Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why Write a book Missional Small Groups?

I am in the middle of revisions of the book by the above title. And to be quite honest, with all of the books that have been published in the last few years on small groups, I have to ask why. Why another book on small groups? I have come up with a few reasons:
1. Most of the books that have been released over the last few years simply promote a view of community that is nothing more than more of the American way of life with a little Bible discussion spread on top. 
2. Most of the talk about small groups is focused on how to close the back door by giving people a small group experience that does not interfere much with their lives but instead helps enhance their lives. 
3. Most small group models are focused on providing group experiences in middle-class suburban settings.
4. Most of the talk about small groups is on how community and group life can benefit individuals. 

This is the critical stuff. What about the constructive side of what I am writing?
1. I am concerned about the church being the bride of Christ that is being prepared for the return of the bridegroom. And by nature, this bride is communal, whether or not it has a perceived benefit to the lives of individualists. In fact, if we are doing community right, it will mean sacrifice of the well-being of individuals. 
2. We need a vision for small groups that understands that God has called a people, which is called the church in the New Testament, that is to be a sign, foretaste and witness of God's dream for the world. In other words, we are called to live in community for the sake of those who don't have community. Of course we benefit from the experience, but just as Israel was called by God to be a sign of God's salvation, so is the church today. Therefore, we need to understand that our small groups are called to be a part of something much larger, that is the salvation of creation.
3. We need a vision for community that compels those of us who are controlled by the imagination of individualism to re-imagine what it means to belong and to be a part of something larger than ourselves. We need a vision for small groups that sees how community is about a movement, not a movement to multiply groups so we can have more people in the church but a movement to put on display the beauty of God's Kingdom in our ugly world. 

Reading Individualistically

I have begun to ponder the fact that most of our theological conversations have been shaped in the age of Enlightenment, which has been shaped in a large way by the agenda of individualism. After 300 years of imagining life as centered around individuals instead of around a community. Our imaginations are shaped in a way that we think first about the benefit to the individual and then for the wider community. 

This directly impacts the way we read the Bible. For instance, Paul says in Gal 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." All of the pronouns her are first person singular. So when we read this today, one might assume a way of reading and interpreting Paul that makes this about his personal salvation and personal relationship with Jesus. This seems like the obvious common sensical reading of this verse. However, when you read this verse in its larger context, it becomes obvious that a privatized individualistic reading of this verse does not make sense of the whole. 

Our individualism has tainted how we read this verse. We have made it about me and my experience. But Paul did not think as an individualist. His worldview was not shaped by that imagination. He saw himself as a part of larger community, as his life within a people group through whom God was working to save the world. 

It is so hard for me to even imagine how Paul thought because I swim in the water of individualism, a kind of water that was foreign to his worldview. He simply saw things differently and therefore he wrote and thought differently. When he wrote about "I", his imagination did not see the "I" as an entity that was distinct and separate from a community, a larger entity to which he belonged. This is not my world, which is one that begins and ends the the imagination that has the individual at the center. No one expresses this better than the Adam Smith when he promotes a view of economic systems where individuals make choices that best suite them as individuals. We have been shaped by a worldview that tells us that the best economic systems are developed when individuals make choices based on what they want as individuals. 

And oh how this mindset has crept into the church, especially the evangelical stream in the North American context. Anything corporate or communal or even groupish is only of perceived value if it benefits the individual. And if the individuals don't like it, and thereby vote with their feet by refusing to participate then we change that which is corporate, communal or groupish to better fit what individuals want. 

We are caught in a catch 22. The only way to get people to participate in something corporate is to design is so that they desire it and might as a result understand what it means to be a part of something larger than themselves, but in doing so all we do is feed the consumerism that we have inherited form Adam Smith which means that we create an association of individualists, which really is not communal at all. But if we really design an experience that is in fact a community where the individuals understand that their individualism is submitted to the larger community, most of us will be excluded from the experience because none of us really want that. 

I have more questions than answers. I just hope they are the right questions.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Why We Can't Return to Pre-Christendom

Lesslie Newbigin wrote the following in 1963:
"The Western world has had to be recognized once again as a mission field, and the Churches have been compelled in a new way to define their nature and mission as parts of a divine society distinct from the wider society of nations in which they live, and all these factors have contributed to developments in the field of theology in the direction of a missionary understanding of the nature of the Church itself." (Newbigin, Trinitarian Doctrine for Today's Mission, 12).
I grew up on a farm. While most of our tools, tractors and implements were very basic and some were a few years old, I was trained in the ways of farming that depended upon machinery. I remember the day that my father brought home a brand new round bailer. It was a revolutionary machine because we could form hay into a form that could feed cows for a week instead of the small bails that would only last a day. We were fully dependent upon such machines in our patterns of farm life. 

