Thursday, May 28, 2009

Washing Feet Until We Take Over the World

What is the "kingdom of God"? What is our place here on Earth, here in America? How are we to interact with powers and authority systems? Should we be trying to win some abstract "culture war"?

"As we allow Christ's character to be formed in us -- as we think and act like Jesus -- others come under the loving influence of the kingdom and eventually their own hearts are won over to the King of Kings. The reign of God is thus established in their hearts, and the kingdom of God expands...

This, in a nutshell, is the primary thing God is up to in our world. He's not primarily about getting people to pray a magical "sinner's prayer" or to confess certain magical truths as a means of escaping hell. He's not about gathering together a group who happen to believe all the right things. Rather, he's about gathering together a group of people who embody the kingdom -- who individually and corporately manifest the reality of the reign of God on the earth. And he's about growing this new kingdom through his body to take over the world. This vision of what God is about lies at the heart of Jesus' ministry, and it couldn't contrast with the kingdom of the world more sharply.

I'm in the midst of reading The Myth of a Christian Nation (a provocative title if there ever was one). But the book's subtitle is "How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church." The author's main point is that the kingdom of God is about following the life of Jesus Christ. Trying to align ourselves too closely with any earthly government or political powers (voting the right way to take America "back for God," for instance) is not at all what the kingdom of God is about.

Jesus taught a "power-under" kingdom, where greatness is measured by sacrifice, service, love, and death. All perfectly embodied in the cross.

What this also means is that there is danger in associating the Christian faith too closely with political viewpoints, whether conservative or liberal. Jesus was about hearts and not about legislation. To some degree, many evangelicals fuse the kingdom of God with their preferred version of the kingdom of the world.

I'm not sure that Jesus is interested in "taking America back for God." The kingdom of God isn't about winning a culture war, or keeping the right words in America's Pledge of Allegiance, or outlawing gay marriage. The kingdom of God, incarnated and modeled in the person of Jesus Christ, advances by exercising power under others. Self-sacrificial, Calvary-like love.

It's a tough road to travel. Who's up for it?

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Among our readers you will find all sorts. Insiders, outsiders, rebels and commmited church-heads. Some have left Church-As-We-Know-It, while some have stayed behind to work to salvage it, and some believe that everything their church does is right, no matter what. Whether they are for "church" or against "church", they are completely defined by it. The gentle monks of unChurch Abbey do not have a dog in that fight. We just tilt our hearts toward God, follow onward, and leave the church-heads to fuss over the rest. Still we found this article to be very interesting, written by guest scribe Brant Hansen, a syndicated Christian radio morning show personality who left "church-as-we've-made-it" some years ago. These are his observations.

FAQ #24: Shouldn't We Just Stay Where We Are, and Work for Change, Rather than Abandoning the Church?
by Brant Hansen, Syndicated Radio Host, from his blog, "Letters from Kamp Krusty"

Frequent Answer #24: For you? I have no idea.

And, by the way, sport, that's a weird way to pose the question.

I get this all the time, though. Since chronicling our own move out of the typical American 501-c-3 church structure, a lot of people have posed the question this way. It's a way of saying, a) yes, your fundamental critique may be right, but b) you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Or, perhaps, it's another way of saying, a) yes, your critique may be right, but b) I don't know any like-minded people around here, and I can't just go sailing off by myself.

Or, perhaps, it's another way of saying, a) yes, your critique may be right, but b) I went to Bible College, okay? What the heck else am I supposed to do for a living?

Or, perhaps, it's another way of saying, a) yes, your critique may be right, but b) I've already staked out my position on this, so now I'm committed to defending it.

Of course, there are those (many) who say, a) your critique is totally jacked, this system is the one God gave us, by golly, and b) you're an idiot, and c) shut up, and d) seriously, you're an idiot. This is a popular option, but these people usually aren't asking FAQ #24.

So, what should you do? Stick it out? Try to change things from the inside? Occasionally ask a question here and there, rock a boat here and there, slowly press for change?

Like I say, I don't know. I can't speak to your particular situation. I wish I could; this blog entry would be a lot more interesting. But one-size-fits-all thinking is, in part, what got us into this expensive mess.

Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost wrote a brilliant new book, ReJesus. (You should buy it and read it. I can make that categorical statement.) They say the church needs a serious "reboot", to re-align the software (all our church trappings) with the hardware (Jesus). Jesus' values, Jesus' priorities, Jesus' teachings.

