Up till now, most of my writing has centered on the aspects of church/christian culture that I struggle with. It’s easier to know that something is not what you’re looking for, to know that you don’t feel like you fit in, to know something is off, and it’s much easier to point those things out than to strive to discover and to forge and to be made into something new. Adaptive Community is my attempt to begin dreaming into existence what my heart is looking for…and maybe yours too. This section is the most important part of this series to me, yet I’m finding it the most difficult for me to write about. Adaptive Community is something I deeply yearn for, but I feel I’ve only experienced it in brief glimpses, so it is difficult to describe. I’ll do my best by going through a few qualities that stand out to me as what I seek, then I’ll wrap up a bit on form and a process. Like me, my ideas on this are unfinished.
Maybe it’s a little obvious, but one of the things I am seeking most is community. Friends. People who know me deeply. Who I know deeply. Who challenge me and love me and call forth things in me I didn’t know were there. Who share all of life together–not just churchy things, not just joyful times, but the depths and shallows of life–eating together, hanging out, talking long into the night, struggling and wondering and dreaming and fighting together. Who fight with each other, and the relationship lasts. Who blow it and know it and don’t have to hide it. Who see each other at random and planned times. Who like each other. You know, what we might wish a family would be.
It’s not that I seek just a community for the sake of community, however.
No, I seek a Community of:
I have found that the strongest-knit communities of which I have been a part were bound together by our common sense of purpose. Whether it was a group going out and serving or doing ministry or working or trying to love “punk teens” who often rejected us, we grew together tightly as a community. I like being friends with people, but our relationships go to a new level when we have a shared mission.
Mission is sentness. I mean, that’s what it is…to be sent. We were sent by Jesus in a dramatic way. One of my favorite quotes from Jesus over this last year has been this little diddy found in John’s gospel: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Can you imagine the depth of the impact of that statement? Jesus said that in the way God the Father sent him to us, Jesus sends us to be in the world. I mean, in all the ways Jesus was sent, so too are we sent. We are sent to continue doing exactly what Jesus was doing. Maybe that’s obvious to a lot of people, but it blows my mind to think of Jesus giving us the same amount of responsibility and trust as God gave him.
Being sent in such a way makes mission a much more bountiful word than it has been lately in mainstream, western Christianity. Mission isn’t simply a two-week trip to build roofs and eat ethnic food. It isn’t simply regurgitating key points about salvation to a stranger. It isn’t simply inviting people to a church service. Mission is simply living our lives like Jesus led his disciples to live. Sounds easy.
We live in what some would call a post-Christian (or at least post-Christendom) culture. Europe has been in this mode for a long time, and now we’re catching up in our corner of the West. Besides a shift away from Christianity, our culture is moving between modern and postmodern epistemologies (this is how we view knowledge). We are blossoming into a love of cultural pluralism and moral relativism, mixed with skepticism and a loss of access to anything relating to truth…nothing new for our world. All of this is connected with a growing cultural paradigm of loving all through acceptance, which we call tolerance. And heck if our churches aren’t caught up in all this mess of culture in one way or another; we are either so tied into our culture that we are practically indistinguishable from it or worse, or we are so anxious to separate ourselves from the culture that we are cut off from it and make ourselves stumbling blocks to people who might love Jesus were it not for our strange, separatist, fearful, intentionally-ghetto’ed ways marked by bumper stickers and bad attitudes.
It’s difficult to know how to follow Jesus in such a milieu. How do we be the church? How and what do we believe? How do we act? How do we love without compromising what must not be compromised? And how do we compromise all that may be compromised for the sake of love?
There are many questions we must ask. These require us to be a mature community of mutual, corporate discernment. That means we do it together. No lone pastor tells us the answer, neither do we just answer for ourselves. We all of us have the Holy Spirit so that we can do this together. We have to think through what it means to be a Christian today. This means we have to be willing to admit all the ways we are failing or sinning or being lukewarm or numb or apathetic. This means taking on new tasks and new challenges, acting in ways we are not used to. This means challenging one another, giving one another both accountability and grace. This means knowing each other well, so we can call each other out and call each other forth.
Too long, too many of us have been lethargic, non-critically thinking/discerning, pew-sitting, Sunday Christians, myself included. This calls us to take our mission so seriously that we will no longer let ourselves be numb to the issues around us. For there are many.
-A Centered Set
In the book The Shaping of Things to Come, Mike Frost and Alan Hirsch discuss a few ways people gather. I will simplify them into two versions, a bounded set and a centered set.
