20 November 2014

The Fracking of Spiritual Information

Fracking is form of gas extraction. In the old days, a well was drilled straight down and gas was pumped up. Now to get at less accessible gas, wells are drilled thousands of feet down and then thousands more horizontally. Hydraulic fracturing pumps thousands of pounds of water, sand and chemicals down the well to fracture the rock that holds the gas. This extraction process boosts production, migrating natural gas and petroleum to the well. For all that is gained in Fracking there is a growing chorus of people exposing the environmental impact. No one contests how productive Fracking is for extracting gas, it is exceptionally productive. What is being pointed out is that the process leaves behind damage. Whatever your opinions on Fracking are, they are irrelevant for what I’m poking at. The greater question I want to ask is “What does Extracted Learning do?” Often our celebration in extraction revolves around what is gained, pulled to the surface. Extraction always profits us something yet leaves behind something in the aftermath. 

The Damage on Practice

I contend that the church has submitted to information-delivery techniques that extract. How we learn and teach is stuck in a habit that perpetuates separation. In order to get at, isolate, codify and distribute spiritual information we’re damaging something in the process. The very way we execute the majority of our learning within the Church through the vehicles of sermons, Sunday schools, podcasts, 6 week courses and Bible Studies often does bolster extraction. Like Fracking, our mechanisms for delivering Spiritual Information leaves behind damage in the process; the character of Practice. Practice is left lifeless and inept. As with Fracking, we may efficiently lift information to the surface but do environmental harm on our social existence as the church. Our souls are impoverished because we consume calories of information but are isolated from local, faithful, practicing community. Our current unquestioned approaches to transferring spiritual information are brutal on the virtue of Practice

How We Learn

Practice is the inner quality of being formed and informed by the bumps, bruises and baptism of application. Practice is at the soul of being a Jesus-follower but more so it becomes the material for credibility as the People of God.  James 1:22 -- “But be people who live out the truth, not people who merely receive it and fool themselves. When you do this you are like a person who looks in the mirror, walk away, and then forget what they look like.” The future of the Church must re-calibrate how we learn, understanding that we are shaped by the techniques we employ. The methods we implement for maturing as Jesus-followers either lead to increasing integrity in our practice or lead to an increasing in-authenticity in our practice. When it comes to education, theology and personal betterment more and more of our learning processes perpetuate extraction, removal from habitation, in order to acquire the desired information. 

Information and Immersion

Divorcing information from immersion is something I bump into regularly. It is all around us but we’re acculturated to it. A few years back my wife and I went through a 3 month adoption training course to get our adoption qualifications. I was taken aback when I asked our certified instructor his experience about a very specific family challenge that went beyond the written training material. His reply was “I’ve never had a child in my home, not sure I’m cut out for that”. Now I’m cool with his choice about not having children but it was hard for my wife and I not to wince. Why wasn’t this odd to anyone else? How can one be an expert in Family Therapy without ever being tested by the real life challenges? I was sitting under an expert who never touched and grappled with the information in the real world.  It has become normal to separate the spiritual information we store up from actualization locally. This used to be called hypocrisy but now it’s simply the way in which we carry around and sometimes sling around the information we’ve collected in our mental folders. 

Expert Delusion

We can be proclaimed experts without immersion. It seems like never before we are more inflamed or convinced about some theology, new idea or cause that is less sourced from what is happening on the ground in our local places and more from what provocative story we read on-line, what blog we recently devoured, what book we just inhaled or what podcast we just downloaded. We are fascinated with what we can discover that will boost our enlightenment or boil our blood. Only in an information-based society can Christian author's write from a place of ideation rather than a place of practice. At times I’m lured into the lie that I can be an expert on something because I’ve had information-intake on a specific matter. Peter Senge in his book the Fifth Discipline unpacks our fixation on becoming experts -- “Being an expert gives us power and prosperity over our peers.” We secure our strength in our societal cosmos when we have more accumulated intelligence in our head than anyone else. This knowledge offers an expert-delusion that we are not vulnerable to making the unenlightened errors others will. We fear ignorance, ignorance is our enemy. In no previous time has there been such a fire-hose, keg-like binging on information. We are rabid about acquiring information but at what cost? A great divorce has been filed between information and immersion. This separation propels the opinionated milieu we find ourselves in and presumes we are transformed because we’re informed. 

