Over the last couple of months I’ve had the privilege of reading the book “Prodigal Christianity” with a group of my friends here in Spokane. All of them are good thinkers and we had a wonderful time processing the ideas by Dave Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw.
The book is really an attempt to locate a way forward that is truly prodigal in today's Christianity, a third way if you will. A writing device the authors employed is a cyclical juxtaposition between a Neo-Reform perspective of Christianity (Piper, Keller, et al) and a more “Emergent” version (McLaren and Jones). Honestly, a device I am not entirely thrilled with and I would suspect the authors represented in the book probably were not wild about either. Nonetheless, while looking at both of these poled perspectives they seek to mine out an alternative way for the church to move forward in the undulating social challenges of Western society.
The authors capably lay out a progression of ideas tethered to the idea of Barth’s “Far Country.” They move from a theological orientation or baseline to the more practical issues such as homosexuality and social justice (both chapters are probably worth the price of the book), both I deeply appreciated. They refer to “Signposts” that assist us to navigate both the church and “powder keg” issues we currently face as Christians in the U.S.
As far as full disclosure, I must say that I've appreciated Dave Fitch’s ideas before I read this book (The Great Giveaway) and am a causal acquaintance of both authors. I have great appreciation and admiration for both of them. You can locate both men’s personal blogs at…Fitch - Reclaiming Mission & Holsclaw - Into the Far Country
One of the key elements of the book for me was the nuanced challenge to be present in every situation trusting God is there before us, an idea often called prevenience. I honestly think if each Christian person I know could embrace the idea that they are expounding it would change Christianity. I know that sounds like a stretch, but I truly beleive it. In Signpost #2, the missio Dei, Fitch vulnerably writes about learning how to pray for his neighbors;
"I had in mind that this meant to pray for my friends to somehow see their need for God's forgiveness and that I would have an opportunity to give them the answer: the gospel of being forgiven from sin. The friend challenging me said, 'No, God is already working there, in each person's life. Just pray that you will have eyes to see what God is doing so you can participate with a word, or a prayer, with laughter, or a tear.' If the Triune God is already in mission, then I need to see the world in which I regularly walk as the arenas of the Spirit – places imbued with the presence of God. This was a fundamental shift. It changed the way I walked into every space of my life. Missio Dei means that God is already at work in our lives and the lives of all around us."
The other bit that I found quite significant about the book is the author's insistence that these issues that all of us face must be worked out in a local context, the local church. All of the jockeying for influence on the net or in celebrity Christianity is doing nothing more than exacerbating the problems that we have. These issues must be worked out with real people, in real time, in a real location. I could not concur more.
In summary, I would recommend this book with great enthusiasm to anyone trying to navigate the nuances of what it means to live life on mission in a postmodern context. Both Fitch and Holsclaw have grasped the idea that being a Christian today isn't about reactivity or in finding yourself in some sort of theological entrenchment, but in moving into the “far country,” being prodigal in a nonreactive, loving, open…local way.
Years ago, I was having a weekly breakfast with a group of pastors who led downtown churches in my city (that is what pastors do, right? Eat!). One of them I became exceptionally fond of. He was nearing retirement and I found his insights particularly insightful. On one occasion, I asked him if he had any wisdom he’d like to pass on to me (I was one of the young ones then). He said if he were to do it all over again he’d sell the church buildings. Firm, resolute...unflinching...sell em all! He felt like they stole focus from the “main thing” he was trying to accomplish.
That was years ago now and in my nearly 30 years of pastoring I have heard his words echo in the back of my mind at many crossroads. In those years, I have rarely pastored a community with a “church building.” We’ve rented a few, but to truly occupy, none…until now. God has graciously seen fit to loan us one. I say graciously because it was not what we were looking for. We simply were seeking to embed our community in a specific location. For us, it was the north central part of Spokane. We all sensed this was where we were to put down roots.