One could look at such patterns of farm life and analyze the ill affects of industrialization on farming. And they are many. For instance, my farming experience did not get me in touch with the land that much. I rarely touched the earth, the seeds or worked with the life process. The dependance upon machines has removed the farmer from a direct touch with God's creation. In addition, farming is no longer a community process. Before industrialization, farmers had to support one another and entire families were invested in the planting and harvesting of crops. Now the farmer can do almost all the work by himself, with only a relationship with a machine. 

I could look at these affects and yearn for a more simple day when farming operated differently. I could look to another country that has not been affected by industrialization and see how sustenance farming works and wish I were a part of it. I might look into history and try to see ways of reconstructing an early life or I might visit an Amish community and learn from them. 

But there is one truth that I cannot get beyond: I cannot delete my experience as a part of an industrialized farm. And that experienced shaped the way I view life on the farm. As a result I cannot return to some kind of pre-industrialized state of farm life. My farm innocence has been perverted. And once I have been exposed to industrialization there is no going back to pre-industrialization. 

In other words, I must deal with reality, not with a wish-dream of what I would like farming to look like. Now if I wanted to break free from the dependance upon industrialization, I can look to other ways of farm life and learn from them, but the reality is that my experience has been permanently infected that will not allow me to go back to some pure state of what farming is "meant" to be. In addition, the farm systems that have been developed--buying and selling, markets, etc.--fit the system of industrialization. The farmer can no longer operate on his own. 

In the same way, there is a call within the church to "return" to a pre-Christendom pattern of church life. There is a push to find that which worked during the first 300 years of the church and in places where the established church has been forced out, i.e. China. While I do believe that we can learn much from such church experiences, I simply want to say that we don't life in first century Antioch or in modern China. I grew up in the Bible Belt where there is a Baptist church on every other corner and now I live in the upper midwest where there is a Luthern church with equal frequency. I have too much experience with church life that has been influenced by the Christendom pattern to return to some kind of pure form of church life. And the systems of our culture have been too influenced by Christendom to ignore that the patterns of Christendom have shaped the way the culture hears any talk about Jesus, the Gospel and the Church. 

We can learn things from the pre-Christendom church. I believe that we can learn much. But we have to deal with reality and that is the fact that we live in an age of post-Christendom. This means that we have to deal with NOT with a vision for church life that fits a different context i.e. first century Antioch or modern China, but with what we are called to be to be as God's people in this context. What does the Gospel look like that encounters our life today? This is the difficult call of the missionary experience in the West. This means that we don't entirely know what this "divine society" will look like as all we know is a kind of society that has been shaped by Christendom and we have historical notes about what this society looked like in the early centuries of the church. 

To be the church in post-Christendom, we don't need the imagination of an organizational consultant who proposes ways of structuring the church of the future i.e. flat, de-centralized, organic, etc. Instead we need the imagination of a missionary who is equipped, willing and able to enter into a local context and have conversations with people and develop a community that is willing to discover together through simple experiments what it means to be Gospel carriers in this age. This is difficult because our technologically shaped imagination prefers to go with a formal structure of what the church must look like and the vision for the church takes on a structural form. But that fails to understand the essence of the Gospel, the good news, which is alive and active by the Spirit through God's people and in creation. 

It seems to me that the Apostle Paul is less concerned about mobilizing a specific form of church life and more focused on speaking about and living the gospel and allowing that to shine forth in unique ways. If this is the case, then the Gospel can be good news in many different ways. We need not get to some kind of pure form of church life where we do away with our buildings, denominational structures, seminaries, etc. The Spirit is at work in the reality of our lives. The missionary imagination means that we learn to listen to where the Spirit is at work and allow even the smallest of seeds to be planted and take us to new ways of being the church. 

Why Theology is Necessary for Today's Church

For most of my life, I have had a narrative going on in my mind about being a thinking person and the call to ministry. It was always easy to see how it was good to be a thinking person in the realms of science, liberal arts and even the business world. But in the Christian world--at least the one I was exposed to--the emphasis has always been on the practical side of doing something and not spending too much time thinking about it. What has been celebrated in my tradition is production. I remember one speaker talking about pastors and missionaries having a slew of theology books and how they spent too much time reading and not enough time doing ministry. 