What needs to change in our churches and spiritual living to close the gap between information and immersion?


17 November 2014

Community Patterns for the Church (7 C's)

When my wife and I got married 16 years ago we'd already been dating for 5 years prior. We had a winding dating relationship that was stretched by time zones, career u-turns and simple immaturity (mostly mine) but we continued to hold onto each other despite these challenges. Naively I thought our sheer romantic-will-power would be enough to cultivate a vibrant marriage. I was an idealist that needed to experience the school of hard knocks. The first year was filled with beautiful memories but the assaulting arrows of: demanding jobs, fluctuating finances, existential crisis (mostly mine), complicated outside friendships, the intensity of school, and learning to grow up, was an onslaught to our bondedness. Our emotional love for each other was still strong but a significant shift needed to take place if we were going to build an abundant life for the future. We needed new patterns. 

Organized-Organic

All of life is built upon patterns. In the natural world bees form their honeycombs methodically, robins put together their nests piece by piece and planets loop around the sun in a strict cycle. All of these are wild expressions in nature, yet none of them is spontaneous and random. They are exuberant but they are organized around a pattern. These prescribed patterns form the platform for robust displays of brilliant beauty. Patterns on the surface can seem constricting, stiffly organic expression. Funny thing, organic farming is hip but organic farming is anything but haphazard. Ask any organic farmer how intentional, premeditated and rhythmic their toiling is in order to produce a bountiful, colorful, natural crop. 

Shaping Together

Patterning is part of the biblical narrative. The Genesis one account reflects creation patterns, instructions given to Moses for building a tabernacle reflects patterning – “See that you make this according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain” (Exodus 25) and the Apostle Paul urged people to model their lives on the pattern of other Jesus-followers – “Take note of others and live according to the pattern we gave you.” (Phil 3). My own marriage lacked healthy patterns that would produce fruitful character in our oneness. We lived by anti-patterns. I love mystery but we both learned our relationship needed to move out of the abstract and into some particular patterns we could commit to and apply together. We fashioned daily, weekly, monthly and yearly patterns. The goal was not to reach some level of self-congratulation but rather partnership towards growing something beautiful in our midst. Some of those early practices were as simple as a daily cup of coffee to download the happenings of the day, or going over finances weekly so no one bore the stress alone, or having a full date day monthly to indulge in each other. Some of our patterns have changed over the years but we've committed to them, rallied around them and trusted they would shape our life together in the typhoon nature of the world.

Shared-Patterns

This post is not about my marriage but it is about patterns and the church. I share my waking-up to patterns because what I felt in my early years of marriage, I feel deeply about the church now. The church needs to re-evaluate its patterns of togetherness in the places they dwell. Lesslie Newbigin has said "We are shaped by what we attend to". We must refresh what will conform us into a love-filled, grounded people, for the good of the world and the glory of God. I’m a minimalist, believing that the power is in the essentials not the luxuries. From that perspective I ask "what are those essential patterns we must cultivate that foster a vibrant life together in the world?". I find the question "how can we be a relevant church" distracting from what will nourish ecclesia for the future. What is really relevant is when the church is the church, not when it’s an impressive production. We need a full recovery of simplified, sacred, shared-patterns that mold a new but old way of being Kingdom-Come in the neighborhoods we inhabit. We are human so our joy, energy and emotional maturity towards living as the church ebbs and flows, which makes it paramount to covenant to foundational patterns. I use 7 C's to explain the patterns I attempt to live into with others. 

1. Commitment (A Pattern of Fidelity) – We need a foundation of mutual commitment to each other. If you're gathering a cluster of people to live as the People of God do not be afraid to ask for a long term commitment to a neighborhood together. We're not in a promise-keeping culture so commitment sounds alien and potentially cultic. Covenanted-community is a core sacrament of the church. This is not an issue of control but of mutual love for one another. Love is not sentimentality it is fidelity. Love is a rugged commitment to be with and for someone. Many live their lives with a strong dose of individualistic-ADHD, transitioning to the next shiny, exciting opportunity that benefits them. We cannot be fueled by inspiration as inspiration comes and goes; we are fueled by covenant-love, patterned after God’s relentless faithfulness to us. Discover rootedness, converse about it, come together, fashion some vows together, don't take them lightly and press into a long faithfulness.

