This month: 191 - Meta-Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Matt Dabbs

Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

Homepage: http://mattdabbs.com

We have gone through some dark days since the start of the pandemic. It is so hopeful to remember that Jesus is the light of the world! John tells us part of what it means for Jesus to be the light in his prologue,

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:4-5

Jesus shines in the darkness! If you have ever lived in darkness (which we all have) we know just how important that light really is!

Not only that Jesus talked about our connection with being the light,

“You are the light of the world!” – Matt 5:14

Jesus’ light became a light in us. Just as Jesus’ light pierced the darkness, so will ours. Just as Jesus’ light gave hope to those who lived in darkness, so will ours.

The question isn’t whether or not we are the light. We are. The question is how then will we let it shine unless we position ourselves in places of darkness?

Welcome to December at Wineskins!

The most important things in church life have a high degree of sensitivity to them. Feelings can get hurt easily. Relationships can get broken. Hard conversations are exactly that…hard. Many hard conversations go unsaid because it isn’t worth the cost.

How do we have the difficult conversations even though there may be fallout? At the heart of all of this is the key – vulnerability…Our capacity to receive the truth and keep in the conversation.

First, we pray and ask God if this is a conversation He wants us to have. Too often pride and other blind spots can get in the way of us truly seeing the situation (and our role in it) accurately. There are some conversations that we don’t need to have. Maybe they are a distraction or maybe there is something else more important to discuss and work on.

Second, assess our place in the problem or issue at hand. We may bear more responsibility for the issue than we first would be willing or able to admit. There have been times in ministry I was completely blind to my part of the problem or even that I was the cause of the problem. Some of these instances were not obvious until much later.

Third, be willing to accept push back without being defensive. Defensiveness, while natural and understandable, can get in the way of progress and reconciliation. If we have pushback it may be because we didn’t thoroughly work through the first two items. Or it may be there was more to the situation than we realized…so take a moment to listen and learn in order to find a path ahead rather than get bogged down in defensive posturing to save face.

Fourth, be open, receptive and anticipatory of the Holy Spirit’s work. Allow the Holy Spirit to work the fruit of the Spirit in you before, during and after the conversation. The Spirit is our unifier and part of creating unity is using the fruit of the Spirit to mend broken relationships and ease difficult conversations to make them more manageable.

Fifth, understand that a favorable outcome may take several tries. You can’t always get it all done the first time. The first conversation may be a learning conversation that preps resolution the second or third time around. Be realistic about the pace of a positive outcome. That allows you to not push for resolution when it isn’t truly resolved. The problem took time to develop, resolution will as well.

Sixth, work through the issue with others with integrity. Be honest. Do what is right. Have no regrets.

Even after all of this there is no guarantee that anything got fixed but at least you can know that you did your best to allow God to do His best.

There has been a lot of criticism leveled at the church over the years. Criticism can become a hobby if we are not careful. It seems to me our culture is becoming a lot more overtly critical and now has the platforms to leverage that to a wider audience. Or maybe the criticism level hasn’t changed, it is just more visible now than it was before.

What is the place of criticism in the church?

Matthew 18 sets the standard for resolving conflict with individuals. I don’t think that applies to all systemic issues.

Paul addressed congregational issues but he was inspired and had apostolic authority.

I believe we can critique the church in a way that does not distract from her beauty. There are two categories that the critique can fall into:

1 – Critique of local issues in a specific congregation

2 – Critique of general issues that are common to congregations

The first should be dealt with in person and not through a megaphone to the world. It involves actual relationships that need to be maintained and are not hypothetical. The second, I believe, is fair game for both public and private discourse. In both instances the goal of the critique should be to find a path to improvement rather than to vent or rant with no eye for improvement.

A followup question is this – How does one effectively critique a network of loosely connected autonomous churches? Is there a way to offer a better path forward for church leaders who have little to no incentive to make things better through change? And who gets to decide what is actually “better” for one church vs another? I don’t claim to have good answers to these questions. Maybe you do!

In all of these situations the person doing the critique needs to do some soul searching to make sure they are not doing this out of pride or spite. One can grow a following faster through talking about what is wrong over talking about what is right…bad news catches on quicker than good news (Bob Goff aside!). This is of the flesh and the critiquer needs to process this internally before moving forward.

