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Len Sweet has been a prophet to the Church for some time. His voice has been out there in the “wilderness” like John the Baptist. And he’s affirmed other voices too, like Frank Viola and Alan Hirsch.
The word that comes to mind as I read this Jesus Manifesto is the eternal truth that Jesus spoke:
“So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” Mt 15:6
It’s a warning to the emerging church, and all new movements of the church. How did the bronze serpent, originally set up to bring healing, turn into an idol? How have we turned our best practices in religion, even house church, into traditions that make the word of God void?
My wife pointed out to me from a book she finished last night that the root meaning of the word religion is to “bind”.
I looked it up and found it has various roots. In addition to ceremony, it is connected with mystery, or superstition, or fear of demons, or to be troubled, clamoring in fear.
Jesus is not religious. As Sweet and Viola have described, it’s not what Jesus “would” do, it’s what he “is” doing in and through us.
Jesus said it. What does it mean? Now you can listen in on a message I gave summing up all the nine practices of emerging churches. Let me know you heard it and if you have questions.
In honor of the Head of the Church,
Members of church communities may gather regularly to pray. They may hope for a more authentic community and witnessing church. Tim Keel, author of Intuitive Leadership and pastor of Jabob’s Well, writes: “Discernment, accountability, and wisdom are integral aspects of listening personally and collectively for the voice of God revealed in the Scriptures, through history, and within ourselves.” Rather than merely dream of an ideal community, Bonhoeffer charges us to “be that community.” Emerging churches understand the gospel primarily as something to be embodied and proclaimed, rather than a set of beliefs that people assent to intellectually.
To foster a new kind of emerging church, a new leadership posture is required. The emergence of new leadership gifts within community will require a more adaptive leadership approach. If “ecclesiological structures always manifest our theological imaginations,” it is clear that new church leaders will need to do some deep theological reflection. Neil Cole writes, “Emerging church leaders understand the very nature of the church is organic and must therefore contain within the smallest grouping the complete DNA for reproduction.” To adopt emerging church patterns, Ryan Bolger and Eddie Gibbs say church communities will need “to dismantle all systems of control and to reconstruct a corporate culture according to the patterns of the kingdom.” What I have been saying is this: A mid-sized evangelical church can take steps to reform into a new kind of emerging church by fostering several smaller “churches” or Commission Groups.
Secular space was created when Western theology “reduced God to power and removed the sense that a good and beautiful God participates with humans. Unbelievers successfully created ‘safe zones’ so that God would not interfere with them” (See Emerging Churches, by Bolger & Gibbs, p. 192)
Modern Christians became comfortable in the ‘sacred spaces’ of the Church and their private lives. The witness of the Church was therefore weakened and reduced to a private decision, in a place set apart from the public domain. Emerging churches are countering this weakness by “removing the distinction of church and non church activities.” (Bolger & Gibbs, 107) They are synthesizing evangelism and service, avoiding differentiation between Christians and non-Christians. Emerging Churches are changing the focus from the external boundary of belief to the Person of Jesus at the center. They are more concerned about relating to Jesus in any setting, including night clubs and golf courses, than they are defining who is in and who is out.
Church communities today face a significant challenge, creating “bridges to span the sacred/secular divide.” (Bolger & Gibbs, 67) The way to do that may be for members of your church community to become the good news to their neighbors, encouraging and modeling gospel living to take place in secular spaces. The emphasis among Emerging Churches is to create “innovation” to “ensure authenticity.” (Bolger & Gibbs, 210)
Next week’s Emerging Church Pattern: Leading as the Body
Many evangelical churches have blended worship styles, including ancient hymns and contemporary choruses, for multigenerational congregations. This generation welcomes this blend of styles. Spirituality is very popular in postmodern culture. Unchurched people are open to talking about Jesus, however Christianity and the traditional church are not welcome topics. Therefore, style alone will not be enough of a change. The emerging church pattern of merging ancient and contemporary spiritualities is to be applied with the other patterns, especially outside the traditional church settings.
Commission Groups have the flexibility to go anywhere inviting neighbors, coworkers, or other associates to explore spirituality, creating environments with ancient and contemporary elements that allow them to seek and respond to God. Commission Group leaders should be equipped to encourage a holistic and mystical spirituality without resorting to confrontational methods of evangelism. Instead, Commission Groups offer the opportunity for discipleship evangelism as described by Dallas Willard’s book, Divine Conspiracy.
This question of methods of evangelism is probably the greatest fault-line dividing the modern and post-modern formations of Christian church. What should be noted is that the Gospel writers were very effective. That we tell the Gospel story today, the life & death of Jesus as well as the most important historic event which may not easily be tested, his resurrection, is definitive proof of something: the Gospel story changed the way we think and live.
The impact of Jesus upon history begs more than an “objective, dispassionate reception” to the Gospel story, the times and the lives of those who told the story and the life of Jesus. As Mark Allen Powell writes, “We are free to accept or reject, belittle or embrace, but whatever our response, we ought to understand what these books intend to do: they intend to convert us.” (Fortress Introduction to the Gospels, p. 9) Rather than confronting our unbelieving neighbors with a “decision,” a practice that did not gain prominence until the 18th & 19th Century revival meetings, perhaps we should allow the story as it is told in the Bible to do the work of bringing people to Christ.
Non-believing members of Commission Groups will respond to discussions of Jesus and the study of the Bible. Commission Groups should be prepared to “connect and communicate their faith within the spiritual language of postmodern culture.” (Bolger & Gibbs 2005: 234)
Next Week’s Emerging Church Pattern: Transforming Secular Space
In addition to creating spaces for community members and friends to share struggles, Commission Groups can also be venues for sharing stories and developing ministry gifts. Emerging churches are seeking to participate in God’s creativity as “musician/composer,” “designer/dresser,” “architect/builder,” “crafter/artisan,” and “playful storyteller.” (See Steve Taylor’s book, The Out of Bounds Church: Learning to Create a Community of Faith in a Culture of Change. ) A mid-sized Evangelical Church with the attractional model of ministry, may have staff to coordinate creative ministries and worship teams, however the focus is mostly on the Sunday gathering.