2. Communion (A Pattern of Remembering) – The Lord’s Table (Eucharist) is our banner reminder of who we are to God, who we are to each other and who we are in the world. We rally around this living feast because of how forgetful we are. We need to tell each other with symbol and sacrament that we are loved, we belong to God and we are sent on a cruciform mission. This Table marks us, humbles us and fills our souls back up. This becomes a blazing signpost for our existence as the People of God submitting to the reign of King Jesus.

3. Common-Table (A Pattern of Welcoming) – From the Lord’s Table flows a secondary table into our lives; a common table. This common table is a coming together to feast, to share our food, linger and laugh, share our high’s and low’s and make space for strangers in our life. Kids play among us, tears flow when it's been a hard day and warm hugs are offered liberally. This pattern shapes our social muscles together, one that is generous, hospitable and constant. The schedule of our lives will resist this table-pattern but we must practice a counter-resistance.

4. Confession (A Pattern of Truth-Telling) Galatians 6:4 says "Let everyone examine together the work they've accomplished, for then you can delight in the work of your hands without pride. Do not compare yourselves with each other; rather seek God’s help in making the inner secrets of your hearts plain.” This verse inspired the Jesuit practice of The Examen of Consciousness founded Five-hundred years ago. It was an Examine practiced in community to explore motivations, hopes, failures and sneaky sins. Examine is essential for maturing together. This pattern of examine is our place to confess who we are. We need safe spaces that encourage discourse and disclosure. What does it mean to be confessional about who we are? We must learn to tell the truth. Truth-telling is first about speaking the truth about ourselves before pointing the speck out in someone else’s eye. Yet we must seek understanding when we observe relating that is untruthful, perpetuating the nursing of wounds, angry inner tirades, passive aggressive postures and festering sins. Confessing who we are in safety is a cord that holds us together in a viral culture of dishonest relating

5. Conflict (A Pattern of Dialoguing) – We will offend one another, we will hurt each other because we are human and flawed. What will we do when we intentionally or unintentionally jab each other? Will we bail? Will we revert to gossip, detached attitudes, ruminating in paranoid interpretations, hiding behind words in emails and collecting weapons to unleash on each other? When we sense our rights have been stepped on, or voice has gone unheard, or our input has not been valued: we must vow to new patterns of conflict. We must name these new patterns, hold each other to them and invite each other to refresh our 
application when they are not practiced.

6. Complexity (A Pattern of Diversity) – Community does not obliterate our individuality. We must make space for our uniqueness, our hobbies, our distinct cultures, our political leanings, our varying education levels. We must not force conformity, graciously learning how to make room for each other beyond affinities. This means listening to each others differences, celebrating each 
other’s milestones, partaking in each other’s cultures and genuinely listening and learning from each others opposite experiences.

7. Crisis (A Pattern of Supporting) – Crisis precipitates a change in our lives and we must be there for each other when this occurs. A loss of job, a significant failure, a death, a marital fight, a loss of faith, are all matters for community to press into urgently and appropriately. We must take crisis seriously and feel the full burden to carry our brothers and sisters when it arises. No superhero person can do this, this is covenant-commitment to each other.

These are the patterns that I've been attempting to live into over the years. They have become my foundation for being the church as the expression of the Kingdom of God. All of these Patterns stirred together create a crock-pot for God’s Spirit to brew and create a new Kingdom flavor of body-life. 

What patterns would you add to the list?



15 May 2014

A Little Break to Write

So I'm taking a little break (Month and 1/2) from Blogging and Twitter-stuff to pour time into two things that are very important to me. First, I'm planning on making more space to be with my co-conspirator Tonya. We just hit 15 years married and want to enjoy the sun together in our sweaty city.