By advocating for that, they're advocating for radical change, and I'll bet you know it, too. So here's one way you might look at it: Will that radical change happen without people like me making a radical change?


None of this, of course, applies if you object to the very idea of leaving church-as-we've-made-it. If you see "preaching", Biblically, as a sermon delivered each week to roughly the same audience by the same guy in the same building, and you regard this to be a sacrament, you'd never ask the question at all. (I heard a very popular preacher the other day say, on the radio, "When someone causes you to doubt or question, you get away from them, and get into the House of the Lord. I know I need to do that, because I need a talented man of the pulpit to help me understand, and...")

You may be a person, like this Talented Man of the Pulpit, who really needs, who must have, a Talented Man of the Pulpit. In which case, you've likely stopped reading this blog. You may think his sprawling campus is the House of the Lord, too, in which case, you've likely stopped reading this blog.

Here's another consideration: The original question reveals something horribly wrong. By abandoning a particular institutional conception of church, you are not abandoning the church. It's an insidious idea that begs the very question.

Now, for you, it might ultimately mean that you WILL wind up leaving the church -- the people called out by God for his purposes -- but that's a different issue. Simply put: You may not be able to deal with the freedom. Freedom is wonderful, and just like most wonderful things, like, say, sex and the strong force in an atom's nucleus, it's also dangerous.

You may need someone to tell you exactly how much to give, and exactly to whom. You may need someone to draw up a chart of the Eight Things a Disciple Must Be Doing. You may need the busy-ness that comes from meetings, and meetings that plan meetings. You may not know how to live without it. (I've heard it before: "Well, then -- what do you do?) You may not ever be able to break from something your parents did. You may need to be able to easily explain you're a "real Christian" by saying, "Here's where I go to church."

There's other stuff you may need. You may need to feel more occupied on Sunday mornings. You may need help being told what to study. You may need to avoid the disapproval of those who will judge you for what you're doing. You may need the significance that comes from your social standing in that particular group.

You may, if you're a musician or speaker, need a crowd.

If these are things you need, deep down, leaving a particular 501c3 organization may, in fact, ultimately result in leaving the real church.

Oddly, while we can worry about that, I'm more worried about the people currently well-plugged-in to American Church Life who have no role -- who've been trained to have no role -- in the church of Jesus. They left the church, and are busy members in good standing.

Anyway, I can't answer the question for you. If I were a career pastor, or lived in a small town, or -- any number of possibilities -- I, frankly, doubt we'd have made the move we made. I don't know that we could have done it.

It's been a wonderful thing, opting out, and a blessed thing. But I can't say, for everyone, everywhere, it's the thing.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Commune in the 'Burbs: Part II

More on Craig's "covenant community" -- Part II. See part I here.

There were 80 or so of us who committed ourselves to our first covenant in June of ’74 (I was all of 18 years old at the time). By the following fall, there were a few less than 70 of us left, as the demands of community life began to become clearer. At first, the big deal was just that, having made a covenant with each other, our lives weren’t our own, to do with as we pleased; at least, not like they’d been previously. It’s hard, you know – somewhat akin to how marriage is hard – to give others a say in your life, when you’ve never done that, and it’s not exactly how things go in the larger culture. And besides that, loving other people is hard – especially people with whom you live really closely. One of my favorite quotes from my favorite book not-the-Bible (The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis) says, “. . . to be able to live at peace with hard, obstinate and undisciplined people [ie, people like me]. . . is a great grace.”

In the first years of our new ‘community’ life, it was just an amazing time – everything we touched seemed to prosper. By the early 80s, we had something in the neighborhood of 500 adult members. Not that I’m playing a ‘numbers game’ at all, but things just worked; evangelism was easy. The community life was pretty attractive, especially to college students, and everything we touched seemed to turn to gold. We liked to say that we were ‘the greatest thing God is doing on the face of the earth’. What’s that proverb about ‘pride goeth before a fall’? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now, you’d no doubt not be surprised if I told you that the guys who were leading a group like that had some pretty strong egos. At least, a couple of them did. And their ego clashes eventually led to a rupture in the community. And then, the guy who, after all that, was the main head leader-guy, was found to have, uh, certain deficiencies of character. And between those two things, the life of our community was rocked pretty hard. By our 10th anniversary in ’84, we had around 180 members. And from that, we’ve had to rebuild our community life, incorporating the ‘lessons learned’ from our troubles.