Here are four questions you can ask yourself to make sure your heart is in the right place:

1 – Do I want to see this church (these churches) succeed or fail? If it is the second, don’t do it.

2 – Do I get any pleasure out of seeing the problems? If yes, don’t do it.

3 – Do I have any feelings of superiority in pointing out issues in others? If yes, don’t do it.

4 – Have I addressed these same issues in my own life and ministry successfully? Often we are most sensitive in others what we struggle with most ourselves.

We can assess how we view and do church through a variety of lenses.

We can look at church through a pastoral lens – how is the flock being provided for, nurtured and matured? How is the flock sent on mission? How healthy are the sheep? Do they have easy onramps to spiritual growth and maturity? Does their conversation have the characteristics of maturity? Are leaders being naturally nurtured and developed?

We can look at church through a prophetic lens – What abuses are currently taking place in our churches that need to be addressed? Are those on the margins welcome? Do they feel at home? Are widows and orphans being taken care of or are they overlooked? Do we justify injustice in overt or subtle ways?

We can look at the church through the eyes of a clinician – What sort of congregational psychosis is taking place? Are there breaks from reality? How does the church cope? How does the church grieve? Does the church have a healthy identity and sense of purpose? How are the difficulties of congregational life affecting the lives of those who attend?

We can look at the church through the lens of scripture – this is probably the most important lens. Does the church line up in belief and practice with the early church? If not, why not? Which breaks from their orthodoxy and orthopraxy are acceptable and why? Do we capture their ethos and not just their forms and functions? Do we operate as the kind of church that looks like the Savior? Does the Holy Spirit have a welcome place in our discussions and decisions?

We can look at the church from the perspective of many more things than this…and often we get lopsided when we raise the banner of one of these to the exclusion of the rest. Certainly the biblical perspective loads into all the rest…how does one have a prophetic or pastoral or clinical view without some standard to hold things up against and make assessments?

The one thing we don’t want to do is bury our heads in the sand and act like everything is okay, all the time, even when things are not. I have heard people say on many occasions that we should never critique the church in public. I hear that sometimes because I have been known to do that…and it is the reaction I get from some. They say it puts a black eye on the church. But what I really hear in that, could be wrong, is that those discussions make people uncomfortable and they are looking for things to say to make it stop. What really puts a black eye on the church is to have no approach to assessing the health of the church…no paradigm for a conversation on how things are going and how to improve. I would rather the world see us trying to improve than ignoring our problems. How about you?

Which perspective do you lean toward in your assessment of how things are going? Feel free to add more categories and descriptions…they are legion.

Believe it or not this theme was selected in November 2020 and rolls out a year later, days after Facebook made their re-branding announcement to the name Meta.

The etymology of “meta” is Greek and it usually means something like “with” or “after” but in English it has come to be known as something that is self-referential. So meta-cognition is thinking about how you think. Meta-church is reflecting on what church is all about. It is the conversation under the conversation. Like on a computer, you see a graphical user interface but underneath it all is the hardware and software…the wiring and ones/zeros that make it all actually work.

In the month of November let’s talk about the operating system of our churches…the things behind the scenes that we don’t even realize are there but are integral to maintaining and perpetuating church as we know it. The reason for this is to understand reality and to cast a healthy vision for the future.

Legalists like certainty. Everything seems locked down tight. Everything is black and white.

Until it isn’t.

Because legalism tends to elevate minutia to the level of supreme importance it is often a matter of time that thinking people figure out that minutia is minutia. And that leads to the question of whether or not the other once sacred things are actually important?

This is what makes legalism an easy onramp to progressivism.

On the surface you might think the two were a million miles apart but in my experience legalism often leads to progressivism because of the way things are set up in legalism and how quickly things begin to unravel with little distinction between the important and the trivial because that is how legalism set things up in the first place.

I am no longer surprised when my former legalist friends toss the whole project. It makes sense they would do that. Legalism is progressivism’s best friend because legalism is a strong catalyst for progressive thinking.

If you are holding to an ideology that doesn’t bring you closer to God, then you need to rethink your ideology.