Some people in the missional conversation eschew the idea of having a building. It conjures up the "evil" word: Attractional. In some circles, it is viewed with the same derison as the name "Voldemort." However, for us having a building (or being loaned one) gives us a taproot into a particular geographical area. In a word, it contextualizes this for us. It gives us a parish. I was talking with a friend of mine who has a small building in a very cool “niche” community here in our city. He was commenting about how helpful it is for them to have a building because it moves them into a “participant relationship” in the commercial area where they are. They’re looked upon as a group that is stable and permanent rather then remote and transient. They are seen as vested members of the community, rather than outsiders or intruders.
A quick aside – a building doesn’t provide success or failure per say. The last church I pastored grew quite large, all while being in rented spaces. It really depends on what God is doing in your community.
We will guard against having our focus captured by having space (I know, you are thinking that is what everyone says), but for us at this time and place, a building gives an element of stability in a world of “rent the box” churches…and we are grateful.
Incarnating the Gospel
What does it mean to incarnate the Gospel? Observing God’s love toward humanity best captures the idea of incarnation. It is actualized by God taking on human flesh and lovingly drawing near to His creation. As a matter of fact, in John 1 it is articulated by verse 14, which says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Literally, it means God came near, even moving into the neighborhood.
As we plant Immanuel Church, one of the contouring values we have is seeking to dream of how we can incarnate the Gospel in a particular context. In our case, that is the north central area of Spokane, Washington (Click here for demographics of the area). It has become our parish, if you will.
An Ecclesial (tricky word for "church") Problem
One of the problems that the church faces in America is Christians often envision their church involvement one directionally. By that I mean, people make decisions about where they should go based upon what they can get out of it. It is kind of like a laundry list of items like:
While we may fairly debate the validity of each of those reasons for attending a church, if we believe that incarnation is important, it is also essential that we consider attending in a location that has some proximity to where we live. In a word, we MUST consider the missional aspect of where we attend.
Here’s a challenge as it relates to Immanuel here in Spokane - and it is two prong:
If you are interested in helping in any way, just comment on this blog and I will get back to you promptly or email me at (Click here).
Living, investing and “embedding” in the same area you gather to worship is not a new idea. It has been a proven missiological concept for a very long time…it is as old as, well…the moment God took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood.
I awoke this morning to two very different bits of news.
The first was on CNN about another senseless and seemingly random murder…this time in my own city. We’ve finally made the top story on CNN. Unfortunately, it was for reprehensible reasons. Two teens beat a World War II vet to death yesterday not far from my home. An 88-year-old man! This is immediately on the heels of the similar senseless shooting of an Australian youth living and going to school in Oklahoma by 3 other teens, apparently because they were “bored.” Although, there does seem to be some race motive behind that act. Many in Australian at this point are measuring whether coming to the U.S. is a reasonable venture because of fear of this type of violence. There is even gestures of a “Boycott” of the U.S.
Honestly, I am taken aback by the motiveless anger and violence that these two events represent. I was saying to Robi this morning that for the first time as an adult I feel like my own land is incredibly unsafe. I know violence has been present forever. I know that. I don’t live in a cave. You can also say that I am over reacting, but MY feelings are real. An aside: Isn’t that what the goal of terrorism is? To create fear?
The other bit of news I received this morning was on a site that I listen to often while laying in bed – Pray as you go. The message this morning was from Matthew where a Lawyer questions Jesus about the greatest of all commandments.
Here it is:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Jesus is in essence saying that the most important thing His follower can think or do is love! Love God and love others. Unrestrained, unafraid, intentionally love.
Talk about a dichotomy of messages: Random hatred and unmitigated love!
Two things come to my mind:
Can we love when treated poorly? What does that even look like?
Can we respond with kindness, instead of vengeance?
Can we step fearlessly toward others, who are wounded and hurt...and violent with something other than retribution?
Will we hide out in superficially safe environments to avoid the people that Jesus died for because of love?Could it be that this is the time for the church, Christ's followers to rise and provide the only remedy for the emptiness and hurt in the world that is behind these acts?
Is it possible that the very symbol Jesus challenges us to display will be what we are actually known for?
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. Matthew 5:13-16
When introducing yourself as a Christian you may sometimes be greeted in a strange manner. Some people assume that being Christian also means you are an extremist. This is because some of the only interactions they may have had with a “Christian” is someone yelling about God's wrath, or picketing on a street corner. They think we all abide to some strict controlling cultist style life. However we know this to be false. We must do our best to correct this misled view of our collective group of believers. Religious extremists, cultists, and hate mongering groups are destroying the good name of Christ, by standing behind it while they speak nothing of the love and grace of God.