A bounded set is “a social system that has clearly delineated boundaries but has no strong ideological center.” It is made clear who is in and who is out based on who follows the boundaries, which are often of a moral, cultural, & creedal nature.
A centered set has a “very strong ideology or culture at the center but no boundaries”.
Frost and Hirsch spell it out with this image. When people let their livestock graze, they often use fences to contain their animals as well as to define which animals belong to them. Any animals in the enclosure are their livestock. This is a bounded set. In Australia, however, some of the land for their livestock is so expansive, it does no good to use fences. Instead, they will go bore a well somewhere to provide water for the livestock. The animals never stray far from the water source, so they can be defined by their proximity to the water or by where they are in relation to the water. This is a centered set.
One simple application for this is that I keep finding that the words “christian” and “nonchristian” are becoming somewhat meaningless to me. I struggle particularly when the so-called nonchristians do wonders at loving others and living lives of conviction; at times, besides their active love, they seem to have more faith even than the so-called christians. Many of the christians, on the other hand, seem to be altogether unaffected by Jesus living lives neither of love nor conviction nor faith nor even repentance for their lack of all the other things. Moreover, I find myself all over the map at different times in my life where I sometimes feel I am truly following Jesus and at other times act like he’s a mere token.
Instead of these labels, it is easier for me to visualize a centered set with Jesus as the center. Where are we in relation to Jesus? Where am I in relation to him? And am I moving toward or away from the water?
Furthermore, I believe this is a more faithful way of viewing things, because I believe God is at work in all people’s lives. They are all in relation to him in some way, and we respect that God is the one working among people (not us!) when we see in centered sets.
A holistic community of faith engages real life, and all of it at that. Christianity as religion has become a compartment of our lives, something we do part of the time when we are in a particular frame of mind or at certain times and days of the week. Christianity as way of life pervades all that we are.
I’m tired of church just being about the exchange of religious commodities. I want us to see all parts of life as relating to the spiritual (I think of Rob Bell’s Everything is Spiritual Tour). We should share in all parts of life together and be able to deal with all sorts of things. I don’t feel I have to go super deep into this, because it just makes sense.
-Love as Action
Sometimes I think that before it ever was a feeling, love was an action, and it still is. When we truly love God and our neighbor, we do something about it. And that something involves much, much more than our checkbooks (though it can still involve those too).
An adaptive community would be proactive in seeing the ways others might be loved and then actually loving them in those was. An adaptive community would love each other well, too. We might even be known as Jesus’ disciples for it. That would be neat, wouldn’t it?
An adaptive community would be convicted toward both action and belief by: the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, each other, even your mom.
A good community can make mistakes both corporately and individually; what is special is when we recognize our sins and failures and seek change. Just as we receive grace for such things, we give it to each other.
Derek Webb once said that the best thing that could happen to you is to have all your sins broadcast on the 5 o’clock news. Then you’d have no choice but to rely on the grace of Jesus. I’m not looking to be on the news any time soon; however, a community of repentance is also by nature a community of grace and vice versa.
-Multiple Gifted Parts
I’ve expressed it before in the section on Technical Problems: we all have a role to play, because we all have gifts. We shortchange each other when we only rely on a small group of people to pretend to have all of the necessary gifts.
An adaptive community would be one that knows each other well, so that we could call forth the gifts we see in each other. It is often difficult for us to see in ourselves the ways God has gifted us. However, others see with much more clarity from their vantage point. We can trust them to call forth our gifts, and we can use them for the sake of others. Such a community would be powerful, indeed.
We aren’t building our own company or our own empire or our own kingdom. We aren’t seeking be the CEO of the next big, commodified, self-indulgent church. We live for a kingdom not our own and yet ours in the truest sense. When Jesus stopped by the first time, he came proclaiming a kingdom. A kingdom mindset allows us to see God at work in all the world; he is calling us to come join him where he is already working. That is, we are not going to ever bring Jesus to anybody; rather Jesus is already involved with people and invites us to come alongside him as he loves others back to wholeness.
Also, when we think of this kingdom, such wonderful things come to mind as:
In the last days
the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, O house of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD.
(this gem is from that sweet prophet Isaiah)
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
(this beauty is from Luke, but really also from Isaiah…see how awesome he was?)
Also, thinking of a kingdom reminds us how at the end of Revelation (is it too dangerous to talk about that book? do we have to have an argument about dragons and horns and germany now?) no one goes to heaven. We don’t die and go to heaven. I’m sorry, I’ll say it again. We don’t go to heaven.