It is far too easy to make an idol out of our theology. Healthy theology will bring you closer to God. Unhealthy/unbalanced theology will fill you more with yourself. And that is true to the left and to the right.

Theology for theology’s sake does us little good. Being liberal or legalist for its own sake does us little good. Far too often a theological label becomes a symbol for something deeper – being a person who cares or a person who takes God more seriously than other people often in contradistinction or comparison with others.

It is important that we assess the heights to which we elevate theological labels and what we tell ourselves about the labels we adopt.

In the Bible idolatry almost always came from the outside. It came from the Egyptians. It came from the Canaanites. There are a few exceptions like Gideon’s ephod in Judges 8 but by and large even the idols that cropped up among the Israelites came from outside influence (golden calf of Exodus 32-34 for instance).

The same is true today – theological idolatry comes from the outside, and depending on which influences sway you most (your theological leaning will be determined) – modernism, post-modernism, post-post modernism, secular humanism, etc..

In the Bible, Idols serve various purposes and it is important that we tune into their purposes so we can identify if we are committing theological idolatry:

1 – Idols become a visible explanation of past success

We see this in Exodus 32 with the golden calf when it is the calf who was said to have brought them out of Egypt. Do we attribute our salvation with our methodology or theology rather than God?

2 – Idols blend secular and sacred, again coming from outside pagan influence

We see this when things like modernism or post-modernism upend our faith in one direction or the other. We don’t even know we are doing it – it is so natural to us to blend cultural biases with our faith. It is very hard NOT to do this! And it is a misnomer to think that the past is always better and more bias free than the present. We see this in the Bible in places like Isaiah 44 and Habakkuk 2 where idols are and wood to warm your food are cut from the same tree. It is a non-discerning blending of the secular and the sacred. The reality is BOTH pieces of wood are being used to fill your belly, not just the one you set on fire but also the one you worship.

3 – When you place anything above God in direct or indirect worship

People aren’t bowing down to wooden and golden idols in church so much but it can be done subtly. We must ask who and what we are putting before honoring God and being faithful to him. One of the things we see in these passages in the prophets and Judges 8:27 is that idolatry is spiritual adultery. We must be faithful to God in all things.

4 – Looking for an object for future hope.

We want to control our future but we cannot. So we do things to manipulate the outcome and often forget to seek God’s help in the process. Like an idol, that is spiritual magic and manipulation rather than faith. Again, see Judges 8. Maybe we seek a bigger budget rather than God’s daily provision in order to secure a vibrant congregational future?

5 – When you cling to visible representations of invisible things

This is a big sign of spiritual immaturity – people want Sunday to look just right. If the visible is out of line so must the invisible, the feeling goes – the bread must be set correctly, the giving baskets separate and apart – little discernment that your life is out of order 143 hours a week…it must look right! In some assemblies, removing an American flag would cause an uproar amongst some.

6 – And if you really want to tell if you are worshiping an idol take note of the 2nd commandment – do not worship or serve them, God said.

Take note of who you serve…who you put first and WHY. Do you serve the rich above the poor, take their advice over the other? Are you serving nationalism or Jesus? The purpose of the church is to worship and serve God. He never comes second. Second is idolatry. Pay attention!

In all things we must declare our fidelity to God and serve him only. We must be faithful and avoid the spiritual adultery that is idolatry!

If you would like to hear more thoughts on this, I encourage you to watch today’s video on the Wineskins YouTube channel!

In the month of October we will be talking about two sides of a theological continuum…or are they? In some senses they appear to be quite opposite but in one sense they are really different expressions of the same underlying philosophy. The commonalities and differences of the two will be discussed this month. I am looking forward to the conversation and your comments both here on the website and on Facebook!

I was on a retreat a few weeks ago, out on a run…when I crested a hill and saw this sign saying “Free”…

I know this looks photoshopped but it isn’t…I stopped and took this picture. I thought to myself the people here on the lake must really love their freedom! After all, they live in the middle of no where, in rural Alabama…I began to surmise all sorts of things about them from their political ideology to their living in a remote location away from the hustle and bustle of town…I thought I had them figured out when I got a bit closer and saw the context of the sign…

It wasn’t about a political or social ideology…they were just giving stuff away! I literally laughed out loud! I laughed until I stopped to take this second picture. All of the thoughts I had were completely made up…the caricature I had created in my mind was completely fabricated…now, all of those things could have been absolutely true but the sign didn’t tell me that. Who knows.

