A Spirituality of Adventure

If you consider the ways in which Western culture has radically shifted over the past century in regards to politics, economics, media, or technology, you would be sympathetic to anyone complaining of change fatigue. Institutions and individuals have found themselves tumbling in an awkward and painful period of transition.

The Western Church has lagged behind, with a confused identity: what does it mean to lose our traditional authority? As a result, we’ve grasped in the darkness with regards to worship, mission and even theology (think about all the anxiety around gender and sexuality).missional spirituality

In their 2011 book Missional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside Out (IVP), authors Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson describe this cultural context as, “liminality … a threshold, an in-between place of ambiguity and uncertainty, disorientation and transition.”

Liminality does not have to be a threat; on the contrary, we can perceive it as an exciting opportunity. Australian mission and church specialists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch point to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings as an inspiring example of someone responding to a higher calling and consciously stepping into disorientation. He left the comforts of The Shire, with a high chance of failure, and ventured into the mysterious and dangerous regions of Middle-earth.

But most Western people do not have the Frodo sense of adventure. Most people respond to liminality by trying to create for themselves continuity and success, safeguarding themselves against surprise or loss. Helland and Hjalmarson argue, however, that the secret of the Kingdom of God for Christians is to follow God into danger:

“Only radical commitment to God’s kingdom, as we walk in the ways of Jesus in the power of the Spirit will enable us to welcome newness and surprise as we join God on a mission to reach lost people who also experience liminality.”

In my last post I suggested that too many from our Western Christian context are Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS). We participate in Christian religious behaviour, hold to a Christian identity, but experience constant spiritual dryness and so look to other contexts for our spiritual nourishment. Perhaps we contribute to our spiritual dryness because, instead of trusting God in the adventure, we opt for middle-class security. Helland and Hjalmarson write,

“The author of Hebrews described Abraham as going-but-not-knowing. And so it is with us. It is difficult to grasp what a mission-shaped spirituality is like while we live in such a security-focused culture. When tomorrow looks the same as today, when our world is stable and predictable, we have little need for faith.”

Let’s face it, churches that try and avoid liminality by safeguarding themselves against loss and being change-resistant, bleed a slow death. Alternatively, churches that are open to God, daily responding to his grace, allowing him to make them more Christlike, by the power of the Holy Spirit, find themselves spiritually alive. Frost and Hirsch write in The Faith of Leap (IVP, 2011):

faith of leap“When we embrace liminality – that in-between, discomforting place … and engage it head-on, we discover the truest sense of adventure. In fact … without the adventure we lose the necessary pathos by which we can truly understand the human situation and the meaning of the church.”

I am inviting you to jump off the ten metre high diving board of faith. Join a church plant team, step up into a new and challenging ministry, form friendships with marginalised people, or mentor someone. Take a risk for the Kingdom of God. This will require courage. I know that I have experienced some of my most spiritually enriching times over the past eighteen months while leading the Merri Creek Anglican church plant. I also know, however, that now that it has been eight months since we launched, it would be very easy for us to return to being comfortable Christians.

If you are RBNS, then perhaps you’ve moved too quickly to set up for yourself safety measures against change and loss? Surrender your insecurities to God, and follow him into the unpredictable and messy liminal space. You never know what kind of adventure you might have.

Gerard Kelly on Community and Church

Gerard Kelly from Bless on Vimeo.

I first met Gerard Kelly about ten years ago when he spoke at my church and we went out for beers and cigars afterwards.  While hipster city pastors who like to show off their expertise on single malts are now a cliche of the clergy, Kelly is no poser.  He’s too old for that, I think he just likes a smoke!   I remember thinking at the time that he was fascinating thinker about urban mission.  Also, my friends, Dave and Blythe Toll, went and worked with Gerard and Bless in Europe for eighteen months, so I feel like I am only two degrees of separation from him.

This video was recently forwarded to me, and I liked it so much I thought I’d comment on the six words.

Six words that Gerard Kelly believes describe the kind of churches people want to belong to:

Sustainable

Kelly rightly identifies the shift of meaning in this word from ‘what we do for the environment’  to ‘having a sustainable lifestyle,’  So it is natural that churches should think about sustainable models of church, community and mission in a sustainable way.  He is right when he suggests that what many churches are doing is unsustainable.  I love his hook here that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate renewable energy source.  The guys at St Thomas’ Sheffield and 3DM ministries make a big point about this and so work hard at balancing their community calendar.