One thing we learned – when our community was comprised almost completely of young singles (in ’74, we had five married couples in the community, who had two children between them), there was a certain ‘gung-ho’ intensity that didn’t translate well, once we started marrying each other, and the community transitioned to something more ‘family-based’. The whole ‘intensity’ thing also sometimes happened at the cost of individual members’ taking responsibility for their own lives. ‘Radical self-denial’ could easily morph into a kind of authoritarianism. And so, part of our challenge in rebuilding the life of our community was to foster the same kind of radical discipleship, while respecting the integrity of the would-be disciples, and not crossing over into authoritarianism.

Another thing worth mentioning at this point relates to something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book, Life Together (which is a great book on the dynamics of Christian community life), to the effect that ‘he who loves his vision of community more than he loves the community, destroys the community’. That is, if we love our vision of community more than we love our actual brothers and sisters, the community will die. Sort of the Christian version of the old bit from the French Revolution about making omelets and breaking eggs. And that is also consistent with our experience of community life.

In the early years of our community, community life was largely ‘household-based’. Groups of singles would share a house together, and have daily patterns of prayer and sharing. Or families would have singles live with them, to live the community life in a family setting. I personally lived in both of those – in a household of 18 single men (sort of analogous in my life to my dad’s military experience), and later, with a family, along with two other single men, and three single women (I’m guessing that might provoke a question or two).

These days, we don’t have so many of the ‘old-style’ households, but we do make an effort at ‘clustering’ – families will buy houses near each other, so that physical proximity can foster close relationships. Right now, my wife and I live in a neighborhood where we’re within a block of about ten community families, and within 4-5 blocks of 6-8 more families. Living close to each other just makes a ‘life together’ a whole lot easier, and more natural.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Commune in the 'Burbs, Part I

FAQ #1: Is the unChurch a commune?? Well, no. But the gentle monks of unChurch Abbey have long pondered the idea of buying some plot of land right in the middle of suburban America, and moving a bunch of families into a condo-like place to share life and resources. You know: lawn mowers, laser printers, baby-sitters and bass guitars. The essentials. Being together, praying together, and having "everything in common." Not a cloister, but more like a community center for the neighborhood. "Missio de San Larry de la Burbia". It's got a nice ring, no?

The article that follows is Part 1 of a series begining this week in unChurch Magazine. One of our visitors, Craig, is a long time member of The Work of Christ, a Christian covenant community in Michigan (NOT a "commune"!) His experience is inspiring and instructive. Enjoy the article and then leave your comments about the merits and drawbacks of this type of Christian community. What follows is Craig's story:
    Our community had its beginnings in 1967, at the beginnings of the Catholic charismatic movement. In the very early days, things were pretty ‘wild-and-woolly’ charismatic, as was typical of charismatic stuff in those days, especially in a 1967 college town. A prayer group pretty quickly formed around the whole new charismatic thing, and in the early years, it was pretty informal – folks would just show up in the basement of the Catholic student parish on Wednesday night, and off they’d go. And of course, word got around, and by the early 70s, there were a couple hundred people showing up for the prayer meetings.

    There was an openness to new stuff, even pretty wild-and-crazy stuff, that doesn’t just happen anytime and anyplace...but this is 1967 in East Lansing.

    With time and growth, a conviction began to grow that God had more for us than a weekly prayer meeting. Of course, by that time, the Word of God community in Ann Arbor (note: also a college town) was world renowned, and had over 1000 members, and most of the folks in the prayer group in East Lansing had visited the community in Ann Arbor at one time or another, and that became a kind of template for us. Some of the prayer group folks (I had not yet arrived) felt the Lord calling them to some kind of community life.

    By the early 70s, some folks had moved into ‘households’ together, and were aiming at some manner of daily ‘common life’ – meals and prayers together, and some kind of ‘daily life support’ – rudimentary small groups, and such.

    I arrived in town in the fall of ’73, and plans were being solidified for forming a real, honest-to-goodness Christian community. We had a year of instruction (based on the Ann Arbor model) of what Christian community was, how it was put together, the nature of the commitment that was required to make it work, etc, etc. I’m not sure many of us really understood the full import of what we were hearing, or how it differed from the prayer-group life that had been in place for six years, or how challenging it was going to be. But, we wanted to follow Jesus in as radical a way as we could, and this sure seemed to be that.
To be continued!

*It should be noted that Craig was originally the person to recommend to me the Building Christian Communities book that I wrote about last year. The book was a bit of a "manifesto" for building these types of communities back in the day.