Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wide Open Space: From Organized to Organic Church

My latest favorite attempt at "getting it" comes from the book "Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-number Christianity" by Jim Palmer, author of "Divine Nobodies" whom I quoted at Christmastime for his "walking wounded" Christmas message. In Wide Open Spaces and in the chapter subtitled "Can church be everywhere, all the time, with everyone?" he chronicles his move from organized church to organic church, though, as he makes clear, it is about adding to the mix of churches and faith communities and ministries instead of trying to hold out one way as the only way of being church. Here are some of my favorite excerpts from his book published last year (as we at A Third Place/The Living Room Church go forward this year this may lie behind much of what we decide to do. And note: In quoting, I stay true to his own use of language when it comes to God and gender, though I prefer a more inclusive use): Click and read on...

"My journey has involved leaving organized church. Even as God led me away from organized church, I'm sure God also leads people to organized church for various reasons. Throughout my life-time, I have encountered many different types of churches--liturgical church, traditional church, contemporary church, seeker church, purpose-driven church, home church, and emergent church. Each of these expressions of church has unique elements that I found meaningful in some way to my relationship with God.

"Though I've experienced many different forms of church, there have also been some common elements that have been true of all of them. These include: an organizational identity with a name and 5013c legal status; a specific location(s) identified as the primary place or central hub where church happens (such as a church building, community center, school, or someone's home); professional clergy or paid staff presiding over and managing the major affairs of the church; some configuration of public worship services, programs, groups, classes, meetings, events, and committees as the primary means for facilitating worship, fellowship, discipleship, service, benevolence, and mission. [He sums these up as functioning on three levels--a cause, a community, and a corporation. He says most people agree that the cause and community are the most important but that he spent most of his time as leader dealing with issues related to the corporate].

"First, too much of my personal identity was wrapped up in leading a "successful" church, which was measured in terms of size (attendance, budget, and buildings). The bigger the better!...Another reason I focused on the corporate side of church life was because of this idea I had that people needed such a system in order to grow spiritually and function together as a community and a cause. That's the nice way of putting it. The not-so-nice assumption was that if people were left to themselves to function without such a system and outside the watchful eye of trained pastors and staff leaders, they would digress spiritually, we would all risk falling into theological heresies, and everything would unravel into chaos....I came dangerously close to implying that organizational involvement was the very essence of Christianity. A Christian faithfully attended services, programs, events, and classes, tithed, filled a needed position or served on a committee in the church, and pulled his or her weight in contributing to a steady stream of visitors.

"Looking back, I sometimes wonder if we really were a "community." Seems like what we were facilitating was mostly meeting-based relationships....Here are some other ways I hindered people's relationship with God by focusing on the church as an organization...First, even though we all know church is people, verbally and nonverbally I implied that church is a place, location, and building, and happens on certain days and times during the week. In many cases, this emphasis defined Christian living almost solely in terms of organizational involvement. "Worship" was something that happened on Sunday mornings and "outreach" was a program you signed up for in the lobby... Second, [we] encouraged an unhealthy dependence by the congregation upon these few...Third, though Jesus emphasized that people change from the inside out, our church often focused on external things as measurement of Christian maturity. The people who dressed nicer, attended more services and activities, prayed out loud in front of others, gave the most money, quoted Scripture, were up on stage, held more jobs in the church, invited the most visitors, had well-behaved children, and had no bad habits were considered more spiritual than people with less of the above. Fourth, as a church we also separated the giver (tithing or otherwise) from the actual recipient of the gift.

"The last few years I've discovered it's not necessary to have buildings and classrooms, staff and programs, or even incorporate as a 5013c organization and have a name in order to be the church. You can if you want to, but you don't have to. Regardless of how you do it, what constitutes church is relationships--with God, people, and the world. For me, "church" is taking place in some form or fashion everywhere, all the time, with everybody. It involves an endless number of interactions and encounters that largely go unnoticed by the rest of the world. But it's through these very unassuming daily happenings that God is transforming others and me...This way of church depends on two things: 1. being consciously aware of who and what is happening around me as daily life unfolds, and 2. being intentional about discerning and acting upon the opportunities everyday living, interactions, and relationships offer. A few examples:

--A friend emails me to see if I want to have coffee on Saturday morning at the Billy Goat Cafe. He and I always have plenty to share in terms of what we are experiencing with God. When we get together, it's an iron-sharpening-iron time that fuels our desire to know God.--On Tuesday afternoon at the post office I get into a conversation with the guy behind me as we wait in a long line...Perhaps God is trying to place him and me in each other's lives.--Sunday morning we are hiking at Radnor Lake with some friends. During one part of the hike, the sun's rays suddenly break through the tall trees, causing everything to glisten. Everyone stops. We stand in wonder and marvel at the beauty, and our hearts are turned toward God in worship.

"That's not to say we don't ever plan something in advance. Most Wednesday evenings, a group of us meets at Starbucks for conversation. Every Monday night, some friends invite all their neighbors over for dinner...On Sunday mornings, except in the summer, Pam and Jessica are involved in the Good Shepherd children's program at an Episcopal church across town. Occasionally we attend a worship service or some event at other local churches in our community. For a time, a group of families met in a home to take Communion together. Right now we are in a season where we choose to celebrate Communion at home as a family. Another church in our community offers a monthly Taize service, which I sometimes attend and always enjoy. In the midst of all this diversity, I connect with a solid social network of people that keeps growing. It's a diverse network of folks involved in one another's lives. We love one another, serve one another, teach and encourage one another, give our financial and material resources to one another as there is need, and bear one another's burdens. We do life together. [He writes about having more time, away from programs, to be more spontaneous and more available to family and neighbors, and thus connecting more with people, in little ways like checking up on neighbors in need, going deeper with them, and therefore himself.] I've come to see the significance of my encounters with people is not pointing them to God as much as actually being an expression of God. [He remembers how he used to go with people to knock on stranger's doors in other neighborhoods to witness to them, and how it hit him he could just knock on his neighbor's door and start a friendship,]

"I guess to some people this idea of church "all the time, everywhere, with everybody" may seem somewhat chaotic, disorganized,m or flying by the seat of your pants. Admittedly, there's been a time or two I've considered trying to help things along a bit, but I've seen God is capable of working matters out just fine on his own...Jesus once said that the kingdom of God grows organically. It begins as a tiny and insignificant seed...If your spiritual radar is on, you will find these little mustard seeds all over the place...Day by day I'm seeing that under the radar, beneath the surface, and off the grid is a world of nobodies being the church. There is very little traction for marketing some sort of church-growth philosophy or strategy from it. It would never occur to my friends to use the word missional. We don't have a "strategy" to reach "unbelievers," because these people are simply our friends with whom we spend time and share our lives.

"In our way of "doing church" you can't click on a calendar and pull up a configuration of services, meetings, and programs. People are compelled by the Spirit to come together in various ways for various reasons and purposes, but these can dissolve, evolve, morph together, and multiply in all sorts of different ways. Our eyes have been opened to our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God and citizens of his kingdom. God is not somewhere up in the sky; he's living his life in and through us, the body of Christ, in the neighborhoods where we live, the places we work and play, and the people we come across each day."


6 comments:

Rick said...

Assume the best

Those thoughts on church are better but they are still couched in "christianity" or religion. We've got to move beyond man's plan 'any religion' to the reality of God (i.e. Life).

Also...went to the www.unchristian.org and was overwhelmed with all the emphasis on the contributors god degrees. To progress we must use the mind for it's intended purpose...as a broadcast beacon for what we know in our hearts.

vance said...

What you describe is what many Christians already do as part of an organized church. I don't think leaving the church to do that would be any more or less productive to the Kingdom. I go to a big church. I do everything that you stated and more (I'm not starting a who does more fight) every week. The only difference is that on Sunday mornings I am usually at the same place.

Your post seems to hint that members of an organized church wouldn't be able to do what you do because the organized church gets in the way.

Rick said...

Just food for thought for those still involved in organized church...THIS ISN'T a bashing, just some observations that those involved might consider.

“Does organized or institutional church (IC) do more harm than good?”

1.IC’s by the nature of their buildings and vernacular say to the community and their members (both verbally and non-verbally); “church is a place, a location, a building.”

2. IC’s by nature of their programs and scheduling say “church” and/or experiencing God only happens at their services/gatherings, whatever day(s) they hold them.

3. IC’s by their format, programming and tradition separate children from their parents to communicate the most foundational truths of life (i.e. Sunday school, youth ministry, training union, big church/kids church). The vast majorities of parents (who are honest) rely on the IC’s teachers and spend very little time, if any, teaching their kids about their personal relationship with Jesus and understanding of God. So kids are taught, by the nature of the program/format that “other people”, who know more than mom & dad, will teach me about God.

4. IC’s separate the giver (tithing or otherwise) from the actual recipient of the gift by teaching old covenant giving (i.e. bring the tithe to the storehouse which they define as the church). This process says to the receiver that the church (i.e. the IC) is the “giver” and to the giver it says, “we know what better to do with your tithe/gift than you do”…. they may not say this out loud but it’s the message the process sends. The method also complicates the process of getting the gift to the person in need - committee meetings, phone calls and such. Finally, the giver and receiver don’t get to communicate the reason they give or the thanks for the gift or interact at all…both of which God uses to “do” something within them…. i.e. the giver “sees” the need and the receiver “see” God. Imagine the impact of a body of believers dividing up their annual budget between them and giving to whom God directed when God directed? Think of all the lives affected, relationships started and how each individual believers radar for the needy turned on if each person had something to give and the green light to give it.

