Unplugging from the Matrix, part 5

This is part 5 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

As I’ve been processing my personal journey and the obvious and continued decline of mainline denominations, I have found this description by Craig Van Gelder very helpful in explaining the current state of denominations. It’s found on p. 17 of The Essence of the Church: A Community Created By the Spirit:

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF DENOMINATIONS

  • Phase 1: Ethnic-Voluntarism Denomination, 1600-1800. This denominational type emerged in the early seventeenth to late eighteenth centuries and functioned as a coalition of ethnic immigrant churches of European parentage.
  • Phase 2: The Purposive-Missionary Denomination, 1800-1850. During the first half of the nineteenth century, this denominational type was formed as a national organizational structure responsible to introduce new churches into the expanding frontier.
  • Phase 3: The Churchly Denomination, 1850-1900. During the last half of the nineteenth century, denominations transitioned to this type as they built extensive institutional systems to serve the needs of their members.
  • Phase 4: The Corporate Denomination, 1900-1965. During the first half of the twentieth century, denominations created multiple agencies within an extensive bureaucratic hierarchy to manage the ministry of member churches.
  • Phase 5: The Regulatory Denomination, 1965 to present. In the last half of the twentieth century, a type of denomination has emerged that increasingly uses rules and policies to secure compliance from member churches.

So can denominations reverse the downward trend? What would it take to see growth happen? Or is the death of denominations inevitable – and the hope/sign of a future centered on Christ and His body (one holy, catholic church)?

Unplugging from the Matrix, part 4

This is part 4 of a series of reflections about the journey of starting a church and leaving established, organizational, denominational religion. It’s a lot like unplugging from the matrix. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

One of the saddest facts for some denominational expressions of church is the ingrained tendency for rivalry. Whether its Missouri Synod vs. Wisconsin Synod, or The Church of God (Charleston, TN) vs. The Church of God (Cleveland, TN), or Church of Christ (instrumental) vs. Church of Christ (non-instrumental). Most denominations come hard-wired with divisiveness, separatistic tendencies, and the need to clearly mark the difference between “us” and “them.” When you leave denominational forms of church, these are things that have to be unlearned.

Some leaders in the Presbyterian Church (USA) recently summarized the current situation in the denomination:

Over the past year, a group of PC(USA) pastors has become convinced that to remain locked in unending controversy will only continue a slow demise, dishonor our calling, and offer a poor legacy to those we hope will follow us. We humbly share responsibility for the failure of our common life, and are no better as pastors nor more righteous than anyone on other sides of tough issues. Our denomination has been in steady decline for 45 years, now literally half the size of a generation ago.  Most congregations see far more funerals than infant baptisms because we are an aging denomination. Only 1,500 of our 5,439 smallest churches have an installed pastor, putting their future viability as congregations in doubt. Even many larger congregations, which grew well for decades, have hit a season of plateau or decline. We are determined to get past rancorous, draining internal disputes that paralyze our common life and ministry.

Now I will say this: I’m not talking about different ethnic or racial churches. Nor am I referring to different styles or expressions of music/worship/liturgy. But I am talking about taking the minute details that make us different and building entirely segregated groups of Christians based on details that don’t matter to a world searching for the living waters of Christ. Hmmmm – maybe “segregations” is a better word for “denominations?”

I can also add this: I have sat in a room with people who serve in about a dozen differing denominational backgrounds and planned the details of a service of worship together. And then executed the service together as a team of servant leaders. There is hope. Ecumenism is a helpful thing. There is beauty in the diversity of Christ’s body. And even in our diversified beliefs that cause the splits, there is still “one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5).”

Looking at the ecumenical movement it is noticeable that there is an increased desire for unity in the church today. There is a pulling toward a center, with less emphasis on the extreme outer edges that divide us. A quote from Phyllis Tickle:

American religion had never had a center before, primarily because it was basically Protestant in its Christianity; and Protestantism, with its hallmark characteristic of divisiveness, has never had a center. Now one was emerging, but what was emerging was no longer Protestant. It was no longer any “thing,” actually. It was simply itself, a melange of “things” cherry-picked from each quadrant and put together – some would say cobbled together – without any original intention and certainly with no design beyond that of conversation. (The Great Emergence, p. 134)

And a quote from Bob Roberts, on what he thinks it will take to be a pastor in America in the next 20 years:

The ability to work across “party” lines. No longer will we work in isolation from other tribes, denominations, nations, or even religions for that matter – there will be some things that will be necessary that all of us learn to respect one another and get along. For believers, Jesus makes it clear that “they will know we are his by our love for each other” and we have been called to Unity – how in God’s name that will happen will be the greatest supernatural miracle since the resurrection.

