Do the above mentioned shootings bring to life underlying racial issues in America? I’m not sure but I wonder? If you take race out of the issue altogether and you take a group of young men and you raise them with no respect for authority, not learning to take on personal responsibility, having easy access to drugs and alcohol, they are very likely to end up as victims of violence and incarceration no matter there color.
Maybe I’m wrong about all this. It certainly wouldn’t shock me if I was. But you know what? I’m here to make you think, so so-what if I’m wrong. Helping the reader to think in new ways is always my goal.
No matter what I think of today racism God’s people can always do better. I’m totally committed to treating everyone like I want to be treated, no matter the color of their skin
Here are five ways I want to be treated
1) I want others to encourage me
2) I want others to appreciate me – William James said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
3) I want others to forgive me
4) I want others to listen to me
5) I want others to understand me
I have some good news! Your skin color and the culture you were born into were God’s idea in his infinite creativity. I also have some bad news. Given the human condition, we will never totally rid ourselves of racism in this age, anymore than we will totally rid ourselves of lust and pride. The last sentence you just read may seem to be cause for despair. But it actually precludes despair.