I was bouncing some ideas around with a friend the other day; unpacking some of my frustrations with the institutional status quo of churches and denominations and movements grappling with ministry and mission — with being the people of God — in post-Christian Australia.
I have a handful of pebbles in my shoe around the Presbyterian Church of Australia (and its federated state-based expressions) as we respond to various challenges in the culture by circling the wagons. An article by Kevin De Young, a Presbyterian minister in the United States, about a book about his friend Tim Keller gave me a certain sort of language for what’s going on in our denomination, and what it feels like to be more aligned with Tim Keller’s approach than De Young’s. Watching the eulogising of Keller by the people who take De Young’s approach (at the expense of Keller’s) felt like being gaslit. Anyway, the De Young piece in First Things included this paragraph:
Though I hope to be kind and careful, my public ministry has often involved correcting error, guarding the truth, and warning against creeping liberalism. By contrast, though Keller usually lands squarely on the traditional side of doctrinal matters, he has a public ministry focused on making the gospel attractive to outsiders, staying out of intramural theological disputes, and warning against extremes. You might say I specialize in building walls, and Keller specializes in building bridges.
Bridges or walls.
Our denomination has responded to a changing culture, in the main (not necessarily at the level of every local church) by building walls; walls with good defensive positions from which to launch projectiles at “the culture” (whoever isn’t behind our walls).
And a good defensive position sometimes means either bringing up the bridge (turning it into a drawbridge) or burning it. And it’s tiring and a self-defeating strategy that requires not taking any new ground for one’s kingdom, and maintaining a birth rate (or increasing it) in order to sustain the thing behind the walls or to expand it. I’ve written a couple of things about these dynamics within the Presbyterian Church over the years, including a submission to a review of how we operate in Queensland, and I fear things are getting worse, not better.
De Young reckons Keller would’ve said we need both bridge builders and wall builders. I’m not sure an institution built on wall maintenance has a future, especially when the walls are built in the wrong place — out of reaction against people — and so exclude those seeking life within them. If the walls are meant to mark out those who have received life in Jesus, by his Spirit, then excluding those whom God has included is a problem. Our approach to this problem has been, I think, to legitimise building such institutions around, say, the “Reformed Tradition,” because there are other places with other walls where one can find that life. I think that sort of differentiation might turn out to be both ill-advised, and a luxury in a culture where the walls can be less porous and where Christendom’s still kinda a thing. I’m not one of those ‘the sky is falling in’ types who is devastated by the loss of Christendom; and I think we have to keep acknowledging that secularism and its ethical vision, in the west, are still profoundly shaped by Christian values (even the left who want justice, liberty and dignity for humans; to liberate people from oppressive structures — that’s Christian right there), but I do think it’s patently obvious that a ‘secular age’ has dawned (in part through maximised choice about what to believe), and that we’re in for a period of being a minority who’re being called to account for what the church did when it enjoyed political and social power.
Anyway. This bridge building v wall building paradox (or simply a commitment to bridge building) stuck itself firmly in my craw, and has created a growing sense of dissatisfaction with my institution; which seems committed to building walls on matters of race (where we’ll build walls on acknowledgments of country and the Voice to parliament), on sexuality, and on the full participation of women in the life of the church (even if one holds convictions about different roles for men and women, at the moment you couldn’t say we’ve fully imagined a mutual and cooperative co-labouring in the mission of the Gospel as fellow workers). The catch is, I’ve looked at the denominational or institutional landscape on offer in Australia and found all the alternatives suitably lacking. So in this conversation with my friend Dave Benson — who I’ll name because I’m about to quote (badly), I sketched out what I’d love to see in a church network (and hey, it could be within an always reforming Presbyterian Church) not just responding to the challenges of the present time, but as an expression of who we’re actually called by Jesus to be. I described this sort of church as a ‘unicorn’ — I’ve described some of this previously as a church for the “excluded middle”; ignored and alienated by a culture war.
A few days after reading the De Young piece, I happened to listen to a podcast interview where Dave described a church he’d been part of establishing here in Brisbane — there’s much that resonates with me about his vision for church in this interview, but nothing more than when he described what I think is an even more Biblical vision for church than bridge building. Dave talks about his in-laws experience as livestock farmers, and how farmers gather their animals. In a sheep farm fences have some use — but if you want the sheep to gather together in a spot, you don’t build a tiny paddock with a strong fence to contain them; you build a well.
Wells are a profoundly cool thing in the Bible — there’s a bunch’ve well-building projects in Genesis that are little ‘living water bubbling up to give life’ moments; where husbands meet wives and there’s the possibility of Edenic life on display. In Jeremiah God is described as “living water” and idolatry is described as ‘drinking from broken cisterns’ or wells; and the Hebrew word for well is beer. Which is fun. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and offers her living water he’s offering her life connected to the source; a return from exile; an invitation into Eden. Wouldn’t it be great if we conceived of the project of being the church as being little Edens — little wells — connecting people to the source of life and confident in the drawing power of the Gospel; of the person of Jesus and the life of the Holy Spirit (which hey, it turns out is what Living water is as we get a little further into John’s Gospel). What would happen to our vision of church and our approach to forming a community if we weren’t trying to keep people in or out with a wall, but inviting people to drink?