One such group would be the Westboro Baptist Church, who interestingly enough has no association with the Baptist Church, nor should it even be considered a church. This particular gathering of beings is completely misled by their leader, and believe themselves to be spreading the word of God. This word however, is that God hates pretty much everyone, that he is destroying and will continue to destroy the world and everyone who does not agree with him. The list of people the WBC claims God hates consists of: Homosexuals, Transsexuals, Military, Muslims, Obama, Police, Government, Immigrants, and many more.
While we would all very much enjoy to shut this group up permanently, our response to them must not be one of equal disprovable as they preach. That would be fueling their fire, as much as it pains me to say, we must react to them in a loving nature, kill them with kindness, in order to prove them wrong.
I had a dream when I was child that I will never forget. I was walking on lush, green grass when upon looking up there stretched a perfect, blue expanse of sky like I had never seen before. Then I saw a man walking towards me, I knew it was Jesus. At this point I got pretty excited, understandably! I started running as fast as I could to reach Him, and He started running towards me. He knelt down to me and said a simple “I love you very much” and then He hugged me. I don’t remember His face, only His eyes. They were dark and beautiful, telling of everything He is-Savior, healer, lover of our souls, funny, strong, man, God, King, the list goes on and on and on. When I looked in His eyes I felt stronger and taller but at the same time a complete vulnerability, that my heart was wide open. What surprises me about this, looking back years later, is that it was not kindness in Jesus’s eyes that I saw. Instead, I stared back at a fierce, passionate love that so far extends the kindness which we have been conditioned to expect from our white, blue eye, brown hair-with-a middle part Jesus. What a one dimensional view of His personality! I woke up stunned and incredibly loved, feeling an unexplainable peace and joy.
This world does not need any more of these scenarios depicting either a “white, middle-class, nice Jesus” or a “white, middle-class, unforgiving Jesus.” What is needed is the “wild terrifying, fascinating, dangerous, Middle-Eastern Jesus” (Michael Frost). Why would I expect a tame, predictable Savior, or one who is “safe?...Who said anything about safe? Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” (C.S. Lewis) I am tired of trying to be ‘safe’ in the way I do church and life for that matter. I want to be all in, to be a part of this awesome Body of Christ, to love the Church, to kill the institution, to dream. To love furiously, with a reckless abandon without a thought of self-preservation. To be about the Church, we must first be about Jesus and who He truly is, allowing Him in to compel us and change us so that we can further the Kingdom in awesome and radical ways.Jamie
Today as I sit
in my house in Portland, sipping coffee, and listening to the sweet sound of
rain fall on the ground outside, I am thrust into waves of peace. I am
reflecting on a month of learning, laughter, increased friendship, sorrow, and
deep joy. The past three weeks I got to spend listening to amazing classmates
(who I now consider friends) discuss and grow in what it means to be the
church. I again learned that there is no perfect church, mostly because there
is no perfect person. And in my most vulnerable moments, I have to remind
myself that the church is people. Beautiful, broken, alive, and challenging
We read the Gospel and understand maybe a tenth of what Jesus was trying to teach and model to us. Reading through Mark 10 and 11 a few minutes ago, I am in awe of how little I seek the Kingdom of God and instead seek the opinion of the world. How often do I stop and listen? How little do I remind myself that joy is a gift and a choice? How terrible am I at thinking of myself as a little child, hopeful that God redeems and saves? How often do I care more for my possessions than I do for my present relationship with God?
All of these questions I examined this past term and found that there is no greater answer than the person of Christ. And for me, that begins by being thankful and being disciplined enough to listen wholeheartedly to God. So today, I don’t have any huge theological answers to how the church should function better, serve God more, or be wholly united. But I am able to live into the posture of being thankful. Thankful for a class who tested me, encouraged me, and put up with me. Thankful for a Creator who is infinitely more able and loving than I.