5. IC’s, because of the building, paid staff and programs, only give 10% (I’m being conservative here probably more like 2%) of their budget, in ministry, to their community and those in need. The community looks at all the “extravaganza” (i.e. buildings, programs, trips, dinners, etc), without the ministry (i.e. meeting their needs), and views the church as a Christian country club…the member’s do too.

6. IC’s establish a hierarchy within the church. Paid staff knows the answers and the average believer receives truth and takes orders from them. This communicates to the average believer they’re unable to make “spiritual” decisions on their own or be led to truth by any means other than a pastor or teacher. The staff may ‘preach’ the Holy Spirit is our teacher but their programs, preaching and actions drown it out. We do all have the same Christ living within us; “He” is the head. It also is a “pride” danger for the staff, as most average believers come to “them” for answers and the staff feels they must have an answer.

7. IC’s focus on growing larger, by far out ways their focus on the need for individual believers to grow in depth. Think about pastors going to conventions and saying, “my congregation is only 50 folks but they have incredible relationships with and understanding of God”…. yeah right. Who said bigger is better? Isn’t God capable of growing up a vast number of godly leaders to lead smaller groups?

8. IC’s by their size, even with small groups, prevent deep relationship from forming within the body of Christ. Too many programs, events, meetings tie up “members” discretionary time. Programs and the many areas of service “jobs” orient member’s discretionary time to service where they receive kudos, rather than building relationships, which develop community and foster iron sharpening iron.

9. The casual nature of IC relationships and the standard of behavior that is rewarded and approved, limits open sharing of life’s troubles and trials to empty phrases “How are you doing? Great…and you?” Sharing real needs, trials and struggles receive punishment and the boot. What of the ministry of reconciliation?

10. IC’s teach by the nature of the services and vernacular that worship happens on Sunday morning in the “worship center” and while sitting and standing singing praise songs with our hands up or stoically with our hands folded. What of Rom 12 that defines worship as presenting our bodies as living sacrifices?

11. IC’s through their “prayer meetings and lists” teach prayer as a mechanism to prod God into action on that which ‘we’ deem important. The system teaches God as a vending machine; a couple of quarters of prayer get a package of lifesavers. They teach the number of people praying has more effect in motivating God into action (i.e. more quarters, more lifesavers). Who is the initiator, God or man?

12. IC’s substitute good marketing for the work of the Holy Spirit. Their drive for numbers and success in the business model sense keeps staff looking toward worldly mechanisms (promotion, marketing, door to door, events, services, etc) to advance those goals rather than relying on the Spirit.

13. (Lucky number eh?) IC’s promote believers to identify themselves by what they “do” at church and assign value, higher and lower, to their areas of service. A praise singer is awesome while a stagehand is trivial. People who dress nicer, attend more services & activities, pray out loud in front of others, give the more money, quote more scripture, sings or teaches, has some position on a committee, holds more “jobs”, wins more people to Christ, has a daily “quite time”, has well behaved children, has no bad habits, is more spiritual and thus of greater value than the one with less of the above. Funny how Christ modeled an attitude of valuing both the disciples, drunkards, tax collectors and harlots equally. They may say that “all” service is equally important but they treat people in different positions with high/lower values in mind. Their actions/attitudes are deafening. Shouldn’t our identity be solely ‘a child of God’?”

Ron said...

Thanks Vance. I think blogs are tough on not providing nuance to our points, and your comments are good to always include. People CAN participate in growing the kingdom of God in all kinds of ways and still including very traditional organized small or mega churches; and that should always be said or else organic incarnational communal ways can become idols and utopian thinking, and it is always about opening ourselves and our communities up to God growing in and through us anyway rather than anything we seek to create as a model. But all that said, the kingdom is often stifled and smothered instead of seeded through organized Church as we often know it, and so this is all about opening up corridors beyond what modernity has given us.

Ron said...

Thanks Rick. What you said. Amen. A good concise presenting of the problem or the default mode of the IC in its dominant form at least in North America and Europe. It gives us something to use as a standard as we try to move in another direction. I think my posts on the basics of what is underway here in Turley, OK, and some of the posts about what we are actually doing, follows up on this and shows just one way we are struggling to be organic Christians and not institutional Christians. One of these days I will have to blog on the word institutional; for so much of my church leader life I very much identified as an "institutionalist" and I still see planting God communities in the spirit of Jesus as being an institutionalist, in the sense of making real the ultimate values. I think institutionalist at its best and heart is really being incarnational; we just have to always be aware of what it is that is being instituted, and hopefully it isn't a body of people gathered around a set of bylaws. I know one of the reasons I used to think of myself as a strong institutionalist is because in my world so many people are so individualistic that I saw and see institutionalist worldviews as being opposite that radical individualism; but because of the way institutional thinking as you point out has been wrapped up with IC behaviors, I don't often use the term anymore, preferring incarnational.

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