Second, I just signed a book deal with the wonderful people at The House Studio to release Subterranean: A Radical Rootedness for the Future of the Church. Confession, I'm not a natural writer. I am first a practioner and then I twist-and-turn to figure out how to craft it into words. I find it comical that I failed English Comp in school, was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and now getting the opportunity to publish. Anyhow, I need to write, write, wring my hands, pound my head and write something essential.

So lets see if I can get productive.
Peace.


17 April 2014

Submerge Schema: A Relational Liturgy for Missional Living

In 2005 I spent some time in Kenyan refugee camps. These refugees were from Uganda and had been uprooted as they fled from the LRAThe formation of the rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army recruited 5000 children into the Ugandan government army. My role was to explore not the LRA itself but the issues related to attachment by families that resettled in Kenya. As we spent time in these refugee camps we compiled information and stories about the serious struggle for individuals and families to attach to a new place indefinitely. The issue we investigated was called the Displacement Affect.

Attachment
The Displacement Affect pioneered by Otto Fenichel is the ensuing influence that an extended season of uprootedness has on the process of rooting. What happens when people are put out of home, out of place and hover in a displaced state? Settlement Identity-Crisis takes hold when people are prevented from attachment. When the emotional muscle of attachment is suspended, severed or even underdeveloped it makes bonding significantly threatening, unfamiliar, frightening and difficult. It is an unconscious psychological state that causes one to stay above place.  

This exploration has made me acutely aware of the signs and symptoms of Displacement Affect.

In no way do I want to minimize those displaced by war but I do think we are experiencing a version of Displacement in many Western urban contexts.

Atrophy in Rooting
I believe the rigorous pursuit of Self-Actualization which generates the furious pursuit to land the ideal job, the ideal partner, the ideal status, the ideal education creates atrophy in the emotional muscles necessary for rooting. Rooting in a particular neighborhood with a particular people feels unnatural and potentially constricting. The cultural force compelling us to chase down our own dreams has made being present, really present an underdeveloped discipline.  This cultural trajectory has acted like a backhoe digging up the maturation of incarnational attachment. What we have fortified in the trek to maximize the self has actually become a source of accumulative violence on our ability to bond. I concede that it is covert but is ruinous on sustainable missional living.

Tenting to Tabernacling
In church planting I've seen this displacement within myself and others. I’ve seen it in the most passion-filled church planters armed with missional theology. I've seen it in the most fiery social justice advocate unwilling to work faithfully on the ground. There is a strong tendency to attempt to build something without grafting and super-gluing to a place. Most of us have attachment issues knowing how to Tent (Abraham made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in Tents - Heb 11:9) but not how to Tabernacle (The Word became flesh and Tabernacled among us - John 1:14).

4 Place Connectors 
A simple schema emerged. What follows is a neighborhood navigation tool for pulling a community into a real-time place; shifting our habitual patterns to draw us into the "other".  This acts as a primary tool for practical, ongoing, incremental submerging into a neighborhood. It naturally moves from the macro to the micro. It doesn't matter whether you’re new to a place or have been living somewhere 20 years, this Relational Liturgy will open up new space by plummeting your missional community into a social labyrinth. This Submerge Schema is intended to be an ongoing instrument in discipleship-processing-pods for reflection and direction in rootedness. A Place-based community will have to embrace their limits and active listening as they go about. When applied for the long haul, it nudges us below the buzz of marketing, self-promotion and event-dependence into the vital ordinariness that God’s mission requires in our world.

The Submerge Schema

Province From Indifference to Partnership

Text: "Leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum(Matt 4:13)

We must shape our location devotion. Our ability to emotionally attach and resonate with a place has a scope and size. We are limited in our sense of environment. A province is a manageable section of our city that we take some ownership of. We begin to seek out who is already doing significant work in our province, no matter the creed and color. How do we serve them, form solidarity with them and learn from them? The pains of this place must become my pains, the aches of this place become my aches.
  • What observations have we made about our Province?
  • What is beautiful in our place?
  • What is the brokenness in our place?
  • Who are the marginalized in this place?

