communal formation


plant dandelion 4

Most of us, at one time or another, tire of where we are and yearn for somewhere easier, more productive, or more pleasant.  There is nothing unusual in this.  When faced with such a yearning, some buckle down or shake it off and remain where they are.  Others move on to what they suppose are greener pastures.  Whether the greener pasture is a job, city, relationship, or church, the desire for something better and the need to make a decision remain.

What do we mean by “greener pastures” and what, if any, are our responsibilities in connection with them?

When faced with a yearning for greener pastures, the temptation is to follow our emotions.  Desire for adequate resources, adequate social space, the encouraging and equipping our call, good fit with our worldview, and an accurate assessment of our personal worth should not be ignored or suppressed.

The emotions associated with these desires are an important signal that something in life needs tending, but the emotions themselves are inadequate for deciding how to respond.  When we move on to greener pastures, we leave behind relationships and responsibilities.  Therefore, we must give thoughtful consideration before leaving for greener pastures.

When the greener pasture is a church

Like other communities build on committed relationships, church can and should be a difficult place to leave.  We must go beyond emotions and consider why we desire to leave, what we are leaving, and where we are going.

Without thoughtful consideration, we may leave this church and go to that church, only to discover that church does not meet our needs either.  Worse, that church may meet our felt needs, but not our deep needs–and we may not realize it.

Before we go hunting greener pastures, let us think through what we ought to mean by that.

Adequate Resources

  • Greener pastures provide resources, corresponding to and expressive of biblical content that flows from the faith community rather than from a select group.  These resources serve God’s ultimate purposes.
  • Persons in greener pastures share location-specific resources that honor, but are not bound to, community legacy; improvement is welcome and expected.
  • Persons in greener pastures develop the skills and knowledge to form biblically and culturally appropriate resources, built on proper theology, focused on relationship with Christ, and naturally sourced in the community.

Adequate Social Space

  • Greener pastures are a social space in which participants have explicit connection to Christ and work together to become conformed to his image as persons and as community.
  • Persons in greener pastures relate in a variety of ways, from intimate through public, freely associating according to but not bound by affinity and appropriately submitting to one another’s care.
  • Persons in greener pastures develop the skills and knowledge to form an ecclesial space in which individual and corporate identity in Christ is understood, Spirit-empowered behaviors are practiced, and a natural web of relationships develops.

Encourage and Equip My Calling

  • Greener pastures encourage and equip individual and communal calls that recognize Christ as source and end, and are lived out on a Kingdom trajectory for the sake of the Body.
  • Persons in greener pastures live out their personal calls in community, synergistically creating new expressions of vocation by drawing on historical norms, current culture, and community feedback.
  • Persons in greener pastures develop the skills and knowledge needed to form a sense of individual and corporate calling by learning to identify and develop God-given abilities that are centered in Christ, bounded by his character, and nurtured by feedback and knowledge from the community.

Fit My Worldview

  • Greener pastures foster personal worldviews, evaluated by a biblical rubric through mutual correction toward God’s ultimate purpose.
  • Persons in greener pastures intentionalize their own worldviews, becoming others-oriented, presenting their filters and givens and submitting them to correction.
  • Persons in greener pastures develop the skills and knowledge to form personal worldviews increasingly conformed to biblical norms through transformed hearts and communal care.

Accurate Assessment of My Worth

  • Greener pastures redefine worth according to identity in Christ within the faith community, and according to Kingdom criteria.
  • Persons in greener pastures view others beyond first impressions, presenting their own prejudices and expectations for community correction.
  • Persons in greener pastures develop the skills and knowledge to form biblical ways of understanding others and communal transformational practices that provide an increasing amount of character evidence.

Conclusion

No particular church on earth will meet all these criteria perfectly, for on earth we are a mixed bag–both as persons and as community.  We meet these criteria more or less.  Each must decide how much less it can be before moving on to greener pastures.

But there is another question.

We must also ask, “Will I work with other believers to plant greener pastures?”  If the answer to that question is, “No,” you need to evaluate whether or not you are the real problem.  If you are the problem, you will take you with you and the same issues will arise.

Before moving on to greener pastures, consider:

  1. What do I mean by greener pastures?
  2. Is my current church planting greener pastures?
  3. Am I, as far as I am able, working to plant greener pastures?

Two seemingly opposed facts characterize my life as a member of Christ’s Body:

  • I am called by God to be a functioning member of an institutional church.
  • I am drawn to and hope to one day plant a house church/city church.

Why not leave?

To this I merely answer that the Head of the Church has called me to this place.  This answer is sufficient.

But another answer emerges, if we transform the question a bit:

For what purpose do I remain in this church?

  • I remain to embody bold opposition that is focused on key issues.  Participating in gatherings puts me in a place to instigate paradigm shift that honors the history of this people while calling for needed change.
  • I remain to embody respectful opposition that works alongside brothers and sisters, considering the other as more important than self.  Working in the system, developing information and feedback flows, allows me to encourage needed change, while appropriately honoring the legacy of the Spirit’s work in this place.
  • I remain to embody loyal opposition that shows up and honors the good.  Following the call to leadership outside the professional structure of the institutional church puts me in a position to highlight good traditions, tell legacy stories, and publicly recognize needed changes when they occur.

Am I doing all this?

Not yet, but I hold it before my eyes and before the eyes of my fellows.  Distractions (internal and external) occur and resistance (mostly passive) happens, but the call remains, so here I stay.

Why do you “go to church”?

Related
Among the Loyal Dissatisfied (on Laura’s Writings)
Being the Loyal Opposition in the Institutional Church
Why Go To Church? on Origins Project

In the New Testament, at least three aspects of church are seen: local, universal, and eschatological.  Of these three, local receives the most discussion.  In Paul, for example, local church seems to refer both to all the Christians in a city (see the first verses of nearly every letter) and to a body of Christians meeting in a particular house (see Col. 4:15).

In both cases–the city and the house–there is high probability for embodied interaction.  In such settings, learning, training, and spiritual formation can take place in ordinary life.

But what happens when we gather outside of ordinary life (on the web, for example)?  It seems to me that dialogue, sharing stories and knowledge, can lead to true learning, but outside of ordinary life together, can we work together in ways that train us with the skills to walk God’s ways and carry out his mission?  Can we get a sufficient sense of one anothers’ character to provide the sorts of exhortation and encouragement that facilitate spiritual formation?

What do you think?

Further Reading
Open Letter to the Sanctify! Dreaming Team
What makes us fully devoted followers of Christ?

Last Sunday, two things converged: Sanctify decided to connect beyond TFB and Dan Lim pointed to Southern California and showed us the world.

The whole world comes to L.A. to attend school; hundreds are in the South Bay.  What an amazing gift God has given us: he brought the ends of the earth to our doorstep and all we need do is come alongside them in ordinary life and witness to Jesus.

The call to connect as church in our city has converged with the call to witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth.

What a priceless gift.

Resources

Further Reading

Over at Outside is Better, Chad Brooks is calling us to tell the truth about ecclesiology in the local church.  He opens with three Ally Bank commercials that expose the ridiculous and unfair bait-and-switch practices of banking, and then segues into a discussion of our too often bait-and-switch ecclesiology.  He finishes the post with four suggested practices:

  • Build churches of care-giving.
  • Define moral boundaries in order to define holiness.
  • Build a worshiping community that is focused on God and his actions, instead of humans and our emotions.
  • Be honest about what your church offers.

Read (and discuss) the entire post at Outside is Better.

Running his suggestions through a bit of functional ecclesiology: What might leaders and members do to create a community in which these sorts of spiritual practices are common and expected?  Here are three suggestions:

  • Leaders–whether formal or informal–must model the expected practices.  It is not enough to teach and preach them.
  • Leaders must provide and members must seek out training that equips and conditions mind, emotions, and desires, so that all may become the sorts of persons who practice these as a matter of course.  This includes teaching our identity as a connected community in Christ, the transforming power of correct knowledge of God, and the fact of the speech-and-action tainting baggage that we all carry.
  • Leaders must provide and members must seek out training in the skills needed to create a web of care that expects shared responsibility, decreasing focus on self, increasing focus on God, and a realistic representation of the Body–both its strengths and its weaknesses.

What have you to add?

UPDATED 2/11/09

Question: Given the identity of church, what are the activities that would express that identity and by what criteria are those expressions to be evaluated?

For too long, the church has separated its activities from daily life; we have conformed to a sacred-secular dichotomy that does not exist. God is Creator and Ruler of all and we are his people in all of life. We–his church–ought to bear his influence through regular life in our neighborhoods. I do not mean the sort of influence that we often package as programs, but rather an influence had by joining existing services in our neighborhoods, working together in the community as a powerful expression of church in the world.

How should we decide which services to join? General grace is one criterion: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45b).

As we consider participating in this work, let us ask, “Will we demonstrate God’s mercy, grace, and rule before the world?”

If the answer is yes, then let us join the work.

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I hesitated in posting this, because it is an indictment of and a challenge to me more than to any who read it, for I have separated myself from my neighborhoods.

In self-defense, I offer a usual excuse: time. But I must ask myself, “If I am too busy to be a neighbor, them am I not too busy?”

I also offer the excuse of calling, for I am called to minister to the church. But does this excuse me from service as the church? I think not.

Now, the million-dollar question: Will I take the next step?

Related
Robert Campbell:

  • Being a Local Church “…discern those few key points of dissension that will communicate what it means to live the gospel of King Jesus most clearly to our people and our place.”
  • Finding Your Way With the World “…[1] use truth rather than opinion…[2] change the existing culture…[3] shape the arriving culture”

As we have seen in Isaiah, God holds individuals and communities responsible for their behavior. In addition, individuals may experience discipline for community behavior, even if their own behavior is good.

As TNBS and Sanctify go forth this year, possibly transforming into something beyond what we had envisioned, we need to function with this in mind. We need to remember that we are responsible for the behavior of our community and are obligated to do something about it. Within that task, we must not let loose of the fact that we are also responsible for our relationship with God. We must strive to be holy persons.

I, for one, know how difficult it is to act against our habituated ways of being. But God’s Word is clear: he expects our lives here, together and alone, to correspond to his ways. God is Lord and Creator of all. Whether it is entertainment, employment, politics, community service, or friends and family, how we live must correspond to God’s ways. Living a life that corresponds to his ways means living a whole life, not a few moments here and there.

We, as individuals and as a church, are so engulfed by our own ways of being and our culture’s ways of being that we do not know how to be who we are. This must change.

To bring it down locally, for that is all we can really do, if TFB is to become what God wants us to be, we must remember two things: who God is and who we are. Apart from this knowledge, we have no criteria for change.

According to Ephesians 4:15-16, spiritual maturity happens in community as we exercise our grace-gifts in connection to Christ and one another. Our becoming who we are has everything to do with our connection to the Head and to one another. These connections accomplish the work of growth.

In 2009, let us struggle to maintain our connections to the Body and the Head. Only in doing so will we as a church become who are are.

Inputs
Isaiah 24-27
Ephesians 4:7-16

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