I often speak  with people who are not living sustainable lifestyles: they might be married with young kids, both parents are working, and maybe even studying.  Even the kids in my church are over worked – trying to fit all the school activities in as well as studying so hard to get into the top University courses.  To the overworked Christian, church activities can feel stressful and a burden.  Sunday worship is attended out of loyalty rather than joy.  Often there is guilt around a lack of a personal devotional life, and the only formal ministries they can sign up to is to do the Bible reading once every few months.  In addition, many adult Christians finances are overstretched and unsustainable.  They have committed to a mammoth mortgage without first prioritising their budget ‘christianly.’

We’ve never been good at identifying our idols.

All of this points to the great opportunity we have as the Church to discover Christlike sustainability and then to share that with the world.  People want to be part of churches that help them to live sustainable lives.  A good question every pastor should ask is what programs can we slash and still have good community?  And what might happen if we all had a Sunday off from attending our church service?

Social

This is not about social networking but about human commonality.  Kelly urges us to adopt the logic, “you’re not my friend because we vote the same or believe the same but because we are both human.”  We should learn to mix with people who don’t agree with us.  Often the community that the church offers is one dimensional and boring but it should be vibrant and countercultural. Christlike friendship is more important than faction:  “you are my friend even if you choose a different life to me.”  Christ-centred society is supposed to have friendship with meaning.  What does it mean to create churches that have relationships and friendships and mission like this?

One of the best things a church can do to be attractive is to be Christlike in its relationships.  Unfortunately this often isn’t the case.  Congregations often trash the pastor and vice versa.  [See Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.”]  One of  the best things you can do as a pastor is (1) repent of all the times you’ve whinged about your congregation (2) forgive your congregation for when the whinged about you and ask them for forgiveness (3) preach against whinging and promote a culture of generosity (4) promote lay people to positions of leadership who are generous.  If your church can turn around and be generous and positive, you will be modelling one key aspect of Christ-cenetred community that will cause you to become very attractive.  If you can also promote love for the marginalised, and a culture of listening before speaking, then you’ll be one step closer to heaven!

With regards to the idea of learning to develop friendships with people who disagree with you, a great book that I’ve been reading lately that goes into some detail about how you pursue the tension between your submission to Jesus as Lord and your engagement with the world is Graham Cray’s book “Disciples and Citizens.”

Choral

Following on from the idea of “Social” is the idea of “Choral”.  Kelly is playing with the idea of difference and harmony.  When people sing different parts in harmony the effect is beautiful.  What we are called to in the church is sing our song in a million different voices – and enjoy the fact that when we do this something amazing happens.  We should not seek to become homogenous but be and celebrate difference.  Mix people together who don’t normally hang together – slaves and masters, jews and greeks, young adult hipsters and noisy toddlers.  This raises an interesting question about the validity of aged focused churches and congregations.  Kelly is suggesting  the best way forward is to offer diversity of culture rather than sameness.  Perhaps, now that we have learned that we need to engage with people cross culturally in church and not assume that everyone understands the medieval aesthetic that we have enjoyed for a 1000 years of European church, that now we can go back to having congregations with people from all ages and stages?  Christians should get over the idea that we need to find the perfect church which is one that is filled with lots of people just like them.  If our churches do reflect the diversity of the neighbourhood, then we will be one of the only contexts where those subcultures will meet together.  “Choral” is a glimpse of heaven.

Conversation

Kelly believes that churches of the future need to become “conversational” as a way of seeking truth.  We are discovering that truth is about conversation – we should promote conversation.  Truth, Kelly argues, “is woven from a thread of a thousand stories.”  Don’t tell but dialogue and listen.  This is going to become especially important as thorny divisive issues such as sexuality continue to become more thorny and divisive.  Preaching in the 21st century church needs to become conversational and move away from simply being declaratory (not easy to get this right).  You can have a conversational culture and still believe in the truth of scripture.  But you have to remind yourself that while the Bible is inerrant, you’re capacity to interpret the Bible is not.  (Which is why we should read the Bible in community and not just solo.)

Aesthetic

Kelly makes a zinger of a point about prioritising aesthetics in the 21st century church.  He reminds us that the younger generations are an aesthetically informed people.  And yet despite this, the evangelical and pentecostal movements are so aesthetically starved!  For the past 20 years or more we’ve produced churches that seek to meet in starchy warehouses and sing cheesy sentimental juvenile worship songs.  God is beautiful – God is not just true.  What’s the point of the gospel being true if it’s ugly?  Beauty always points towards God, says Kelly.  Therefore, believe in design and beauty.  Making, painting, and designing should be part of the church.  [Note to megachurch pastors: just because you have sexy marketing and lavish HD digital projections in worship does not mean that you do this well].

Pastors of the future should seek to be aesthetically intelligent people.  If they are not, they should find people to work with who are.

Entrepreneurial

Like Al Hirsch, Kelly says the church of the future needs to promote its entrepreneurs.  The Church needs heroes who start things.  The church needs to do something, make something, be something new, and have an entrepreneurial spirit.  This is especially challenging for the denominational churches who are chained to the concept of propping up their heritage.  Anglicans and Baptists promote Pastors and Teachers to leadership but where are the Apostles? Answer: for the past few decades the Pentecostals have stollen them.  But that is beginning to change as Pentecostalism starts to join its Anglican and Baptist brethren into being a ‘denomination’ with a heritage to uphold.  Now the entrepreneurs are starting to rise up in their respective denominations.  In my Anglican tribe in Melbourne we have about six or seven church plants in development at the moment, whereas five years ago you were lucky to have one.  Exciting times.  Promote a culture of entrepreneurialism.  Promote the entrepreneurs!

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Introduction,” Reflection

Chapter Summary

Keller calls for church leaders to move away from thinking about their ministry purpose in the false binary of either simple faithfulness to God, or “successful” with growing sunday attendance.  The problem lies in the fact that one can be faithful and see little “success” (like the missionary who commits his life to a people and sees no converts), or one could be unfaithful but because of some reason or another, your church grows exponentially.  Therefore, Keller advocates that pastors should aim for “fruitfulness” in their churches and he uses the garden metaphor to explain.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 12.59.29 PMPastors need to be faithful in their work and skilful at what they do – but ultimately the gardener cannot control the success, only God can.  Other key variables for the pastor/gardener are: soil conditions (the receptiveness of the people to the gospel) and weather conditions (what the Holy Spirit is doing).  Therefore, “When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.” (p.14)

To discover a pathway to fruitfulness Keller invites us to learn how to integrate the different types of books in the “how to do church” library.  Instead of looking for techniques for ministry effectiveness, learn how to make your own decisions that are centered on the gospel.  Be wary of attaching models of ministry to your church divorced from their doctrine and cultural context.   Keller uses a computer metaphor of Hardware which is your doctrine, software as ministry, and middleware as the software between the hardware and operating system.  In the case of the church, one’s middleware is the vision for how “how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment.” (p17)

Keller Illustrates it this way (p. 20),

Doctrinal Foundation (What to believe, theological tradition…)   -> 

Theological Vision (How to see, ministry dna, emphases, philosophy of min)  ->  

What to do (Ministry expression, local and cultural adaptation, style etc…)

Reflections

I will be planting out of a flagship evangelical Anglican Melbourne church, which attracts church goers (in part) because of its popular mainstream ministry model: strong children’s and youth programs, a big network of small groups, and relatively “safe” low-church worship services (five songs, a sermon, and some occasional prayerbook liturgy).  It would be easy for me to try and repeat this model in the inner-city in the thought that I could attract other mainstream Anglican evangelicals.  Or, I might try and improve on the model by sending my leadership team out to do some reconnaissance to ten other key churches in the area to borrow their best ideas.  Or, like many church planters, maybe I’ll try and emulate my transatlantic ministry role model?

Keller is arguing that before I get into focussing on programs and models, I should clarify my doctrinal foundation, then work out my theological vision, and then after that look at programs and models.

Reflections on Tim Keller’s Center Church

Every now and then a ministry book comes a long that is a game changer.  I think Timothy Keller’s Center Church is one such book.

While most ministry books  have one good idea that is padded out with anecdotes over 150 pages, Center Church is concise and yet not overly academic, well paced: gold on every page.  I am interested in this book because I am engaged in church planting.  Eighteen months ago I planted a congregation, but later this year I plan to plant a new church in the inner-city of Melbourne.  Center Church attracted me because it is a packaging of Keller’s ministry ideas developed in the Redeemer Presbyterian church planting organisation called City to City.  Therefore, it’s not simply someone’s latest idea on church planting, but a codification of 25 years of idea development and testing.  I identify with Keller’s context in New York as there are similarities with mine in inner-Melbourne.  Both contexts are deeply secular, academic, wealthy, artistic, cynical towards the Church and multi-cultural.  What I will seek to do in my blog posts is summarise chapters, and then comment and apply Keller’s thoughts to my own setting.  Please feel free to add your own comments.