Tag Archives: Church

Limit your freedoms, and take your time, for the sake of the future of the church (and the world)

Clocks cause secularisation.

This might seem like an odd flex; but that’s the argument I ended up settling on in an essay I wrote recently in a subject unpacking Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and its implications for being the church in the secular world.

One of Taylor’s basic starting assumptions is that our shared ‘social imaginary’ — the way we approach reality — has been ‘disenchanted’ — and while an inclination towards magic, the supernatural, and even religion might still exist in our world, part of what he means is that even in churches (where some belief in the supernatural is foundational) our view of time and space has been flattened. Where once churches marked a spiritual calendar as well as the passing of actual time, we now just see things in linear terms — and, like the rest of society — we’re increasingly particularly interested in the present reality; in the moment, or the instant. Our horizon for action and decision making has been massively reduced. We see this in the work of other thinkers too, and the way we make short term decisions, the way we view ethics in utilitarian or bureaucratic  terms rather than the virtue ethics of the past where we were less focused on the instant an ethical decision was being made, and more focused on shaping ethical character that would be brought to bear on those decisions. We’ve also flattened out our understanding of space so that only our present, observable, physical reality really matters — not only do we not conceive of space as both natural and supernatural (and of God as being present in the natural world as well as some supernatural order), we seem to have lost the ability to think long term about the shaping of space and its ability to provide for more than just our immediate needs and pleasures (see ‘climate change’).

We live in an age of instant gratification; where our horizons for decision making have been pushed into the very ‘here and now’ at the expense of the future (and certainly with an increasing, often optimistic, ignorance of the past). We’ve lost a sense of time and space being part of some grand narrative; partly because along with that disenchantment of space and time came a loss of the sense that God is at work, playing a very long game, as the author of space and time. The God who meticulously orchestrated history to centre on the death, resurrection, ascension and rule of Jesus — the lamb slain before the creation of the world — has been pushed to the margins, and so too has any sense that the world exists as a stage for a grand story that is bigger than the stories we write for ourselves.

This shrinking horizon is fed by what and how we consume; we live in an age where our whims and desires can be virtually gratified almost instantly; want the thrill of orgasm; no longer do you need to invest years in cultivating a relationship that leads to marriage; you can open your browser and self-sooth with pornography, or there are apps for hook-ups, or apps that take the hard work out of dating. But it’s not just sex, our consumer whims can be satisfied in ways that appear to satiate our hunger temporarily (think Uber Eats), but on that front we’re increasingly removed from the physical means of production of our food (we’re not even going to the restaurant where the food is made any more, let alone the paddock or the meatworks).

It might even be bugging you, as a reader, that you’ve already read 600 words and I don’t seem to have done anything with that initial statement that clocks cause secularisation. You’re too busy for this. Your attention span has been stretched. This format of information delivery does not mesh with your desire to understand the point of this piece right now. Why are you even bothering with this, you might be asking. How many tabs are open on your browser? And how many notifications are displaying on your email tab, or your Facebook tab, just beckoning you to click away (for me it’s 4,300+ on my gmail tab, and (1) on my Facebook tab).

700. How many of those words did you skim?

In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff describes the way the collapse of narrative and the rise of the ‘present’ has led to a certain sort of apocalyptic fascination (the type also explored in How to Survive the Apocalypse by Alyssa Wilkinson and Doug Joustra). Towards the end of his book he describes the relationship between ‘present shock’ and living as though the end of the world is imminent; what would you do if you found out you had a day to live? Chances are, you’re already doing it… because that’s how we live.

“Present shock is temporally destabilizing. It leads us to devalue the unbounded, ill-defined time of kairos for the neat, informational packets of chronos. We think of time as the numbers on the clock, rather than the moments they are meant to represent. We have nothing to reassure ourselves. Without a compelling story to justify a sustainable steady state for our circumstances, we jump to conclusions—quite literally—and begin scenario planning for the endgame.”

We don’t say no to our impulses for a variety of reasons; but one of those is that in our liberal, enlightened, secular world — where there is no grand story, no God, no reason to limit our freedoms (or in the Christian version, God died to totally set us free so we can do whatever we want within the boundaries of his love) — we have become the gods of our own lives; the authors of our story. Our job, as humans, is to be who we were made to be (and who our inner self tells us we should be). To be true to thyself; and to express that truth by living freely and authentically in the moment, as an individual.

This is the pattern of this world.

Now imagine applying that pattern to the church.

Is it any wonder that our approach to church — to relationship with God and others — is mediated through the question of what’s best for me in an instant? A church doesn’t have the means to supply my needs or the needs of my family right now, so right now I’ll decide to go to one that does. A church isn’t helping me to grow in my knowledge or godliness or chosen metric right now, so right now I’ll go to one where there’s a better alignment with my priorities. A church doesn’t feel like deep community right now, and I don’t feel connected to the people, so I’ll leave and start a whole batch of new relationships right now hoping for instant community.

We make our decisions based on the minute hand of the clock; not viewed through the prism of a lifetime, but if Rushkoff and Taylor are right this is because we are being formed this way by a culture that has lost its narrative, and that bombards us with stimulus that keeps our social imaginary truncated not just by disenchanting space and time and their relationship to God’s eternal plans, but by promoting both ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ as the essential basis of the good human life, and ‘right now’ as the ultimate horizon for that freedom. This stops us placing limits on our immediate individual freedom for the sake of others, and the sake of ourselves. It means our ethical paradigms and our approach to decision making are built entirely on pragmatics or utility. This is the spirit of our age; this is the pattern of this world.

We’re meant to be different. God’s grand story is one where individual freedom is not the chief value; relationships are. Love is. Love of God, and love of neighbour. The desire for freedom and instant gratification were the motivations behind the fall of mankind in Genesis 3, and they’ve been a debilitating and deadly problem for us ever since. We are not made for freedom but for self limiting for the sake of others. In a great article titled ‘The Ethics of the Fall: Restoring the Divine Image through the Pursuit of Biblical Wisdom,’ Brendon Benz makes the case that to limit ourselves, freely, for the sake of relation is to be truly human; to manifest the image of God. Which is to say that the image of God is not something we bear purely as individuals; but something that we bear in communion with one another; which challenges a modern sense of “I” or “self” as God. Benz says of the idea that “that God is imaged only when two or more are gathered in the freely self-limiting relational character of God,” that this means:

“… An individual neither posses the divine image as a substance of his or her own being, nor images God in isolation. Rather, the imago Dei is manifest only in relation (Bonhoeffer 1997: 64–65; Barth: 228–30; MacDonald: 314–20; Sexton: 187–206). In the words of Moltmann (1993: 218), while “the self-resolving God is a plural in the singular, his image on earth—the human being—is apparently supposed to be a singular in the plural.”

Consequently, the “one God, who is differentiated in himself and is at one with himself, then finds his correspondence in a community of human beings, female and male, who unite with one another and are one.” Such an account serves as an important corrective to what E. Gerstenberger critiques as “the heightened sense of ‘I’ in modernity,” which he partially traces “to Old Testament origins” and “the anthropological doctrine of” individuals “‘being in the image of God’” (287).”

The fall, then, is a failure to self-limit both in terms of humanity’s relationship with God, and this image bearing function, and, to self-limit for the sake of the other; a failure to give up freedom, but instead a choice to be an “I”.

The story of the Gospel is the story of Jesus’ self-limiting sacrifice for our sake; as an act of mercy; with his eyes on an eternal future, not the short game. This is what we’re meant to have in view as we give our own lives in worship to God (and as we do that together — offering our bodies (plural) as a living (singular) sacrifice.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Benz concludes his piece with an observation that our image bearing nature is restored in the church, by the Spirit; which restores our task of imaging God in the world, in and through our relationships to each other — not simply as heroic individuals; and, in fact, not as an “I” at all. To image God we have to give up some of our freedoms to one another, in relationship — our bodies have to become a living sacrifice. Benz sees this transforming our relationship with each other, and with space (so also, with time).

“Thus, in the creative, life-giving encounters among humans, and in the creative, life-giving encounters between humans and the rest of creation, Spirit does not stem from the self, but is present when those involved freely self-limit in order to relate.”

We Christians need limits; not unfettered individual freedom — which is the pattern of the world; the good life according to our neighbours in the secular age we live in where everybody is experiencing present shock, and so feeling utterly disconnected from a big story and living every moment as though it is our last. We Christians have an utterly different view of space, and time.

One of my favourite books this year was The Common Rule by Justin Earley. Earley makes the case that true freedom doesn’t come from doing what you desire in any given moment (in part this is obvious because our desires are so profoundly shaped by external stimulus, especially our environment and culture), but rather from doing what we were made for (or being who we were made to be). His book lines up nicely with the thesis of Benz’s piece.

Earley says the common narrative of our time is that to “ensure the good life, we have to ensure our ability to choose in each moment,” he asks “What if true freedom comes from choosing the right limitations, not avoiding all limitations?”

Now. I was accused of sounding like a cult leader in my recent piece about church because I was encouraging people to limit their freedoms; the freedoms won for them via the Gospel. I think this is such an anaemic picture of the Gospel and the Christian life. We are free from slavery to sin and death, but we are freed to become servants of God. We are freed to give ourselves to the life-giving work of the kingdom of God. This is what happens when we individualise the Gospel so that it’s a message of personal salvation and freedom from all responsibilities, rather than seeing the good news as the good news of a new kingdom with a good king. A king who calls us to loyalty, who pours out his life-giving spirit to transform us into his image — the image of God again — and invites us to start living in his kingdom now not just as freed people who do our own thing, but as children of God who are united to God, and so to one another, by the Spirit. The Spirit which is a spirit of unity, that draws us together into the body of Christ so that we might self-limit in relationships to manifest the image of God in the world. If I was wanting people to ‘self limit’ to submit to some human authority or institutional structure (like ‘my leadership,’ or ‘my vision’ or ‘my church’), then that would be cult like. But the New Testament clearly expects us to submit to one another, and that submission, like a marriage covenant, involves a self-limiting of one’s freedoms for the sake of a relationship and a function in the world. My marriage covenant limits the expression of my sexuality, and of my economic freedoms, and all of my decisions really because Robyn and I make our decisions as ‘one’ rather than as ‘two’; and in doing this we reflect the relationship between Christ and his church, but also we reflect the image of God as Adam and Eve were meant to. Church communities, as they come together as the body of Christ, and self-limit for the sake of relationship with one another do the same — and this self limiting starts with the leaders. If leaders aren’t doing this then the community they lead isn’t a body of Christ, it’s a group structured around the leader.

2,500 words, and still nothing about how clocks cause secularisation. So now, let me explain.

The first mechanical clocks were created in monasteries to help the monks track sacred time; they were designed so that monks could follow their ‘common rule’ and pray at the designated times each day. They regimented life in the monastery with a new sort of precision. They changed our ability, as humans, to measure time — bringing more precision, and ultimately they started to shift the monastic account of time from ‘kairos’ to ‘chronos;’ and they spread out from the monastery into the villages. Town squares started being dominated by a large clock, which brought synchronicity to the village’s practices, workers would leave home in lockstep, and arrive home at the same time — becoming more like automatons than people were previously; the way people spent time began to be ruled by these machines that operated like clockwork. Village life began to operate like clockwork. More precise measuring of time made for more precise accounting of time; workers, and then all village life, was ruled by the clock. The more linear and measurable and machinelike time felt, the less enchanted it felt. The pressures of the clock, of being in the right place at the right time, of productivity, of machine like efficiency began to shape people; the mechanical advances that produced the clock began to be applied in factory settings, and soon machines were more prominent features of people’s lives and imaginations. At some point the presence of clocks and their effects on time started encroaching on how people conceived of space; of the physical universe. We started viewing reality as machine like, and God as a clockmaker. The clock, and then other pieces of technology, started to dominate our social imaginary, and eventually the clockwork-like processes of space and time produced deism, the idea that God had created the universe and then stepped back, that space and time were just ‘natural’ products of a God and we didn’t need to worry about an enchanted, supernatural, dimension of space and time, and then eventually we kept the clockwork model but did away with the need for a clockmaker; and as this all happened clocks were becoming more and more precise, and present, ruling more and more of our lives, and ultimately helping to contribute to our fixation with the moment; with the now and what I’m doing this second, at the expense both of an enchanted understanding of the universe where the clockmaker intervenes with reality, and of the future.

The clock began to set a limit for our thinking and imagining, tying us to this space and this time. Flattening and hollowing our experiences and our decision making. Producing (or being partly responsible) for the conditions Taylor describes in A Secular Age and that Rushkoff describes in Present Shock. The patterns of this world.

Patterns we Christians need to break.

Our approach to church, as leaders and members, is so often dominated by the short game. We want silver bullets. We want growth. We see a culture obsessed with the immediate and bombarding us with stuff. There are so many messages out there clamouring for our time and attention in this distracted age and our instinct is to get the Gospel out there amongst the distraction, and the way we think will get the greatest cut through is to compete with that distraction with the forms of the world; the forms that give us 24 hour news cycles with no time for developing connections to a bigger story; that give us ‘instant’ hits for our desires whether via pornography, Tinder, Grindr, or UberEats; that truncate our attention span; that pull us out of any sense of a big story in order to have us consume our way to (momentary) happiness; that rely on our addiction to that happiness with quick fixes and instant gratification; and that then apply this schema to our relationships — whether family, or church, rather than valuing a long, slow, obedience in the same direction with the same people.

The patterns of this world are broken. Deadly.

We don’t need unfettered freedom; the Gospel is not just a message of freedom from your personal sin, it’s a message of freedom to be who you were made to be. And you were made to be in relationship with God, with others, and with God’s world — as cultivators of fruitfulness. People who plant orchards and bed down into places as a testimony to the God who authors a story that takes more than one life time to be revealed, and to the nature of his kingdom. A God who is patient, and careful, who orchestrates, who sweats the small stuff. Who doesn’t value character above results, but for whom character is the result.

There are people out there deeply concerned with how much our clocks are shaping our experience of the world; people determined to break us from present shock. Ironically, one of those people is Jeff Bezos, from Amazon, who ultimately is the person profiting most from the patterns of this world and our obsession with instant gratification, and whose whole company is designed to make consumption as frictionless and fast as possible… Bezos has joined a group of other people sponsoring a clock that aims to alter our ‘social imaginary’ — to break us out of short term thinking; to free us from captivity to the instant and to silver bullet solutions to our problems. This group of people realise that problems like Climate Change are systemic and don’t need individuals making short term consumer decisions (like recycling), that we need more than mindfulness and things that offer momentary escape from the status quo built on self-denial (McMindfulness by Ronald Purser is a good book for showing how much we’re told that individuals are the solution to the world’s problems, and then we’re given mindfulness as a form of medication against the anxiety such an overwhelming challenge produces, by the very corporations who should actually be making the changes). This group wants us to see time differently, to approach problems playing the long game. To encourage us to realise that change of any substance, whether in ourselves or society, takes a long march in the same direction, not a flitting about following every whim, distraction, or better option that presents itself. They’re a group called “The Long Now” and they’re developing a 10,000 year clock; built inside a mountain (pictured back at the top, all those words ago). They’re hoping to shift how we assess our decision making by reminding us that we’re part of something bigger; part of a story even — they want to challenge us to be good ancestors. The inventor of the clock said:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

Perhaps we Christians don’t need a clock because we already have an entirely different sense of time because we know the author of the story, and we know the ending of the story we belong to, but perhaps there’s something we can learn from this project to challenge the way we’ve been suckered into a world dominated by the clock (and then the computer screen, smart phone, and smart watch; the ‘I’ things).

What would happen to our churches if we rediscovered ‘kairos’ time so that we weren’t ruled by ‘chronos;’ and if we organised our lives and relationships, and visions, around the long now, not the present shock we find ourselves living in. What if we need a new sort of monastic approach to life where we refuse to be totally ruled by the moment?

What if at exactly the point we start to feel ‘tired’ of the same people, and routines (or liturgies), and songs, and we’re itching for a change in environment, that’s the moment that those parts of our life are most capable of working on us deeply? What if a rut is a good thing and freedom to choose whatever gratification we’re looking for in any given moment is the enemy of genuine godliness and contentment? And the sort of relationships where we bear the image of God as we limit ourselves?

Maybe the change worth celebrating in the Christian life comes from a deep and abiding connection to God and to his people. Maybe connection to God and to people takes putting down roots rather than chasing a quick fix that will produce fast ‘growth’ in a particular metric. Maybe it’s actually the walking together with your brothers and sisters that produces the growth, the love, and the self-limiting, that will present the image of God to a distracted world disconnected from a deeper sense of time and place; a world that has lost the organising idea of a story for our lives, let alone the idea of a story authored by someone else; let alone a story authored by God, that we’re brought into by his Spirit.

Maybe we need to change our thinking so that our questions are “what will I look like, and this church look like if I’m still here in 20 years” rather than “will this church meet my needs next year”. Maybe we need to imagine our relationships, whether we feel deeply connected or not, with an entirely different horizon to ‘right now’… Maybe we need to give things time to germinate, and flourish, before cutting ourselves off from them and grafting ourselves in somewhere else. Maybe that’s actually what love is — not just a feeling, not just short term gratification, not just an orgasm, but long term commitment through the ups and downs of life; and maybe that’s where transformation actually happens.

So look, to the people who suggested that the Spirit might call us to leave a church, and that this is an expression of individual freedom, I want to say that if there’s a spirit causing disunity, and if that call can’t be discerned by more people than just you — that is, by those you are called to image God with in relationship, as you self limit (or love) for the sake of the long term growth, maturity and fruitfulness of one another — then this is more likely to be the “spirit of the age” than the Spirit of the living God. And you should be careful. Maybe we should take the clocks down, and our watches off, and start measuring time and seeing space differently; as enchanted again; so that we aren’t conforming to the patterns of this world one tick or tock of the second hand at a time.

Why the problem with the church is the “church” (not with the people who leave)

I’ve appreciated the conversations that happened off the back of my “I can’t do this any more” — many friends have reached out to express concern about what might prompt such a raw post, some pastors have contacted me because I hit on a shared experience, but mostly I’ve appreciated the pushback (even from those who suggest it sounds like I want to authoritatively lead some sort of cult). The pushback I’ve most appreciated is from those who fear a message like this, from a pastor figure who has some authority might bind people who’ve been abused or traumatised to churches that will then continue that traumatising or that abuse.

That’s a legitimate concern to be raised in this sort of conversation; especially if I’m essentially arguing that our covenant commitment to one another in the church — the “bride of Christ” — is similar to the covenant commitment we make in marriage. 

I want to say, like a pastor might say ‘marriage is a fantastic thing that God has made for the joining together of two people as one, and its value is ultimately not in ‘feelings’ or what it does ‘for me’, but in a lifelong commitment to love one another in sickness and in health; for better and for worse, as a picture of Jesus’ love for the church (Ephesians 5). I also want to say as I teach on marriage, that divorce is a necessary provision in a fallen world for the protection of people from abuse, and to provide a way to escape trauma when a covenant is broken. 

So I want to say that belonging to a church is a fantastic thing that God has given us, as a gift, by uniting us to Jesus and one another by the Spirit; that belonging to ‘the church’ is expressed by belonging to ‘a church;’ and that the value of that relationship comes through covenant commitment to unity with one another. This commitment is expressed and lived out through forgiving and forbearing; through love as an act of sacrificing self interest for the sake of others; and for being in relationship for the long term on the basis of the covenant commitments we make to one another at certain junctures (like baptism, membership, and even sharing ‘communion’ or ‘the Lord’s supper’ with one another). In 1 Corinthians, Paul builds the metaphor of the body and our belonging to one another in marriage, to explain why believers should not unite themselves to others in sexual immorality; he argues that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit; and then in 1 Corinthians 12 that same Spirit is uniting the members of the church to one another so that we also belong to each other. This sort of belonging is as open to abuse as Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5. I am certain that these verses can be used to force people into submission to church authority. 

But, just as there are grounds for divorce in marriages that do not reflect the Gospel, but ‘Babylonian’ narratives about self, and power, and domination of others, so too there are grounds to leave a church. I think the duty of a believer in such circumstances is, perhaps, similar to the duty of a Christian spouse leaving a marriage where both partners have made a covenant with one another on the basis of a shared faith. I think sin should be rebuked, repentance and reconciliation sought, other parties involved, and the rights, safety and wellbeing of the victim protected above those of the perpetrator.

To be clear, the bone I’m picking in my recent post is not with people who leave the church; it’s with a church that perpetuates a view of itself that makes leaving the most normal course of action for someone as an expression of the free market and individual choice. Our problem is that we’ve perpetuated a thin view of church where church is a product; but also that our churches have essentially been Babylonian and so doing real harm to people without a path to restore relationships or reform the church; pastors and leaders of the institution of the church are to blame for this, because who else is shaping the culture, understanding and practices of the church and thus how we experience and understand church? My call is not for people to be more committed to bad models of church, to express that commitment by putting up with more — it’s for all of us to change how we conceive of church. If people have been traumatised by churches they should not stay in ways that perpetuate the trauma; but the church (as an institution) has a responsibility to consider why we’ve caused trauma and how we play a part in healing. But it’s also true, I think, that our conception of the church (or a church) as a thing we can just ‘leave’ is the result of a false picture of church that we have perpetuated (and one that is probably more inclined to traumatise people than a more Biblical, less Babylonian, church).

And, mea culpa, there are people who have left our church because of my failures as a leader. Some have perhaps been traumatised by my bad decisions, or my words, or my actions; or by our culture, our practices, and our environment. We have fed a culture of consumerism, and so consumed and burned out people by suggesting that godliness looks like doing more. I am imperfect and inexperienced. I have been Babylonian in my approach, at times. Lots of this is self critique and a desire to approach church differently. I am the leader of a church that is still working out how leadership and authority are worked out, and where elements of our practice have been more Babylonian than shaped by the Gospel. The thing that haunts me about these leavings, more than my guilt about my own failures (though that is real), is the lack of reconciliation — both because when someone leaves it removes some of the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness, but also because the break of fellowship removes the capacity for the healing that comes from forgiveness, forbearance, peacemaking, and ongoing love and unity. 

