Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Semi-Worms (Exiles #4)

Today’s daily serving of wormage (chock full of natural flavor, taste, and over 1800 essential vitamins and nutrients in a savory sauce) comes courtesy of chapter eight of Frost’s sagacious tome, Exiles.

“Working for the Host Empire” explores how missional Christians should view their workplace or career. While that’s not news to many of us, Frost does an excellent job of sorting through the old dualistic, Plato-inspired, “sacred vs. secular” dichotomy, focusing particularly on our concept of vocation.

As usual, Frost stimulated the grey matter between my ears (which, according to CSI, resembles a bowl of worms – coincidence?), and I’d like to add my two cents to a thought that Frost presents:

“We routinely refer to people ‘receiving the call’ to Christian service, whether to church leadership or the mission field … We can easily think of a friend entering church-ordained ministry as following God, but rarely do we speak of a decision to become a computer programmer or a nurse or a filmmaker or an accountant as similarly following God’s calling in our lives (Exiles, page 185).”

Frost makes some excellent points about the impact of churches succumbing to a dualistic, sacred/secular divide, resulting in everyday congregants Joe and Josephine feeling there’s no God-given “call” on their vocational lives. It was all up to them – go ahead, choose a profession. Any profession. Just remember to tithe in support of pastoral staff who answered a call.

It never occurred to Joe or Josephine – and no one encouraged them – to ask God for His input on their vocational path.

Funny aside from that same mindset:

I have friends who, back in the day, actively avoided praying about their vocation, out of a knee-jerk suspicion that if they allowed God to have His say, they’d end up doing something they hated in a location where angels feared to tread.

If, instead, we began with the expectation that everything we are and have is God’s, praying for His “call” in our vocation would be the normal, default setting.

Or as my good friend, Nico-Dirk, once said, “What’s all this talk about ‘giving’ ourselves to God? If you’re a Christian, God already owns your entire a**!”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Third Degree Worms (Exiles #3)

We now continue with the Series of Worms, not to be confused with the Diet of Worms.

I’m part way through reading  Michael Frost's excellent Exiles, but I thought I’d add me add a little disclaimer. This is neither a review nor a rebuttal of Exiles. It’s more like espresso for the brain, provoking me to thought and reflection.

So, yeah, Exiles is the inspiration for my wormy series – a sure sign of a well-written book.

Frost spends part of chapter six on the place of monastic “rules” in creating what he calls “missional communitas.” The Rule of St. Benedict is one example among many. A number of emerging/missional groups are already their wagons around a monastic order.

The “monastic rule” is a mutally agreed-upon set of practices, values, and commitments. As Frost is quick to point out, individual communities embracing this approach do so in creative, unique ways. “Re-monking the church” – a phrase Frost borrows from Stuart Murray’s Post-Christendom – helps everyone to know what they’re signing up for. I’ll resist calling it a “vision statement,” although that’s basically what it is. The monastic rule(s) also function as a community litmus test: are we actually doing what we said we were going to do?

Positive outcomes that come immediately to mind:

  • The rule’s objectivity helps instill “ownership” of the vision within the community
  • A clear commitment to the rule helps newcomers hit the ground running
  • When life gets complicated – as it inevitably does – the rule provides an objective standard to measure against, and a vision to call the group back to.

On the other side of the coin, however …

The now-infamous Shepherding Movement began in the 1970s as a way of providing discipleship and accountability, but quickly degenerated into a system of control and spiritual abuse, wreaking havoc on thousands of Christians.

I see some parallels in the adoption of monastic rules that require careful thought, lest we see a similar train wreck. The sociological milieu that fostered a climate where the Shepherding Movement could flourish share an uncanny resemblance with the early 21st century.

Then: Many anti-establishment hippies become followers of Jesus through the Jesus Movement, but harbor an ingrained distrust of "the man" (authority)
Now: Emerging generations of Jesus-followers harbor an ingrained suspicion and distrust of hierarchical, CEO-style leadership (authority)

Then: A genuine hunger for relationships; communes with little or no connection to established churches sprang up
Now: A genuine hunger for relationships; destructured house groups/simple churches/monastic <i>communitas</i> with little or no connection to established churches spring up

Then: Cultural changes (the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, and the 1960s in general) created anxiety in many, resulting in a felt need for stability and some level of certainty
Now: Cultural changes (post-modern cultural transition, “fatherless generation”) create anxiety and restlessness, resulting in a felt need for relational stability and some level of certainty

Then: Sincere, older believers seek to disciple “outside the box” Jesus-followers through books, cassettes, conferences, and personal mentoring
Now: Sincere, older believers seek to disciple “churchless faith” Jesus-followers thourgh books, blogs, websites, cohorts, and monastic orders/rules (Note: discipleship rebranded as “spiritual formation”)

Then: The question of accountability and authority becomes problematic; “covering” and being “under authority” teachings are given prominence
Now: The question of accountability and authority continues to be problematic; despite the Shepherding Movement’s collapse, “covering and authority” teachings have not gone away, and monastic rules risk becoming rigid and censorious under pressure.