Now, before I get burned on any Western-Christian, pseudo-gnostic stakes, here’s the deal. Heaven comes to us. That is the beautiful culmination of Revelation. We don’t go up. Heaven comes down. This world and all that’s in it is worth saving to God, and he’s coming back for good. We will be raised from the dead to live here, and this will be heaven, a kingdom where all is as it should be, where all is as God intends, and he is surely good.
Creator on high breathed you forth
And set you in a frame of clay,
Gluing together flesh with the Word.
This is a community that puts on mud just like Jesus did; that is we make ourselves like the people we are sent to that we might love them best. We speak the language of our culture, and we reach people where they’re at.
What is it if it’s not a community of Jesus?
A good community begins with Christology. Christology (the person and work of Jesus) determines Missiology (God’s purposes for us) determines Ecclesiology (the form and function of the church). We have to look at Jesus first. After all, he sends us as he was sent, so we need to look at how how he was sent.
So after reading all that, one might think: well, that all sounds nice, but what on earth does it actually look like?
Well, I’m just not sure. That’s what we need community for…to figure out together what such a community looks like. I can’t dream it on my own, otherwise it wouldn’t be a community…it would be my faulty creation. But I do have some things to say about the form, though I have not seen it yet.
First of all, because it’s a community of adaptation and discernment, this community would not just be reactive and run to poles, becoming either a community of the new law or one of the new gospel.
Second, if it did ever find itself in one of those polar situations, a prophetic voice would need to arise either from within or from without the community to call it to repentance. And through a season of tough discernment and change, such a community would return to that oh-so-narrow path to which we’re called.
The other thing about churches of the new law and those of the new gospel is that they all seem to be the same. They have the same rituals and forms and liturgy, and it seems like we do those things just because that’s the way we’ve always done church. An adaptive community wouldn’t just repeat church forms (with their styrofoam wafers, jedi robes, and gold-plated candlesticks) because that’s what you do. At the same time, an adaptive community wouldn’t just seek to be different for the sake of being different. No, such a community would go through a process of discernment to create forms of relating and worship and other things based on meaning and personality rather than mere tradition (however, tradition would have a voice at the table, because we cannot forget the thousands of years of saints who precede us with their wisdom and gifts). Specifically, we would seek out our forms of worship and gathering and relating and other things through a process:
+The Process of Critical Contextualization
Here, I will borrow heavily on Paul Hiebert (he was my mentor’s mentor, an anthropologist, and he passed away recently; what I have read of his works so far is absolutely remarkable), specifically his article in Missiology called “Critical Contextualization” (you can click the link to read the full PDF of this article, which I highly recommend).
(Also, for fun, here’s the link for a more thorough and technical version of “Critical Contextualization” from the International Bulletin of Missionary Research as well as another Missiology article called The Flaw of the Excluded Middle, which I include just for fun because it’s a very insightful article and might prove applicable in some unique ways.)
Hiebert’s article at first glance might not appear to apply much. After all, it is a discussion about how to bring the gospel to new cultures who have never received it before. Moreover, it specifically looks at the culture of India and what to do with various specific rites or rituals. But a closer look reveals how closely related it is. (because I am a nerd: I think we’ll be using a little bit of cross-pollination here with the third face of innovation.)
Anyway, as critical contextualization is a process of a new culture examining the message of the gospel, the scriptures, and their lives and deciding what changes do or do not need to be made in their lives/culture in order to be mature followers of Jesus. It is a process of discernment done primarily by the nationals who are receiving the gospel rather than the missionary, so that they will own it more and mature as christians. Using the process, the nationals discern what to do with everything from burial rites to clothing to worship expressions and so on.
Well, of course we are not a culture that is new to the gospel. And lots of people have already done the discernment for us over the last few centuries, so we don’t have to do any discernment, right? Wrong! We have been conforming to this culture, we need to renew our minds. Hiebert calls for us to undergo the process of critical contextualization continuously. So that’s more than enough intro; now I’ll walk us through his article.
The question: “What should people do with their past customs when they become a christian?” In our case: what should we do with our current customs & forms in light of us being christians?
Historical Response 1: Reject the Old Culture Totally (In our case, reject the current culture totally). Missionaries totally rejected the nationals’ culture as contrary to the gospel, replacing it with Western culture. Here, Hiebert says, “An uncritical rejection of other cultures as pagan is generally tied to an uncritical acceptance of our own cultural expressions as biblical.” This is one of our great corporate sins. Currently, we have people who have created a pseudo-christian culture seen as biblical–often closely tied with such wonderful things as republican politics, spankings, and the God-given right to bear arms. Boom.