Paul wrote these words in Galatians 5 to people who were falling into temptations of the flesh and attacking others who didn’t quite see things the same way,

13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

We have a choice to make every single day – to walk by the Spirit or walk by the flesh. The first brings freedom and the second brings death. When we choose to make up things about people we are firmly in the realm of the flesh. Since we have been set free by God let us that freedom in a way that truly blesses others. Let us use that freedom in a way that doesn’t assume anything about people…or at least if we are going to assume that it be positive assumptions of goodwill and charity.

One thing I suggest is that before you make a comment (either in person or online) think through what you are going to say and take note of which things are things you know for sure and which things are conjecture. Then make a distinction in what you are saying between the two. If you find conjecture, turn your declaratives into interrogatives. You will find the conversation will go much more smoothly in most cases because the other person isn’t being forced into a caricature but is free to have and express their view and be heard. Even if you disagree with them, we at least owe people that much.

Thank God we are free! Now let’s live like it.

Reading this book was an extended experience of clarity for me and I think it will be for you as well. There are things we hear that we just aren’t so certain are true but don’t have the background or information to back it up. It isn’t that we are upset, we just need clarity in order to see reality.

Leonard Allen’s new book, “In the Great Stream” offers historical background into the influences of Churches of Christ that accomplish several very important things:

1 – The book positions us in the broader Christians/denominational spectrum in regard to our influences, philosophy, and theology. Many of us grew up hearing and believing that our roots circumvented all the man made denominations and impurities of doctrines and simply went back to the first century and brought it into our day. Dr. Allen does a fine job of demonstrating how that is not true. He maps out the various influences and how they shaped the Restoration Movement at large and churches of Christ in particular in the centuries leading up to our movement. These influences are denominational/religious (Anabaptists, Free Church, etc) they are philosophical (John Locke and Thomas Reid’s “common sense”, rationalism, empiricism, and modernism), and they are cultural. The point of all of this is to demonstrate that regardless of our claim, we already have philosophical underpinnings that tie us to broader Christendom. This should be acknowledge more readily as the evidence has been put on the table. He gives many examples of things I heard growing up quoted from people who pre-dated Campbell.

2 – The healthy place of tradition in the life of the church and the resulting acceptance of a connection to the “Great Tradition”. Allen makes the case that our a-historical claim and lack of connection to the denominational world has resulted in an unnecessary (and inaccurate) disconnect from broader Christendom that has been unhelpful for our movement as a whole. I was taught the opposite – that any connection with those things would be absolutely detrimental. He spends quite a bit of time talking about the value of tradition and the necessary place of creeds in Christianity and how we have rejected some things that could have been quite helpful to us over the years. Having a creed or a Rule of Faith can anchor us, especially as those things are derived directly from scripture. Tradition and connection with other Christian groups isn’t just something we should accept, it is something we should celebrate and appreciate for a very ironic reason. Rather than other groups and church tradition pulling us away from the truth, they can actually help anchor us more firmly in the truth of the Scriptures!

3 – The history of Churches of Christ in relation to the Holy Spirit. Chapter 6 explains the view on the Holy Spirit starting with Stone and the growth of early Churches of Christ in the South in the early 1800s and then the advent of Alexander Campbell and his hyper rational approach that won the day. From there Allen highlights major influences in the Restoration Movement and the varying views on the Spirit that will surprise many in Churches of Christ. Our history is varied and it is important we recognize that because it is one more reminder that the first century Church didn’t just carbon copy itself and drop into the early 1800s to be lived out consistently until this day. Once again, this reminds us of our varied history and doctrine and how that can help us get along with others who have views that don’t overlap with our particular piece of the Restoration puzzle.

All of this is written in such a kind and considerate tone. I cannot begin to say how much I appreciate that. Much more could be said about this book and all of it positive. I hope you will inform yourself by picking up a copy, reading it and passing it along or getting a copy for a friend. You will not regret it!