Un-Learning Church – The Inverted Steeple Approach

One of my first recollections of church is a Southern Baptist cliché. I think I was 5 years old, so the year would have been 1971.

An aunt was babysitting me for the weekend and she took me along one night to her church revival.

It was hot summertime in Arkansas, the place was packed and all my 5–year-old mind could hear was a preacher saying I was going to hell if I didn’t repent. Hell, fire, losing my soul, dying lost – that’s what I recall as being the message.

I was scared to death and became so uncomfortable I started crying and throwing a tantrum. Eventually, my behavior was so unruly my aunt took me to the car for the remainder of the service so as not to be a distraction.

Why that background is important, I really don’t know, other than to say the “fear” of God is something that stayed with me for many years, until quite recently, in fact.

Most of us who are “good church people” have pretty much learned “church” in similar ways. It’s the “place” we go on Sunday. We sing songs, we pray, we hear the weekly message, maybe a few people get “saved” at the altar call, and the next Sunday we do it all over again.

Most of my adult life, I was a pretty good “church person.” I rarely missed, gave my time and resources, taught Sunday school. Still, I had failures along the way, and I took a performance-based approach to “make up” for all the shortcomings in my life.

As one wise leader recently put it, there was always the “nagging chihuahua” of sin and failure nipping at my heals telling me I wasn’t forgiven, and God was mad.

And so there really never was a time when there wasn’t a spiritual void in my life. Either I was missing something, not doing something right, or really just didn’t understand.

It’s the latter of the three to which I’ve now drawn my conclusion.

TURNING POINT

About six months ago I walked away from church. Right or wrong, it was a personal decision.

I simply, in good conscience could no longer be a part of revising constitutions and bylaws, scrutinizing line-item budgets and trying to re-create what was created originally some 30 years ago. It felt to me as if it were an empty effort. For me, recreating a vision of the past was a missionless mission.

In many ways, I believe that we (the body) have taken ownership of the church – and not in the best of ways. While we’ve been well-intentioned, we’ve taken the wrong turn at the fork in the road. We’ve tried to make the church what we believe it should be, but if we open our eyes to the reality of the world, it clearly isn’t working.

One of the most profound works I’ve come across on this topic is a book titled: “On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_12?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+verge&sprefix=on+the+verge%2Cstripbooks%2C229

Here’s an excerpt that summarizes this issue upon which “Verge” focuses:

ADDRESSING THE MISSIONARY PROBLEMS

“The related problem comes from the likelihood that around 60 percent of America’s population (much higher in Europe and Australia) is increasingly alienated from the prevailing forms of church. In missionary terms, it means they are culturally distant from us. As a sent and sending people (that is, missional people) it is our task to take the message to them and deliver it in ways meaningful to them. This means we need to reassess the situation in light of best-practice missionary approaches.

“We need to ask the question, what is the gospel for this people group? What would sound like good news to them? This means we must first attend to the existential and religious issues people are facing, before we can communicate how the gospel addresses them. Think of it this way: don’t plant churches; plant the gospel, and the church will grow out of it (emphasis mine). This will mean we go back to our primal message and allow it to reframe the way we see church – not the other way around. It’s imagination fired up by the gospel and its missional implications that drives the church to become more authentically evangelical.

“If we persist with the current status quo, we are, in effect, asking the non-believer to do all the cross-cultural work in coming to church. Remember, we are the sent ones – not them. So we not only bring people to church (that will work for the 40 percent); we also take church to the people (to reach the other 60 percent and growing). We can’t front-load church into the equation of mission. We must go to the people group and – once we have understood their culture a whole lot more – then ask ourselves the question what is church for these people? We can’t presume to have the answer up front.”

In our missional community group a few nights ago, I heard a perfect execution of the method outlined above.

A young couple fresh out of Dallas Theological Seminary answered the call to serve as missionaries in Portland, Oregon – considered by some to be one of the most “unchurched” cities in the U.S.

They learned quickly that building a “church” as we know it, was not the answer.

They intentionally located themselves in a low-income neighborhood with a high population of lesbian-gays and single moms. And from there, they immersed themselves in the culture, getting to know people, helping where they could, spending time with people and ultimately gaining trust to form home groups where people could be real, transparent and loved without judgment.

From there, the MC (missional community) groups began meeting one Sunday a month as a “church.” And three and a half years later, they meet every Sunday for congregational worship. The weekly MC groups, however, remain as the hub of gospel love and transparent relationships.