What would a denomination look like if it was committed to this? How would we approach contentious political, cultural, or ethical questions? Or the people experiencing those lived realities? We might see that transformed lives actually come from drinking that water, and that some of our fences or walls keep people out who might otherwise be changed; they might be brought from death to life; from exile from God to restoration to life in his presence. Wouldn’t that be amazing.
Anyway. In spelling out a little of where I think we’ve built fences not walls, in my conversation with Dave, I laid out some areas that I’d love to see at the heart of a network or denomination that I reckon would be ‘building a well’ that might draw people towards life in a pretty dry and dusty landscape.
I’d love a church that embraces a “Bible Project style Biblical Theology” rather than a systematic theology/doctrinal framework that is used to build walls — I say this not because the Bible Project gets everything right, but because too often denominations and traditions create an authority structure that is used to police people and frame our engagement with the Bible, and these structures tend to impose human constructions that are a product of time and place and expertise on how we approach the Bible. Biblical scholarship is good — and we’re always learning more about the richness of the Biblical text, especially read as a unified story that leads to Jesus (which is kinda what Jesus himself says it is). So much ‘wall building’ is bad traditionalism. We protestants even claim to be the church always reforming. A rich Biblical Theology is exciting and it gives the Bible back to people who’ve experienced the worst forms of abuse, exclusion, and trauma as a way to encounter God and be drawn into his life, as it is revealed in Jesus and poured out to us in God’s Spirit as both the fulfilment of the Bible’s narrative and our invitation to participate in that story.
I’d love a church that thinks about politics and ‘the systems’ and cities we live in through the spiritual lens the Bible provides where we see powers and principalities at work dragging people away from God so are more keen not to just bring those powers into the church as though they don’t need to be crucified, and radically altered (technology and techniques from the business world might be ‘wisdom’ that can be plundered, but they aren’t ‘neutral’ if they’re left in the form of a golden calf).
I’d love a church denomination that embraces a Side B sexual ethic — one that offers a positive vision of what life as an LGBTIQA+ person — or any person — with what has been described as a “vocation of yes” — a sense of how to faithfully steward our bodies in response to things we might otherwise sinfully desire, as an expression of living out our new story. So much wall building is built around ‘saying no’ and excluding those who might find new life in Jesus in a way that radically alters (altars even) the way we approach sex and our desires. I feel like LGBTIQA+ Christians committed to a Biblical/traditional view of sex and marriage and trying to work that out ‘in the flesh’ are caught between a progressive and affirming church and a church that wants to leave these folks outside the walls to be hit by projectiles, and there are few (if any) denominations built on saying “come to the waters and find life and work out what faithfulness looks like securely planted in Jesus and his people.”
Alongside this, I reckon it’d be great to have a church with a theology of the body — and of place and beauty — a vision for creation that doesn’t just reduce these physical things to ‘potential objects of worship or temptation’ but finds ways to encounter the physical world to glorify and enjoy God as the source of these good created things (and people). This would be transformative not just for how we approach questions of non-straight sexuality, but, for example — would counter both ‘purity culture’ and ‘porn culture’ (where bodies are reduced to tempting objects), and how we think about money, and generosity, and art, and architecture, and the full and abundant life we are called to. It’d be nice to have a positive vision at the heart of a movement; not just a commitment to avoiding sin. This might be part of building a well.
I’d love a church with a non-hierarchical, mutualist (and genuinely inclusive — regardless of sex, age, race, etc) approach to governance that avoids the pitfalls of congregationalism and top-down authoritarianism. This is tricky to build in to a church culture, but one would have to value listening, and the limits to growth and ‘productivity’ produced by such a structure. This also means rethinking how we approach metrics; I’d love a network that encourages and supports kingdom growth in various forms and expressions that isn’t wedded to raising money to expand one’s own little kingdom; or to the machine — to efficiency and technology and the market.
I’d love a church that appropriately holds Gospel clarity (proclamation) together with Gospel charity (deeds/justice etc), not as a tension or paradox, but just as a picture of integrity. It’d love this to include avoiding bad syncretistic church politicking that aligns with either conservatisve or progressive politics.
And a church where we all get to ride unicorns.
This is what a church that offers life — functioning as a well — would look like for me (and I’m aware that there’re plenty of wall builders whose bricklaying reflexes have been triggered by this stuff who’d now be keen to exclude me, and other cynics who just reckon this is motherhood and apple pie stuff that’s all good in theory and abstraction). These are the values — the distinctives even — that we’re trying to embody as a church community in the little corner of the church I belong in, in ways that have been rich (at least for me).
The really big paradigm shift here isn’t in the political or technical stuff — though that’s part of it — it’s in a shift in posture from defensive and pessimistic; a constant vigilance because we don’t want sinners in the camp or sinful ideas corrupting us , to a posture that is confident and invitational — where we want sinners in the camp, and at the table — drinking from the well — because that’s how God works to transform people.
Now, I’m not naive enough to believe a utopian church is possible, and institutions have a tendency towards become corrupted, sure — but I’m experienced enough in the machinations of church to know that there aren’t many churches reacting to a rapidly changing cultural context by asking ‘how do we build more wells’ rather than ‘how do we build more walls.’
I reckon if you’d like to be part of a church like this then the only thing really stopping us is not having enough wells. And, like the people of God in Genesis, maybe we should start digging so that life might bubble out. And if you have your own vision for a unicorn church — or what building wells looks like — hit me up. I think it’s time to break new ground.