Dr. Gordon Fee – Book of Revelation video

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f62FMOmqPTU&feature=player_embedded

“Revelation wasn’t written to us, but we hear it as a word for us, once we understand it as a word for them, and what it was saying to them.”

"Wholesome" Christianity

What do you think about the word “wholesome?” Can a person be wholesome? What if someone mentioned that they wouldn’t go to a particular shopping establishment because the people who shop there aren’t exactly “wholesome.”

Now, let me say I’m pretty picky when it comes to deciding which store I shop at. My pickiness is more based on quality of products, competitive pricing, and having a wide variety of products to chose from.

But defining where you will and will not shop by the “type” of people who go there is troublesome – especially for anyone who claims to align with the teachings of Jesus. Just think of all the non-wholesome folks Jesus made it a point to associate with:

  • the woman at the well who had 5+ husbands, was a despised Samaritan, and drawing well water at noon probably to avoid the criticism/despise of other women (John 4)
  • Lepers, outcast and forced to live in seclusion, especially another Samaritan whom He healed (Luke 17)
  • Zacchaeus, a corrupt tax collector, seen as a traitor for working for the Roman Empire (Luke 19)

Not to mention the countless stories and parables featuring all the non-wholesome people who got it right compared to the “wholesome” people who missed the point:

  • the Good Samaritan, despised by Jews, but managed to out-do the priest and Levite (Luke 25)
  • the wedding banquet at which people, both good and bad, are pulled in off the street to attend when the invited refuse to show (Matthew 22)
  • the Pharisees, who were the upright, respectable, overtly religious people of the day that Jesus referred to as greedy, wicked, and neglectful of the love of God (Luke 11)

What’s even more troublesome is saying that the same non-wholesome people (whom God created and loves) are not worthy of a local church that will proclaim the Gospel and administer grace to any and all.

Reminds me of a recent tweet by @RickWarren:

“You don’t get to chose who you’ll love, forgive & show respect to if you claim to follow Jesus. It must be everybody.”

Thoughts on the Sacraments

Some of my old acquaintances know that I’m in a different space now. If you knew me from school, or from seminary, or from ministry pre-2007, I don’t hold all the same theories and beliefs that I once did. That being the case, the praxis (practicing idea) of my ministry has evolved. It’s all about the journey and what you learn along the way. I don’t claim to be right about everything, but this is the place where God has currently led me, and I want to share some of it.

In recent years I have experienced a paradigm shift in my understanding of the sacraments. I have moved from serving in and being schooled by the “believer’s baptism” tradition, to serving in and being opened up to the “infant baptism” tradition. I recently read a book by Leonard J. Vander Zee’s called “Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” A chapter entitled “Christ Is the Quintessential Sacrament” (p. 45-51) successfully captures many of the suppositions I have experienced in my sacramental shift.

“Paul calls Christ the visible “icon” of the invisible God (Col 1:15), and analogously, the sacraments are visible and material signs to us of the now invisible Christ.” (p. 45-46) To paraphrase, in the incarnation God came to us in the form of Jesus Christ, and now Jesus Christ comes to us in the form of the sacraments (baptism and Eucharist). One of the first steps in my shift was the recognition that Christ is present in the elements of the Eucharist. If Christ is truly present everywhere and “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17), then the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can be more than a private remembrance and personal reflection. It can also be prolepsis – the eager anticipation of the feast to come at the wedding banquet of the Lamb. This quote from Vander Zee about the “invisible Christ” reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory“: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.” There is an acknowledgment of the inherently “tov” nature of man, a Hebraic concept. What God has created is good, and the goodness of Christ is always present despite common distortions and diminutions. If Christ is truly “hidden” in our neighbor, Christ is possibly more visible around us than we think.