As a result, I have always felt conflicted. I was drawn to a contemplative, reflective and even cerebral way of interacting with God and the church. But many of the people I respected in the church denigrated such things. I remember my first position on staff at a church was that of an interning for a youth pastor who had not had any seminary and he made it quite clear that any cerebral training like that was not necessary for ministry. He was a doer, an activist who was quite gifted at leading youth. And he was a good preacher. His impact on others was obvious. And when I looked at the impact of some of the theologians I knew, I realized that there impact was quite minimal by comparison. At least the direct impact. 

Then I worked for Ralph Neighbour who had quite a bit of theological training, but his emphasis had always been upon producing something in the church. Even he seemed to downplay the importance of reflection and theological processing in the light of holding up the need to produce something in the church. 

But all along, I felt called to something deeper. I felt a yearning to think. I knew how to do this in school within the secular subjects but within the evangelical church, being a thinker was not that valued. For eight years I served as a leader within a charismatic church. I tried to set aside my yearning for theological reflection and be the kind of leader and preacher that fit that tradition, but that which gave me the most thrill was found when I would read Moltmann, Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, or Pinnock. 

So I was conflicted. I felt a yearning for something for which my tradition did not highly value. So I tried and I tried to be what was valued so as to meet needs within the church. Because I am published within the subject of small groups, change leadership and church structures, it has been assumed that I would be a great small groups pastor. And I tried to be that. And truly it might be hard to find someone who knows more about these subjects, but this role does not fit me. 

Even now I work with two world renown theologians and have tried to play the non-theologian role with them because that is not what is needed. I assumed that since they have the theology part covered that I need to be practical. I have tried to  be one who helps others communicate their theology and make it more practical. And while I have gifts for this role, again the thing that stirs my soul to depths untold is the theological reflection that occurs when I interact with the material. 

So the internal conflict has abounded. I have needed a reframe about theology and the narrative that has been running in my head about the practical import of it. The story has been: I like this; I am good at theological reflection; but it is impractical and not that important to the call of the church because theological reflection has little to do with the real world. So who God has made me to be is not that important to his agenda in this age. Wow! As I write this, I never realized just how much this has impacted my view of myself. 

So I have been a closet theologian, like it was a secret sin to read, reflect and write as I do. I have hidden it because I don't want people to assume that I am arrogant or that I am impractical. And therefore unuseful. I have tried and tried to push away who I am made to be. 

Then in one of my "secret" times of reading and reflecting I came across one of the most impacting statements that I have ever read: 
"Since the gospel is intrinsically a missionary message, and since Mediterranean antiquity was there before it was invaded by the gospel, Christianity is the intruder even in the civilization it co-created. Within the West, it is therefore possible to be a disciple of Socrates and not of the prophets and apostles, though tis is not possible to be unaffected by them. So there will be 'philosophers' who are not Christian theologians. But within Western civilization, and so within the theological enterprise located there, it is not possible to be a disciple of the apostles and not a disciple also of Socrates. Therefore the labels 'philosophy' and 'theology' cannot mark a real distinction for those most likely to read this book." (Robert Jenson, ST 2, 163).

Ok what the heck does this mean? The gospel is not some universal message that can be delivered in a decontextualized way. The gospel is one that is stated and lived in a context. First there is the context of the Story of the biblical narrative. Then there is the context of the theological development that we have inherited. Then there is the context in which the gospel comes to life today. 

Theological reflection is not only important to the communication of the gospel in this age, it is basic and essential. Without it, we are prone to communicate a supposed do-contextualized version of the gospel which is nothing less that an inherited way of talking about God that we have received from another era or place. The gospel is only good news when it is news of God for a specific people in a specific time and place. It is thereby dialogical in that the word of God comes to people who are living in the midst of bad news. This cannot be an abstract universal message. It is always personal, relational therefore specific. 

When it comes to theology, the narrative of the church must change. I can only start with me. Help me Lord to hear this new narrative regarding passion within me for theology. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I was talking yesterday with a man who has let an extensive research project on the nature of churches in SE Asia that are seeing spontaneous conversion growth. I asked him "How do you define the nature of conversion?" He responded, "That is an important question in the Western church but when Muslim person gets baptized there choice is a crossing of a line that is clear and obvious to all." The implication: it is impossible to do "mental ascent" Christianity in these contexts. This raises all kinds of questions about the nature of conversion in the West. We know what it means theologically but because of the nature of cultural Christianity, there is no real line to cross except for the cases where the culture looks down on certain lifestyles ie immorality, drug abuse, etc. In most cases those who are converted repent to the extent that they become moral citizens of the broader culture. Is this all there is?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Catch Words and Phrases