The more Babylonian a church is in its structures and practice — including the authority given to the pastor and how much they are perceived as being the primary ‘image of God’ (remember the Babylonian creation story where the king was the image bearer) — the more likely it is to be abusive and traumatic. Don’t stay in Babylon; just don’t leave without challenging Babylon and giving those in leadership the chance to repent and be reconciled. Recent history is full of Babylonian, abusive, church leaders who fail to genuinely repent in those circumstances (there’s some well documented examples in the U.S, and probably some not so well documented examples in Australia with the current conversations about bullying within church ministry teams happening online), so the path towards this sort of leaving well is also fraught with danger. A hint will be if in such a conversation a leader appeals to his or her authority and refuses to let you go. But I suspect lots of the literature around domestic violence, narcissm, and abusive relationships will also help spot traumatising church systems and leaders. To say we shouldn’t work through that difficulty is a bit like saying that domestic violence is a reason to stop encouraging people to get married and pursue covenant faithfulness when times are tough. 

Churches abuse. Churches traumatise. Pastors abuse. Pastors traumatise. Church members abuse and traumatise each other; where those churches, pastors, and members, are genuinely living the Gospel story those moments of sin that cause trauma are opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation, and forbearance; and in those processes it will become more or less clear if the abusers are Babylonian wolves who should either be run out of town, or run from… but if that’s the case then your brothers and sisters in those churches should leave too, not be left behind. And the processes of church discipline that our western churches have departed from (because when you try to discipline someone — whether a pastor or an individual — they tend to just leave one church and go to, or start, another) were perhaps an essential part of a less individualistic church and its ability to be what the church is called to be in the world.  A lack of accountability to anybody but yourself; and your sense of where the Spirit might be guiding you is a recipe for Babylon. God gives us a community, who we’re united to by the Spirit, to discern where the Spirit might be leading us together. It’s hard for me to believe that the Spirit who unites us will also lead you away from the people he has united you to without any opportunity for you to talk through that leading with those people. But 99% of the people I see leaving churches have done that without speaking to anybody (except perhaps, the leaders of the church recruiting them to their ‘better’ show), and most of the conversations I’ve had have been with people who have already decided to leave (and so lost some of the capacity to be sent well to another church). Where people have left us because of trauma — or my failures to love and leave well — they have left without the conflict being truly resolved or any opportunity for reconciliation and ongoing fellowship and unity to be experienced by either party; this is the loss of an opportunity to experience the Gospel; the love of Jesus; in the midst of our sinfulness, but also in our new, non-Babylonian, relationships. It might very well be that in those circumstances the trust in a relationship is broken to the extent that forgiveness and reconciliation is possible, but full restoration is not. I’m not arguing people should never leave a church; or that the pastor alone should dictate when — Paul’s picture of the church has the pastor playing some sort of shepherding role, absolutely, but has the members belonging to each other; not the pastor as the image bearing king.  The trick is also that in church communities (as opposed to marriages) the absolute best thing for an abuser; a Babylonian; is to belong to a church — they may need to be sent to a different church to protect their victim, but connection to the body of Christ is the best context for repentance, forgiveness, and genuine reconciliation; for dealing with sin in a way that breaks a vicious cycle. 

The point isn’t that churches or marriages should be built on rules, or even on vows. It’s that our vows reflect the story we are participating in (both in marriages and the church), and more than that, that we come together united in love; and love that expresses itself through deep, lifelong, commitment that does come at a cost, but also comes with benefits. It’s no coincidence that Paul lands his teaching on the oneness of the church, as one body, with a passage that gets read ad nauseum in weddings.

And yet I will show you the most excellent way. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.”

‭‭1 Corinthians 12:31-‬13:1-8‬ ‭

A church built on this version of love won’t feel like Babylon; it won’t abuse or traumatise; it will deal well with sin and hurt. It might feel like a cult, but it will also be a place where the love and example of Jesus, and the story of the Gospel — of sins being forgiven, relationships reconciled, new lives being given — is lived and experienced by all those members of his body, and those who might come amongst us.

I can’t do “this” any more (and I’d invite you not to either)

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to tell people about Jesus as a job. I mean, I also wanted to be a sports journalist, I am quite idealistic about what the press might be and what journalism is, and I enjoyed my time working in public relations. But there has been a deep and abiding desire in my bones (and my genes) to see lives transformed by Jesus as people have their hearts and imaginations fired up by the way of life he offers, that is described in the story of the Bible. This new way of life that involves us being pulled from death and destruction — an old way of life that destroys others — as an act of forgiveness, grace and love from God, where we are given new life with God forever. I love that the pattern of the cross and the hope of resurrection could transform the world for better now, and that I believe it will, ultimately, for eternity. Christianity makes intellectual and emotional sense for me in a way that nothing else does; it lines up with how I think people and societies work (or should work), and offers a profound critique of the alternatives. It answers big questions, and gives bigger ones to explore. It is full of tensions, or mysteries, or paradoxes, that reward curiosity. The Bible is great literature that tells an amazingly integrated story (spanning genres, and millenia), centred on the heroic victory of Jesus through sacrifice, resurrection, ascension, and now rule. A story that we can tell, but that we can also live. I can’t comprehend a more valuable use of my time and energy than contributing to God’s mission in the world. I love the church. I love the way that God calls a bunch of weird people to follow Jesus and pours his Spirit into us to unite us in something bigger than ourselves.

I’ve been blessed to be supported by many people in the last six years (and four years before that as a student) who’ve given money to free me to do this as a full time job; who’ve loved and supported Robyn and I as we’ve supported others, and started our little family. I’ve worked alongside many others, paid and not, who are committed to this cause. We’ve seen lives transformed by the Gospel. This is my life.

But I can’t do “this” anymore.

At least not in the way “this” is happening.

This morning I had to console my four year old daughter because several of her favourite people are leaving our church community. I had to console her because she asked why we were so sad. Why I struggled to get out of bed this morning. Why I don’t want to do “this” anymore. Robyn and I have spent the last few weeks reeling from conversation after conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ who, for various reasons, won’t be continuing in fellowship with us. And each one of these conversations feels like an amputation.

None of us should experience the sort of phantom limb feeling of looking around one week for the members of our body who were there last week with no idea where those members have gone. None of us should be cutting ourselves off from the body we belong to and are connected to. No parent should have to explain why their big sister in Christ, or their little brother in Christ, is not going to be part of their life any more. I recognise that we don’t live in an ideal world, and that the visible church is a complex and variegated reality; but we could, perhaps, attempt to be a little more idealistic in our execution of what church is meant to be, rather than simply accepting the status quo. Especially if that status quo is deadly and at odds with what the church is meant to be. As a church we’ve chopped off far too many pieces of ourself (or had too many pieces chopped off) over the last few years for that loss not to be dramatically and significantly felt. The job of the pastor seems to me to be a giving of one’s self over an over again, in all sorts of relationships, only for those relationships to suddenly disappear by the autonomous decision of an other; and this isn’t just true for those in ministry; it’s true for any member who stays connected to a body. Staying in church, belonging, often hurts. It can feel like people are wielding their scalpels with one another as we bump into each other, sometimes pruning one another, sometimes chopping into bits that feel more essential, and sometimes causing deep wounds that hurt; but healing and growth actually come through that pain, through wounds being bound up, hurts being forgiven, and blood or an organ or two being donated. Amputation is a terrible and drastic step that alters both the body as a whole, and the body part; even if that part is grafted elsewhere. Sometimes healthy transplants can be vital and life giving to other bodies though, but never without cost.

Our church is in a period of transition; you may have read my manifesto. Part of that transition involves a changing of place, time, and philosophy of ministry, and we’ve invited people to use this moment as an opportunity to commit with us, or look elsewhere. Every time we have made major changes in the structure of our church, people have left us. Some have told us, some have ghosted. I feel like each person who has left our church in the last six years has taken a piece of me with them. Sometimes we have sent people to other churches with our blessing, as an act of Gospel partnership. Some people have left fellowship with us because they’ve left Brisbane. Some have broken fellowship with us over theological disagreements. Some have tried really hard to stay and ultimately felt called to leave for a variety of reasons. There are good ways and bad ways to leave a church; but whether good or bad, each leaving is a cutting away at a unity that is meant to be greater than the unity we experience in the fibres of our embodied being. Paul uses the metaphor of the body to describe the church; it’s one of his favourites. The thing about metaphors is that the reality they point to is always ‘greater’ than the analogy we use to describe them. Metaphors are visual reductions of a concept to make it easier to grasp. The connection we enjoy to one another by the Spirit that dwells in us and units us to Christ is greater than any other connection between people — if Jesus is to be believed as he calls people to leave their family networks to follow him this connection is greater than our biological connection to family.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” — 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

I can’t do this anymore because what we do in the west is not church. We’ve commodified the body of Christ so it’s something you can leave without being sent. We’ve individualised our spirituality so that our decisions around church are based on ‘choice’ and ‘personal growth.’ We’ve fragmented community life so that most of us are driving past a variety of churches to attend the community of our preference, and when our preferences change, or our stage of life changes, we change our community. C.S Lewis and Marshall McLuhan both wrote about the damage the automobile (literally ‘self’ mobile) did to village life, but beyond the combustion engine technology continues to wreak havoc on our shared life, fragmenting space and time and the rhythms of our life and freeing us to be autonomous authors of our own destiny and communities in ways that mean we don’t do the hard work of face to face life with people we don’t like, but who we are called to love. I’m not a Luddite, so not suggesting that we should stop driving to churches to be with those we are called to be in fellowship with; those whom we are united with by the Spirit, but I am suggesting that we should recognise the costs of our patterns of life, and the way that “Babylon” and its values keep infecting the church.

Babylon is a metaphor in the Bible. One the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation, picks up to describe the human empire opposed to God in favour of self. Its roots go back to the tower of Babel, where people rather than going into the world to generously and abundantly spread God’s flourishing vision for humanity, decide to ‘make a name’ for themselves. In Revelation, Babylon is depicted as a city built on power and commerce; on grasping hold of the things of this world to build one’s own security. Babylon comes crumbling down. Ultimately. And yet we still, as Christians whose future in the “New Jerusalem” is secure, keep turning back to Babylon for our patterns of life, in ways that shape our patterns of church. Babylon, as the empire that took Israel into captivity in the exile, offered a very different narrative about the good human life to Israel’s narrative, a story that came with very different patterns of behaviour, forging a very different character in its people.

Lots of Old Testament scholars argue that the Biblical creation narrative, where God brings life and order and makes us in his image, is in such stark contrast to the Babylonian narrative (The Enuma Elish) that it must have had a particular significance in counter-forming Israel during the exile. Some believe the parallels between the Genesis story and the Enuma Elish (and other ancient creation stories) are so strong that you should read them as polemics or correctives of the sort of Babylonian story that Israel might have been tempted to be ‘re-created’ by during the exile. The Enuma Elish depicts only the king as the ‘image of God,’ and the gods of Babylon as chaotic, destructive, self-interested figures who are obsessed with conquest and its spoils. This story was used to justify Babylonian military expansion around the ancient near east, but also shaped a certain approach to human life, where people are objects, with no inherent dignity, to be used to secure pleasure and prosperity; for the gods, and those who were most ‘godlike’ in their position in society. To be Babylonian was to approach life as a consumer; a consumer of the world, and a consumer of others. To flourish in Babylon one had to climb the hierarchy to become as close to the gods as possible; we see an interesting hint of this in the book of Daniel in those within the Babylonian court who do all in their power, in a dog-eat-dog world, to entrap Daniel and remove him from influence.

In his book Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times, scholar Brian Walsh says our situation is very like Israel’s in exile in Babylon:

“We live in Babylon. Babylonian definitions of reality; Babylonian patterns of life, Babylonian views of labour, and Babylonian economic structures dominate our waking and our sleeping. And, like the exiled Jews, we find it very tempting to think that all of this is normal…

If our presence in this culture is to be Christian we must recognise with Christian insight the profound abnormality of it all. This means that we cannot allow our experience of exile to define reality for us. We must not allow the Babylonian economistic worldview so to captivate our imaginations that its patterns, its views, and its priorities become normal for us. This was also the central problem for the exiled Jews in Babylon. One of the ways in which they dealt with this problem was by constantly reminding each other of who they really were. In the face of Babylonian stories and myths, Jews told and retold their own stories. In fact, it was most likely at this time that they first wrote down one of their most foundational stories—the creation story.”

The difference is, unlike Israel, we are no longer exiled from God. It is clear what our story is; because in baptism and the pouring out of the Spirit we share in the death and resurrection of Jesus; our hearts have been made new as we are united to Jesus, caught up in the life of God, and marked out as children of God in the world. We are home. Not exiled. Babylon is a foreign land to us because we belong to a new kingdom with a new creation story. We have a new Adam. Jesus. We are new creations. Babylon’s days are numbered (see Revelation 18).

The Enuma Elish had its own tower of Babel story. Scholars have long suggested Babel was what’s called a ‘ziggurat’ — a stairway to the heavens; a stairway that would allow people to ascend to the heavens as those in the Babel story wanted, but that would also bring the gods down to earth. In the Enuma Elish the city of Babylon is founded as a ziggurat. In the Babylonian version of the story the tower isn’t built by people who want to be godlike, but by the god, Marduk. He announces his plan:

“Beneath the celestial parts, whose floor I made firm,
I will build a house to be my luxurious abode.
Within it I will establish its shrine,
I will found my chamber and establish my kingship.
When you come up from the Apsû to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
When you descend from heaven to make a decision
This will be your resting place before the assembly.
I shall call its name ‘Babylon’, “The Homes of the Great Gods”,
Within it we will hold a festival: that will be the evening festival.

The Babel story, in its ancient near eastern context, is the Bible’s story of the creation of Babylon; a temple-city opposed to God. A story of people wanting to be godlike; of wanting to be like Marduk; of wanting to rule on earth and in the heavens. It is a story of a certain sort of autonomy; of self-rule. A story of people being like Marduk, the Babylonian god of war and destruction and consumption. So much of our approach to church in the west is Babel like; it’s Babylonian. Our New Eden story offers a stunning alternative picture to Marduk; Marduk who descends from the heavens so that his people-slaves will serve and entertain him…

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. — Revelation 21:3-6

This new Jerusalem is our future; not the new Babylon.

We are new creations in Christ living with this new creation as our end; our ‘telos’ — our vision of the good, flourishing, life. We are not to be caught up in Babylon because Babylon will be destroyed. Violently.

Babylon is consumerism.

Babylon is a pattern of self-rule.

Babylon is seeing others, and communities, as things that serve you, rather than a body that is held together by love.

Babylon is the pattern of this world that produces digital disembodiment in platforms driven by a sinister ‘surveillance capitalism’ that harvests us digitally like we’re some sort of organ farm, and sells our desires and whims to the highest bidder; platforms that exert soft power influence on us reshaping how we see the world in ways we don’t even notice as we uncritically embrace technology (like the car, or the smartphone, or new social media patterns of behaviour) that subtly deforms our practices, our imaginations, and our desires, and so re-casts the image we live in the world. We end up bearing the images of the gods of Babylon. Babylon comes with rulers who become more and more ‘godlike’ at your expense; whether digital platforms that know more about you than you know about yourself, or their owners who become obscenely rich selling what they know to people who are going to sell you stuff, or a vision of life that will subtly change the way you interact with the world and others. Babylon comes with the story that says ‘the most important person in this world is you’ and ‘freedom is autonomous individual choice in the pursuit of your authentic inner self.’ Babylon comes with the story that says people and relationships are disposable. That community exists to serve your needs. That relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ can be severed by your autonomous wielding of the surgeon’s knife without concern for the impact that cut causes on anyone but you. The pattern of Babylon has us thinking about our immediate pleasure and needs; recalibrating our hearts via the ticking of the second hand of the clock, not the hour hand or the eon hand. It has us making decisions without the ability to hold a preferred picture of the future in view; relationships become interchangeable and disposable because we want quick fixes not the transformation that comes via a patient plodding along with the same people, in the same direction, for twenty years — and the requisite making of sacrifices here and now to secure a future end. Babylon has us obsessed with short term results against metrics that are ephemeral — like wealth and power — rather than long term results. Babylon is what causes a climate catastrophe and leaves us ill equipped to do the sort of planning or sacrificing now to avert a diabolical future. But Babylon’s own future is secure precisely because Babylon is diabolical. It is the Devil’s way of life.

Church is the opposite. The Gospel — our new creation story — says that your neighbours — your brothers and sisters in Christ — are united to you by something stronger than the biological tie of blood; it says that you exist to serve one another as you are transformed by the Spirit to love and serve and build up each other. It says that we should not give up the habit of meeting together with people, that we are to forgive and forbear and maintain connection to one another and that growth as the body comes through the bond of love, and peace, and fellowship, as we let the message of Christ dwell among us richly. It says church is not a product that we buy, or discard, but a community of people we belong to, marked out by a shared story, that comes with shared experiences, and a shared vision of the future. Our story is not that we build a stairway to the heavens to dwell with the Gods, but that God in Jesus descended from the heavens, to a cross, in order that God might dwell in us by his Spirit — uniting us to each other — and that ultimately he will dwell with us for eternity. Our story is that our gatherings now, face to face, are gatherings where we reject autonomy and automobility and ‘freedom via authentic selfishness’ — where we resist Babylon — in order to be shaped in the image of Christ through belonging to one another as the body of Christ; God’s living temple in the world.

The church is life giving. It unites people. It holds us together. It should be impossible to leave a church without being sent out (the pattern in the New Testament, I reckon), so long as those you gather with are your brothers and sisters. Churches grow — not numerically, but that too — when people stay connected to each other for the long haul, even when it appears your particular needs aren’t being met as well as they might be elsewhere. Churches grow when people work hard at loving each other imperfectly, through the ups and downs, over an extended period of time. The best results for church aren’t immediate but are long term. Church is like marriage; or family.It is not meant to be disposable.

Babylonian church — an attempt to live the story of Babylon at the same time as living the story of the Gospel — attempting to synthesise its patterns with the patterns of Jesus and his body — is costly and destructive; and the bodies pile up.

And I can’t do “this” any more. I won’t.

I can’t be part of a church that people leave easily; a church that is as disposable of a pair of worn out running shoes; where obsolescence is built in to keep you buying more (and where those shoes are increasingly made of cheap materials put together by cheaper labour).

The church can’t afford to do this any more. Firstly, because this, more than anything else I suspect, is going to burn out leaders of churches more than any other factor; either as they play the Babylonian game and try to grow churches through transfer growth from disenfranchised consumer Christians, or as they chop of piece after piece of themselves; seeing those they’ve poured love and time and energy into walk out the door and into some other community. That old sexual purity scare tactic where we were once told that sex is like sticky tape is a terrible way to promote the true, created, purpose and goodness of sex, but the oneness we experience in the body of Christ, brought into oneness by the Spirit, is, at least for Paul in 1 Corinthians, part of the same extended metaphor he uses to talk about sex and the oneness two bodies experience in sex. We are one body. We are meant to be a community built on communion with God, via the Spirit (expressed at a shared table), not a consumity.

Secondly, the church can’t afford to do this any more because Babylon’s destiny will be our destiny if we operate as Babylonian church. The patterns of this world are Babylonian and are geared towards making church fail because they are shaped by a profoundly different creation story to the church; they are shaped by the anti-Gospel; new forms of the Enuma Elish that turn us into gods and technology and consumption into the key for us having power and dominion and a godlike ability to fight against the limits put upon us by space and time.

I can’t do Babylonian church anymore.

Part of the New Eden Project was a recognition that we have, for years, perpetuated consumer Christianity in our practices as a church; and there’s been a live by the sword, die by the sword reality at play as some people have left us for greener pastures, rather than engaging in the difficult business of sticking it out in the body of Christ and working for the good of all. Some of this being complicit has been caught up in limiting the ability for different parts of the body to operate for the benefit of all.

I met with a friend recently, another pastor, who has launched a new church plant in the last few years relentlessly committed to being anti-consumer. For this other church this looks like changing how gatherings happen so that every member is involved, changing the expectations around time and community so that church isn’t just an event you turn up to and consume in as short a time period as possible, so that you can get right back to Babylon, but an event where everybody participates, and one that lingers.

We so desperately need to change how we approach church; and by ‘we’ I might first mean our family, and our church community, but the project is so much bigger than that. Babylon will be destroyed. Don’t conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Don’t get caught up in Babel projects; instead find a community that longs and lives for the new Eden; God’s presence with us, one for us and given to us in Jesus, and through the pouring out of the Spirit that brings life, and unites us to each other.

Please, if you catch this vision, if you share this frustration with the status quo; don’t leave your church. You might get sent by your church one day to be part of some new thing. But don’t leave your church. Stay. Commit. For the long haul. Plod away. Resist Babylon.

The New Eden Project: What shape might this take for a church community

I’ve posted a preamble, and manifesto, about this New Eden Project thing yesterday. And it’s all nice in theory, right? But what might it look like in practice?

The TL:DR; version is: the New Eden Project is about revitalising and renewing the spaces churches already occupy, and reclaiming other spaces, for communities of up to 150 people, that duplicate and spread into other spaces, while not relying on any ‘one’ particular church leader. Its practices are built around re-narrating life around God’s Jesus-oriented story, as we are re-created by his Spirit, to resist the patterns of the world, while living lives in communities that anticipate and testify to the renewal of all things, re-imagining the status quo in our church communities, but also for our neighbours.