Porch - From Independence to Interdependance

Text: “which of the three became a neighbor… the one who treated him kindly, so go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:39)

The Porch is symbolic of our literal residence. A typical home is a realm of personal privacy insulated from the public world. I've learned much from my minority Brothers and Sisters on how to use the front stoop, the lawn chair, the BBQ, the sidewalks and the front lawn. Inviting the “other” into our home is inviting Jesus into our home. There is something equalizing about sharing food together.  
  • How do we extend shalom to our neighbors?
  • Do I see my home first through the lens of Protective Security or Sacred Hospitality?
  • How can we slowly begin to establish a common table?
  • What are my fears associated with home generosity?

Pathways - From Repelling interaction to Impelling interaction

Text: “Walking along the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth and stopped to address him.” (John 9:1)
     
Our Pathways are the regular routes we take. God's dwelling is tied to the streets connecting us to each other. We easily become isolated from the places that we meander through, withdrawing into minimal interactions. The slow discipleship work is to transition from Unconscious Busyness to Conscious Habitation. The pathways we take shape our understanding of the city. 
  • What roads and routes do we want to take to encounter those in our neighborhood?
  • Do we walk? Do we drive? Do we bike?
  • Are we open to stopping along the path?
  • Are we consistent in our pathways?
  • How do we move to astute listening along our pathways?

Pivots - From Consuming Perks to Beholding People

Text: “Jesus passed through Samaria… and Jacob’s well was still there. Jesus, worn out by the trip, sat down at the well. It was noon. A Samaritan woman, came to draw water. Jesus asked, “Can I have a drink of water?” (John 4:4-8)

Pivots are those places we park, spots where different sorts of people can mingle. Pivots are where relational intersections occur. When you pivot there are people within arm’s reach. Gain eyes of faith for holy interruptions and sustainable habits in these locations. Become a face in the place. Seek to build bridges that travel beyond suspicion to trust.
  • Are you a regular there?
  • Have you made introductions?
  • Can your faith-community collide there?
  • What tribes are already hovering there?
  • What anxieties are inhibiting your presence?

Thoughts?

09 April 2014

The Numbers Leash

Starting from the small church of my youth, winding through my last 20 years of vocational pastoring, I have had a decent vantage point on the church growth narrative.

When I was in a booming attractional church, we took pride in our voluminous of felt-needs programs. When I was in a liturgical church, there was a palatable panic around when our numbers of people dropped. No matter what our style was, we were numbers conscience.
We’d hear about the metrics over and over; how many campuses we have, how many people attend, how many got saved, how much money we raised etc. Honestly I came to dread church conferences because of the onslaught of that single question “so how many…” Even when I pastored at a megachurch, I was embarrassed to answer.
The question itself exposes our ambitions.
As a church planter, the volume of resources for church planting stresses this anxiety. Supposedly, after you’re first Sunday Launch the race is on to get to 100 people in order to survive. This is the goal. I was just reading a church planting book published last year that suggested borrowing people from another church to create the illusion of numerical energy so that church shoppers feel you’re a big deal in town. This feels awfully disingenuous.

Weighing Our Impact
Every church I’ve served has been led around by the numbers leash, creating a producer-consumer relationship with parishioners. Whether spoken or unspoken, it is how we weighed our impact. Simultaneously we always had angst about a lack of involvement, spiritual maturity and genuine care for mission.
Despite this angst, we did not change our matrix. We still emotionally and pragmatically lived under the shadow of numbers. The unnerving truth is God gets heated when leaders survey the success of their organizations using numerical size.
“David took a census of the people of Israel commissioning Joab to count the inhabitants of Israel. ‘Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report    so I may know how many there are.
But Joab replied, ‘May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this?’
But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people… God was very displeased with the census.
Then David said to God, ‘I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt for doing this foolish thing.’” - 1 Chronicles 21

A Paradigm Shift
This leads me to believe that we need a major paradigm shift. We need to stop emphasizing the most obvious, simplistic cultural sign of success and instead use a more Kingdom-oriented pattern. What we measure is what will eventually matter the most.
Albert Einstein said, “That which counts is often the most difficult to count.”
I’ve found this to be true.
Missional Churches are going to have to wrestle with resisting the numbers template. Numbers tell us very little about the DNA of Discipleship, Neighborhood Rootedness and Relational Tethering. These are qualities that mattered in the 1st Century Church. What if we reoriented around their vitality?
We need a new fresh metaphor, one that has little do with numbers and a whole lot to do with rich soil and earth under our fingernails. The metaphor I find most helpful is The Garden, The Gardeners and The Gardening.