“It seems to me that the Bible and the early church fathers spoke very differently about how God’s grace in salvation comes to humanity. In the biblical worldview, God decisively acted in Christ so that the whole course of human history has changed. God’s action in Christ places every man and woman’s relationship to God on a whole new basis. God is reconciled to them. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. All humanity, all of Adam’s race, has been regathered into the one new humanity, under the headship of the new Adam.” (p. 48) The next step in my sacramental shift was an awakening to the lack of control we have in God’s relationship with us. As it was in previous covenant-relationships with God’s people, God is both the initiator and fulfiller of the covenant. We basically just have to let it happen.

“Apostolic preaching is not shaped around the announcement of a hypothetical possibility that you will be given salvation if you believe in it. It is based on God’s stupendous act of reconciliation that through his Son involves all humanity and, through his death and resurrection, reconciles all of humanity to himself. ‘You are reconciled, so be reconciled.’” (p. 50) Reconciliation and the sacramental life have less to do with your beliefs about what happens during Eucharist or who is illegible to be baptized and what that baptism means. It is more about the way you live the other six days a week. It is more about seeing and treating other people through the lens of your reconciliation. In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), neither the righteous nor the eternally punished ones know what determined their fate. They both ask the question “When did we see you?” Their fate was determined on whether they acted with kindness toward their neighbor. Maybe Lewis was right. Maybe our neighbor is even more sacramental than the meal and the water?

The Symbolism of Baptismal Vestments

From Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit, (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), p. 74-75.

“We know already that the unvesting of the catechumen before Baptism signified the rejection by him of the “old man” and the “old life,” that of sin and corruption. It is indeed sin that revealed their nakedness to Adam and Eve and made them conceal it with vestments. But why were they not ashamed of their nakedness before sin?  Because they were vested in divine glory and light, in the “ineffable beauty” which is the true nature of man. It is this first garment that they lost, and they “knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). But then the post-baptismal vesting in the “robe of light” signifies above all the return of man to the integrity and innocence he had in Paradise, the recovery by him of his true nature obscured and mutilated by sin. St. Ambrose compares the baptismal robe to the vestments of Christ on Mount Tabor. The Transfigured Christ reveals perfect and sinless humanity as not “naked” but vested in garments “white like snow,” in the uncreated light of divine glory. It is Paradise, not sin, that reveals the true nature of man; it is to Paradise and to his true nature, to his primordial vestment of glory, that man returns in Baptism.”

"I hate church."

You’ve got to get your “British” humor hat on for this.

And one of the poignant comments by AnneDroid from the original post:

Church isn’t always easy, either for the congregation or the minister. We would all rather stay in bed sometimes, or go elsewhere. But we’re not to forsake meeting together – but just work to make it not phoney/triumphalist/false/legalistic/pompous/boring/trite/cringey etc… By just showing up and being there we support one another as a mad dysfunctional-but-fun family and help recharge our batteries for another week as a misunderstood minority in The World.

From The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus.

Henri Nouwen – "In the Name of Jesus"

I’m gearing up for my 4th trip to Florida in the process of completing my Doctor of Worship Studies program at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. In preparation for this course I have been introduced to this great book by Henri Nouwen. I wanted to share a quote and some reflections:

p. 81 – “Jesus confronts him with the hard truth that the servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”

p. 86 – “It is essential to be able to discern…the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection.”

Ouch. Yikes. This is good medicine for us in the worship leadership field. Most of us get in the game because we like to perform and we’re good at it. We like the spotlight. We like to feed on how people respond to God’s revelation in worship. Most of us that change employers go from smaller to bigger (upward mobility). But is it any wonder that we’re called to the opposite? Just look at the founder/leader/Savior of our religion. He borrowed everything like a bum and died between some thieves. That is the definition of downward mobility. And if I say I’m a follower/disciple of his, I shouldn’t expect any different if I’m truly learning to follow him. But there is a shiny pearl at the bottom of the muck – resurrection. The eternal illumination of Jesus’ presence and the restoration of the peace once found in the Garden.

Robert Webber Quote – God's narrative

God’s narrative is the one true story of the world. The church’s mission is to be a witness to God’s narrative of the world (missio Dei). Theology is the church’s corporate reflection on God’s narrative. Worship sings, proclaims and enacts God’s narrative to the glory of God. Individual spirituality is the personal embodiment of God’s narrative in all of life. Collective spirituality is the church’s embodied life in the world.

Robert E. Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World? Contending for
the Christian Story in an Age of Rivals
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 124.