I find it interesting how words become popular. A few years ago I wrote a book called The Relational Way and now today "relational" has become a buzz word in the church--not because of my book for sales have not been that great. At that time I thought I was pitching something unique, but now it is a band wagon. But the problem is that the word has been watered down to mean almost anything. The same is true of one of my other passions. When The Missional Church was written 12 years ago, it was a unique term but now people are using to mean a lot of different things. As a result such words and therefore any prophetic meaning behind them gets discounted because they have become buzz words that become empty in their popular usage. Not sure what to do as my blog is called what it is not because these are popular terms but because these are my passions. I would name the blog this even if they were not buzz words. It's a shame that the popularity of the terms has not resulted in more book sales. Oh well. I write what I do not to sell but because I must. That's all for now.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Horton on Christian Gnosticism

No this is not the Horton from Horton Hears a Who. That Horton is an elephant who hears something that no one else can hear. With his huge ears he hears the people of Whoville, that live on a speck of dust. (You can tell that I have young children.) The Horton of this post is Michael Horton, a Reformed theologian and a prolific author. I am processing his assessment of American Christianity in his book Christless Christianity. He provide a cogent critique of the popular version of Christianity by associating it with two themes. First he recognizes that it is another form of legalism that is based not on rules but on good advice about how one can become a better person. As a result, there is no recognition of sin or a problem in our world from which we need to be saved, except for the fact that we don't understand who we are and that we simply need to believe the right things about ourselves. 

The second theme is that of Gnosticism. He observes that common talk about God claims that God is not someone other than us, but that the Christian message has become one that claims that God is our buddy or one that is within us and that we need to get in touch with this Personal Jesus that we create. Instead of  Jesus that is based on the external life of the church, theology or history, Jesus has become an inner experience that is individualistic and personal in nature. 

For the most part, I think he is on track with these two themes. Being someone who takes a different approach to thinking about the Atonement--I prefer the Christus Victor view-- and Justification--I think N.T. Wright is actually right--I don't think about these issues within the Reformed categories that he does. But that is not my primary critique of this book. On a much larger scale I have a problem with what he is implying as an alternative. As a theologian, he seems to be advocating an anti-experience focus on theology and historical creedal Christianity. He seems to be discounting the reality that the church as we have known it does not enter into dialogue with our culture. Therefore, he is opting for a church as traditionally understood with a gathering and a focus on preaching via exegesis and theological explication. While I agree that we don't need the syncretism that has developed in the church where the Gospel is co-opted by the thoughts and patterns of the broader culture, neither do we need to reduce church to a weekly theological where people are fed the Word and the Sacraments. His thinking about the church has not extended beyond Luther and Calvin. He does not like what he is observing in the church--neither do I--but his answer is to revert back to the past. 

I agree with his critique of the kind of church that becomes a separatists enclave where people are so busy doing church stuff that they have not part in the world outside the church. But the alternative that he gives of being a center for Word and Sacraments is not the only option. His imagination is shaped by two options 1) Gathered for worship at a church building or 2) individual Christians doing their own things. In this way, he fails to see how these two categories reveal how he has actually been co-opted by the culture of individualism just as much as those he criticizes. To revert back to the church pattern of the Reformation is to ignore the fact that the way we do life in this kind of church remains individualistic. We might hear the word together and receive the sacraments together but we leave these events held at a building--after having received God's grace--and then go our merry way into our lives that have been constructed by the culture of individualism. We don't live in the time of Luther and Calvin. We don't live today in a culture that actually can relate to one another and share any kind of life together. If we have a "missional" imagination, we can recognize that even within a church that is a center for Word and Sacrament, that individual will continue to reign. Church cannot simply be a place that proclaims dogma and does not equip people to live out that dogma. He seems to create a false dichotomy between receiving grace and allowing that grace to live through us. If the church only speaks of grace and never actually lives out this grace, then is this not what the book of James deconstructed. 

While he identifies the problems well, he fails to recognize the need for a robust missional perspective that demonstrates how the Gospel can be in dialogue with the culture and thereby result in a different way of being the church today. With such an approach, it would quickly become obvious that we must develop a theology of socioality that speaks of how the church must do life together in a way that both receives the Gospel and at the same time becomes a sign, foretaste, and witness to the Kingdom. It is not just what we say; our lives are also a witness. The way we love one another will point people the salvation which can only come from Christ. 

Must we always speak in such polemical "either/or" terms to make the point. Or is this just the way to sell more books. Maybe I could sell more if I just picked a narrow point of view and became the critic of all who did not fit my view. Well I guess I have with the writing of this post.