Summer! The song that comes to mind goes like this:
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush little baby, Don’t you cry
What more is there to say – the livin’ is easy – no reasons to worry, just time to relax. Well, that’s actually true. A lot of us are taking those long days to relax, read those novels, take those hikes and make a trip. But I’m also aware that for a lot of execs I know there’s also a lot of other things going on this summer that aren’t just about the livin’ being easy. One of my friends, an Episcopal bishop has just finished walking across the length of his diocese in July. That’s no small feat. Mark’s desire has been to be with his parishes, connect with the people and keep exploring this growing sense that the Spirit is already out there in the neighborhoods beckoning the church to join.
Another exec friend has been working with a group of folk in their region imagining ways they can invite people in their congregations to use this coming Fall to gather from across congregations and look at connecting with their neighborhoods.
I met with another exec just last week who had been looking at the overall workings of their conference. At so many levels, organizationally and in terms of resourcing, things seem to be going well. Yet this exec is aware that over 80% of these churches have either plateaued or are in decline with clergy not knowing what to do. This exec is taking the summer to reflect on what all this means – good organizational systems with excellent policies and procedures but a coming tsunami that no one seems to be talking about.
It strikes me that this summer is both easy and full of challenges for execs that are both energizing and troubling. I met with another friend in July who was visiting Vancouver from the UK. Nigel is an exec in the Baptist Union over there and was participating in some international meetings of Baptist leaders in our city. It was such a delight to listen to his stories. Nigel and his wife had just moved to a small town in the south of England where they can cut down on travel and expenses to actually practice being present among people in their new neighborhood. Summer livin’ is going to involve connecting on the street because Nigel knows that this has a lot to do with the kind of communities he wants to shape among his congregations.
A common theme I’ve picked up over these ‘summer’ months in talking and meeting with a lot of these execs is the desire to take time reflect on the kinds of challenges and adventures present in these stories. Execs are wanting to reflect on how they work with their systems in ways that give their people, congregations and clergy an imagination for being in the neighborhood, for joining with God who is already out ahead of them in the communities where their churches are located.
You might be doing this kind of summer reflecting yourself. You may be thinking about how you can lead your system into this kind of journey or how to effectively build on some of the initiatives you’ve already begun. As you take the summer to do this we want to invite you to joining with other execs asking questions about a similar journey. These are questions and journeys that will continue past the summer months and into the months ahead. Consider joining with others to deepen your summer reflections at Around the Table: Practicing Denominational Leadership in a New Space in Toronto, Canada November 7-9.
March 2, 2016
A response to David Fitch’s review “On the Notion of Joining God in the Neighbourhood”
I have a deep appreciation for David Fitch. He is a generous, encouraging human being and a good theologian who continually seeks to affirm the ways the Spirit is at work across many groups. He has worked well in framing the challenges that currently face what I would call the Euro-tribal churches and their descendants. I continue to learn from David in personal conversation and reading. His review of my book Joining God is very generous. Part of his response was to reflect a little on the ways he and I differ in our approaches. I want to comment on David’s assessment of the two differing starting points out of which he and I work.
As David rightly observes it is the case that in much of my writing I start from the perspective that the Spirit is out ahead of us in the ordinary, every day life of the local. I think some of the ways David and I might be seen to differ revolves around the question (location) of God’s presence. I believe both of us start from exactly the same place, namely, the primacy of God’s agency and presence in all our theological, ecclesiological and missiological work. In our writing we are each wrestling with the question, first and foremost, of the primacy of God’s agency. We each press into the question of what God is doing and where we might discern God at work. I would suggest that the practices of too many of our current congregations and their leaders are not centered out of this basic orientation. This was part of what I was arguing in the first part of Joining God.
A second point, which may well inform our differing starting points, is the question of confidence. It’s a question where David might well be prodding me to listen more closely in terms of a confidence I might too easily pass over. I am confident that the Spirit is massively disrupting the Euro-tribal churches in order to invite them to discern again the agency of God in the world. I am confident that beneath all the proposals to ‘fix’ the church (all those adjectival modifiers that keep getting put in front of the word ‘church’) there is a widespread churning, a bubbling among God’s people (both those within existing congregations and those ‘dones’ who have left) longing to connect again with God’s reality and agency in their local contexts.
If I understand David correctly his primary local for hearing and discerning God’s presence and agency is the presence of Christ in, through, with and among the gathered people in the Eucharist. I agree! David is right! The Eucharistic table gathers the community of God’s people forming us into a life together for the sake of the world as a sign, witness and foretaste of the kingdom. I confess that one of the reasons I am no longer a Baptist (I love David’s gentle prodding of me to rediscover the fold from which I have strayed) is precisely at this juncture – a Eucharistic theology of Christ’s presence among us. I am glad David chooses the language of Eucharist rather than communion or Lord’s Supper. There are worlds to explore in this language. Over the years I have become ever more physically hungry for the feeding that is present at the table in the bread and wine. This table roots me in Christ’s people and not just ‘my’ people or the types I would choose to change the world (thank God) but ordinary people whom otherwise I would not choose. At this juncture David and I are in agreement.
The question is whether I believe this is a sufficient practice (Eucharistic gathering and feeding within Christ’s gathered community) to have confidence that God’s agency and feeding will extend into a community of discernment and, thus, engagement, within their neighbourhoods? My honest response is that as things stand I don’t yet have this kind of confidence. This is especially true for those many denominational systems shaped within a broad evangelical identity. It would be my experience that the ‘memorial’ of the table has been shaped mostly as a private, personal experience (often around a penitential theology) or transaction between the expressive self and his/her God. Indeed, the very embodiment of the ‘communion’ in most of these churches (sitting alone in a pew to receive a cut piece of bread with some grape juice) shapes and institutionalizes those very perceptions.