Then: While not originally intended, hierarchical power structures evolve to safeguard conformity to accepted standards
Now: While not originally planned, community power – with the spoken or implied threat of “shunning” – evolves to safeguard conformity to accepted standards, rules, and/or commitments.

I’m not suggesting it’s inevitable that monastic communitas (what’s the plural of that?) will devolve into Shepherding Movement: TNG. But if we naively assume that it couldn't possibly happen, I’d suggest taking a step back to invest some careful, community-wide thought into building safeguards into the monastic rule.

The potential for good all but demands it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Kan Van Wormen (Exiles #2)

Kan Van Wormen is Dutch for “can of worms” (more or less). That should make my good friends, Nico-Dirk & Diana Van Loo, happy Dutch campers.

Michael Frost, in his book Exiles, has a couple of interesting observations about liminality and communitas:

“Those who have emerged from a liminal state are able to bring a challenge to normal society about the meandering ordinariness of life … As people undergo liminality and communitas in whatever forms, they should be able to return to normal, structured church society and engage in this important dialectic (Exiles, page 112).”

I’ve been involved in youth and young adult ministry since the original Miami Vice made its debut. I’ve lost track of the number of times YWAMers (or other short-term NGOs) returned to their home church, only to become frustrated and disillusioned by the church’s apparent disinterest, if not outright dismissal, of their liminal experiences.

The results were easily predictable: frustrated YWAMers gave up and went back to where life made sense and they felt understood and appreciated – YWAM. This, in turn, reinforced the resentful perception that para-church NGOs are “stealing” gifted young people from their churches.

The counter-punch argument usually sounds something like, "Well, if the church would just do what it’s supposed to be doing, the para-church wouldn’t be needed.” I can’t in good conscience subscribe to that mindset – although I’ll freely admit that, in my early pastoral years, I was guilty of giving it voice.

If repentance = changing your mind, then I’ve repented.

I think several things are going to have to change in the next few years:

Churches will start listening, carefully and strategically, to the liminal fringe.

The line between church and para-church will/needs to be erased. Para-church isn’t valuable only if the church fails at its mission. Para-church NGOs (liminal ministries) are part of the church and must be allowed to impact the rest of the church.

What if – instead of wracking their brains for more “felt need” attractional programs – churches invested in short-term liminal communitas that attract people who are motivated by service, rather than felt needs?

The mind boggles. Who knew Kan Van Wormen could be so nourishing (and tasty)?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Can O’ Worms (Exiles #1)

I’ve in the midst of reading Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, which I highly recommend. I’m only half-way through, and it’s encouraged, challenged, frustrated, and caused me to repeatedly set it aside so I could muse over the implications and dream about the possibilities. Books that accomplish this are gems.

Frost introduces the concept of communitas early in the book, which he describes as a community with a goal beyond its own existence. In order words, it’s not community for community’s sake, but rather community gathered around a shared missional vision.

Frost couples this with liminality – a radical middle season where faith, uncertainty, and experimentation are embraced and explored. It functions something like a spiritual version of chaos theory:

“Complex systems tend to locate themselves at a place we call ‘the edge of chaos.’ We imagine the edge of chaos as a place where there is enough innovation to keep a living system vibrant, and enough stability to keep it from collapsing into anarchy.

“It is a zone of conflict and upheaval, where the old and the new are constantly at war … Finding the balance point must be delicate – if a living system drifts too close, it risks falling over into incoherence and dissolution; but if the system moves too far away from the edge, it becomes rigid, frozen, totalitarian. Both conditions lead to extinction.

“Too much change is as destructive as too little. Only at the edge of chaos can complex systems flourish.”

~ Michael Crighton, The Lost World

Where Frost’s comments open a can o’ worms in my mind – making me think long and hard – is the intersection between communitas and liminality.

Here’s the rub, or the “splinter in your mind, driving you mad,” as Morpheus says in The Matrix: A lot of people are currently detoxing from church, and have a visceral reaction to a typical churchs insistence on one-size-fits-all vision statements. They’re wary of a leadership approach that says, in essence, “Get with the program or find a new church.”

A popular phrase many church-exiters have adopted is the cryptic, “We had to stop going to church to learn how to be the church.” 

They can usually be found congregating in house/simple churches. And then along comes Michael Frost, suggesting that community that exists only for its own sake (just “being”) is self-centered and narcissistic.

Communitas is a deep community, but its based on a common goal or vision. The can o’ worms is the edge of chaos between genuine community that doesn’t revolve around “performance,” and yet is still intentional about the advancing Kingdom.

See what I mean? This book is making me ponder. What do yall think? Is communitas just another version of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss?”

Or is it possible that a season of just “being” the church is one leg in the journey, not the destination?

I think I’ll serve this can o’ worms with a side of fries and some salsa picante. Got me some more readin’ and ponderin’ this evening!