Friday, September 17, 2010

A church about nothing...well, hopefully something

Earlier this week we were casting some vision to a group of our friends about our church.  To fill you in, our church is a grassroots/simple style approach - so for some in the room, it was probably a slightly different paradigm. So afterward, my good friend Vince comes up to me and says, "I think I can sum up your church for you with one word: nothing.  You go to a cafe and talk to someone - that's a church!"  And we started laughing. (If you don't know, he was alluding to a classic Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George are giving a pitch for their show "about nothing" to a bunch of NBC executives.)

At first blush, grassroots paradigms of church like ours seem really disorganized and loosy-goosy.  "You don't meet in a centralized building, you don't have classic ministry programs, no lead pastor etc.  What do you do?!  Seems like you just meet anywhere and anything happens and everything is church." Some people misconceive it as that, but in reality, some leaders in those churches also actually do them like that. I think both sides are wrong. When it comes to reimagining new ways of doing and being church, it's important not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

When Jesus taught his disciples the metaphor about renewing wineskins, he was attempting to help them understand the relationship between the substance (wine) and the form (wineskin) of faith. The wine being what's most important. So to imagine refreshment and positive change means doing it in a way where you don't throw out the wine, or the baseline subtance that you're supposed to experience.

But people still have a hard time thinking of church (wine) in a different way (wineskin).  On the one hand, some people have a hard time letting go of the old "wineskin." They can't view church any other way than being in a central building on a Sunday morning, and having neat programs, and being administered with business-like organization, etc. On the other hand, some pioneers are letting go of the "wine" and begin shaping up all these "wineskins" with nothing to fill them. They don't want to be confined to institutional structures of the church, but end up doing...just whatever.  So in an attempt to be more "authentic," they are actually experiencing a church about nothing.

Frank Viola refers to this latter set of people as "Post Church Christianity:"
This paradigm is rooted in the attempt to practice Christianity without belonging to an identifiable community that regularly meets for worship, prayer, fellowship, and mutual edification. Advocates claim that spontaneous social interaction (like having coffee at Starbucks whenever they wish) and personal friendships embody the New Testament meaning of "church." Those who hold on to this paradigm believe in an amorphous, nebulous, phantom church.

Such a concept is disconnected with what we find in the New Testament. The first-century churches were locatable, identifiable, visitable communities that met regularly in a particular locale. For this reason, Paul could write a letter to these identifiable communities (local churches) with some definite idea of who would be present to hear it. (Reimagning Church, 40)
There are also several others who ponder that same issue of what actually constitutes a church. And if you go to any church and ask any pastor what are the basics of what his or her church does (or should do), you'll likely discover that church basically boils down to three experiences:
  1. Communion - people gathering together for discipleship, worship, celebration, etc. It's our connection to God.
  2. Community - people gathering together for fellowship and relationship building.  It's our connection to each other.
  3. Commission - people gathering together for evangelism, outreach, service, etc. It's our connection to the world.
(Notice that clever alliteration - makes for a good sermon outline!)

So maybe a very simple definition of a church is a set of people who intentionally experience communion, community, and commission together.  That would be the "wine." So as long as people are committed to doing those three things regularly, then...that's a church!  No matter how big or small, or where or how.

If we understand Jesus' wine/wineskin thing correctly, then can we be content to imagine various ways of experiencing church that are both substantive (wine) and creative (wineskin)?

Unfortunately, as my college theology professor always said, the church tends to major in the minors and minor in the majors - we confuse our priorities. For these purposes, we fail to imagine new ways of being church because we put the "wineskins" before the wine - that's a lack of creativity and flexibility. And it's also clear, on the flipside, that there are people who don't major or minor in anything, and try to pass that off as church - that's a lack of substance, commitment, and accountability.

So for us to say that church should Be Organic (that church should happen right where you are in the rhythm of your life) means that people should be gathering intentionally right wherever they are to experience communion, community, and commission together. And that's a church. And I believe that "where you are" is where the richest and most Spirit-empowered experience of Christian community takes place. It's not the only way, but we should validate and bless that expression as another legitimate and powerful way  to experience church.  But it's got to be about something.

No comments:

Post a Comment