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)
The great eighteenth-century hymn writer and ex-slave trader John Newton marveled at the far-reaching impact of these words spoken by Jesus in Luke. “One would almost think this passage was not considered part of God’s word, nor has any part of Jesus’ teaching been more neglected by his own people. I do not think it is unlawful to entertain our friends” he says, “but if these words do not teach us that it is in some respects out duty to give preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them.” Looking at the current state of the American church, one can’t help but wonder if the “luncheon or dinner” Jesus was referring to could be what we call our church service today. We spend so much time catering our churches to our friends, brothers, sisters, relatives and neighbors, that we completely disregard those Jesus is calling to invite join us in our “banquet.”
It’s not that Jesus commands us, his Church, to disregard those who we consider being friends, peers or of high economic status, for Jesus himself often ate with his peers and people of wealth. However, his mission was still for the poor. Jesus commanded that his disciples should share their homes and build relationships not with people of their class or higher, people they could profit from or that would pay them back, but with people who were poor and without influence. I believe he is calling his church to do the same; to be for the poor, with the poor, and in pursuit of the poor.
Although I am unaware of any churches that actively turn the poor away, I am also unaware of many that actively seek out those in extreme poverty as being a part of their community. Most church facilities and services seem to be catered more to the middle-class who drive in from their different neighborhoods to come together with like-minded, similar looking people of their social class for once, maybe twice a week, fellowship and teaching. Although I’m sure many of these churches do really wonderful things to help the underserved and poor, it’s not as easy to make the case that they are designed “for the poor.” The Bible speaks of God as being “a refuge for the poor” (Isaiah 25:4; Psalm 14:6). Therefore the Church, as the body of Christ, is called to stand with the poor as a physical and spiritual place of refuge for them in this world. Is your church a banquet for your friends or a refuge for the poor?
Relationship. This is the word I keep coming back to the more I learn about the true calling of the Church and the people of God. Everything centers on the idea that to be a “city on a hill” we have to have relationships with the people around us that will allow them to see what the family of God looks like and what being a dedicated disciple of Christ really means. And, yes, I love the idea of “doing life” with fellow Christians and living in a way that shows what the gospel is about.
BUT, I am terrified at the idea of relational. I’m not kidding; I am not good at first impressions, holding coherent conversations, making small talk, meeting new people, etc. Don’t get me wrong, God has given me a heart for people and I love being around those whom I already know, but for some reason God also made me a person that would rather stay in a corner than engage others. So when I think about starting conversations with strangers and putting myself out there with other Christians, it scares me.
At times it is easy for me to tell myself that God must have a more “behind-the-scenes” plan for my place in the Church, since He made me an introvert. However, I have realized that in some way or another Jesus calls everyone to radically change who they are and how they act when they join the family of God. He asks us to lay down idols and sins and our old selves in order to abide in Him and rescript our stories to include the fullness of life that He wants to give us. Jesus says to us in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” What if, for me, denying myself means denying the part of me that would rather not talk to anyone? It might be that being missional will kill that part of me, but I am called to die to myself anyway; “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Reaching out to strangers and engaging the world might scare me, but if stepping outside of my shell and into Christ’s power allows me to be a part of the work of the Kingdom of God, then it will be entirely worth the pain of death.Kate
Debra Hirsch: Redeeming Sex: Naked Conversations About Sexuality and Spirituality (Forge Partnership Books)
Not quite done yet, but at this point can confidently say that this book is amazing. So needed in the conversation about sexuality. It is highly recommendable. Well done, Deb! (*****)
Bryan Loritts: Right Color, Wrong Culture: The Type of Leader Your Organization Needs to Become Multiethnic (Leadership Fable)
An interesting book, written as fable, describing the nuances of attempting a multi-ethic church. Once again, I am reading it with a group and have found it insightful. (***)
Walter Brueggemann: The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Edition
I love Brueggemann's thoughts and writing. I read this book years ago and just finished reading it again with my Theo-Reading Group. One of the most helpful books on discerning how the prophetic works both biblically and practically. (*****)
Scot McKnight: Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church
An interesting book that works to restore the beautiful and undeniable connection between the Kingdom of God and the Church. (****)
Christian Wiman: My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
Reading with my group. Amazing insights, mesmerizing writing. (*****)