The Garden – Seeing Neighborhoods

God got really clear about his love for the world by moving into the Nazareth neighborhood. We need to get clear about locality. Like a raised bed in a garden box, we need to define size, shape and contents of our garden.
Your garden may be a section of your city or include several small towns in your county. If the language you use in your church is always connected to the brick-and-mortar of your Sunday gathering place, then you will naturally count heads as the means to measuring.
Talk about the neighborhood more than you talk about your little church empire. Direct eyes outward. Pull people into the garden to explore, to behold, to understand where they live. Release into the air imagination for the particular province God has situated your community in. Make it obvious over-and-over that the energy is outside the building in the neighborhood. This takes a lot of bandwidth, but it is the most foundational missional shift.
Moving people’s affections beyond the spiritual goods-n-services they consume to the needs in their neighborhood, is moving from a “me-orientation” to “mission-orientation.” Honestly there is probably nothing more vital or volatile than this dirty work.
Focus on questions like:
  • Who is our city?
  • Who are our neighbors?
  • Where do we live?
  • Who is already doing good work in this garden?
  • What is beauty in our place?
  • What is the brokenness in our place?

The Gardening – Seeding Relationships

It’s not enough to have better intelligence on a neighborhood, now we need better relational attachment.
Cultivating a garden is more than raising money for an initiative or throwing in some skilled leaders. The Garden needs us to get on our hands and knees and enjoy the soil. Is your church relationally investing in a region?
We need to move beyond an event-mindset to a rhythm-mindset. Having events that catalyze missional serving in our city can cause good sparks. Those sparks can easily be compartmentalized. Our passion must be sustainability.
We must cross and close the relationship gap. You must push for tangibility about how to foster connectivity with a place. This is the labor of incarnation.
Create spaces for clusters within your church to brainstorm the pathways into a particular place. Let people verbalize their challenges, ideals, fears and hurdles to bridging the relational disparities with their neighbors.
Some helpful questions for these clusters to wrestle through are:
  • How are we going get dirty in our place?
  • On a daily basis?
  • On a weekly basis?
  • On a monthly basis?
  • On a yearly basis?
  • How can we do this in micro-groups?
  • With other families?
  • With our friends?

The Gardeners – Shaping Disciples

An agriculturist understands the challenge, the fine art and backbreaking work found in the garden.
I’ve had a literal urban garden for a few years. My wife is the expert and must continually teach me how to plant seed and nurture them to life. She understands the conditions of the soil and the variables of gardening. I’ve got a lot to learn.
Every Spring, that garden needs fresh work and focus. If you’re inviting people to into the garden how will you equip them? How will you foster their intelligence and their perseverance?
Gardeners burn out without water, nourishment and best practices. How do we build a disciple culture? Tilling-and-toiling requires tools. What tools are you putting in the hands of your Gardeners?
Gardeners who inhabit a relational-ecosystem will need water and sustenance to continue. Jesus will build the church if we make disciples. Shaping disciples is not directed at more service to the church infrastructure but more service to the labyrinth outside our church doors.
Consider:
  • How are we cultivating disciples?
  • How are we training for the hands-on work of missional dwelling?
  • How are we clearing out space on our church calendars for this pivotal work?