Many church goers have received teaching about spiritual gifts and those teachings are often designed to stimulate creativity and participation, however they too often emphasize the equipping of members to serve the church event. (See Tim Keel’s book, Intuitive Leadership: Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor, & Chaos.) The adjustment for a mid-sized Evangelical Church community is to release the creativity of everyone, first within Commission Groups and later in the Sunday worship event. Commission Groups with testimonies of effective witness and creative worship can be encouraged to lead various segments of the Sunday event, the worship, prayer, testimonies, multi-media, drama, and even inviting a speaker. However a new formation of a mid-sized church community can release the creativity within smaller communities, or Commission Groups . Leaders of Commission Groups can be coached by a Leadership Team of the mid-sized Evangelical Church community. Not only will the members express creativity within Commission Groups, they may also be invited to lead the larger Sunday event. By doing so, the Commission Groups can show evidence of what God can do with ordinary materials, creatively reporting and celebrating ways in which they are worshipping and loving Jesus and their neighbors.
Next week’s Pattern: Participating as Producers
Grace is the undeserved, overwhelming generosity of God, “the core of gospel.” (2005: 136) Many churches support of missionaries are an example of the generosity of members who pledge contributions over and above their tithe. Emerging churches typically have no building or salaries, and therefore have freedom to financially assist people and projects through personal connections. Because many churches maintain substantial properties and salaries, there is less flexibility with resources. However, they could explore ways to resource Commission Group projects, both locally and globally, by tithing as a church. (2005: 150) With Commission Groups serving through “grass roots initiatives, rather than planned programs,” churches could practice more of the “bottom-up involvement” of emerging churches. (2005: 143) Fostering generosity, they could encourage groups, not only to serve within the larger church community, but also serve Christ in “an unbroken link between worship and vocation.” (2005: 151)
Next Pattern: Creating as Created Beings
Jacob’s Well, an emerging church community in Kansas City, has a mural with the constant reminder that, “the visible church is not to be the bearer of Christ’s message, but to be the message.” (Tony Jones, The New Christians, 2008: 178) To fully embrace this pattern, local communities must dismantle the idea of church as a place, and reform it with the clear understanding that church is a people with commitment to community. The gospel message is best presented through small groups with genuine friendships, authenticity serving, loving, and giving. “The ideal size for effective fellowship and ministry,” is where “reproduction is easiest and community, accountability, confidentiality, flexibility, communication, direction and leadership are strongest.” (Cole, The Organic Church, 2005: 100-102)
Not all members are typically in one of their church community’s existing small groups. Why? Because it is difficult for people “nurtured in a culture of modernity and the unlimited sovereignty of the individual” to make themselves vulnerable within authentic community. (Bolger & Gibbs, Emerging Churches, 2005: 92) Emerging churches recognize the gospels are stories of “missional formation experiences” within small communities. (2005: 105) For them church is less about meetings and places, than an expression of kingdom values in a witnessing community.
Next week’s Emerging Church Pattern: Serving with Generosity
As promised, I will now begin a discussion of the nine patterns of emerging churches, some of which many local churches are already practicing. First, I will propose a dynamic and flexible structure, how a typical evangelical church may re-structure to foster small groups as a new kind of emerging church.
Emerging churches are mostly small, dynamic, and creative communities, where innovation, intimacy, and spiritual growth are intensified. Emerging church leaders have yet to find a sustainable structure with “zero control, high accountability, and low maintenance.”(Bolger & Gibbs 2005: 209)
This is a proposal for a strategy to encourage the formation of new small groups as witnessing communities, which I am calling “Commission Groups.” I will maintain that this re-structuring will help local churches grow members to spiritual maturity, while also growing the community numerically through an outward focused posture. Servicing Commission Groups will help the members of local churches begin to re-imagine and transform into a people, “a love leaking community.” (Taylor 2005:109)
These new Commission Groups will help local churches embrace patterns of emerging churches, which will serve locally and partner globally. What is unique in this formation is the vital connection of new emerging church groups to a typically larger local church.
That vital connection is enhanced as the leadership team of the local church gives opportunity for these groups to periodically give leadership to segments of the Sunday worship event. This crucial element of this strategy is that Commission Groups will be encouraged to bring testimony to the weekly gathering of how they are doing as representatives of Jesus to their neighbors and the world. As Commission Groups begin to lead various segments of worship, including prayer, testimonies, multi-media presentations, and perhaps inviting a special speaker, the Sunday service will become a celebration of authentic community and witness to the greater glory of God.
Some Christians may move from one church to another seeking to meet spiritual needs, however others remain faithful in their church communities with hope. Some Christians have abandoned the modern church form, seeking a more biblical form, a purer formation of Christian community. I want to suggest that the way forward is not to abandon the existing church formation entirely. In this time of radical cultural shift, perhaps the way forward is to seek ways to re-form church by taking a humble posture to re-imagine, to re-new, and to re-create. Reenergizing this church will be closely linked to hope. “Embracing change is dangerous,” Tim Keel of Jacob’s Well writes, “but so is inaction.” Rather than completely abandon church and “organized religion,” as some have done, I propose a reforming posture of “organizing religion,” as Brian McLaren writes, by encouraging the formation of small communities “celebrating virtue and training people to practice it.”
In my next post, I will begin to outline those “postures” that Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger have identified in their book “Emerging Churches.”