I mentioned that this project is prompted by our experience as a church meeting in rented venues for the last six years, and in the context of a denomination where lots of buildings seem to be being ‘consolidated’ or whatever corporate euphemism you want to use for selling up properties. We’ve been part of that; our first few years hire costs were covered from the sale of an old church building. The church buildings around our city that aren’t built for massive communities (and we have a few of those), typically have physical limits for how many people they can accommodate (and carpark limits) of around 150-200. There’s a sociological number (the Dunbar number) that suggests 150 is about the size of a group (or tribe) where the members feel safe and so there’s a natural limit there. So, as we ponder the future we’re exploring the possibility of meeting in a suburban church building — and such buildings are typically a bit older and built prioritising function over form. So if this whole ‘project’ is going to go anywhere there are some fundamental convictions about what buildings should look and feel like, and what they should be used for, driving things; but also, cards on the table, I think there’s stacks out there about growing churches through the 150 or 200 barrier and the systemic changes you need to make to make that happen, and I’ve been increasingly thinking we’re actually better off creating healthy churches of 150ish that are trying to duplicate.

Our church growth models that are often built on an exceptional leader/preacher are problematic because we don’t have heaps of those around (sorry other leaders), and because when we do, those churches tend to grow at the expense of other churches around them; and that’s fine, big churches are in a position to do great things for the kingdom, but this is part of why we’ve got empty buildings and pastors burning out all over the shop (this is also fed by a consumer mentality where people last in a small church until there’s an ‘essential program’ missing and so drive to the next suburb over to a different church). If I’m going to lead a church, I don’t want to lead a church of 500, I want to train and equip people in my church community to occupy another building and grow a church of 150-200 that duplicates.

We’re also in a weird position as a community where because we have been a city church we have people driving to us from all over the greater Brisbane area; and our challenge is that we want people to be building relationships with the people they work, live, and play near (we’re pretty keen on Sam Chan’s Everyday Evangelism gear from his book (see review)). Being a city church has been fun, and I love the people who live a long way away from me, but we need some structural changes in how we meet on Sundays, and in small groups, so that our community can get involved in ‘team style’ evangelism (see that review), where people are naturally building good relationships and connections; not expecting non-Christians to travel across the city to come to a Sunday church service (though some might).

Here’s a shape for church life that I’m pitching; it’s a mix of semi-traditional church structures (with a few tweaks), small groups, and ‘fresh expressions’ of service/participation in the kingdom/New Eden Project, and of informal church structures (that can be a bit more of a movable feast/less tied to a physical ‘hub’). This is the bit where I’m really picking up and playing with the model Rory and Stephen from Providence in Perth have been developing (I think). So credit where it’s due, but they can, of course, distance themselves from the bits that they see ending somewhere bad…

Once again, after you have a read over this, I’d love your reflections.

Hub and Spoke Network

The New Eden Project values space and seeks to reclaim and renew it; ordering the physical space’s form (aesthetics) and function (architecture) towards the Bible’s story. Physical spaces aren’t just rain shelters. Habitats shape habits. The trend to prioritise function over form in church spaces, especially around AV requirements or turning churches into ‘multi-use’ space with an eye to commercial imperatives has led to church buildings being ‘non-places.’ Since spaces tell stories (and the medium is the message) this has served to tell a competing story to the Christian story; there’s no ‘neutral’ story or space, really. There are ways to create desirable common spaces that are organised towards a ‘telos’ or a story, that might still benefit the community outside of church activities. But a neutral aesthetic or layout is not neutral at all; for too long the church growth movement has sought to grow the church by ‘adapting’ worldly forms for the proclamation of the Gospel; but those forms actually adapt or colonise the content of the Gospel message. When we’re trying to dig into the problems of a consumer mentality in church communities and we’re not asking questions about how our ‘commercialisation’ of space is contributing then we’re missing the link between architecture and practices and belief.

Buildings are hubs for this New Eden Project; whether church spaces, homes, or, potentially, commercial spaces reclaimed for social enterprise type activities. Revitalising churches must necessarily include revitalising our physical spaces — even though the church is absolutely the people, not the building, habitats shape habits.

Houses where Gospel Communities or Growth Groups meet are part of the ‘spokes’ in this network; but they’re also an engine room for church planting or duplication, and a key part of how leaders are trained. Where these groups meet is likely to overlap with any future ‘hubs’ emerging. The goal of a healthy small group is to be part of some sort of local church renewal.

In terms of how this project might kick off in a church building, homes, and public space, a week might look something like this (taking up the practices from the manifesto).

Sunday Mornings (Hub)

Re-narrate // Re-sist // Re-imagine // Re-enchant

  • The church community gathers to be formed by God’s story in spaces cultivated and kept as ‘tastes of Eden’… gathered around God’s word as it is read, preached, sung, and practiced (prayer, spiritual disciplines, sacraments, liturgy, etc). Minimal technology. Relaxed vibe.
  • The preaching would be shaped by our theological anthropology (how we think people work and are transformed), our theology of the church (that we are the body of Christ and each one of us has a part to play for the sake of the other), our Biblical theology (that we think the Bible is one “Eden-to-New-Eden” story fulfilled in Jesus), and our understanding of different types of speech going on in the New Testament church (preaching, teaching, prophecy, etc). Biblical exposition is some, but not all of the diet in these terms (and, for example, penal substitution is some not all of the substance of the Gospel). Faithful preaching could involve story telling, performance, a time of sharing, encouragement, etc, with the agenda set by not just the content of a passage of the Bible, but ‘media’ questions like its form (you don’t find many expository talks given in the talks recorded in the Bible, sometimes the epistles we preach on are shorter than the sermons we preach on them, the original recipients of the New Testament writings weren’t actually literate so sometimes simply reading scripture out and discussing it together might be enough, etc).
  • The application of talks to the real world is not carried out solely by a male preacher operating as an authoritative priest (though I do still think there are roles in church that are determined, in part, by gender), but by the community via Q&A, a panel of members of the church (or guests), or in discussion groups. So our diet includes men and women offering Godly wisdom and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus to one another, and listening to each other. Whatever ‘male leadership’ looks like in a world marked by the patriarchal power structures of the Genesis 3 curse, it has to look like men using our privilege and strength to cultivate ‘Eden like’ space for partnership with women who feel safe; some part of male leadership/eldership (which I think the Bible establishes), I believe, is providing such space, hearing, and elevating the voices of women. I get that some people will dismiss this as a sort of ‘benevolent patriarchy’ — but I think the first Eden and the picture of the New Eden are places where males and females come together in genuine cooperation, rather than one holding a particular position of dominance over the other.
  • Kids program. Play based. Mix of outdoor and indoor time. I’d love to have a kids church curriculum integrate with the adult program but featuring lots of Duplo (ages 2-4) and Lego (ages 4-99+) where the imagination is being engaged around God’s story and how whatever part of the Bible we’re digging into fits into that story.
  • Eating together. Both taking part in communion (or as we Presbyterians call it the Lord’s Supper), and a shared meal.

Sunday afternoons — Gospel Communities ‘in action’ (Spoke)

Re-create // Re-sist // Re-plant // Re-enchant

If Sunday is a day people are setting aside, at least partly, for church, it’d be good to see church not just as time spent in a building with other Christians, but as a time to participate in Jesus’ mission of renewal. This wouldn’t be an every week activity for everyone; but would be planned activities with buy-in and encouragement from the leaders of the community. These groups would be prayed for and ‘sent’ by the morning gathering; with an invitation for anyone to join (the church community is a plausibility structure for the Gospel so we want people to belong before they believe, and belonging involves some sort of participation in church life). These activities would be more geographically scattered (ie not just near the church building, but closer to where people live/Gospel Communities meet).

These activities could include renewal projects like tree planting or acts of service in the community; resistance projects like political action; rest or play together as a community (re-creation), but involve opportunities for groups to discuss the day’s passage or service side by side. They ideally are activities that include children as participants not bystanders.

Sunday Nights — Dinner Church (Hub)

Re-narrate // Re-sist // Re-create

Over time we’ll be looking for opportunities to invite non-believers to experience a taste of the Gospel, and of the rhythms of life in church community. This may or may not work best in ‘church’ space (it probably needs to have had a pattern of moving from ‘public space’ to ‘private space’ as relationships have developed — see Sam Chan’s stuff on “Coffee, Dinner, Gospel” and moving from the “front yard” to the “back yard.” and Mary Douglas’ Deciphering a Meal).

These would look like a stripped back gathering around a meal. Dinner church is a thing. It might meet in a home, or a community hall rented for a shorter period of time. These would involve a short talk, a Q&A or panel, and discussions (and maybe some singing). Coming to a ‘dinner church’ gathering would be a legitimate expression of participating in church life; it’s not a ‘come to everything’ operation.

Midweek : Growth Groups/Gospel Communities (Spoke)

Re-claim // Re-sist // Re-narrate
Midweek our small groups commit to spending time in community with each other, and embedding in a more ‘local’ context. These groups involve a commitment amongst members to meet one-to-one to read the Bible and pray together. The groups themselves are outwards focused — looking for opportunities to ‘merge universes’ (as Sam Chan describes it). But the regular rhythms of the group are eating together, reading the Bible (using a stripped back, resource-light approach — either the Swedish Method or the Uncover method AFES has developed, or other approaches that are big on digging in to the text). These groups meet in places we see as outposts for mission; homes or third spaces. They can be a movable feast, but hospitality involves being hospitable guests who partner in this work, not just capacity to host. A group might commit itself to the physical renewal of the places they meet in (spending time side by side working on projects in each others homes).

These ‘Gospel communities’ are open to outsiders as a first step towards Sundays. The church calendar is deliberately uncluttered outside Sundays to allow these communities to shape the rhythm of life together.

Midweek — Community Dinner

Resist // Re-claim // Re-create
Where a ‘hub’ type building exists we use it to host community meals and/or food pantries to provide a taste of Eden. These are for the marginalised, but also for those in our neighbourhood seeking community. These would be a great gateway to something like a Dinner Church series on the “Gospel in Four Meals” (a great evangelism course from Providence). Community meals could also happen before local Gospel communities meet (ie dinner at 6, the group meeting at 7:30) to provide a natural avenue for invitations into those groups (my friends at Village Church here in Brisbane have been doing something like this). Our Creek Road campus of Living Church does a great Friday night community meal for families after the afternoon kids club, and before the night time youth program.

The New Eden Project: Manifesto

Manifestos are cool. Here’s a bit of a primer on what this is for in the form of a preamble. I did not follow the convention on Manifestos that I said I would back in 2011. Sorry.

The New Eden Project

 “Certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.” — Tolkien

Why the “New Eden Project”

The story of the Bible anticipates a re-creation; what was lost in the beginning is ultimately restored and renovated; what was a garden created for God’s image bearing people to “cultivate and keep” is, in the end, spread across the face of the earth. The last page of the Bible describes the scene this way:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. — Revelation 22:1-3

The prophet Ezekiel describes the end of exile from God as a return to Eden — a re-creation and restoration of humanity from the inside out, and a return to God’s presence. Ezekiel chapters 36 and 37 are full of vivid language, prophecies, describing this renewal. Ezekiel promises God’s scattered people, Israel, will be returned and restored, and through this, God’s promise to bless all nations will also be fulfilled. Israel’s return from exile makes return to Eden possible for all of us…

“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. — Ezekiel 36:24-27

Jesus, the son of God and the new Adam, comes to lead Israel home, and all nations back to Eden. It is Jesus who, in Revelation, “makes all things new.” It is Jesus in whom “all things are reconciled.” Jesus, the image of the invisible God, is the new image that we God’s people are transformed into by the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus who pours out the Holy Spirit as the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises to restore and recreate God’s people. When Jesus enters the world as ‘God with us’ and then, with the father, pours out the Holy Spirit, our exile from God ends; the new Eden project begins.

The liberation of creation begins with Jesus, and his kingdom of resurrected people living lives filled with the Holy Spirit. In his letter to the church in Rome the Apostle, Paul talks about the whole creation being under bondage to the curse of sin; subject to decay; he says the creation waits for the ‘revelation’ or literally the apocalypse of the children of God for its liberation. He says the Spirit marks us out as God’s children (Romans 8:16-17), and in the Spirit, we have the ‘firstfruits’ of this renewal.

This revelation and renewal ultimately happens in the new creation; the world is still broken; suffering because of sin, death, and curse, still marks our reality. We’re still waiting for the total renewal of all things. We wait eagerly for this future; but we do not wait idly. We are invited to testify to the future re-ordering of all things by re-ordering some things.

We are new creations in Christ. For us the “old is gone” and the “new has come.” We are already united to the resurrected Jesus whose new Eden project is already underway. We live in the ‘now and not yet’ of his kingdom. Our lives, our bodies (as temples of the Spirit), and the places we occupy, are part of the New Eden Project. The longing for the end of exile, for Eden, that Tolkien identified is fulfilled by Jesus but we are invited to provide a taste of Eden here and now.

What is the New Eden Project

The New Eden Project is Jesus’ mission — the mission to “seek and save the lost” and the re-creation and reconciliation of all things. The “Great Commission” to go into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28) is a renewing and renovating of the commission to the first people, in Genesis 1, to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” — to spread the conditions of Eden.

The New Eden Project is our project as a community of people gathered by Jesus and called to make disciples; to invite people to be transformed into the image of Jesus as they receive the Holy Spirit and become citizens of the New Eden. We go knowing that “Jesus is with us always, even to the end of the age” — our exile from God’s presence is over. God is with us, he dwells in us by his Spirit.

A project is action — it is action pursuing some sort of future. Our project is to act in a way that pursues and participates in the New Eden described when Jesus returns to make everything new.

The New Eden has some continuity with the Old Eden; what humanity was created for before sin and death entered the world is what we are re-created for in Christ. We were created, male and female, to be God’s image bearing people in the world, to be like God, to imagine and create, to be “fruitful and multiply” — to expand God’s life-giving, hospitable, loving kingdom — his presence — over the face of the earth as we ruled for him. In Eden, Adam was given the job of “cultivating and keeping” the garden, a task he couldn’t complete alone. Eve was created as Adam’s ally — his partner — in this task. Taken together, Genesis 1 and 2 give us the picture that humans — male and female — are created to co-operate in the task of spreading Eden, God’s temple-like dwelling place where he is present with his people across the face of the earth, a result we finally see in Jesus’ work in the New Eden.

Genesis teaches us that God made the world and made us to partner with him in stewarding it. The Bible also consistently describes the world as part of how we know God (Psalm 19, Romans 1). Eden, like the Temple that later is an echo of Eden, is the high point of the world fulfilling its function. Sin means we’re kicked out of Eden, and also that we don’t see the world according to God’s purposes for it, but rather our own. We have our own little kingdom building projects that lead to death and destruction because really they’re Satan’s building projects.

Our tasks, as children of God, in this New Eden Project, in a world exiled from God but haunted by a longing for Eden, are to:

  • Re-narrate the world and our lives in it. The New Eden Project is shaped by the Eden to New Eden story of the Bible. The Bible is God’s word — it is also God’s story. This is the story of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, for the forgiveness of our sins and his pouring out of the Spirit to re-create and restore us, ending our exile from God replacing our sinful nature with something new. Our lives, our words, our songs, and our actions retell God’s story of salvation in Jesus; they tell not just of the forgiveness of our sins and a pie in the sky future, but our union in the life and love of God so that we become the ‘body of Christ’ in the world. We are a people who live with Jesus as our king and the mission of renewal as our mission. Though we know this mission is ultimately fulfilled in his return and we know that the world and our lives are still marked by sin, suffering, death and curse, we live as those raised with Christ and seated in the heavenly realm. We reject idolatry and grasping self-gratification and seek to bring all things, including our own lives, towards their ultimate ends (or purposes). We live bringing a taste of the resurrected new creation, living now in our persons and our community even in our suffering. We invite people to taste and see that God is good in our lives and spaces as we tell this story.
  • Be Re-created by God’s Spirit, as we move from the patterns of this world, the pattern of Adam and Eve in the fall, to the pattern — or image — of Jesus, and so re-create our lives and the world in alignment with Jesus’ New Eden Project. Eden was a place of work and rest and play; it was a place of ‘re-creation’ as we people, made in God’s image, were to take up the task of ‘cultivating and keeping’ the garden using our God given imaginations and his good gifts to make life and culture (the conditions and creations that flow from pursuing life in God’s presence with him as our God). We work and ‘re-create’ (both rest and re-creation) with the goal of bringing the life and beauty and order of the God of the Bible into the world. We adopt habits consistent with this story and pursue transformation through a renewed mind as we let it dwell among us richly. We do this as people being re-created, in Jesus, by the Spirit, to be people of his eternal kingdom, anticipating the new creation, the new Eden. By the Spirit we are new creations now.
  • Re-enchant our understanding of space, time, and our lives because God has “broken in” to this world in Jesus (a cool place to notice this is in the tearing of the sky at the start of Mark, and the Temple curtain at its end), and through the pouring out of the Spirit, we reject the secular/sacred or natural/supernatural divide and see every moment as holy and the world as enchanted. We see creation as a gift from God and the proper use of creation as “revealing his divine nature and character of God” as we enjoy it and cultivate it with him present in our lives. We see work and rest and play as Spiritual practices that proclaim the kingdom we belong to and shape us in the image of the God we worship. We worship the God revealed in Jesus and serve him as our good and loving king. We seek to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves, living lives in his kingdom, participating in his renewing and reconciling mission, a mission that culminates in the New Eden.
  • Re-sist the patterns of this world — by deliberately rejecting the pull of idolatry and by deliberately counter-forming ourselves through different practices. The nations of people exiled from God are often depicted after the Old Testament as ‘Babylon’ — this is particularly the case in Revelation, the last book of the Bible. Babylon has the power to capture the hearts of the people brought into its power, and its stories. We resist Babylon through deliberate acts of counter-formation and resistance (including cultural critique and protest or political action). We have our own distinct aesthetic and practices rather than imitating the world and its forms. This could be in something as radical as hospitality and sabbath, or as mundane as protest or tree planting. The catch is, there is no mundane because every part of our life is marked by the sacred.
  • Re-imagine our relationships as we re-image our humanity in the image of Jesus, the image of the invisible God. We, as males and females, are invited to co-operate in Jesus’ project. The first witnesses to the resurrection — in the garden, where Jesus appears like a gardener, are women. We still, though anticipating a new Eden, live in a world whose patterns are shaped by the curse of Genesis 3, where men have used their strength to grasp for power and control.
  • Re-claim space, time, and our bodies as ‘spaces’ where the New Eden is being anticipated and presented in the world as a taste of what is to come. We recognise our bodies as fundamental to our nature as image-bearing creatures. We are not just souls or minds waiting for some ‘disembodied’ future. How we use our bodies shapes our hearts and souls. We seek to love and serve Jesus as embodied people who belong to Jesus’ New Eden Project. We use our spaces — those we share, occupy, and own — to provide a taste of the sanctuary of Eden, both old and new. They are places of beauty and hospitality. Places where God is glorified and where we recognise his presence and provision. They are places of life and light and water.
  • Re-plant ‘Eden’ in our homes, shared public spaces, and community spaces. There are lots of old buildings dedicated to worshipping God that have, at times, become too close to Babylon or that need new life. We commit to re-claiming and re-creating whatever space possible, ‘church building’ or otherwise, to be used towards the ends of God’s kingdom, bringing a taste of the New Eden and God’s presence in the world by whatever means possible. We are committed to ‘renewing’ (and so also renewables, recycling, and up-cycling). We also commit, in our resistance of Babylon, to re-plant natural spaces — to be ‘gardeners’ and stewards who ‘cultivate and keep’ the world God made — so that they reveal his divine nature and character, rather than our ravenous idolatry. We recognise that as humans sinfully degrade the planet this is evident in the natural world; and so we commit to an alternative pattern of life that stewards and re-creates the life-giving conditions of Eden wherever possible, from community gardens to tree-planting to our own backyards.

I have some ideas what a church community shaped by this sort of manifesto might look like. Do you? I’d love to hear them. I’ll share mine in a future post. If this sort of vision for church excites you, I’d love to hear that too. Also, if it leaves you cold and you think this is a diabolically bad idea, please tell me.

New Eden Project Manifesto: Preamble

We’re in a position as a church, and as a family, where a bunch of unsettled and up-in-the-air realities are about to come crashing down into some new sort of normal. This year we’ve been out of our house while replacing deadly asbestos with normal plasterboard (we’re hoping to be in our renewed home by Christmas). My boss (and friend) resigned from his position unexpectedly, which has thrown church life into chaos for us. The building we’re currently meeting in is up for sale and our lease expires in two months. And our church community has the opportunity to recalibrate as we find a new place to meet; each time we’ve moved from non-stable venue to non-stable venue our numbers have been decimated and the sense of being rootless has not been great for us. So I’ve been thinking about the next chapter of church life for me, as a pastor, for us, as a family, and for those in our church as a community. I signed up for ministry with the Presbyterian Church because my theology and understanding of polity line up with Presbyterianism, but also because our denomination is one that puts the Gospel at the centre of what we do and is in a situation where new ideas or fresh expressions of church might bring renewal to a bunch of communities and buildings around Queensland; we’ve been a nomadic church plant for almost six years, which, while ‘new’ and sometimes ‘fresh’ hasn’t really been easy, or what got me on the Presbyterian bus to begin with. I’ve got great respect for those church planters who spend years meeting in schools or other public spaces for hire; but I’m not convinced that’s the most effective use of resources or the best model for the church in Australia long term (imagine, for a moment, that state schools decided overnight to no longer lease buildings to churches).

I’ve written quite a bit over the years sketching out some areas where I think church could and should change — from a set of ‘theses’ to mark the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation, to some ideas about how church might function in a post-Christian, secular, culture, then how we might re-capture our story, to a thing about zombies and the “Benedict Option,” to sketching out an aesthetic that might support the telling and living of the Christian story as a sort of architecture of belief, pieces on rest, and play, and finally a sort of theological vision for how we should live as Christians in a world facing climate catastrophe. In that last post I used the phrase “the New Eden Project” so many times that it became a brain worm for me. And thus, bringing all those threads together, an idea for a model of church was born. This model owes quite a bit to a subject I took at QTC with Rory Shiner and Stephen McAlpine on “Ministry and Mission in A Secular Age,” and in some ways is an adaptation of their model (as I understood it).

This is a long pre-amble for my next post — which will sketch out a picture of church community and life in Jesus’ kingdom that I’m calling “The New Eden Project.”