A Nashville-based pastor who endorses this approach said two things recently that have remained in my thoughts:

1. I’ve never seen a person who feels “too” forgiven.

2. We must get up each day and approach life as if we’ve never heard the simple forgiving message of the Gospel.

I’ve recently joined a missional community group and a church that believes in these things, and many people have asked me what it’s like. My consistent response is this:

“It feels like I’m breathing fresh air for the first time.”

There’s an interesting history in the church steeple we see on so many of our buildings. Originating in the middle ages, some say the steeple was contrived to point heavenward to God and his kingdome. Others might argue the steeple is just one of many pagan symbols the church has adopted over time. http://www.ehow.com/about_5052101_origin-church-steeples.html Maybe we should think about inverting the steeple with God pointing downward to his people in His abounding mercy, grace and love.

Just maybe, God wants us to focus specifically on where we are at a given point in time, and work upward to the “bigger stuff” from there.

When it comes to church, I have a lot to Un-Learn.

RELATED LINKS:

“On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church” http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_12?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+verge+a+journey+into+the+apostolic+future+of+the+church&sprefix=on+the+verge%2Cstripbooks%2C123

Why the “Leadership Movement” is Leaving Your Church Leaderless: http://www.vergenetwork.org/2012/05/29/why-the-leadership-movement-is-leaving-your-church-leaderless/

Alan Hirsch (author of On the Verge): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Hirsch

“The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church” http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_2_18?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=the+forgotten+ways+reactivating+the+missional+church&sprefix=the+forgotten+ways%2Cstripbooks%2C490

Verge Network: http://www.vergenetwork.org/

Verge Network on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/VergeNetwork

Fellowship Bible Church – Jonesboro – Home Page: http://fellowshipjonesboro.com/

The Church “On the Verge”

(The following excerpts are notes I’ve highlighted from “On the Verge,” written by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson. Full credit for these observations goes to the authors. This book was written as an observation from a 2011 meeting of pastors from 12 megachurches across the U.S. who analyzed their ‘attractional” vs. their “missional”growth strategies.)

  •  60% of Americans report significant alienation from contemporary church growth models.
  • This means a greater number of churches are competing for the 40% who do relate to current growth models. The question posed is how do we reach the 60% who are alienated? Bringing them to church no longer works. We must take the church to them.
  • Jesus intended the church to be much more of a movement than an institution.
  • Christianity is designed to be a people’s liberation movement, a social force, a viral idea passing from one person to the next through the medium of gospel and discipleship, creating gospel communities in its wake, and yet by most accounts, most churches can be described as institutional in form and nature.
  • Jesus reserved his harshest criticisms not for the so-called sinners, but rather for the religious people of his day. It explains why he chose and empowered ordinary people and not the religious elite to take the gospel to the world.
  • Jesus is a big believer in the human imagination. His parables are a perfect example.
  • Imagination is soaked in possibility. It can see around corners.
  • In order for the church to move forward, it must continually look back to the original model of the 1st Century.
  • Organizations can, over time, develop into impersonal institutions that tend to impose conformity (that is, crush creativity). They can become controlling entities that resist the promptings of the Spirit and undermine the people dynamic of the gospel.
  • Again, 60% of America’s population (much higher in Europe and Australia) is increasingly alienated from the prevailing forms of the church. In missionary terms, it means they are culturally distant from us. We need to ask the question, what is the gospel for this people group, otherwise we simply leave them in the dust.
  • If we persist with the current status-quo, we are in effect asking the non-believer to do all the cross-cultural work in coming to church. WE are the sent ones – not them. What is church for these people?
  • The church doesn’t consist of its institutions; it consists of the people of God. We know this in our theology, but our practice is almost entirely at odds with this belief. We have so identified the church with its rituals, theology, denominational templates, symbols and professional clergy that we can’t see this remarkable truth.
  • God is not only the creator, but also creative and constantly creating and reimagining.

Enough to digest for now, I think.

—30—

What Would it Look Like if …

… we shattered our categories?

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.

How do we get to the “secret heart” of Christianity? Many are finding it difficult in today’s church.

It’s the battle of two extremes – we are wayward sinners or moral insiders – or we seek one of two journies – the road of moral comformity or the path to self-discovery. Is there room for any of us who may find ourselves somewhere between the two extremes without people thinking we’re rebellious troublemakers?

The fact is, it’s easy to alienate ourselves from God by going either way for too long. Proof can be found in the well-known story of the prodigal son, in which most readers of the Word focus on the wayward son. That side of the story is easy enough. But what about the older son, the one who obeyed the rules, the one who conformed, and yet refused to attend the grand celebration hosted by their father upon the younger son’s glorious return?