But this also occurs in the more broadly pre-Reformation churches that practice a more Eucharistic gathering around the table. It may seem like a stretch but I find it incredibly difficult to be at the table, kneeling at the rail in a local parish, to receive the elements from a parish priest who lives outside the parish driving in to work and serve. This embodiment of the Eucharist in the form of the minister is as troubling to me as any other forms because the embodied practices continue to deny the central reality that at the table, in the materiality of the local, ordinary and everyday we are encountered and changed by Christ’s presence.
These are some of the reasons why I do not, at the moment, share David’s confidence even though I am one with him in the central place of the Eucharist in forming us as witnesses in, for and among the neighborhoods where we dwell. This is why I have written so much about the ways we are being called to join with the Spirit in our neighborhoods. It’s not an either/or polarity but a deeply intertwined relationality. When I share in the bread and wine I am practicing a way of life formed by the One who came for the sake of the world. That world is most materially and concretely earthed in the local. The contextual reality is that most of our congregations are comprised of people who do not gather together because they live in a neighborhood but because of affinity and likeness – it is a consumer practice. I pray for the multiplication of Eucharistic communities formed of people who live in a neighborhood (it was what was once understood as parish and what my friends Sparks, Soerens and Friesen write about in The New Parish) and, were necessary, formed by ‘ministers’ who don’t need to drive kilometres and miles to get to the ‘church’ they ‘serve’ (one more consumer practice). If these were the kinds of gatherings of Christians then I would be fully confident that such Eucharistic communities would be discerning the ways God is calling them into their communities.
I am with David on this matter. I know that David practices this very way of life in his neighborhood and the congregation that he can walk to from his home. This is exactly how I envision us discerning the Spirit in the local – the Eucharist table that gathers, transforms and calls us to dwell where we live for the sake of the world.
January 18, 2016
Writing for me is an intensive task, a journey of discovery. It is how I wrestle with questions about the place of the church in our time. In writing I try to discern the underlying reasons that cause people in church systems to think and act as they do.
In this wrestling I am encountered by new questions that would never have occurred to me. Writing involves this two-sided occupation of excavating into the questions and climbing into new questions. I don’t write like an idealist (I hope) who somehow is grasped by a big picture or image of how things ought to be and trying to convince as many as possible to hook their wagon to my big dream. I have little patience for this kind of writing. It not only misdirects people away from the hard work of excavation but also short circuits the critical work of climbing. My writing comes out of asking what is happening in ordinary congregations and among leaders. It is tentative because underneath my writing lies a single question: How do we discern what the God of Jesus Christ is up to right in our backyards in order to join with this God?
This sets the stage to answer the question of why I wrote my two recent books Structured for Mission & Joining God, Remaking the Church and Changing the World. Each book has a particular audience and responds to what I see happening across North America and Europe within my own tribe – the euro-tribal churches. These are the church systems seeded around the globe by European colonizations that deemed the various European reformations of the 16th century forward as somehow the finalized form of Christian life for all peoples at all times. Obviously, this narrative has come to a stunningly painful end. Deeply colonizing and racist instincts remain on both the right and the left. Many still believe that the euro-tribal church is still really first among ‘equals’.
Joining God, Remaking the Church and Changing the World is addressed to congregations and their leaders. Many euro tribal congregations have been in steep decline for a long time. Some have resisted this decline by adapting their religious goods and services to the felt-needs of varying generational groups. I’ve observed several things about this situation.
First, for more than half a century, these churches and their leaders have been continuously operating from the assumption that their most important job is to “fix” the church and make it relevant again. The methods for doing this are diverse and outlined in the book. My conviction is that we are long past the point of ‘fixing’ the church. The church is simply not the focal point. I call this the ecclesiocentric default.
Second, despite endless books on ‘biblical’ perspectives for fixing the church the massive missing piece is any conviction that God is the primary active agent in the world and the church. Most church actions are driven by human agency, with modernity’s wager, namely, that all of life can be lived well and managed well without any actual reference to God. This is like a tip of the hat (calls to prayer or bible quotes to support proposals) toward God, like an American president saying “God bless America” after every speech, or, English people singing “God Save the Queen” at every meeting. These are wonderful moments for an emotional lift but otherwise empty.
I wrote this book as a small pamphlet to make this clear. I wanted to point out that there is no future for euro-tribal churches until we learn again that God is out ahead of us in our neighborhoods and communities, inviting us to lay down our needs to fix and make the church work in order to join God in the places we live.
Structured for Mission has a different purpose. As the decline of the euro-tribal churches accelerates, many are looking around for places to lay the blame or find ways of fixing the denominational systems. Favourite whipping posts are institutions and structures. I hear people talking negatively about the institutional church or the old structures. These now popularly represent the causes of the malaise. Two opposite dramas are occurring. On one side stand the anti-institutional champions of change calling for the demolition of existing structures. On the other are those who want to find yet more ways of fixing these structures. I wrote this book to do several things:
1. Show how misdirected both these approaches are.
2. Explain that institutions and structures are expressions of deeper narratives (Without understanding these underlying narratives we will not discern how to address the challenges before these church systems).
3. I outline a way forward that is neither the jettisoning of institutions nor one more valiant attempt to fix them.
Both books make hard critiques of the ways euro-tribal congregations and denominations are addressing their great unraveling. They do this, however, from the conviction that God is present in and out ahead of these churches even yet. The vocational call is not to try to fix our churches and denominations nor to abandon them with some declaration of Ichabod (the glory has departed). The vocational call is, rather, to dwell deeply in ways that begin to discern what God is up to ahead of us in the communities where we dwell. Both books offer practical suggestions for this engagement. It is refocusing the source of our hope from our own agency to that of God. This requires the hard work of understanding and discernment. There are no short cuts or quick fixes.