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The church of the excluded middle

If there’s one thing we learned in the recent Australian election, just one ‘take home’ message, it’s that there aren’t just deep fault lines between religious and non-religious Australians, but, increasingly, there are fault lines running through the Christian community. I’m not sure ‘right’ and ‘left’ in Australian politics — or within the Australian church — have ever been more polarised. But then, I am still reasonably young…

The stakes seemed pretty high for religious Aussies, what with lobby groups like the ACL doubling down on ‘religious freedom’ and ‘keeping the Lord’s Prayer in parliament’ as two of their top five areas of policy concern for Christians’ (which led them to hand out how to vote cards that supported One Nation in certain ‘battleground’ seats (for what it’s worth, Tony Abbott’s pugilistic campaign page ‘battlelines.com.au’ seems to have been a misfire)). The Labor Party’s policy on abortion was also an issue of widespread concern amongst Christian voters — but that tends to be one that crosses the right/left divide amongst Christians in lots of cases. Meanwhile, my friends on the left seemed keen to play down religious freedom as an issue (especially as it connects to the ongoing imbroglio surrounding ex-Wallaby Israel Folau), even as Labor Party insider after insider comes out flagellating the party for ‘disconnecting’ itself from the average religious punter (and, for what it’s worth, in my little bit of political punditry in my previously linked piece on abortion, I suggested Labor’s platform revealed they believed the Christian constituency to be so insignificant a force that they could not just ignore it, but trash it and ‘wedge’ Christian conservatives as the ‘bad guys’, turns out if that’s the strategy, they were wrong, and I remain curious about the impact Israel Folau had on this misread)… That said, my friends on the left are dismayed by the failure for, in Abbott’s words, the issue of climate change to be treated as a moral issue not an economic one, for a lack of movement in Australia’s generosity via foreign aid, and for many of us with friends who sought asylum in Australia there’s a particular grief about more years of limbo and dispassionate dehumanisation of these vulnerable members of our community (calculated dispassion at this point seems morally worse to me than passionate objection to the issue — plus, if boat turnbacks have “stopped the boats,” the whole rationale for keeping people from settling in Australia permanently is gone; either that policy is working or it isn’t). 

The stakes seem high for fellowship amongst Christians who are ideologically convicted or partisan, or even just ‘centrist’ (and not in the sense of trying to find a synthesis between every policy issue, but rather, in the sense of recognising that where the right tends to focus on individual responsibility and a conservative impulse, and the left tends to focus on systemic issues and solutions, and a progressive narrative, there’s actually truth and wisdom to be found in holding those poles in tension). People on either pole seem keen to take to Twitter to disavow the political other — to pull the church in a political direction based on an ideological assumption of ‘Gospel truth’ linking up with a particular stance, and in doing so, to dismiss the good faith reasons their brothers and sisters in Christ give for holding different convictions as matters of liberty, wisdom, and an application of our limited, creaturely, ability to actually know how to tackle incredibly complex questions in an increasingly globalised world. 

At the same time as political questions get treated as though the answers must be found at the ‘poles’; theological questions are also being resolved in the same way; ‘tension’, ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox’ are increasingly terms to be viewed with suspicion. Where once unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in all things might was an ‘ideal’ — it has been replaced with a sort of philosophy that looks like:  ‘unity is essential, charity towards those who disagree with us is unnecessary and perhaps unfaithful’. This seems to come from a growing fear that our churches are like the lifeboats dropping off the sinking Titanic of Christendom which has just crashed into the iceberg of secularism — means everybody is clamouring to clearly mark out their space. The way this plays out is in a phenomenon observed by James Davison Hunter in his To Change The World; he was writing about the polarising nature of public life once everything in public life is ‘politicised’ — where we outsource all major decisions and recognition of what matters to law makers — but this observation is also true of the institutional church as it adopts the ‘politics’ of the world around it. Hunter says:

“If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicisation is the turn toward law and politics—the instrumentality of the state—to find solutions to public problems. The biggest problem is how to create or reinforce social consensus where little exists or none could be generated organically. This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases.” — James Davison Hunter

In a time where we feel a need for certainty within our church structures — the sort you want when you jump in a lifeboat hoping it will hold up your weight — our churches seem to be turning to writing ‘policies’ or ‘statements’ (or feeling the pressure to sign up to competing statements like the Nashville Statement or the Revoice Statement on sexual ethics) where once there was liberty. We’re running to the poles and creating ‘laws’ or ‘lines’ or ‘boundaries’ on questions where uncertainty might not have been such a bad thing; partly this is a pressure placed on the church by external political forces — the more our civic life is subject to legislation around what behaviour and expression is welcome in public, the more clearly we will be compelled to outline our ‘doctrinal positions’ in the face of legal action, like, for example, whether or not a Christian school’s treatment of a same sex attracted staff member or transgender student is an expression of its doctrine; that these questions are now viewed through a political or legal lens rather than a pastoral one is one of the great failings of the church as we’ve been co-opted into this new reality. 

Hunter sees this ‘politicisation’ emerging as a result of an increasing trend for people to process truth through the shortcut of their ideological framework. We no longer have shared beliefs about much of what was once held in ‘common’ which means everything is contested; and if truth is contested, especially in the public, and especially where the ‘public’ is the same as ‘the political’ — you’re better off being a ‘winner’ than a ‘loser’; and ultimately we lose (as we seek to find) our ‘self’ as it becomes subsumed into an ‘ideology’ and then an ‘identity,’ he says:

“Politicisation is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predisposition to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicisation provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarisation is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics.” — James Davison Hunter

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says there’s a ‘religious’ fervour at the heart of polarisation in the west; he sees it as a product of a political Manichaeism — where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are polar opposites at war with one another and the ‘good life’ or ‘good society’ is about victory over evil, not compromise. His model of human behaviour — where ‘the rider’ (our reason), tries to control but is ultimately pulled about by ‘the elephant’ (our emotions and desires), suggests attempts to negate polarisation without tackling this ‘religious’ elephanty disposition towards combat will be pointless. He also says that in this climate using reason alone in political (or theological) disagreements won’t persuade the other, because discussions in this context will feel, and often be, combative. 

“If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.” It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in moral and political arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode. The rider and the elephant work together smoothly to fend off attacks and lob rhetorical grenades of our own. The performance may impress our friends and show allies that we are committed members of the team, but no matter how good our logic, it’s not going to change the minds of our opponents if they are in combat mode too.

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.”

He, like Hunter, sees polarisation coming as a result of ideology — and his book makes interesting observations about the different moral foundations brought to bear by the left and the right on each issue (and Christians can readily affirm each category). The catch is, those different foundations gear us to respond differently to the same facts — and our view of what is ‘true’ in areas of dispute will be affected by these foundations not just our theological system. Haidt says:

Several studies have documented the “attitude polarization” effect that happens when you give a single body of information to people with differing partisan leanings. Liberals and conservatives actually move further apart when they read about research on whether the death penalty deters crime, or when they rate the quality of arguments made by candidates in a presidential debate, or when they evaluate arguments about affirmative action or gun control.

As this politicisation, polarisation, and move to ‘lawmaking’ plays out at a ‘structural’ level in the institutional church, it also hits home in the local church. I can speak from personal experience that to either deliberately not adopt a position (as our church did during the plebiscite), or to adopt a ‘nuanced’ theological position (as our church does on the question of same sex attraction — where our public teaching has been more aligned with Revoice than with Nashville in that particular part of an inter-nicene ‘culture war’ (I am way prouder of that pun than I should be), comes at a cost. People leave. People want the certainty of a floating lifeboat with high rigid walls, not a rubber dinghy that might get tossed about a bit, but that might also allow a few more people to cling to the sides because it’s closer to the waterline. This too, is a failing of the modern church — a failing to understand who we are called to be; and what sort of community we are meant to be united in Christ, by his Spirit, maintaining fellowship as our chief expression of that unity when it comes to ‘disputable matters’ (note Paul’s ethical approach in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10-11). To leave a community over a political issue or an attempt to be accommodating to people with multiple views is to tear apart the body of Christ that the Spirit of God is knitting together and taking towards maturity; and this maturity is the sort that comes from bumping into one another; from disagreement with a commitment to relationship in Christ above our political concerns, or even matters of disputable doctrine in areas where our knowledge or certainty is limited, like, for example, if intersex people are intersex because their bodies have both male and female characteristics, and we are forced to accommodate such a reality in our theology, how is this definitively different not so much from the ‘psychological’ reality of a transgender person but the physical and neurological realities that we can observe with brain scans? How can we speak with dogmatic certainty on that issue, or, like the current debate around the language of ‘gay Christian’ adopted by same sex attracted people who hold to a traditional Biblical teaching on sexual ethics, but nonetheless want to make claims about their experience without making a claim about their ‘identity’ or ‘ontology’ (a group explicitly excluded by the Nashville Statement, and a position championed by Revoice (which has now been rejected by the Central Carolina Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America whose panel again (which included the Gospel Coalition’s Kevin DeYoung), seems to have brought their conclusions to the table before listening to the people they’re engaging with on ‘their’ terms).

Why must we draw ‘lines’ on these issues? What purpose does such line drawing serve except to move more into the ‘essential’ category, bound by ‘laws’ that suddenly exclude those previously included in liberty or treated with charity?

There’s a law in logic, that when falsely applied creates a fallacy — the law of the ‘excluded middle‘. 

“In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true or its negation is true”

When we reduce our beliefs to propositional statements; to ‘law’; we don’t just codify a position, we negate other positions. Nashville does this with a series of ‘we affirm’… ‘we deny’ statements; but even simply by affirming a particular propositional truth and not bringing the denial to the table we necessarily exclude. 

The ‘fallacy of the excluded middle’ kicks in where a propositional statement creates a false dilemma; where we create ‘poles’ where no poles were necessary and declare the other pole ‘negated’. It’s this rush to the poles that is excluding so many Aussies in the political process, so that many of us report being disenfranchised and disillusioned; but it’s a similar rush to the poles that is destroying unity and fellowship the same way a mad rush for the lifeboats at the expense of all one’s fellow travellers ‘excludes’ those who don’t get a berth. 

So many of our present political and theological dilemmas are built on false dilemmas; on zero sum games that simply fail to imagine third options. Talk to people occupying those positions — like those in the Revoice Movement, or other ‘celibate gay Christians’ and you’ll hear they feel stuck in the middle of the full blown ‘affirming’ movement — the iceberg — when it comes to questions of sexual ethics and desire, and the ‘negative’ movement which has us running to the life boats on the HMAS Christendom. Not just ‘stuck in the middle’ — but ‘excluded in the middle’; and this seems true in my experience of so many other ‘flashpoint’ issues in our churches and especially in the church’s relationship to worldly power and politics. 

It is hard to be a ‘church of the excluded middle’ — because both poles don’t want to make space for you; nobody is sure if you’re an ally or an enemy. You catch friendly fire and unfriendly fire, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. People flee the ‘uncertainty’ of no man’s land for the trenches on either side of the culture war, when it’s actually drawing combatants from either side together in no man’s land that might create the conditions for a cease fire in the culture wars, not a ‘total defeat’ of the other, but a figuring out how to live side by side, peacefully, in disagreement. It’s precisely those who don’t have a ‘polarised’ position (and the centre probably is a pole all of its own) who might actually help persuade your ideological enemy of the benefits of your position, if they can draw you from your ideologies long enough to talk to one another.  

Here’s my hunch though; and it’s one that I’d say is a driving philosophy behind how we’re trying to approach being the post-secular-iceberg church — a ‘church of the excluded middle’, one that rejects the push to polarisation and to ‘legislating’ on issues of liberty is better placed for both discipleship and evangelism. It’ll keep more people afloat by being less brittle or rigid, and it’ll allow more people to cling to the sides before pulling themselves on board. A group of churches — or Christians — functioning this way will also be the sort of group that can accommodate people who have ideological convictions built from different moral foundations that would otherwise throw them to the poles; and this will be for the good of our shared moral vision. But more than this, a church of the ‘excluded middle’ that is clear on the essentials will cling to Jesus as the author and perfecter of our faith; it will see unity in Christ and in the truth of God’s word as timeless, and so be less shaken by the winds and waves of the freezing and deadly water we now navigate. It will listen to those voices that might otherwise be swamped — like those occupying the middle ground in the sexuality debate who are clinging both to Jesus and the traditional teachings of the Church seeking to faithfully interpret the Bible. It will conserve what should be conserved as conservative voices are heard charitably, and will reform what needs to be reformed as progressive voices call for change. It’s a utopian vision, to be sure, an ideal of its own; an ideology to be pursued in ways that might ultimately also exclude ‘truth’ or certainty. But it might just be the sort of community that Paul is imagining in 1 Corinthians 12 as he’s just outlined some real issues around the disputable matter of idol food in the city of Corinth; the sort of community that is to find its unity in Christ, by the Spirit, and use that unity as a foundation, or corrective, in all their disputes (like those Paul addresses in the rest of the letter) as they grow towards maturity and the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13). This necessarily requires people living together in disagreement and working out how to love one another in disagreement not just running to lifeboats where you agree with everyone else on board. 

This is also the picture Haidt paints of the sort of community that might escape the destructive ‘religious’ spirit of our age; and the sort that might be not a lifeboat escaping an iceberg, but a lighthouse pointing people from it; the sort that might model an alternative to the politicisation of everything and the reduction of each person to a combatant — enemy or ally — in some culture war. Here’s Haidt:

“Each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth (such as an intelligence agency or a community of scientists) or to produce good public policy (such as a legislature or advisory board).”

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Excuse my French: A response to Stephen McAlpine’s Plan B planning

The ever provocative Stephen McAlpine has a new post up urging Christians to head to the bunkers (hyperbole, just) in response to the postal survey and Royal commission findings. I like Stephen, I think he has useful insights and a cracking turn of phrase… and, along with Mikey Lynch we’ve talked about doing a bit of a ‘blog in the flesh’ type jaunt around the Benedict Option (the theme of his latest post); in the absence of an ‘in the flesh’ thrashing out of what the Benedict Option might look like for an Australian context and outside the context of the big-O Orthodox tradition Dreher writes from, here’s a written response… (the second response I’ve written to a thing of Stephen’s this week — you’ll have to stay tuned for an article in Zadok magazine that Arthur Davis from meetjesusatuni.com and I co-wrote about millennials and church).

The post, titled ‘Church: Plan for a plan B future’ is a call to jump on board the Dreher train; when it comes to Rod Dreher’s specific framework, his ‘option,’ I’ve already voiced my opinion and won’t rehash it here, except to say that I feel like both Dreher and Stephen underemphasise the external focus of Christian life and thus Christian community; you’ve got to train the way you play as a Christian; withdrawing for ‘training’ and formation will be being formed in precisely the wrong posture and with the wrong telos in view; if we’re to be images of Jesus, being transformed by the Spirit until he returns, we’re to be God’s visible representatives in the world — ambassadors for Jesus, not just embassies for Jesus where people might find themselves; and this ambassadorial role should thrust us into some uncomfortable places where we may well be crucified; but this crucifixion is formative and not a reason to withdraw, in fact, it’s a witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Stephen’s piece suggests there are two possible ways to reject Dreher’s (or his own) position. You’re either a liberal or an ostrich, who both misses the power of the cultural diagnosis, or is scared off by the ‘withdraw’ idea. There’s a third option which overlaps with this second one — those who simply don’t understand the complexity of Dreher’s very clear proposition, and so reject it.

“The naysayers have fallen in to two camps.  Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times.  For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation.  After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?”

“Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”.  They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations.  I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type.  May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?”

Here’s my third way summary to save you getting to the end. I reject Dreher’s Option and McAlpine’s “Plan B” because I think we’re called to be cross-shaped disruptors of the worldly status quo, and not to do that from a position away from the public square or ‘withdrawal’ (as Dreher means it). We’re to take our lead from Paul’s infiltration of Caesar’s household, not from the monastic community of the Essenes or the Benedictine Order.

When Dreher talks ‘strategic’ and ‘return’, I wonder if Stephen shares his timeframe? It’s definitely not in the short term, if his analogy to Benedictine communities and the dark ages is the ballpark we’re playing in we’re not talking about a few years, or decades, but lifetimes; an epoch.

The whole Benedictine analogy is a little tediously anachronistic — these were pre-internet times where it was much harder to form rapid, community driven, responses to political pressure and change, and a much less easily global/transient time where it was much easier to talk about society as mono-cultural, and most of the ‘from above’ political or cultural movements were reasonably difficult to resist. I’m not suggesting global connectivity is a panacea to the pressures of the world, just that a strategy from the dark ages might not be the most imaginative solution (especially when it involves actively disconnecting from these technologies — non ironically suggested by a blogger who has gained global attention for his ideas and sales for his books from these platforms he sees as dangerously ‘deforming’).

I’ve read the Benedict Option. Twice… and plenty of Dreher’s blog posts both before its release and about the response to the book. I think the Benedict Option is a Rorschach test; it has it both ways on the language and descriptions so much that it just gets read according to how alarmist one might be; if you fully drink Dreher’s kool-aid, you’ll find, in it, an urging to monastic living and ark building, but more moderate readers will find plenty of strategies for thicker Christian community; what you won’t find is a manual for hopeful Christian engagement anywhere that looks like a ‘corridor of power’ — be it the legal fraternity, politics (perhaps apart from the particularly local variety), or workplaces where the business is actively engaged in the ‘market’ such that shareholders and stakeholders will want the business to bend the knee to Caesar, be it the Caesar of the political, economic, or sexual empires. Dreher would have us head to rural communities and bunker down in a mostly ‘closed’ but rich communal life, where we start small businesses, work with out hands, and structure a deep and local church (with Christian schools and businesses) that can whether the storms the world throws our way.

In his take we’re defeated already — we’re headed for a dark ages, and Christianity, in particular, is going to be expunged from influence and from the public square.

It’s hard for me to totally buy this narrative, when:

a) it was mostly produced before the ‘evangelical’ movement in America elected Trump and jumped into bed with the empire (thus destroying the credibility of the church and the doomsday scenario that says it has no power),
b) in Australia there’s a robust egalitarianism and distrust of all institutions that has been around since ‘institutional Christianity’ was responsible for whipping convicts and seeking to displace and dispossess the indigenous community (until Christians decided our indigenous neighbours were human, and so set apart ‘converting’ them by making them act like white people and institutionalising them in a literal sense).
c) our political institutions still have Christian trappings like the Lord’s Prayer, and a significant number of our politicians are Christians who speak in favour of religious freedoms even as they vote for same sex marriage as a democratic duty.
d) the church is perceived as a powerful institution wielding disproportionate influence on the shape of Australian society (particularly from the top down)
e) research (from McCrindle) suggests most Aussies don’t hate the church or Jesus at all; they do, however, seem to have problems with our stance on homosexuality and with church abuse; homosexuality is the top ‘issue’ that functions as a belief blocker for non-Christians, while church abuse is the top ‘behaviour’ that blocks belief.

It only seems to be Christians who believe that the pursuit of different rights and programs for LGBTIQ+ Aussies has to come at the direct expense of Christians. Now, this might be true, but I simply don’t believe the binary options for rejecting the Benedict Option as a strategy, nor do I buy that Dreher’s diagnosis adequately describes either the scene in Trumpland or in Australia. I’ve certainly not experienced ‘hate’ or being ‘pushed out’ of the public square by anybody but Christians — one prominent Aussie apologist said I should be de-platformed by the Gospel Coalition and called out as a liberal because of the stance I suggested people take on the postal survey…

I don’t buy this ‘there’s only one way… and it’s down’ narrative… I prefer the diagnosis in Wilkinson and Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, that modern (global) society never just moves in one direction but is in constant tension; I also don’t believe that the church has nailed our public Christianity strategy (or theology) (a drum I’ve been banging for years). Stephen had a dig at me for not having an appropriate political theology in a back and forth on Facebook this week, but I’m simply not sure that assertion creates truth simply by being spoken…

In his own take on the Australian scenario, particularly following the legislation of same sex marriage and the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse, Stephen says:

“For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.”  We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be.  The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.

Don’t say “Yes but.”

For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point.  In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together.  Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time.  The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.”

I’m unconvinced that the media is as hostile to Christianity as McAlpine suggests; for every Q&A lion’s den, there’s an Andrew Bolt. I am convinced the Aussie media field is massively fragmented and that people are increasingly committed to getting their news and analysis from echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and hasten the polarisation and tribalism of the Australian community — which is exactly the danger of the Benedict Option. It supports a tribal, self-interested, form of Christianity that offers a hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems rather than a practice of loving engagement in issues that provides our proclamation of the logos of the Gospel with an ethos to match.

If an inability to have truly civic dialogue and the politicisation of every thing public are two pressing cultural issues in our fragile democracy, then why would Christians withdraw our voice from the public square — particularly given the way this plays out in barbecue conversations? Why would we not seek to create, curate, or patronise (in the sense of supporting) public squares that are less polarising and more open to civic conversation (rather than firing off opinion pieces to The Spectator). Why would we cede defeat and so stop trying? I don’t speak in total ignorance here, plenty of my professional life was spent engaging with the journalists who are now in large media institutions in capital cities, and the most ‘hostile’ or outspoken atheist of the bunch is the one who occasionally engages in civil conversation about politics on my Facebook wall…  An anecdote like this is not data, but the same ABC that employs Tony Jones to run Q&A, also employed Scott Stephens to run a religion and ethics portal, and to host a radio show discussing faith in Australia.

Here’s Stephen’s take (which does give us a time frame — a generation — but also a scenario that drives his ‘Plan B’ strategy):

“So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square.  I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment.  I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible.  Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B.  If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.

For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict.  And the reason is simple:  I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat.  True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.

Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. These are actually fighting words fuelled by a vision of the secular landscape in France (which is different, again, to the secular landscape in the US, and makes me wonder why the secular landscape in Australia has to be the same as those, or even an amalgam).

“The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.

It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in.  Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists.  B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.

And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again?”

If you’re not in a monotheistic culture where the public square is a temple to a particular god, the public square is always contested; it will always be contested until the return of Jesus. This contest is not reason to withdraw but to remain as faithful witnesses; withdrawing to ‘prepare for a new landscape’ is not the model of the faithful church in Revelation who stays in the public square to be killed and ridiculed (and ultimately vindicated).

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial.The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

Now. Everybody has their own theological hot take on Revelation, but because I believe it had to speak to its first readers in an apocalyptic ‘revelatory’ voice about the situation they were facing that it has to describe their reality first, and so it describes reality living in a world where powerful human institutions are often ‘beastly’ minions of Satan who cause damage and oppression, especially to those who disrupt their ‘rule’ by challenging the worldly status quo; those disruptive voices (historically) either succeed, or are crucified — a different sort of success… often success leads to the people who win it taking on the mantle of worldly power; and so, Christendom was not all roses though it is, as Stephen acknowledges, the bedrock of western society. Which makes me wonder why he is so pessimistic about our ability to wield change in this moment when the church has been an agent of transformation in the past, and he hopes, following Benedict, that we might be again in the future.

The way we bring transformation — the way the early church did — is through cruciform difference — through faithful witness to the point of suffering, in the public square. That is how God works. It is ever so. Not by removing ourselves from the square, but by staying, and seeking its good, hopeful that God might also work through that…

 

And so. The French. Stephen shares some thoughts from a French friend about the way the Aussie scene mirrors the French; and his fears that we’re heading into Plan B territory without a plan; unprepared.

“To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it –  has won.  It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over.  In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan.  There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.”

In France, Stephen says, there is no place for religion in the public square:

“Now that sounds terrible.  I want a religious discussion in the public square.  But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant.  And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back.  And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out.  If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.”

I reckon Stephen is every bit as educated in the ways of the media as I am; but I think we’re being sold a pup here if we’re to believe that the public square is the institutional media of yesteryear; that the ‘public square’ is the media of the elite, or some sort of homogenous forum. I think this monolithic take on the public square is outdated (and perhaps if it were truly the case then then Benedict Option would be a good one; and we could go create (local) media-institutions-as-echo-chambers for our own people, or Christian pirate radio… or just tune in to commercial Christian radio I guess…  This is an attitude I’ve found prevalent in ‘establishment’ types (after a recent post I was challenged to prove my claim I’d read ‘piece after piece’ about Christianity being under attack, and this claim was dismissed because there was nothing ‘mainstream’ from ‘credible’ platforms). Old media thinking is going to get us an old media strategy — and not even our politicians are playing that game come election time anymore…

The public square isn’t just your editorial page in the Oz, or in the Herald, or Q&A (to start with, the readerships and audiences for those platforms are plummeting), and nor is it these places informing public opinion. The public square is your Facebook newsfeed and the online presence you stake a claim for via publication and curation of content. The public square is contested not because there is one dominant voice, but because there are now a chorus of voices bombarding us, but this also means we have the opportunity to curate our own public space, and invite people in to the discussion by how we operate it. It may be that I’ve picked option one in ‘rejecting the Benedict Option’ in Stephen’s opinion, but I’ve not found the ‘public square’ I play in in the social media world to be as he has described it. The challenge for us as we curate and create content for this public square is to understand the mediums and platforms (how algorithms work) so as to play them creatively; and to engage in a way that is both interesting and compelling (and yes, different to the world). Life in the ‘new world’ will, as Stephen suggests, require creativity and thick community, but not a sense of hopelessness about what that sort of community can achieve beyond its boundaries, or about the tangible difference such a community might represent to those who sense in it the ‘aroma of life’.

While Stephen’s piece is about as optimistic as he gets, here’s his conclusion, with a bit of French flourish.

“Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example.  Because that’s the future that is coming.  2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)”

I want to suggest a different French word starting with R; and (first) one starting with E. The problem I had with the Benedict Option’s pessimism about our ability to be economic influencers is it lacked imagination; it pushed a return to non-market driven professions, particularly local artisanal businesses — work with our hands — and there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s indeed, something beautiful and formative about that sort of work… but I wonder if there’s more ‘imaginative’ rejections of the status quo — of ‘market Babylon’ in being entrepreneurs (a French word, contra President Bush), particularly social entrepreneurs who reject the status quo of participating in the market and seek the good of communities and neighbours by explicitly rejecting an idolatrous tug every bit as powerful as the world’s take on sex.

When David Foster Wallace (DFW) talked about ‘default settings’ and our worship of sex, money, and power in his famous This Is Water, he was describing the way the world pulls us away from who God made us to be (though without God being in the picture). The ‘beastly’ world of the book of Revelation… the ‘real world’ we live in…

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it”

DFW was describing the sort of worldly forces that Dreher (and McAlpine) see taking the world to a new dark ages… being entrepreneurs who imagine ways to reject this status quo may provide us a path away from the dark ages, or a dark age strategy before we even get there, especially if the world we live in is in a constant stage of ‘democratised’ flux, where everybody truly is their own king.of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms. Being entrepreneurial in a deliberate rejection of the ‘merry hum’ of this deadly world is, perhaps, a more optimistic form of withdrawal that doesn’t involve quitting the economic scene, but seeking to disrupt it by being present and playing by different rules.

Perhaps I’m naive; but the team at Thankyou would be a pretty compelling anecdote in favour of this being a live option (perhaps especially for those dreaded, flighty, millennials who all want to be CEO of their own company at the beginning of our careers).

But the other word I want to push back with is renaissance; I’m not sure why we’re getting our marching orders from the cultural move that was a protective measure against the dark ages rather than from the rapid movement out of the dark ages. I’m also not sure why when we look back to church history we look at what saw the ‘Christian’ empire effectively collapse, rather than the church’s strategy that saw it gain a foothold (I call it the ‘Diognetus Option’)… If we’re going to talk about being a creative minority let’s not, in the same breath, talk about not participating in the creative arts (or, following Dreher, avoiding the formative power of the television). Let’s harness that power and seek to create art that is excellent and present in the now fragmented media landscape. You don’t need a distribution deal from a big Hollywood power broker to influence ‘culture’ any more…

I was struck today as I read a piece by Alan Noble on the Gospel Coalition, The Disruptive Witness of Art, that it offers a sort of hopeful antithesis to the Benedict Option, of the type I hope his forthcoming Disruptive Witness will continue, a push towards cultural renaissance without cultural abandonment or cultural capitulation. A via media via the media.

Bearing witness to the Christian faith in the 21st century requires a disruptive witness,  one that unsettles our neighbor’s assumptions about life within the immanent frame. One powerful way to accomplish this is through interpreting and creating cultural works that speak not only to our minds but also our bodies, emotions, and memories. Taylor has given us valuable tools to better understand our neighbors and the kinds of anxieties that haunt both them and ourselves. To cultivate the deep knowledge to apply Taylor’s ideas, we will need significant investment in the Christian liberal and creative arts.

The sort of art he’s talking about isn’t the art produced in a parallel community for the formation of that community; but in and through engagement with the world and the ‘creative commons’ — or the public square that includes more than just politics and political discussions. That seems to me a more exciting option or plan for the church to pursue. One that requires imagination and listening (to the world); one that means training the way we play, not heading off to some training field but racking up game time experience; because that’s what counts.

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The church of Jesus Christ and the latter-day Sims

I have a confession.

For the couple of months I’ve poured more hours than I care to count into The Sims 2. I even built this cathedral with the aim of turning young Jonesy Jones into a mega-church planter (for a while he was appropriately employed as ‘Cult Leader’). In a triumph of church architecture, I built him his own light-filled ‘crystal cathedral,’ with couches for pews, a cruciform layout, a podium as a pulpit, a buffet table as an altar, and state of the art musical instruments in the wings. Jonesy drives a not-too-ostentatious car (the second most expensive in the game, lodged between ‘people mover’ and ‘sports car’ in cost, but high on ‘approval’ from those who track his spending), which is parked in the driveway of his modest, though comfortable, manse, on site.

He, ironically, lost all his friends in the move to this building (I clicked the wrong button), so needs to rebuild his little human empire congregation; though he has maxed out his charisma skills, and he’s a naturally fun guy, so that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s dangerous, because Jonesy Jones also craves human affection, so his happiness is going to depend lots on how people respond to this project.

In short, I’m hoping Jonesy is nothing like me — but there’s a danger that, at my worst, he is a projection of who I think I should be in my darker moments…

It has taken me a little bit to figure out why I find the idea of clicking and controlling the lives of little simulated people so compelling; and to figure out what it is that drives the choices I make as to how they live, and the jobs they do, and the families they create and the homes they build.

So much of it is about control.

Unlike in the real world where I exercise almost little to no control over the lives and decisions of the real people around me — kids, family, colleagues, or congregants — and where that can feel like I’m flinging myself around a sinking ship trying to peg gaps if I’m not careful to remember I’m not God… the Sims lets you play at being God in a controlled environment. Though you’re mostly ‘in control,’ it’s still a matter of ‘life and death’ — a sim can die if you accidentally deprive them of the essentials of life — food, rest, friends, and fun — or if there’s some sort of ‘divine’ action where, for example, repairing an electrical device goes wrong, or a meteor strikes you while you’re looking through a telescope — but you know these risks and love your little sims, so you direct them away from harmful behaviour and towards the straight and narrow… mostly… I might have deliberately killed a sim or two in my time by swallowing them up with a meat eating plant, boxing them in to a room with no doors, or removing a ladder from a swimming pool — I mean, who hasn’t… but I’ve never killed a sim who didn’t deserve it.

I really have been pondering my addiction; there’s perhaps nothing more repetitive than the accretive clicking of the mouse required to build a little Sim empire, and so there’s something oddly liturgical about this game and the story it tells about what life as God is like, or perhaps what life ‘in control’ in the real world might feel like. There’s a danger a game like The Sims feeds a certain dissatisfaction about real life — not just that conflict in the real world can’t be solved by a few pillow fights, or hangouts, or some time around the pool table — but that other people aren’t so easily directed. I can’t just click a mouse and make my problems, or theirs, go away. I can’t organise the lives of others to achieve collective goals or to pursue my own personal narrative.

And, as dad, pastor, and colleague, this bothers me. There are so many spheres of my life where, if I were honest, I’d prefer life to be more like the Sims.  There has never been a time in my life where I’ve felt less in control of the decisions and actions of others, nor more like I’d like to be in control of those decisions in some sort of ‘ideal world’. I’ve been solo parenting two of our kids as part of a 13 day trip for Robyn and our oldest; and our house looks nothing like the carefully curated houses I build in the Sims (with excess space and plenty of distractions, plus a paid cleaner to keep things in order).

I don’t have a highly cultivated ‘personal influence’ ability that allows me to direct and influence sims who aren’t even under my Godlike powers as part of the ‘family’… I’m not a cult leader. I don’t cultivate a following because of my charisma which means people will literally stand for many ‘sim hours’ to hear me speak (I’m lucky if I can hold a room for 15 minutes of my allotted 25 and actual 30).

Our little church community doesn’t have a building to call our own, not a cruciform cathedral with a glass roof like my Sims one, or just a humble hall. And so we’ve been subject to the whims of other hosts (though God has providentially provided an alternative meeting place in fairly bizarre circumstances) — as of January 7 we’ll have moved venues twice in a four month period. We live, it seems, in a perpetual state of spatial flux. Never knowing where home is, and making the best of whatever spot we’re in (or looking for something more suitable), but it’s not ultimately up to us where we land. We don’t own a space, and buying one with the right zoning would require an act of powers greater than mine (both God and the Brisbane City Council).

I can’t click a button to make people sit in the (comfortable) pews. People are leaving our community for reasons from the practical to the political to the theological; and if I could click and send them somewhere — if I were God — I’d keep them and have those decisions resolved around a table and in conversation (or if none of that worked out, my Sims like temptation would be to find some button I could click to make them think like me). People are also joining our community and changing the ‘family ecosystem’ in ways that are great, but also part of the challenge of a dynamic and moving organism — ways that reduce ‘control’ for any one person (me) as we grow.

And yet, in these moments of uncertainty and this growing sense that I’m not in control, I guess I’ve had two options. I could’ve spent these many hours of ‘down time’ responding to these circumstances in many constructive ways (not just virtual reality contructive ways), and yet, I’ve chosen to play a stupid computer game as some sort of catharsis (I’m sure it has worked, and I’m not the sort to be negative about the power of games, or about their entertainment value and the need for rest and recreation). The Sims could teach me to be frustrated about life outside the virtual realm, or it could point me to the one who is in control.

In the midst of my addiction to The Sims I went along to a discussion night on James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love, which, along with Smith’s other ‘Cultural Liturgies’ works provides a useful Augustinian (and Biblical) account of human behaviour and how people change; the idea that we feed our desires and our sense of how life is to be lived by repetitive action — or liturgies — the best, most powerful, and most dangerous of these liturgies, in terms of formation, are the ones that suck us in through our imaginations and our feelings, not through reasoned repetition… but the mindless stuff. When I was asked what habitual actions I hadn’t really assessed in a sort of behavioural audit, I was tempted to gloss over just how many hours I’d spend in this alternate reality. This fantasy world.

This made me wonder what it is my repetitive clicks and the story they are attached to in my imagination — my participation in The Sims and its world and stories — what it forms in my desires and my approach to the world beyond the computer screen. Am I picturing my little sims as real people? Projecting my control into the real world and assessing reality through escapism? Am I feeling dissatisfied that the real world is not like this virtual one? Perhaps not consciously, but am I turning to this game and others like it where I know I am totally in control to escape from a world where I know I’m not… probably… that’s what escapism is all about (and it’s not always a bad thing to escape — a point Tolkien makes brilliantly in On Fairy Stories).  Am I overthinking this? Perhaps… or does this complete control feed a dissatisfaction about the way things are in relationships with real people? Am I likely to idolise control — or a world where I wield godlike power?

Probably.

Is this dangerous?

Definitely.

In exactly the same way as trying to play the superhero pastor… trying to be God, or any recognition that you are not… is absolutely toxic to a healthy life in the real world, but especially deadly in the context of Christian ministry where so many churches have fallen apart because of an approach to leadership that looks just like the pastor is trying to play the Sims with a congregation that isn’t ‘their flock’ but God’s. It’s this desire to be in control (and perhaps a belief a leader should be) that I suspect leads to abusive practices in both public and private. Feeding this desire is dangerous; especially if the desire is focused through a lens of self-pity, or the flip-side, entitlement and self-interest.

There are fleeting moments when I believe I want to be in control. To be able to direct people, to ‘helpful’ places of course. Those are the times when I am sinfully tempted to act like a cult leader, or to get a pattern for leadership from something other than the cross of Jesus. The cross isn’t just a pattern for good Sims church architecture. It’s a way of being in the world; of being ‘in the church’ that teaches me that it’s not by my might or power than anything happens, but by the willingness of God to send his son into the world in a picture of leadership that looks a lot like self-emptying service of others.

I am not in control. I am not the artist or the author — the creator — creating a world with the lives and images of other people.

Other people don’t exist to play my game or be clicked into place.

Other people should be thankful that life is not The Sims, and that I am not the mouse-like God in such a world.

I don’t type these as a mantra to remind myself of things I ought to believe are true (in case you’re worried I’m some sort of narcissist trying to talk myself out of cult-leading). I type these as truths that are fundamental to how the universe actually is… but that are counter to the bit of the human heart The Sims might feed if we let it.

I do not have the sort of control in the real world that I do in the Sims, and I do not want to…

But more than that, I should be thankful that I do not.

What a crushing responsibility that would be to bear — to be responsible for the decisions of every individual in my orbit, or of the rhythms and life of any community or family. I need more chaos in my gaming diet to remind me that I am not in control (so I started playing Zombie survival/horror game 7 Days To Die, which is reminding me that having literally no control over life or death is just as debilitating and frustrating), but more than that I need to keep prayerfully remembering that it is God who authors both my story and the stories of those in my life  — whether they’re in or out of the church community he has placed me in — as part of his story… Or as Paul put it in his sermon in Athens, from Acts 17… that he gives us life, and breath, and everything else — even the sense of how little control we wield — so that we might seek and find him, the grand architect of the cosmos.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

I need to keep seeing my job (as parent, pastor, and person) not as exercising control (or even influence) but as pointing people to the one who is in control. I like another thing that Paul said about how he approached this task knowing that God is God, and we are not. He doesn’t click people into place, or persuade and manipulate through power, coercion, or deception. He lives and preaches the Gospel of the crucified Jesus, and lets God be God.

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” — 2 Corinthians 4:1-2

 

27 ways to recapture, live, and tell our story

After yesterday’s post a friend zeroed in on the paragraph below, and asked for some really practical steps towards doing this.

“We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves.

I want to start with the disclaimer that I’m a rookie and I’m still figuring this stuff out… and this stuff is harder than it sounds because it does challenge plenty of stuff we modernist, literate, Christians have embraced. I’ve been reading/grappling with this, and what it looks like in our church communities as I try to serve one, so I’ve got some thoughts. I’m not alone, there are heaps of books on this, The Benedict Option is the most famous. I liked it (with some significant reservations). I’ve written a few things around this before like my theses about what a continued reformation would look like in Australia, some propositions and stories about a different way of doing stuff, our need to be more imaginative in our political engagement (and less secular), and some thoughts on how to respond to what the census reveals about the Australian soul/mission field.

These points below are a bit sequential and integrated. I struggle with making anything too concrete, because I think most of how we should live is a contextually driven application of principles. What a narrative approach looks like will be different in the university, and in the juvenile detention system. In order to stop this getting stupidly long I’ve mostly just gone with summaries of these ideas, that I’m happy to unpack (though many of them are either the subject of past posts, or of books that you should read).

I think the best books on this (or the ones that have shaped/are shaping my thinking, I’m not saying I agree with everything in these, just acknowledging their import in getting to these ideas) are:

  1. Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive the Apocalypse
  2. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens (and Hauerwas’ Community of Character)
  3. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue
  4. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option
  5. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism
  6. James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World
  7. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching
  8. John Stackhouse’s Making The Best Of It
  9. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality
  10. James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love (and his cultural liturgies series, though I’m only two chapters in to his latest).
  11. Andy Crouch’s Culture Making
  12. Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem
  13. Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time

I’m currently reading Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that shape the Church for Mission; it’s fast climbing the list; it’s like an optimistic, outwards looking, Benedict Option (so is How To Survive The Apocalypse).

The abstract.

1. Teach people that narrative matters and is where we get our identity and our ethics from. There’s an irony that a post like this is so propositional in its delivery. Everybody lives a way of life (an ethic) derived from an understanding of where we’ve come from (an origin story) and where we’re going (an eschatology). These combine to give us a sense of who we are, and we make these decisions based around who is authoring and starring in the story, and we are clearly not entirely the author of our own stories because life always pre-exists us. Or, as Alisdair MacIntyre puts it:

“We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others.”

“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

2. Have a sense of the Bible’s grand narrative in a way that shapes how we let God’s story shape our story; and preach that, and everything connected to that.

3. Understand that part of this narrative thing is seeing ourselves as embodied characters in the story being formed as we participate in it; and the connection between worship and story, and between our embodied lives and people being confronted with the story. So see practices as both formative and declarative. Live the story we preach.

4. Understand that this narrative is caught as much as taught; that knowledge is socialised before it is rationalised, so see church community as a community formed by a narrative as it lives that narrative and also as a plausibility structure for that narrative. Peter Berger who came up with ‘plausibility structures’ wasn’t just talking about the ‘worldview’ we have in our head that operates as a grid for us in assessing information to decide what is true, he points out that plausibility comes socially, in communities, through people living according to a truth in deliberate ways, who deliberately pass on that truth (like parents and schools do).

5. See (and train people to see) counter narratives for what they are; idolatrous stories built around deforming practices that have a certain compelling power that convince people because they address desires and emotions, rather than because they present rationally coherent accounts of reality. But this seeing also involves empathy and charity and seeking to recognise truth in these views that can be re-directed to its proper source (ala Paul in Athens), and recognise the true, created, desires that are finding a wrong ‘end’ in idolatry. Part of this is learning (and teaching people) to exegete places and cultures, not just Bible passages.

6. Embrace the good, true, and beautiful in order to appeal to our nature as storied creatures who are shaped by desire and storywhich means both being good participants in a culture (created by others — both ‘high’ and ‘pop’), and creators/curators of stories and artefacts. Show how the cross is both sublime and ridiculous and have that inform our aesthetic and our engagement with the world (and its stories); the Gospel both answers our human longings and subverts the way we seek to answer them for ourselves.

The concrete.

1. Preach the Gospel as a cosmic story of God redeeming and recreating the entire world and defeating evil (Satan, sin, and death) through King Jesus, where we have a part to play rather than a propositional thing about how we find personal forgiveness for our personal sins. Teach each part of the Bible as part of this story where we see the drama unfolding.

2. Pray lots more. God answers prayer. Prayer is a dynamic relationship with God. Prayer shapes the way we see and then live in the world… Jesus teaches us to pray ‘your kingdom come’ in the midst of his most pointed ethical teaching about what life in the kingdom looks like.

3. Re-calibrate maturity as something other than personal piety; instead see it in terms of participation in this story (virtue formation), which requires a commitment to knowing God. I spoke this week to somebody who was feeling down because their prayer and Bible reading time wasn’t going well, while they were simultaneously practicing incredible acts of grace and forgiveness. Maturity is about being Christlike in an embodied sense (and in our thinking and desires); not about knowing more about God (which is a particular Platonic thing, Plato taught that we are not really ’embodied’ but a soul waiting to escape the body so we should feed the soul, that’s become a pietistic default for Christians). Prayer is good (see above), but prayer disconnected from our embodied, creaturely life, as the sort of act of a soul with soulish desires is not an expression of maturity. 

4. Build church as a community with rhythms of life beyond Sunday gatherings. Practice gathering as a community in homes, but also as a faithful presence within the broader community. Build deliberate rhythms that involve people spending time together without a purpose beyond deepening relationships that are created by what we have in common (firstly Jesus, then things that bring us together like eating, life in a particular place/culture, interests). This community makes discipleship/formation possible (especially inasmuch as formation requires the rejection of other powerful stories, and that is easier in community (especially for those who have to make sacrifices directly connected to these prevailing stories — the single, the same sex attracted, the unemployed, etc).

See that simply being together (publicly and privately) as different people brought together by God, who love, serve, support and forgive one another, and love our neighbours together, is part of our formation as virtuous ‘image bearing characters’ but also as part of us being ambassadors. Be deliberate in explaining these actions to each other and connecting them to the story of God’s kingdom being revealed and built in Jesus (though without making the mistake of loving our neighbours as a bait and switch in order to sell them the Gospel).

5. Engage in cross shaped (sacrificial love) for our neighbours — especially the marginalised — as a community as both a formative practice (an act of worship), and part of our proclamation. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul talks about carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies, but when he does that he doesn’t say “I carry around the death of Jesus in my body’ but ‘we carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies’, in Romans 12 he says ‘offer yourselves (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular).

6. Value liturgy beyond Sundays (but including Sundays). Create liturgy (habitual practices) that are forms of worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) connected to our story (in view of God’s mercy) so that we don’t conform to the world’s stories (via its habits/patterns), but are transformed by the Spirit renewing our minds, through these practices. These liturgies have to be repeated so that they are disciplines that form us and counter the deforming power of other habits. Our low-evangelical culture’s low view of the sacraments has probably been to our detriment, because they do something formative to us because we are embodied people and are a clear way of participating in the Gospel in a way that reminds us who we are and gives us a more tangible sense of the presence of Jesus (who is there even when we’re not conducting the sacraments, the low church team gets some stuff right too).

7. Practice hospitality. With your church community and your friends and neighbours.

8. Encourage people to make and do things as expressions of our faith, but also just for creativity’s sake; be it as work (an embodied practice) or as creativity. Challenge our culture’s utilitarian view of work and creativity  — that suggests work or creativity only has value if it has a purpose connected to its narratives (that people are beings who need to be entertained, sexually stimulated, or economically productive). The utilitarian approach to Christians making things would be to only make things that directly and explicitly serve the purposes of the Gospel (so we get bad Christian art and music).

9. See our ‘privately owned’ institutional space as public space to be generously shared with others. Buy more space, ambitiously, make it available to people we agree with, generously, and as much as possible participate in face to face relationships with those people, trusting that when we act as hosts and are confident in our story there’ll be opportunities to explain why we’re generous and hospitable to outsiders, and how we understand ‘space’ (the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it).

10. Re-imagine our political engagement — re-introduce the imagination into how we speak of political issues. Tell stories about people rather than propositions. Embrace the ‘sacred’ rather than rationalising. Join parties and present faith-based positions into the formation of party policy/positions. Realise that our political horizon is not just about life as individuals (and liberty), but about opposing the ‘powers and principalities’ of this world — systems set up by sinful people to perpetuate sinful behaviour. See pursuing justice as a necessary outcome and expression of belief in a just judge; not a thing we do apart from the Gospel, but explicitly because of it.

11. Value virtue over utility. Our churches, across the evangelical world, are driven by pragmatism rather than emphasising character; and this expresses itself in our metrics, and in our politics. Virtue ethics are ethics created by a story. I’m preaching to my past self here, I even used to call myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; I repent.

12. Pursue formation, not just ‘conversion’ — we’ve made label ‘Christian’ a descriptor for somebody who ticks a particular belief box, and let our efforts be pointed towards achieving that ticked box, not to the harder work of character formation.

13. Accept, embrace even, the ‘grey’ that comes from our creatureliness. We’ve been far too black and white in our thinking and engaging; this manifests in plenty of ways but one of the most pernicious is that people think they need to believe a bunch of black and white truth claims before belonging in a community where they can explore and come to convictions over time. It also means we’ve settled for soundbite theology and limited attention spans rather than wrestling with complexity.

14. Practice rest, silence, and the making of space for all this stuff. We’re too busy and we’re overstimulated (while our attention spans are too short). Most of us. To put in the bodily effort required for this sort of transformation; this, coupled with a consumer culture where some people unplug from a church because we’re not being taught/spoonfed content for our growth/stimulation, or judge a community on its preaching/input (often compared to super preachers on the Internet), means we’re not building the depth of relationship with anybody that this stuff requires; we either don’t have the time in the short term (the diary), or over the long term (years) to build deep relationships. We’re impatient. Rest pushes back on this impatience.

15. Re-imagine work and ‘success’ for us and our kids. Spend less on education; work less; don’t take promotions. We’re economic captives to ‘Babylon’ even if we think we’re fighting against a ‘Babylonian’ sexual ethic.

16. Tell stories about people (and let people tell their stories).

 

The ambitious.

1. Value institutions and build them. Starting with the church. Institutions and systems can be corrupted by sin, but perhaps the best way to fight institutions that have been corrupted is actually through institutions (not just with a vacuum). The people who made the tower of Babel were making a bad institution, if people had chipped in to help Noah building the ark they would’ve been participating in a positive institution (much like the later temple builders)

2. Counter our nation’s/world’s idolatrous narratives with better stories; and better supporting infrastructure for participating in those stories. For example, instead of abandoning church schools, or using them as an expensive way to form ‘leaders’ who are contributors to an economic vision of the human, use them to fight ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, math) education and its view of the person as an economic unit functioning in a machine with, perhaps, a liberal arts education focused on virtue formation. Our stories and institutions bring a sense of personhood by forming our understanding of what it means to be a person.

3. Foster entrepreneurial optimistic ‘disruptive’ engagement with the world, for example consider how participating in rejecting the narrative of profit, productivity, and the ‘market’ might result in start ups that are social enterprises with a social justice focus; subvert and disrupt that narrative using its own equipment,  and encourage Christians to create businesses aimed at expressing things that are true about our convictions. Make those expressions overt, but aim them at the common good, not self interest.

4. Re-imagine faith and work. The workplace isn’t just a mission field where we can convince colleagues of the truths of the Gospel, but a field in which we can live our convictions that bodily work matters, that death is the enemy, that our bodies will be raised, and that God has a particular concern for (and uses) the weak and the marginalised against the powerful and the oppressor. Choose vocations (or create businesses) that are deliberate expressions of something true about God’s world that allow us to see work more directly as storied, without devaluing the ordinary work of serving others with the gifts God has given us, or according to the needs of our society (ala Luther); don’t explicitly or implicitly prioritise full time ‘Gospel ministry’ as the only real Gospel ministry.

5. Rediscover an aesthetic connected to our story and use it in creating art and architecture; think about how our story might shape our buildings and spaces and so shape our practices (what does it mean that our story is about ‘light and life’ when many stories in our world are about ‘darkness and death’, how might a well lit auditorium (or lounge room) full of plants, colour, and movement reinforce this truth, where a dark and uncomfortable room where we all sit still and stare at screens might reinforce counter-formative practices). Make ‘artefacts’ that express this aesthetic in a way that pushes back against the darkness.

Over to you. What are your ideas?

,

The superhero pastor

I don’t often write about the day to day business of pastoring a church; I always feel like pastors writing about being pastors is a bit self-indulgent and often it boils down to a sort of ‘woe is me, my job is harder than you could imagine… if only you would do more, good Christian, you would keep me from burnout’… or my personal least-favourite, tips for how to ‘appreciate your pastor in pastor appreciation month’… blurgh…

I love my job and think it’s a privilege to be paid to tell people about Jesus and think about how our church should best shape itself in order to reach our friends, family, and neighbours. I do feel appreciated by lots of people. I’m thankful for my church family. And the answer for how to appreciate your pastor and make them feel better is probably just to turn up to church and love the people who are part of your church family with every bit of who you are — mess included…

But indulge me. Just this once (well. I can’t guarantee it’ll only be once).

Pastoring a church is actually a super hard job. One I’ve only been doing for a few years. I’m a total rookie, and most of the time I feel like I’m in over my head and that I’m making things up as I go, hoping not to hurt too many people… and unlike most rookies, I have an incredible team of people supporting me; a dad whose footsteps I’m following in, a boss who coaches and supports me, a mentor who mentors me, a team of fellow staff who shoulder all sorts of responsibilities, and a pretty great church community… even with the best human support structures in the world this job is hard, and it throws up curveball after curveball.

I’m in a little season of feeling sorry for myself and counting the cost of some of my mistakes; of decisions made, or not made, of structures adopted, but mostly just of spinning plates that have fallen from different sticks while my attention was on the balls I was juggling at the same time. Mostly it’s a season of counting the cost of simply being normal-human rather than super-human. Sometimes I wish I was a super-hero, or super-pastor. Like the ones you see on the Internet (or on TV if you watch that rubbish).

It’s easy to think that a church succeeds or fails on the shoulders of the pastor — that’s what we’re often told; it’s there in the literature in the Christian bookshops, and on Christian websites… pastors grow and shrink churches…  and I suspect that for many people it’s easy to believe your own faith lives or dies on the shoulders of your pastor, because heaven forbid you need to take responsibility for your own growth, or changing how you live to be more like Jesus without someone telling you. Let me stress this is not all people.

I’m almost four years in and I’m reasonably sure my shoulders aren’t capable of bearing this load; the responsibility of growing (or shrinking) a church, or the responsibility of ‘growing’ a Christian using my own power. I’m also six years into parenting, and have three kids, and feel overwhelmed by that load… four years into dog ownership and feel like my shoulders aren’t capable of bearing that load… and just over ten years into marriage. There are a lot of loads for my shoulders to bear should I see my task in these terms. In a lifetime of being around church ministry stuff, I’ve also watched the load of pastoring metaphorically (though perhaps literally on a spiritual level, and a family level) tearing people apart, and I’m pretty determined for that not to be me, or my family.

A huge part of the battle not to be torn apart is the battle not to buy into the myth of the super-pastor.

You know the one, you probably see it on social media if you follow pastors whose official fan pages post clips of their most impassioned preaching (in their lycra-like tight preaching costume, with their slicked-back hair, telling stories about their kids)… it’s the story that the pastor has his stuff together as a family man and only ever loses it as his kids in order to have just the right story for his sermon.

It’s the story of the pastor who has been through the hero’s journey — who set out on an adventure, was broken, but has now returned, like Steve Jobs returned to Apple, to lead the solution to the church’s problems.

The myth of the super-pastor is not just the myth that the pastor’s own congregation needs the salvation that only this pastor can bring, but that the whole church needs this super-pastor. So the platform has to grow; the books have to be published, and screens have to be rolled out across the land. We’ve seen it all before. We’ll see it again. And as a pastor it’s tempting to believe it when things are going well — and to be crushed by it when they aren’t.

It certainly feels like the church needs a super-hero; not just our church (which has its own problems and is enough to leave me feeling inadequate and out of my depth). I sat at our local Westfield this afternoon with one of the guys from church, overwhelmed again by just how many people there are in our city and how many of them don’t know Jesus. People walking by our table living in their own little stories, pursuing their own goals, and identity, and ultimately worshipping something other than Jesus. I was struck, again, by our city’s need for a saviour. I was struck by just how poorly our churches are doing at reaching people.

I went to the Ashes test and the Rugby League World Cup semi-final here in Brisbane on Friday and was, cumulatively, surrounded by almost 60,000 people. The Presbyterian Church of Queensland, across the board, in Queensland, claims weekly attendance of around 7,600 people.

We’re not, by any stretch, the only show in town when it comes to preaching the Gospel in Queensland; but last year we buried more people than we baptised (175 to 152)… and our attendance grew by 289, but more than half of that growth was in a Korean Presbyterian church that ministers almost exclusively to Korean migrants, with minimal input from the denomination… apart from this (and without downplaying it) we grew by 1.7%, which is just a nudge above the rate of population growth in Queensland, which is significant because if our growth rate is smaller than the population growth rate we’re actually shrinking in real terms… and these attendance figures also double count people who attend two services on the one Sunday. We’re not talking about revival. We’re not making a ripple in the pond that is Westfield Garden City on a Sunday, or the crowd at the footy… we’re surrounded by people who need rescuing… even if they don’t know it.

It’s tempting to think we need super-pastors to do this work. People who’ll heroically overturn the status quo (that’s what heroes do), and lead a new revival (that’s what super-pastors do)… part of this temptation comes because it does seem that both these things would be great… I’m all for both of them… just not for the weight of both, or either, of them being put on the shoulders of pastors, rather than the church, or more importantly, its actual hero.

I’m not a super-pastor. But if I was… I’d be Spider-Man.

I’m a sucker for Spider-Man. I love his aesthetic; I love the puns; I love the super-hero mythos generally; and I love that at his best he limits himself to his neighbourhood. I love that he’s young, sometimes cocky, but that he finds redemption, often, in realising that he needs the help of others. The best bits of Spider-Man were captured in his recent introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Homecoming, Marvel explored Spider-Man’s limits — especially through deliberate comparisons to Iron Man; a real super hero. It explored his desire to really count; to be someone significant, who saw his local patch as a stepping stone to the global stage, and local crime as small stuff compared to the world of the Avengers. Ultimately his Homecoming journey left him happy enough being your trademarked ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’; but not without him needing to prove himself, to prove that his shoulders could bear the weight his powers placed upon them (though ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ was implied in this expedition, not explicit). Homecoming was the story of Spider-Man truly learning his place.

There was one particular scene I loved. A vivid metaphor of the temptation to be a ‘super-pastor’… Spider-Man is on the Staten Island Ferry. He has a confrontation with the bad guy who is wielding alien weapons; and as Spider-Man seems to get the upper hand, his enemy, the Vulture, says something along the lines of ‘you have no idea what you’re playing at’, and the weapon Spider-Man has wrested from his hands goes out of control; splitting the ferry in two.

Now. For the purposes of this metaphor; imagine that the ferry is the church. A bunch of people who have been rescued from the water beneath by the boat, but then because of the rookie errors of their pastor, the church is rent in two. It starts to take on water. The people who thought they were safe, and that the pastor was looking after their journey, now face death by drowning. They’re probably worse off than they were before the pastor did anything to get them on board…

Spider-Man recognises that the church is falling apart, and because he is a super-hero, he believes it is his responsibility to save it. He, after all, has the power.

In the movie version, Spider-Man’s technologically-augmented suit calculates the path he needs to traverse through the rapidly falling apart ship, he flings himself, pirouetting like only Spidey can, between fixed points on the boat… and we get this iconic image of Spider-Man, the hero, saving the day. Holding the lives of the passengers in his hands… bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. The sort of image a super-pastor might post of themselves on social media… probably while preaching… probably in the same cruciform pose (for the record, I hate photos of pastors preaching, but every time a photo is posted of me it looks like I’m preparing for take off).

This is the iconic image of the movie Homecoming. Spider-Man. Arms outstretched. Saving the world… or the ferry in the sort of cruciform pose you might expect from Australia’s St Andrews Cross Spider. Just for a moment it looks like Spider-Man manages to pull it all together.

It looks like Spider-Man has saved the day… and sometimes super-hero pastors can feel like this. Job done. Crisis averted. Lives saved… all on your shoulders…

There’s going to be a slight spoiler after this picture.

 

This looks like an iconic image; a picture of heroism, but it’s actually a picture of Spider-Man’s failure. 

Just when it looks like Super-Pastor… I mean Spider-Man has pulled everything together the voice in his suit congratulates him on a great job… he’s been, it says, “98% successful”… it dawns on him that 98% is not successful enough just as the whole thing falls apart.

He has failed.

His shoulders were not broad enough; he was all responsibility not enough power, and now everything comes crashing down. And in the real life version of this, this is where the pastor has an identity crisis and either starts blaming people for getting in the way, or shouldering too much of the blame for failing… and both are deadly.

This, at least, was how I felt when watching this scene, and its resolution. I’ve been feeling like church is a ship that if not torn apart by alien lasers, at least has a lot of holes that always need to be plugged. It’s always taking on water. People are always at risk of drowning… and too often I, and they, expect Super-Pastor to save them. The thing is… if this ship went down I’m not sure that Spider-Man actually survives anyway; his fate is tied to the fate of the passengers.

So often in the last few years I’ve bought into one of two ‘super-pastor’ narratives, both when things are going well (and it’s easy to believe the hype), and when things are hard: one, that I’m the saviour our church needs; that my shoulders will hold our church together, carry it, plug the holes, and bind up the broken… most often, but not always, this one comes from a sort of internal monologue, but it’s even more unhelpful when it comes from other people.

The second narrative is that the boat falling apart is my fault; if only I’d preached richer, deeper, clearer, funnier sermons, or if only I’d made better decisions, if only I’d been less stressed out because of parenting toddlers, or less distracted by the countless other things that land on my lap, or that I give attention to… if only I’d been better at my job, then people wouldn’t feel like they’re drowning, wouldn’t be falling overboard, or would be growing in the sort of maturity that’d have them strapping on an Avengers uniform and running into the fray as super-heroes too. This one also comes from a certain internal monologue, but is also, I suspect, part of the subtext of many decisions (not all) to jump ship. We’re so geared, in our consumer culture where the cult of personality rules, to pick a church based on the pastor, or ‘the preaching’; and to build our assessment of whether a church is sinking or swimming based on how well the super-hero is delivering… or perhaps I’m so geared, as a pastor, to think in those terms… that any time it feels like something is falling apart it’s because I’ve only been 98% successful, or worse. Then we’re geared to think that it’s our job to be the hero, if not the pastor’s job, that somehow we need to make up what is lacking in ourselves, or tackle the vastness of the mission, by shouldering more of the world’s problems.

But I am not Spider-Man. I’m not a super-pastor. I have no desire to build a platform, or to carry the weight of the world (or just my church) on my shoulders. I’m also not a super-parent or super-husband; but part of what I’m learning good parenting looks like is letting my kids take responsibility for the things they can take responsibility for, but also letting them let go of what they aren’t (which is most things).

Because while I’m not the saviour (and am a naughty boy); there is another whose shoulders are big enough; one whose outstretched arms were not only 98% successful (and had they been, it would’ve doomed us all). And it’s not Iron Man… but the real cruciform saviour. He’s the one holding our church together; he’s the one I need to look at when I’m tempted to believe any super-pastor ideas (that I am one, or am failing to be one), whether from others or myself… and he’s the one I’m to point to. I love the way Hebrews talks about this both in the first chapter, and in chapter 10, in these words, first talking about ‘heroes’ — priests — those who stand between us and God — who aren’t even 98% successful… and then Jesus, the true super-pastor. The one who stood, but then sat down, enemies destroyed. Mission accomplished. Church building.

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. — Hebrews 10:11-14

This doesn’t mean we don’t do anything; but it does free us to swing boldly. I don’t need to save any church, or any city. It is Jesus who saves; and that he chooses to use rookie preachers like me, and bumbling communities like ours is a miracle. And a good one. He does choose that which means we should act, freely, and heroically, just without the pressure or responsibility of real power.

My son Xavi loves Spider-Man. He dresses like him, pretends to be him, and has learned some lessons about how to use his muscles from Spider-Man’s example. It’s great when he imitates Spider-Man, but delusional when he starts to think that he is Spider-Man. And it’s like that with us…

Or as Captain Hebrews puts it, our hero secures us the ability to be free and confident, and part of this is knowing that we don’t have to save ourselves, or others, we’re just free to be fans who point people to the real deal through our love and good deeds, as we meet together to encourage each other to cling and imitate while we wait, not as heroes but as those who wait for our hero to return, knowing that he rules, and that he builds his church and draws people near.

Inasmuch as there is responsibility in churches for this encouragement, it’s a thing we own together, a load we share, but a load lightened by Jesus. There is no super-pastor in this picture of life together; there are people coming together to cling to the real hero… together… church is a ‘one another’ not a ‘one other’ deal (unless that one other is Jesus).

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. — Hebrews 10:19-25

I’m not Spider-Man. I’m not Super-Pastor. I don’t need to be. I’m just me. And that’s enough. Anything more than that — whether my expectations or yours — would tear me apart.

 

14 Propositions and 3 stories on being the church in post-Christian/post-modern/post-truth Australia

Somewhere in the notes on my phone I’ve started jotting down the different labels people are applying to modern life; post-modern, post-Christian, post-truth…

Post-truth was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, where it means:

“‘Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.”

I’m not an expert on anything much (just making coffee and how to write obscenely long blog posts really)… so I assume when I write stuff people will take or leave it based on its usefulness or truthiness or whatevs. This is something of a caveat or a disclaimer on this post; an acknowledgment that these aren’t definitive things for me inasmuch as they’re the building blocks of how I’m approaching life in the church in however you’d describe modern Aussie life… the nature of time moving forward and different cultural and intellectual epochs being left in the past is that we’re always ‘post-‘ something; at the moment it’s hard not to feel like we’re post-everything; when I talk to different people both in and outside the church there’s a sense that life is changing pretty fast and there’s a temptation to either try to change the church (and what it looks like or does) just as fast to keep up, or to not change how we do things at all. I suspect both these options are wrong and right (at the same time); that we need to change pretty rapidly, but that the change shouldn’t be ‘innovative’ purely for innovation’s sake where we copy the culture only with a bit of Jesus tacked on… it should almost be a rediscovery of who we’re meant to be.

I’ve written a little bit about different approaches to our post-central position in culture (as the ‘church’) and an idea being developed and put forward in the US called The Benedict Option first considering the church as something like the mutants in the world of the X-Men, then considering the post-everything culture as a sort of zombie apocalypse where we’re wanting to survive and thrive; which is a return to a sort of monastic approach to life in the world; not total withdrawal, but a sort of firming up of community boundaries so that mission seems to involve people coming in to our community more than it involves us living as people sent into the world to be a faithful presence… I’m not sure this is the answer to our post-whatever milieu, or what life as exiles should look like (which I think isn’t just the paradigm for life-post-Christendom but for life-post-cross), but part of what I’m trying to sketch out as I write, for myself perhaps more than for others, is a framework for thinking about the life of the church — the body of Christ — in this world; my assumption is that the church should be proclaiming and living the good news of the kingdom of God and its king, Jesus, and that this is fundamentally counter-cultural, it is its own post-everything community, this shouldn’t feel like a call to a new ‘reformation’ in the Aussie ‘evangelical’ scene, though in some ways it is.

There’s not a heap of ‘new’ stuff in this post; what I’ve been aiming to do with this little corner of the Internet for a while is articulate how I’m approaching life and church as much for my sake as for anyone else’s, as a way of tweaking and working out my paradigm. That means there’s a fair bit of repetition, but it also means the archives here chart the development of my thought, which I find personally useful… if this stuff is useful for others along the way, then that’s a bonus.

So here, to perhaps clarify about 50,000 words of previous posts on this blog, are 14 propositions and 3 stories on what I think church can and should be in a post-everything world. It’s long. I’m assuming you’ll skim read if you bother, but part of this is to have a comprehensive one stop shop that spells out my approach to being the church in the post-truth age. I don’t think these are new ideas, though they might be old ideas applied to new threats and opportunities. The stories aren’t meant to be heroic, they are, however, reflections on where I’ve felt like things have ‘clicked’ for our church in the last few years. There are lots of stories, good and bad, from three years of church stuff, these are the ones that fuel the ‘propositions’…

Story 1.

For the last three years (it’s our anniversary in a couple of weeks), I’ve been the campus pastor of Creek Road South Bank. One of my greatest privileges in that time has been baptising 16 Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ. Before I baptise anyone it’s part of my job to hear the story of how they came to follow Jesus (and to ask questions to make sure to the best of my understanding I’m pouring water on Christians). These 16 people share a few things in common: they’re all asylum seekers who arrived in Australia having fled Iran with a particular suspicion about Islam because of the Iranian regime, they’re all able to overcome the language barrier enough to answer my questions about the Trinity (which is a thing I probe because it’s a big difference between Christianity’s view of God and Islam’s), they understand the Trinity, they get the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus for their standing before God, and they’ve universally told me that the reason they began investigating Christianity, and stuck with it, is the love they received from Christians from when they arrived in Australian detention, to when they’ve been resettled in the community, to when they’ve met Christians in church. I can’t take any credit for anything except that I ask questions and do the water bit; but I’m so deeply encouraged, every time, not just by the ‘homecoming’ involved for these brothers and sisters, but by their simple testimony that it’s loving, gospel-shaped, community that makes the Gospel seem worthy of investigation.

Proposition 1: Media matters: You are the social media for whatever you worship

We’re made in the image of God and part of that is that we’re designed to worship and so represent God in his world as his living, breathing, imagining, creating, life-giving people; we replace God with dead idols that take our breath away and we end up adopting new ways of dying based on what it is we worship (most people are poly-theists when it comes to idols, worshipping from a sort of smorgasbord of ‘gods’ like family, money, career, sex, power, popularity so we all look a little different).

Proposition 2: Our ‘media habits’ matter: our worship involves our habits (our repeated actions), which feed and shape our loves and our thinking.

There’s an aspect of ‘post-truth’ stuff that we need to recognise is a misfiring of some fundamental parts of our humanity; we’re made to love and feel our way around the place — but we are, as Augustine might put it, disordered lovers; our media habits — what we fill our time, our attention, our imaginations with and do with our bodies shape us. We live in a world that’ll be increasingly shaped by content-on-demand TV which we binge watch on our couches while eating convenience food (where we’re totally disconnected from the process of the food getting to us), by pornography, by addiction to black glass screens that bombard us with content and fill our attention from the moment we wake; by buying ourselves (fleeting) happiness, and shaped by the equally idolatrous over-correction — those who see the problems with this way of life and so live sort of monastically ‘disconnected’ lives focusing on the pursuit of the perfect meaningful romantic/sexual relationship, ‘slow-food’ that you grow and hunt yourself that you prepare following the recipe of a celebrity chef, or buy from a fancy locavore restaurant, with lots of silence and mediation thrown in for self-mastery’s sake. We are all somewhere on the spectrum between Biggest Loser and MasterChef.

Proposition 3: We live, worship, and image bear both as individuals and corporately/culturally/in community

Bearing the image of the God who is a community (the Trinity) is not something we can do alone even if we try, and it was never a thing we were meant to try; we’re relational/social animals. That’s why God says ‘let us make mankind in our image’ and then makes us male and female… We’re defined as much by relationships with others as by whatever ‘image’ we try to craft alone; and even as we craft an image for ourselves and so worship in particular ways, that’s inevitably a thing we do in community with others that is shaped by the culture we define ourselves through or against. ‘Cultures’ are the product of a sort of coherent mass of ideas and artefacts that tell some sort of story about life and shape the way members of a culture ‘worship’.

Proposition 4: All ‘media artefacts’ have some sort of ‘story’ or value proposition and collections of these artefacts make ‘cultures’

In the past idols had ‘statues’ to represent them; now idolatry seems to happen more through a collection of ‘widgets’ or artefacts that stories or the sort of things we use in stories, that equip people to pursue their worship. I like Andy Crouch’s insight that cultures are a collection of ‘artefacts’ with some sort of coherent story.

Just like God’s ‘art’ — creation itself (and us) — is made with the purpose of representing true things about him… Art, whether written, performed, or fashioned isn’t neutral, it’s made with purpose and represents ‘true’ things about us. The technology (whether hardware or software) and ‘media’ we create are types of artefacts,’ they aren’t neutral. We can always take and repurpose things to use for good, Godly, purposes, just as we took God’s world and used it for our bad purposes; but we need to be aware of what’s under the hood.

So, for example, ‘slow food’ might actually be a better way to articulate true things about God’s world than fast food (just as specialty coffee is better than instant coffee), but we need to make that decision with imagination, discernment and clarity (and applying the same to other ‘artefacts’ in order to be creating an alternative ‘culture’. We need to find a way to ‘plunder Egypt’ for golden ‘artefacts’ that are good and true and beautiful that become part of our ‘culture,’ but we also need to beware the human tendency to use Egyptian gold for golden calves (we take the good stuff God made and use it for our own idolatry). We also need to figure out how to make stuff with gold — our own artefacts — in ways that line up with God’s purposes for creation. Christians could be making things that are good, and true, and beautiful both on a local (neighbourhood) type scale, and on a ‘global’ scale, for the good of everyone not just for our own Christian marketplace.

Most people in our culture don’t think of themselves as worshippers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not. They don’t think of themselves as being searchers for ‘truth’ or meaning (like the people of Athens) and part of our culture-making probably has to be question-provoking; it might have to carry a degree of oddness or mystery that makes people ponder why we’re so different (but in a way that is compelling because it is linked to helping people rediscover the created purpose of our humanity. We also can’t take for granted that people will have any of the conceptual building blocks of the Christian story where that might have once been the case.

Proposition 5. Our aim isn’t to smash idols with sledgehammers (except in our own lives perhaps) but to hollow them of meaning and value, and to show how the inclinations of our hearts that produce them are better satisfied in a better story, with a better God.

In Deuteronomy Israel are told that upon entering the promised land they should totally destroy the idols of the nations; lest their hearts be captured by them. That’s a guide to life in God’s kingdom in Israel; there’s a particular socio-political reality underpinning that approach to idols. In the New Testament Paul tells us to keep ourselves from idols; basically to smash them within the boundaries of the church. He takes a very different approach to the idols of his culture. In 1 Corinthians he tells the church to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols in the presence of non-Christian friends or family who are hosting dinners until the host makes such eating a specific kind of participation in idol worship; until they make a big deal about the sacrifice in a way that makes eating some sort of participation in worship that confuses the people you’re trying to invite to an alternative type of worship. In Athens, Paul walks the streets of the idolatry capital of the world without a sledgehammer; and when he gets the opportunity to speak he doesn’t tell the Athenians to knock down their idols, he understands the human impulses that have led them to worship the wrong thing; to imagine different gods as the solution to their desires, and he attempts to redirect those impulses to the true God in a way that shows their idols as foolish distractions; he does this by quoting the poets and philosophers of the time, he shares as as many assumptions, as much empathy, or as much humanity, as he can with those he is preaching to, without joining their worship. The effect of this is to, much as the Old Testament prophets did when writing about ‘breathless’ idols, hollow them of any legitimate value or meaning, by pointing to the truly valuable God, the one ‘in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being’… his preaching of the more valuable God has a profound impact on people in this ancient world. When he gets to Ephesus a couple of chapters later, the same preaching causes a bunch of people to switch to worshipping the Christian God, and so to burn incredibly valuable (idolatrous) magic books. The impact on the idol-making market — because of the way the Gospel hollowed out the value of the idols of the time — is so great that the local idol making cartel starts a riot to push Paul out of town.

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” — Acts 19:23-27

This is what we should be aiming for; to acknowledge our desire for life, meaning, joy, comfort, and significant relationships and to rob the idols of the present of their value because they don’t provide actual answers. Not with a sledgehammer, but by offering something better. One of our age’s own poets, David Foster Wallace, in the speech This Is Water (which I quote all the time (because it’s the equivalent of Paul quoting the non-Christian philosophers at the Areopagus cause they were so close to getting God right) points out that our culture has its own ‘cartel’ of idol makers; the powerful and influential systems and leaders who get more wealth and power so long as we all mindlessly participate in the default worship of our culture; which he calls ‘the worship of self’ — and which he suggests manifests itself in the worship of sex, money, and power. This is our Athens:

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Our job is to afflict those who have become comfortable via these defaults, and to comfort those afflicted and oppressed by these defaults, but to do it not by taking a sledgehammer to the sort of idol-perpetuating cultures (like capitalism and power-politics) but by offering a better way; a way that shows that the promises of ‘gods’ other than the one we see nailed to a cross, have no ‘divine majesty’ but are hollow and life-taking.

Proposition 6: The ‘post-truth’ world should rightly refocus us on ethos (and even pathos) as part of Gospel proclamation; it’s what gives our message integrity, credibility, and appeal

One of our misfires in the ‘truth’ world has been to assume that truth is found in the realm of ideas and words; that it’s a thing you predominantly think and that our heads lead to change; that we’re sanctified via education alone. We’re not just logical brains, or computers (I’ve heard some interesting stuff from brain scientists about how unhelpful it is to treat the brain as a ‘fascinating computer’ and I think we’ve made this mistake in our approach to church; trying to get the programming right). We love and feel and experience truth. Ancient communications theorists were all over this — logos (words/logic) alone is a terrible and unpersuasive ‘proof’… when we add the stuff about us being visible media into the mix (and think about how God communicates via visible media from the creation of the world, to laws that produce rituals and story-telling celebration, onwards to the word being made flesh in Jesus), it’s hard to get to a position we’re our words aren’t being given their weight and meaning by our actions and character. Words are always necessary; not just because we do think logically, but because words are also part of the way we calibrate our hearts. Words are something fundamental to our humanity; something we share with God that animals don’t (unless we teach them to parrot us), but we need to think more about the sorts of words, and about how words that have integrity have integrity because they line up with actions. Tying the above propositions together; this ethos is a thing we share across the church community, not just an individual thing.

Proposition 7: The church is the plausibility structure for the Gospel

Because persuasion happens via ethos as much as the logos that shapes it, and because that’s corporate, and because worshippers represent the God they worship, it shouldn’t surprise us that communities built around gods make those gods plausible. This is true of the shopping centre, where the story of happiness via consumption is told/pursued by all the people shopping together (or together alone) and shopping in ways that follow ‘trends’ (which often feature cultural artefacts that everyone wants to buy and own and attach to their ‘image’). The church community is where the Gospel is displayed as it is lived and articulated.When we forgive each other for wrongs and hurts we inflict on one another by bearing the cost of wrongdoing on ourselves we show the truth and goodness of the forgiveness Jesus pours out on us in his death.When we respond to messy sin with grace, rather than disgrace or shame the person (in a way that is utterly counter-cultural in our new shame culture) we make the Gospel more believable for us, and them.

When we have permission to be broken and vulnerable but are treated as though we have inherent dignity and value in the life of the community we make the claim that we are loved by God and being transformed into the image of Jesus feel true.

When we love each other the way Jesus loved us and commanded us to love — for the sake of the other, not our own sake — that makes the love God displays for us in Gospel believable for us and for others.

This isn’t revolutionary thinking either; it’s there in the words of Jesus when he says “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another…” (John 13:35, which is basically the idea that underpins the whole of 1 John where the possibility of continued belief in Jesus, and loving like Jesus are linked inextricably). Discipleship is about formation; we’re all disciples of whatever god we worship, shaped by those who are more ‘mature’ worshippers because it comes via imitation not simply education; for Christians it comes via imitation of Jesus (to love as he loved, which is also what he commands us to do in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another…”).

Proposition 8: For the Gospel to be proclaimed/plausible/lived 24/7 (not just on Sundays) we need to think of the church (community of believers) and its worship (corporate activity of sacrifice/service of God) as being a 24/7 thing not a two hours on Sundays thing.

We humans are worshippers 24/7. We’re always giving ourselves to our gods and getting shaped by them in return. Worship delivers transformation (and often disappointment, or in the words of David Foster Wallace, worshipping idols ‘eats us alive’…). To make the Gospel plausible in post-everything Australia we need to be quite deliberately combating other types of worship in how we live 24/7; a get together on Sundays for an hour or two won’t cut it because it won’t display our ethos (the Gospel enacted in the love of Jesus) for long enough to be plausible for us, let alone for others. This will mean deliberately building different rhythms into the lives of Christians to the rhythms we adopt without realising as we live and breathe in idolatrous post-everything air.

Proposition 9: In this model of corporate proclamation (ethos and logos) by the church all the time, the priesthood of all believers really matters; which requires an upping of the levels of commitment of ‘unpaid’ church members and lowering the commitment of paid staff.

If corporate ethos really matters; and the church community speaks, lives and breathes the story of the Gospel to ourselves, and the world, then it’s hard to outsource the ‘ministry’ of church to a handful of paid professionals. That’s been an unfortunate part of seeing church as predominantly a Sunday thing; ‘serving’ at church becomes less important than ‘being served’ or ‘consuming’ a ‘worship event.’ And all of that is wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. There’s certainly a case to be made for paid church workers (quite explicitly in the Bible) and I definitely think I offer some value for money to anyone considering reading this point and not giving at church anymore… there’s also a case to be made for a significant portion of a church’s budget being used to free people up from secular work to pursue a gospel calling. We’re all, as Christians, called to Gospel ministry (which means service), and this will take different shapes based on our gifts, circumstances, and maturity. What this ‘call’ looks like will be different for everyone, and it’s important that we don’t enforce some sort of secular/sacred divide here; a Gospel ethos underpins the work of the cobbler as much as it underpins the work of the preacher.

Work matters; but seeing your work (including what you choose to do) and how you do it as part of your ministry (not just your colleagues as people to bombard with Gospel ‘logos’) is part of making work truly matter.

Part of ensuring that church/worship of God/being the body of Christ is the most fundamental part of setting the agenda of your life might involve you having that agenda less set by work (and the imperatives of our modern idols of career, money, comfort and power); this might mean resting, recreating, and relating more with the people in your life, of changing career, or going part time and figuring out how your gifts might be more directly used for the Gospel.

Story 2.

In the first couple of weeks of meeting in the Queensland Theatre; one of the brilliant theatre company staff who was tasked with helping us out happened to mention that their ‘charity partner of choice’ was a local social justice group called Micah Projects who run an apartment building around the corner from us which provides permanent supported housing for formerly homeless and low income people. It turns out Micah was founded as the social justice arm of the local Catholic church, but it has sort of taken on a life of its own since then. I thought that sounded like a great opportunity for us to join something already happening in our area and to practice the sort of cross-shaped ‘ethos’ the Gospel creates in us. So I volunteered. I’ve been volunteering for almost three years now, and have been part of a cool project (including the launch of a social enterprise cafe). But I’ve mostly spent time hanging out with Micah Projects’ passionate and capable team. A lady in our community got a bit excited about Micah, and she volunteered too. She volunteered for a project face-to-face with residents of this apartment building and set about faithfully and enthusiastically loving people. Others from church started attending a community meal. This lady is so warm and genuine in her love for others; a love that crosses barriers, that soon a resident of this apartment building, a lovely older lady (perhaps more enthusiastic about life than even our volunteer) started coming to church. She’s not originally from Australia, has no other family here, and now, in her emails and in conversations with people from outside our church calls us her ‘Aussie family’…

Proposition 10: As an alternative ‘community’ with an alternative king and alternative ethics (ethos), the church is profoundly ‘political’ (and both ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ at the same time).

The church can’t simply attempt to be an arm of the secular state; wielding worldly power as though we’re not profoundly different to our neighbours. We follow king Jesus and are ‘citizens of heaven’ who ‘live as foreigners and exiles’ in this world; but nor can we pretend the Gospel is apolitical; that following Jesus has no bearing on how we live in God’s world amongst people now. The word ‘politics’ originally meant: “of, for, or relating to citizens” and we have some very big ideas about what it means to be citizens of God’s kingdom; to follow Jesus, to obey his commands, to: ‘‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

The Gospel gives us a new vision of ‘the ethical’ and ‘good’ human life; which in the context of relationships/community gives us a new ‘politics’ — the word Gospel is, in itself, a political statement that Jesus is king (that’s what a ‘gospel’ was in Rome). Being part of God’s kingdom, the church, brings a whole new way of doing politics that come from our understanding of what the good life for a citizen looks like; the sort of life we aim to live as we follow our king, but also the sort of life we hope might appeal to others and commend the Gospel to them (not the sort of life we want to coerce people into living without a regime change in their heart). 

Our understanding of what it means to be human means we see humans as made in God’s image; so that there are certain inherently good and natural things that we commonly hold together (a sort of divinely inspired moral compass), so we’ll naturally want to conserve those things in a shared approach to life together as citizens; but we also see humans transforming themselves into the image of destructive idols via corporate/cultural replacement of God with created things, and we see that as profoundly damaging to our humanity (and to others) (Romans 1). We’ll see most cultures/institutions as being produced by image bearers who are also idolaters and so on a sort of spectrum towards deathliness depending on how much they’ve been given over (together) by God to the consequences of rejecting him (Romans 1) — people who know what they should do, but often don’t do it (Romans 7), so we’ll naturally want to call for a sort of progress away from that broken humanity towards the example of humanity we see in Jesus. We’ll call for this without expecting people who don’t follow Jesus to adopt that ‘progress’ for themselves, and we’ll call for it loudest by living it as people/citizens being transformed by God’s Spirit (Romans 8).

This means there might be things Christians can achieve for the love of God and neighbour through involvement in conservative or progressive human political institutions as an outworking of our alternative politics; it might also mean not being part of those systems; it definitely means our first allegiance is to Jesus and his kingdom, and it means having our ‘politics’ first shaped by this citizenship.

Proposition 11: Part of the nature of the Gospel’s ‘ethos‘, the nature of our politics, and how we see the value of people and the use of power, pushes us towards the marginalised in our community not towards occupying or cosying up to ‘powerful’ worldly leaders (and for those of us in positions of power and influence should shape us to use that in particular, sacrificial, ways on behalf of the vulnerable).

The way Jesus uses power is the anti-thesis to the way the Serpent, Satan, uses power and following Jesus brings with it a new way of approaching power that isn’t the grasping, self-interested approach introduced by the Serpent in Genesis 3. The way of the Serpent is the way of the ‘beastly’ Roman empire (see Revelation); it’s the way that culminates in humanity driving big metal spikes through the hands of God With Us (Jesus), and killing him on the best weapon of utter humiliation-via-powerlessness that humanity could devise. The cross worked by robbing someone of their dignity and their ability to inspire (both in terms of breathing or leading). That’s why Rome used it to punish treason and insurrection; it was meant to give Caesar more power by robbing power from pretenders. The serpent makes powerful people into crucifiers; Jesus makes people cruciform (cross shaped). This orients those who follow Jesus to a particular understanding of how sinful people (and cultures) will wield power for their own self-interest, and attunes us to the sort of cost that inflicts on the people who powerful people use to their own ends; it means that we use our own ‘human power’ as a gift from God to be poured out for the sake of others; whether we occupy an ‘office’ that brings a degree of authority, or we’re just human, there’s an orientation towards the poor, the enslaved, the widowed, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the abused, and the victim. Most people are ‘marginalised’ in some way by the use of power, because ultimately power used to our own selfish ends is power being used by ‘that great serpent’ whose reign is destroyed by the reign of Jesus (again, see Revelation).Part of the ethos that comes with serving the king who lays down his power for the sake of others to make a ‘home’ for the marginalised and re-affirm their dignity will involve us pursuing justice and mercy and love for the marginalised in our world; not in a way that tosses out the truth that we’re all ‘marginalised,’ excluded, and exiled, from God by our sin (a trap the ‘social gospel’/liberation movement fell into), or that sees this as the only marginalisation that matters (the trap the more fundamentalist ‘preach heaven to the dying world’ movement falls into) or that our homecoming to God involves being ‘exiles’ from the world of human/serpentish power (a trap a sort of ‘reconstructionist’ approach to government falls into sometimes), but in a way that sees how we live and love being part of how we proclaim and live the truth of the Lordship of Jesus over all things.

Proposition 12: We are ‘narrative animals’ and it’s stories that underpin our worship

As people we occupy space and move through time; the thing that separates ‘narrative’ from other forms is that events that happen in space, over time are understood/told that way. That’s how a story and a statue convey meaning differently. It’s also the difference between a computer and a person. When I turn on a computer it has no deep knowledge of the idea that it has been turned off for days, weeks, months or years, or that it is in a different place (even when software options recognise those things for us as users, they’re not ‘meaningful’ for the computer itself). We’re ‘narrative animals’; the post-truth thing where ’emotion,’ intuition, and our ‘personal narrative’ trumps facts is, in part, a corrective against a view of people that treated us more like computers who just had to be programmed right in order to perform right.

Plausibility in a post-truth world means treating people ‘narrative animals’ who organise our passing through time and space by telling stories that help us understand, love, feel, and intuit our way around the world; and telling a better/more-compelling story that brings a vision of what life should look like; it’s these stories and this vision that will shape our habits and loves, and so shape us.