06 March 2014

Missional Minimalism

In my first 10 years as a pastor I became accustomed to resources. I worshiped and served with a charitable portion of resources as unidentified supports around me. I had great worship facilities, great budgets and decently funded programs to suit any need or stage of life. I had on-hand artists to paint canvases for my sermons and quality writers to write fresh liturgies every Sunday. I had talented musicians to create any mood we needed.
Whenever I would start a new sermon series or spiritual program, I quickly found myself pondering what resources were needed to land it with excellence.
For 10 years, I privately wrestled with this landscape, tucking away bothersome thoughts.
Then One summer I went to Kenya and returned with hard questions pummeling my mind.
Learning from the Underprivileged
In Kenya, I observed the fallout atrocities from tribal wars, unique farming methods in poor villages and children who just wanted to play until the sun came down. Yet, there was something else that lodged under my rib cage: a one hour conversation with a young PHD Kenyan Pastor.
One afternoon this pastor took me on a village walk and then we moseyed into his hut for what he called a “Pastor to Pastor chat.”
I was expecting a delightful spiritual conversation, but I received a gentle but pointed rebuke on American Christianity. The classic memorable line from my new pastor friend was “we don’t want your overstuffed Jesus.”
Ouch.
We talked intensely about how buildings, budgets and bands had crowded out the DNA of the 1st Century Church. With grace, he expressed how Jesus-followers in his village gathered simply and cared for each other in their poverty. Mission was extended through generosity to other villages.
I was confronted and undone. My privilege blinded me to the wisdom and splendor of limitedness.
I did not know it at the time, but he was a Minimalist, and so was his church. They embraced simplicity even in the face of booming church plants springing up in his country that attempted to mimic American brands.
Paring Way Back
God took me on a voyage after that conversation.
I read a barrel of books, such as Robert Bank’s 1979 work Paul’s Idea of Community. This book seized my hand as I navigated afresh the cultural setting in the New Testament. A year later I met some underground Chinese Christians that shared the richness of their uncomplicated movement.
I felt something brewing, and I didn’t like it.
God was taking me on a pilgrimage towards the place where Minimalism meets Missional Theology.
The term “Minimalism” was originally coined right after World War II. It referred to a shift, found both in jazz and art, that pared everything down to the basics. It was a corrective needed to recover simple palettes. The term refers to something that is stripped to essentials, de-cluttering in order craft open space. The end purpose is not open space. The open space provides more intentional focus on the inhabitants and their relation to each other.
Minimalism, to quote William Henry Channing, seeks “to live content with small means.”
From Synagogue to Simple
The Narrative of the New Testament Oikos added gasoline to this fiery fascination with the axioms of being the church.
When I read through the apostolic letters I observed a trajectory from Synagogue to Simple Community, an intentional breathing space for the Centrality of Love. This new garden of community was the fertile soil for “increasing and abounding in love for one another” (1 Thessalonians 3:12).
They developed a reputation for minimalism which stood in contrast to the Jewish Synagogues and the Greek Mystery Cults of the first century. The Mystery cults were primarily clustered together by interests and were characterized by a volume of shared rituals. The early church was not bonded together by interests and rather what characterized them was mutual love for each other.
The early Church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, went through an awkward but vital transition. They no longer relied on brick and mortar temples as a gathering point. Space was busted open to make room for a new familial temple, made of flesh and constructed by the Master Builder. With aesthetics and a volume of rituals removed they now had to face each other. Former enemies, were now sharing a meal, orbiting around the bread and wine of Jesus the Messiah.
Acts 20 tells of one such gathering packed inside a home in Troas. They shared in the riches of Christ, imaging the ancient People of God assembled before Yahweh.
For the Apostle Paul, the gospel wired people together as a witness to the Resurrected Christ. To be drawn into the Gospel was to enter into the nucleus of community. It was not until Christianity gained favoritism with an Empire in 312 A.D that the Synagogue made an appearance among Jesus-followers.
A Moral Compass
I am now a client, practitioner and champion of “Missional Minimalism,” where the Missio Dei and sacred sparseness converge. Both of these are rails for the future mission of the church.
Persecution or Poverty typically imposes minimalism. I invite you to embrace it voluntarily.
Minimalism promotes making space for inter-dependence instead of dependence on elements. We unknowingly relate through buffers. Minimalism reminds us to audit them. It is a bit of a moral compass for protecting the Kingdom-social-politic of our being tethered together.
I cannot prescribe how Minimalism should be applied in your context, but I know it will lead you to differentiate between needs and wants in the ways in which you gather. A church that does not seek to frustrate conspicuous consumption loses its prophetic voice in the West.
When we add “stuff“, our common-life is the first thing that becomes deluded even if we’re in the same room together. Missional Minimalism is a nimble embodiment of the Body of Christ built for maximum expression of the all-consuming love of Christ.