Historical Response 2: Accept the Old Culture Uncritically (or the current, in our case). Missionaries who deeply respected other peoples and cultures who did not want the foreignness of the gospel to be a stumbling block encouraged few if any changes when people became Christians. This opened the door to all sorts of syncretism (the mixing of multiple beliefs) so that people ended up with folk religion, a mixture of christian theology & practice with local, traditional theology & practice. Same thing we see today in the progressive church. Jesus is just an add-on, or a plug-in, to whatever else you think or believe or do. And in this way of thinking, you lose Jesus, who he really is and who he really calls us to be.
Historical Response 3: Deal with the Old Culture Critically (or, of course, the current one in our case). Here the missionaries helped the nationals go through a process of critical contextualization to discover through their own discernment what should be rejected, what could be accepted, what might need to be modified, and what might need to be created newly. This is what we need today in our culture, where christianity is often either a crazy, separatist ghetto or a congealed, syncretic folk philosophy. We need a re-indigenized gospel: “Indigenization is communicating the Gospel in ways the people understand, but in ways that challenge them in their personal and corporate lives with God’s call to discipleship” (289). Bam! (I like that quote).
So, here Hiebert gives steps for how to do critical contextualization with a particular issue or custom a group is considering. In our case we could use the same process to examine together our current church cultural, our rituals (even things such as how we shop or what kinds of entertainment we consume), our church forms (such as worship, liturgy, discipleship, etc), and our wider western culture.
Step 1: The people examine all the practices that make up the custom, discussing the meaning and function of each. It is important for the leader in this process to remain nonjudgmental, so that people will openly discuss their thoughts.
Step 2: The people study any related scriptures together, seeking to clearly understand and accept the biblical teachings. This might require some extra assistance if people are not used to a process of exegesis and hermeneutics.
Step 3: The people evaluate critically their own past customs in light of their new biblical understanding, and make a decision about what to do. The people make the decision, not the leader.
Here’s what they might decide to do:
-keep the old practices because they want to and do not find them unbiblical
-reject the old practices as unbecoming of christians
-modify old practices to give them a new meaning
-borrow new, different practices from some other group or culture
-add new rituals to give expression to their faith that are tied to biblical or historico-christian rituals
-create new symbols and practices to convey christian meanings
Hiebert also gives a few theological foundations for this process:
-Priesthood of believers: “decisions are made not by the leadership for the believers; they are made by involving all of the believers. Leaders throughout history have been threatened by this approach, for they believe themselves to have greater understanding than the laity.” This is an important foundation that we can trust in because: (1)the believers use scripture as an authority; (2)all the believers have the Holy Spirit, who we trust to guide them in the process (not just in theory but in practice); and (3) the church is a “discerning community”–none of this process is done in isolation, neither from other Christians nor other church bodies.
-Ongoing Process: we must always be discerning and testing our lives together with the help of the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and each other. There will always be new questions that arise out of human culture.
Anyway, that’s the process. It’s pretty basic: look at the meaning of our practice, look into related scriptures together, and make a decision. But what if we blow it?!? Here’s a quote I will love forever from Hiebert: “But what about mistakes? Here the missionary and leader must allow the people the greatest privilege we all allow ourselves, namely the right to make mistakes. Much of what we all know theologically we have learned through failure and forgiveness.” !
I share all that mainly to say that I think an adaptive community could figure out how to be the church together using a similar process. We might look at our previous experience of churches (their forms, practices, beliefs, etc) and use this process of discernment to figure out what to do with that stuff. We might keep some things, throw some out, change some to have new meaning or elements, and create some new ones of our own. Furthermore, we would continue to share our lives together and to examine what it means for us to live faithfully to Jesus today using a similar process.
Using this process might help us to avoid the pitfalls our brethren have sometimes been ensnared in; instead we could enjoy life in that narrow space between the poles.
And this process is why I don’t really know what an adaptive community would look like; we would have to figure it out together. And I just think that would be swell.
Well, I invite you to share your own thoughts. What do you think christian community should look like? How do you think it’s formed? I’m open to rebuttals and discussion.
I know this all might be the lofty dreams of a naive young man, but in this case I would be quite happy to rest among the naive.
And if you made it all the way down here to the bottom, many props to you! Thanks for giving your time to read.
That leaves me with one final question:
So who will help me form an adaptive community?
Oh, and here’s a little treat from SMBC for those who endured to the finish: