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.

The strangely new radical discipleship choice to attend church services most Sundays

For almost 2000 years, Christians have regularly met together at least once per week (usually Sundays) to read and teach the Bible, sing, pray, break the bread and drink wine to remember Jesus’ death (communion), and build community together. This was a natural continuation of the Jewish Temple meetings, affirmed by the writer of the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:23-25), with direction to be orderly by Paul (1 Corinthians 14), and modelled in the Acts of the Apostles.  At first: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).  And eventually the Churches created their own Temple style meetings using the rooms in the larger houses of wealthier congregation members (Acts 20).

Due to legal complications concerning property ownership rights, services held in dedicated church buildings was uncommon until after Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century.  Of the few church owned buildings before Constantine, the earliest known is Dura Europos on the Euphrates River (eastern Roman Syria). Archeologists believe it was a house, bought by Christians, and renovated to suit church purposes between 240-250.  After Constantine authorised the Roman Church, he commissioned Basilicas, and church services begun to occur, for better or worse, in architecturally dedicated worship spaces.

There is not space here to trace the history of Christians and their attendance at church services to the 20th century, albeit to say that the model of temple and house gatherings continued in different forms and with different emphasis right up until contemporary times.

The point of this article is to consider the retrograde step of Western Christians, in the past 15 years, to attend services far less regularly.

In my context of Melbourne, Australia, this shrinking commitment amongst some Christians to attend weekly services seems to reflect a shift in priorities: families fitting in extra school activities, weekend holidays, going out for brunch with friends, and seeing church services as “a religious product that is provided for me” rather than an expression of Christian unity and covenant: thus, we have consumer Christianity.  Some church attenders express a sense of boredom: a criticism that may or may not be fair.  Perhaps the services are dull and predictable.  But if the said Christian is beginning from a place of apathy and spiritual dryness, then the expectation that services should inject them with all that they need to be excited about their faith is unrealistic and misguided.  If the Christian’s faith is childish (rather than child-like), they may  be unfairly comparing their local service, its preaching and music, to large Christian conference gatherings, or podcasts of the flagship churches.  (Perhaps the online marketing of churches to Christians via sermon podcasts and groovy websites has had a bigger negative impact on the local context than we expect?)

Of course some blame does go to church leaders, who haven’t worked to adapt their ministry to a culture changing rapidly around them.  Just like the local corner hardware store, now a quaint relic, that once was the go-to place for hammers and nails, but whose owner didn’t make any changes to his business plan when the hardware megastore opened up around the corner.  Or like the publishers who led their newspapers into redundancy by pressing on exclusively with print media as the advertising dollar shifted online.  Church leaders who have dug their heels in and preserved a bygone church culture for the sake of sentimental comfort rather than seriously respond to the challenge of relevancy, have limited their audience to a narrow pool of churchy people.  Ironically, even the Pentecostal movement in Australia is now dangerously holding on to past cultural forms, rather than adapting for new cultures (a quality they once held high): notice the commitment to mid -2000s Hillsong ministry forms.

Also, many church leaders suffer from one or more the following problems:

  • laziness
  • lack of skill
  • apathy
  • boredom
  • cynicism
  • burn-out
  • anger and bitterness at their own lack of results or circumstance
  • turned on more by denominational politics and bureaucracy than their faith in Jesus
  • overworked
  • under-resourced
  • lack of vision
  • low emotional intelligence
  • unresolved personal sin

And the big one:

  • lost their commitment to The Gospel

Why would you want to regularly attend a church service with a leader bogged down in the mire of despondency?

Some writers on the mission of the church from the 2000s have tried to argue that less of an emphasis on the Sunday church service could be a good thing because, in their opinion, there has been too much effort to imitate the mega-attractional church. The missional finger has pointed for a while now at churches who sink all their cash into performance based ‘digital worship’ (with lots of screens etc…), slick music, and a middle-class-upwardlymobile-alpha-male-pastor (with a sexy wife and a minibus of kids).  These churches have supposedly forgotten their mission to the world.  The other point that needed to be made, but is now twisted as a cliche excuse, is “we don’t go to church – we are the Church!”

Whether it is a shift in priorities, a lack of leadership, or a well intentioned missional trend, attending services with one’s local church once every three or four weeks has not caused an increase in mission activity or passionate spirituality (as could be predicted).  Rather, it has led to churches with loosely committed apathetic members – many who pick and choose to attend the community gatherings around convenience or what “worship product” (preacher, topic, music etc) is on offer that particular Sunday.  Let’s face the reality that, except in churches with high mission accountability amongst its members, Christians are not substituting Sunday services to get out and be ‘incarnational’ or ‘present’ or whatever missional weasel word we might want to dribble.  Let’s also face up to the sad truth that for many churches there is little sense of covenantal community or extended spiritual family.

I want to advocate for the mission focused church to also believe in Temple gatherings.  The church that I lead, Merri Creek Anglican, is a mission focused church, and we also believe in the long term power and importance of the weekly church service gathering. Watch this video and see why it’s so important…

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!