The two extremes … where is the middle ground, and if there is one, is it the right place from where the Holy  Spirit wishes us to operate?

Isn’t it interesting in so many Bible stories that the people who were most intrigued by Jesus were the ones who were estranged from religion, as opposed to those who were immersed in doctrine and dogma? The rule followers tried to trick Jesus into a corner. Who is this man, they wondered?

I am one of those who finds myself in the middle – probably further to the right side of self -discovery than rule follower, but yet fascinated by what God’s Word speaks to me each day. In this position, it’s easy to become an outcast. Church friends wonder what happened to you. Why are you rebelling? What’s wrong with you? Do you still know Jesus?

Maybe it rings true with you.

Actually, I feel pretty good. I feel freedom. The sun and stars look different to me now. The North Star visible each night from my back yard reminds me that I do have a fixed point of light and a direction. I’m learning, discovering, hearing.

If it does ring true with you, then I believe we are not alone. I believe we are in the midst of the winds of change. God appears to be changing the conversation He is having with His church. Yes, God can actually “change” the conversation if He so chooses.

Less than a year ago, leaders from a dozen megachurches across the country came together for: “Exponential 2011: On the Verge Conference.” The church leadership in the conference represented some 80,000 members.

The church leaders, you see, were at a high level of satisfaction with their “attractional” strategies. And why not? They had grown exponentially. They were in “high cotton.”

But somewhere along the way, the “missional” aspect of service was lost. Too many people, too many programs and services, too much budget, too many decisions and too much baggage.

They had become “missionless.”

An interesting observation/prediction by two church strategists who helped facilitate the meeting is this: The prevailing church growth approach (or market strategy, if you will) will have appeal to about 40% of the U.S. population over the next 10 years.

So if the strategy continues to dominate, where does that leave the other 175,000,000 or so of us who aren’t drawn to that approach?

What if church looked not so much like a building, but a movement?

What if church looked apostolic rather than institutional?

What would it look like if we created demand, rather than competed for it?

What if we were On the Verge of something?

What if…

(Blogger’s note: Many of the ideas, language and concepts posted in this blog come from two well-written and thoughtful books: On the  Verge by Alan Hirsch & Dave Ferguson; and The Prodigal  God by Timothy Keller.)

The Evolving Church: Not a New Concept, but a Vintage One

 

(stevenwwatkins gives credit for the information expressed in this blog to Nate Navarro, pastor of Austin Life Church in Austin, Texas, who visited Jonesboro last night.)

The Church (as conveyed by Paul in Ephesians 2: I’ll let you go there to read it in full, but some key points:

  • Even when we were children of wrath and sons of disobedience God loved us seeing us in perfection through Jesus.
  • Christ made us alive together (the Body of Christ); his body.
  • Our good works did not save us.  We were saved by grace and faith.
  • We (the church, the body) are his workmanship (his masterpiece); perfection.
  • Family is messy. Church is a Family. Church is messy.
  • Though we are saved through no works of our own, the Holy Spirit that lives IN us will manifest itself through good works … and this is what church is about.
  • The missional community has been around since the first century. Maybe we should try it again.

Three forms church has taken on today and PS: God loves these churches too, for they are His workmanship.

  • Country Club Church – the church of comfort were we like to be pampered and never inconvenienced. Don’t ask us to serve for we are busy.
  • Convenience Store Church – the church of convenience were we want things fast, quick and easy. Want a tan? Don’t get out in the sun. Get spraypainted in 2 minutes. Want cleansing? Go to church at 11 a.m. on Sunday. Don’t mess up my schedule. I have kids.
  • FaceBook Church – a convenient community created on our own terms. It’s easier to have 500 FB friends than it is five friends in the real world. Passive relationships where we can project the best. Don’t let others see us when we are weak, or have failed. Mad at somebody? Hey, just DEfriend them!

What does it look like to be a missional community church every day? We must:

  • Grow in our devotion to Jesus.
  • Grow in our devotion to one another.
  • Grow in our devotion to community.

It’s that simple.

Ephesians 2 clearly defines the New Testament Church as a community of people who are in Christ, saved by His grace and walking in good works. We’ve tried to improve the church and the byproduct has been new forms of Christian spirituality, not necessarily the church.

The Gospel is the church. It tells us we are more broken than we can ever admit and more accepted than we can ever imagine. We unnecessarily carry around a low-grade guilt complex.

Will we seek to impress, or will we follow? We can’t impress. It’s not possible.

Good stuff.