These stories use words, but they’re also lived. Part of the task of the church community is to be a story-telling community in word and action; a community that lives and breathes the story of the coming of the kingdom of God and the death of sin and death in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Stories go hand in hand with ‘history’ — the collection of stories over time that give an account of who we are. There’s a movement called the “Big History Project” which aims to equip people to live more scientifically in a post-truth world by starting ‘history’ teaching with the big bang and giving people a sense of the tiny amount of space and time we occupy; we’ve got a better big history, that also begins with creation, but centres on the God who spoke the universe into being showing his incredible love for us and making us eternal. We should tell that story (like Paul does in Athens in Acts 17) as a way to move people from worshipping idols to worshipping the true God; because he’s actually a better God with a better story to be part of. This has to shape the way talk about the Bible (as a story not a weird collection of rules and facts, which is actually truer about how the Bible seems to understand itself — and how the apostles preach the Old Testament in Acts).

Proposition 13: Because we’re worshipping ‘narrative’ creatures who understand our world and are formed through ‘story’ and action (ethos) in community, not simply detached ‘facts’ (logos) Christian formation happens through the hands and the heart (our loves) as well; so we can’t just ‘educate brains’ to make disciples.

This is just Augustine and James K.A Smith and the implications of the stuff above. We become what we worship; and worship is about much more than simply knowing. I know I should eat healthier and that will re-shape me; but until I love the idea of a healthy me more than sugar and junk food and habitually say no, the knowing does nothing, and I know sugar is bad for me the less I eat it… If it doesn’t work in dieting (or any realm of human behaviour built on producing a changed image) why do we think formation happens purely by education? The implications for this are massive in terms of investment of time and energy in the rhythms of church life (the sermon can’t possibly be enough), but also changes the things we say when we preach and where we pitch stuff. The caveat is that of course the head is important; it’d be a weird sort of irony to write this much and not acknowledge that.

Proposition 14: Propositions are dead.

Propositions are a reasonable way to do logic, and they were perhaps okish in a pre-post-truth context (particularly in a modernist context). They’re a reasonable way to argue. I’m not so sure that many people have been argued into the kingdom of God (though I’m sure some arguments have been part of getting people to consider Jesus)… I’m fairly sure arguments/debates/logic won’t do much if the post-truth thing is the spirit of the age we live in. It’s still important to have some sense of the logic of belief in Jesus, but that won’t be the thing that gets someone to check out, or believe, the Gospel at a gut, or heart, level.

Propositions are actually a terrible way to do anything that looks like ‘change’ in the scheme of things whether that’s in the life of individual Christians, or in how we do church. And as much as a very long post on a blog might seem like a lot of energy to invest in a thing that doesn’t work, I’m much more interested in investing my energy into demonstration of this stuff in the context of the church community I’m part of, and through telling stories. There’s, of course, an irony in all this, but these propositions have largely been derived from how I understand the story of the Bible works, and from my observations of stories of God at work in the lives of real people in our church, lives that reflect this grand story…

Story 3.

In the beginning, God made a good world — an ordered and beautiful world where every created thing had a built-in purpose. It’s purpose was to reflect his goodness, his character, and his love. It was a gift for his children; his image-bearers. He made us to represent him, to rule with him, to spread and create things that would reflect his goodness throughout the world. He made us with another job in mind — as men and women — he made us to take part in the cosmic battle to defeat evil. Evil personified in the Serpent. Satan. He gave humanity what was required to defeat him; simply the opportunity to choose good, not evil, when the serpent came knocking. That would’ve been his end. Perhaps the serpent might have struck out and killed humans, but God has always been the life-giver who is capable of resurrection, and the gift of immortality via the ‘tree of life’ is part of his expression of love for his children. Who knows? The serpent struck with his words, not his teeth, he invited us humans to replace God with a false picture of God… first by suggesting that God wasn’t a generous life-giver who gave people everything they need, and more, and then by inviting them to decide what ‘image’ of God, what likeness, they would present in the world God made. Stuff God. Do your own thing. Worship some other picture of wholeness and goodness and pursue that. Only, none of these give life, or breath, or being; instead, they take life and breath. And that’s what humans choose, by default, to be our own gods, to worship false gods, to pursue satisfaction in using the things God made to our own ends. And it’s not just not-satisfying (it always leaves us wanting more), it’s also deadly. These things don’t give life.  

The story of humanity from that point is the disappointing story of hearts too easily lured away from God towards death, but God constantly pulling people from the smelting fire, re-forging them, breathing new life and purpose into them, offering life again… only for those same ‘new image bearers’ to head towards the exile door, away from him, away from life.

The Old Testament is a story of failed kings, failed states, and exile; of God’s images being captured and corrupted by foreign ideas — as idol statues often were in other military conflicts of the time — and so losing their created purpose. Of hearts turned towards wrong pictures of God, of imaginations misfiring. This is not just Israel’s story; it’s the story of humanity. It’s what we do. We’re haunted by having known the infinite, life giving God, and having lost that knowledge, collectively and culturally, by replacing him with things he made. It’s also the story of God’s faithful commitment to his original plans; the defeat of the serpent and the creation of a people who join him in spreading good, and true, and beautiful things — in spreading life itself — around the cosmos. Using our desires and imaginations; our creativity; to make things that are life-giving, not death-bringing. 

The story happens all over again with Jesus. When the author of life writes the word of life into the story of the world as a character. Jesus, both God and man, a new Adam, one who will end the serpent. The serpent-killing lamb ‘slain from the creation of the world’… the one who says no to the Serpent because he knows the goodness of God. The one who defeats evil not with the might of a sword, but with the obedience of the cross… that moment in history, at the centre of the story, where he both reveals God’s character and takes on the sin, and guilt, and shame, of those who write their own godless stories. Where a good king steps in to end our exile from God and to restore images captured by foreign enemies. Where the infinite becomes finite — to the point of spending three days dead — to give infinite life to us. This life is re-breathed into his people as the Holy Spirit; a divine spark setting fire to our hearts and minds, re-shaping us into what we were made to be; not just images of the infinite, invisible God, but of Jesus. Our king. Jesus invites you to rediscover the satisfaction of becoming who humans were always made to be. He invites you to be a character in the story that brings life, rather than write your own stories that bring death; to make things (family, friends, art, work) that are good and true and beautiful reflections of God’s goodness and character — the goodness and character we ultimately see revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus — with others who are being re-shaped, re-forged, by that same Spirit. This creative community is a life-giving community, a community that lives out this new story and points people to the hero, while relying on God to give us life and breath and everything, and seeking to love our neighbours the way he loved us.

This is the true story we get to tell, and the story we get to live, as God’s people living in a world pulled in all sorts of directions by different types of worship. ‘Facts’ without this story are empty, that’s why the ‘post-truth’ thing isn’t ultimately a terrible thing for Christians, but perhaps it should be a ‘game-changer’ in that it should pull us back to a way of loving people and sharing the Gospel that we should never have walked away from (and in many cases, haven’t walked away from).

,

Church Du Soleil

On Saturday night Robyn and I went to the Cirque Du Soleil’s Kooza. On Sunday a few people came to church for the first time. It struck me that the experience is quite similar; or at least I hope it is. If you have ever wondered about trying out church there’s a guide that might de-mystify some (not all) of the experience here.

 

kooza-highwire_bicycle

At some point, minutes before our scheduled departure, I ask my wife, and my parents who’ve been to this thing before what I should be wearing. Is there a dress code? Is it explicit, or implicit? Will I get away with my normal uniform of t-shirt, shorts, and a pair of thongs?

I change. I put on a collared shirt. Better to be over-dressed than under-dressed I guess. And who knows who I’ll bump into at this thing. I figure I also want to dress within a few standard deviations of my wife, so that she doesn’t feel awkward. Better to be awkward with others. Definitely.

I’ve been to something like this before. Once or twice. But I’m not a regular, and those were in very different contexts, once was for a professional thing, the other was when I was a kid. The etiquette feels different now that I’m choosing to go.

We’re ushered in to a park. The crowd is gathering in the carpark. Some people clearly know more about what is going on than others. Some stare intently at the screen of their phones, perhaps checking last minute details.

Someone in a black shirt at the door greets us, and gives us directions to where we can be seated; we’ve arrived with enough time to not be interrupting any of the ‘show’… We awkwardly file past people already seated in the row of seats and sit. Uncomfortably, because the seats in these places are almost always uncomfortable; perhaps to stop us falling asleep.

We’ve been seated for a while when the music starts. I’m not really sure what to do at this point. I look around a bit awkwardly to see what other people are doing. They’re staring quite intently at the stage; some rapturously, some blankly, some like me are looking around.

The band is tight. The music is amazing; it’s not something I’d listen to, let alone sing along to, during the week. But something about it captures my spirits and lifts them, and it seems to be doing the same for the people around me.

Then this clown starts to talk. I listen. He’s obviously done something like this before. He has the patter sorted. He’s engaging. It seems like it’s his job to have the crowd transfixed so that the spirit of the show might do its work and have us leaving changed, then coming back for more. Sometimes he’s joined by others; sometimes he invites audience participation. I shuffle down in my seat so he doesn’t make eye contact with me and invite me to take part in the show; I’m not ready for that. Yet.

There’s plenty of stuff happening on stage that leaves me feeling things. A sense of awe; a sense of our shared humanity being pushed to its limits in a way that teaches us all something about what it means to be human; in a way that makes me believe that something more is possible in my own humanity. For a moment I consider signing up to this weird colourful tribe.

There’s an interval. A chance to stretch my legs. I listen to the voices of people around me reflecting on what they’ve been inspired or challenged by so far; there’s an insider language being spoken by some, clearly more familiar with this sort of event than I am; but others, like me, are perplexed by what they’ve been experiencing. People seem really into this. Those performers on the stage must have devoted a significant amount of their life to mastering this thing that to me just seems other-worldly. How does one even begin to discover this way of life? If I was going to be part of this what would I contribute? What could I do? How could my humanity be stretched in such a way that it seems to defy both the human defaults and the laws of science?

There’s something mystical happening here. Mostly I’m just amazed. I’m a bit challenged. I can’t tell if I’m challenged by the oddness; the sense that I can’t, or wouldn’t, do that stuff, or if I’m challenged to think about how I might be more like this in the real world. These people just seem like a whole different category of human to me; they defy every thing I think I know about humanity and its limits. I’m a little scared. At some points it becomes too much and I look away; I tune out. But never for long.

There’s also something dangerous going on. You can tell that the people up the front have been changed; transformed; by this life, this ‘magic’… they’re enchanted. There’s something not quite normal about them; the way they do this stuff that defies my ‘normal’ like it’s not just second nature but totally natural. They’re invested there’s a hint of trance like focus where muscle memory has simply taken over as they go through their paces. I wonder what life is like for them off stage whether this preternatural way of being infuses everything they do; does this way of seeing the world only operate in this space, or is every aspect of their humanity, are all their relationships, transformed? I suspect they must be. This is a new way of being human. It must also profoundly change the community they belong to; there’s a tightness and trust on display as they interact. There’s also risk implicitly involved in what they’re doing… it’s just so… different. It seems that if they fall from that height it’ll hurt more than if I fall as I just bumble around in risk-mitigated normality. But there’s something beautiful about the human more fully alive. Something compelling. Inviting even.

Maybe I could be part of this? I’m just not sure I could leave the comfort of my way of life behind to follow a bunch of clowns.

But there’s beauty here. Something different. Something intangible. But something that invites me to have my senses changed and my expectations about humanity expanded.

It just looks like hard work though. And I’m struggling to get over just how weird this stuff is. How counter-cultural.

There’s something about the atmosphere; the hint of enchantment in the air; that leaves me more likely to become a true believer than before. Perhaps I’m even converted. I’m definitely intrigued enough to consider coming back again, and maybe to making this a regular part of my life. Maybe even to seeing the capability of the humans I mix and mingle with in the workaday world somewhat differently; as people with potential to be something more, if only they would discover and tap into this ancient embodied magic.

Maybe I’ll go back. I’ve start thinking about it, and reliving it, as soon as we’re filing out of that space with a bunch of others who’d lived through the same experience; our shared vocabularies expand; I imagine we’re all leaving with the same questions, the same moments sticking out and challenging our preconceptions. As my wife and I de-brief in the carpark I can’t help thinking “maybe we will do this again… she seems to have enjoyed it too.” It was all just so weird, so different. I’m still haunted by that music. The words of the clown ring in my ears. I climb into my car and drive back to my normal. But I can’t help wondering:

What is it to be human?

Why does my normal seem so limited when what I’ve just seen defies those limits?

What’s normal anymore?

 

How to go to church (some tips for the curious)

I’ve been going to church my whole life. Now I help lead one. I guess that qualifies me to know stuff about going to church.

It occurs to me that while church might be totally normal for me, it’s freaking weird for people who’ve only been into churches for special events like Christmas, Easter, baptisms and christenings, weddings or funerals… but it also occurs to me that there are people out there who might feel like they’re missing something in life; be it community, or a connection to a deeper spiritual reality, what Christianity and this Jesus stuff is all about (and why so many people seem to believe it is true), or perhaps you just want to figure out what church is so that you know it’s not for you. I don’t think many people are choosing not to go to church because they’re worried about what church will be like, but maybe you are? And maybe this could be helpful.

Maybe you’ve never thought about this until a weird link popped up on your Facebook feed. Maybe this is a sign from God (or Facebook’s algorithms have calculated that you really need church). Maybe you don’t know what you’re missing, but you know you’re missing something.

A cool thing I read recently suggests the average person in the modern secular world we live in is, whether they know it or not, haunted by our modern world’s decision to toss the God stuff out of our public and private lives. So maybe you miss church without even knowing it? Maybe you want to know why I, or people like me, give up the best hours of the weekend to hang out with people who aren’t much like us.

This post is designed to help you figure out what to do about that haunting feeling, to satisfy your curiosity about church, or know how to react when a well-meaning Christian friend invites you to church and you want to humour them. It’s comprehensive, and has headings and bolded bits, so you can scroll up and down to find things you want to know before heading to church. If you don’t need any of this stuff, why not try church somewhere near you this weekend. Make a day of it.

Before you get there

So you’ve decided to go to church. This stuff is easiest if you’re going with someone and you have a specific church to check out. But let’s assume that’s not the case.

Get online

Most churches worth visiting have a website, some use social media. A website will give you a sense of the personality of the place, so will a church’s Facebook page and the stuff they choose to share. Especially photos. Especially photos of people. If you’re really serious maybe search for the pastors/ministers/leaders on Facebook and see if they’re totally weird. You’ve got amazing tools at your disposal to get a sense of what church will be like before you get there.

Check the starting time and any other details you might need (like transport, parking info, etc). Not all churches will tell you how long the official stuff goes for, but sometimes you can get an idea if a church has more than one service and they back on to each other. I probably wouldn’t go anywhere that went longer than 90 minutes, 60 is great, but we do sit through 3 hour movies these days…

Be prepared to sift through some jargon

Sometimes these websites will use weird insider language, but most are pretty good at trying to help you figure out what to expect if you head along. Believe it or not, churches love visitors. Some of us are still trying to figure out how to speak to an Australia where a significant majority of people say they’re Christians, but a greater majority never ever go to church. Sometimes our language needs translating and it’s like visiting a foreign country that occasionally speaks english. But churches love visitors. We pray for people to come. We want people to know Jesus — not because more people believing in Jesus will make us feel weirder, but because we think Jesus is good news, and good for you, and Jesus tells us to love our neighbours. If a church doesn’t strike you as sounding like it loves visitors. Don’t go. I’d rather your experience of church is one where you feel like people really want you to be there with them.

Some jargon worth knowing about — most churches call their meetings ‘services’ — this is because for some churches what happens on a Sunday is worship which means ‘service of God’ and for others it’s because the aim of the gathering is to serve each other, and our neighbours, by helping people know Jesus. Most other jargon isn’t worth knowing; the most loving thing us churchy types can do for you is be clear about what’s going on, what we’re on about, and what you can expect.

Make contact

This one isn’t for everyone. But if you’re going alone and you want people to be looking out for you — get in touch with the church via the website. Ask questions you want answers to. There aren’t stupid questions. Sometimes going into a church feels like going on an overseas holiday (you don’t need a passport though).

Maybe you have a friend who goes to church and you’d actually like to go, but they never ask. Sorry. Ask them. Invite yourself along. Maybe I’m that friend…

Mythbusting

“Church is for good people”

This just isn’t true. When Jesus was around the ‘good people’ got upset at him for hanging out with sinners; he said “it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” — church is for people who know they’re broken, not people who think they’re too good for everyone. We sometimes get that wrong though, or have developed such ‘good habits’ (like not smoking, swearing, or other normal stuff) that we might seem to have things more together. We don’t. Plus. Hopefully Christians know everyone is at a different stage of figuring out the God stuff; a good church will explain stuff as it happens, and be patient with you as you figure stuff out.

The roof will fall down on someone like me

Every church building I know of meets the building code requirements, so roof collapses are unlikely. Some churches don’t even meet in ‘church buildings’ — for the first few years we meet in a theatre where all sorts of stuff happens (with plenty of stage designs). You’ll be ok. Hopefully people won’t be judging you either; Jesus tells us not to.

Church is for Christians who know what they believe

Nah. Christians who know what they believe will absolutely be there. But church gatherings are for everyone. Some churches focus on teaching Christians and assume you’ll catch the vibe eventually, others are more deliberately on about making church accessible for new people (assuming Christians become better Christians by loving other people). You should definitely come. And ask questions if you don’t understand stuff. And ask more questions. Hopefully the church you visit will be friendly.

Church is a building/corporation/event

Church isn’t a place, or a brand, or even the event on a Sunday though we might speak of ‘going to church’ — the church is the community of people, not the event. You can visit a church service, but church, ultimately, is a community you join not an event you attend. We should be on about breaking the consumer mentality so common in our approach to events and focus instead on loving and serving each other (and you). Christians don’t ‘go to church’, we ‘are the church’… and not just on Sundays (and not just when we are meeting together). This stuff is a bit confusing, but it might explain how the word church gets bandied about when you’re there.

I need to know stuff like what ‘Presbyterian’ or ‘Catholic’ or ‘Anglican’ means, and which one I am, before I go somewhere

Most Aussies have some sort of family ties to some sort of brand of Christianity, it’s not uncommon for me to say “I’m a Presbyterian” (not up front, when people ask me if I’m part of a cult or something), and to hear the response “I think my grandma was Presbyterian so I guess I am too”… that’s not really how it works. Sometimes these brands (called ‘denominations’) have big differences in beliefs and practices between each other; other times its more a question of where the brand originated (Scotland for the Presbyterians, England for the Anglicans). All these churches do stuff differently, but most of the time there’s a diversity of practice within them and the descriptions are now mostly about boring stuff like governance. Stuff you won’t have to worry about for at least the first year or two… but most churches will be able to explain what they’re on about, and most churches will be more than happy for you to figure out what you’re on about if you decide Jesus is for you.

On the day

What to wear 

Clothes. Shoes are optional in most churches. But definitely clothes. The idea of ‘wearing your Sunday best’ is probably an idea best left in your parent’s or grandparent’s generation. As a preacher I aim to be dressed about as well as the average attendee, I don’t want people to think they have to play dress-ups. Just be yourself. Part of the measure of a church is if they’ll accept you and welcome you as you really are, not as you pretend to be.

When to get there

On time. Probably. Getting there early will give you a chance to meet people — most churches have a team of people whose job it is to welcome people and make life easier for visitors. Some don’t. Hopefully if you get there early, people will talk to you (I say this as an extrovert). Most regulars at my church show up within the first 15 minutes after the service starts. That’s not necessarily the best thing for them to do, but life happens. Kids throw tantrums. We understand and we don’t make a big deal about people being late (being on time or early just frees you up to be there for other people, and visitors).

What to do when you get there

Find the nearest exits. Do whatever your basic spy training taught you to do when in an unfamiliar environment.

What you do once you’ve arrived is up to you. If you’re there early you can practice the ancient art of hovering to see if any interesting conversations come your way, or you can find a seat (someone may approach you to say hi there too, church people love saying hi, and asking you ‘what do you do?’ It’s such a boring question. Sorry. Freak them out with an interesting answer.

Some churches will hand you a Bible, and/or a bit of paper, on the way in. The paper will usually try to help you know what’s going on a bit on that Sunday, but it’ll have some info in it for people who are part of the church too (maybe news, or info about church finances). It might be worth grabbing so you’ve got something to read in the boring bits (that might or might not happen). There may also be a contact card so that people from the church can follow you up to answer any of your questions or find out what you thought about whatever happens; you can either fill it in or make a paper plane, it’s up to you.

What’s going to happen in the ‘service’?

Every church is a bit different. Some churches will let you know what is going to happen on a Sunday on their website, others might print something in that paper flyer thing they hand you at the door. Here’s what I think most services/meetings/gatherings/whatever will involve.

  • Some singing. Christians love to sing. The Bible tells us to do this and singing is a great way to participate in teaching each other, and in planting ideas in a poetic way in our heads so that we live a certain way during the week. Songs help us follow Jesus and encourage each other. Plus they communicate thankfulness to God (who we believe is real, and is there with us all the time, but we’re paying particular attention to that as we get together). Singing is a bit weird. Most of the time people will stand to do that (because you sing with more gusto when you’re standing); it’s not entirely silly to think of some songs as being a bit like a national anthem (that communicate something about who we are and what we value) and like what happens at a Liverpool game when the crowd sings You’ll Never Walk Alone.
  • Something for the kids. Good churches want kids to know who Jesus is too — there’s a great story about Jesus interacting with a bunch of kids that shows kids are really important to Jesus. Kids are people. One way Christians talk about church is that we’re the ‘family of God’ — so kids are part of church not some sort of weird extras or annoyances to be swept under a rug somewhere. I love when kids are kids and they make noises and stuff during the service. My kids go a bit stir crazy and dance and run around. That’s cool (not all churches will be so fine with it, not all of us have little kids). Most churches will have some sort of Sunday School and some will have a spot before the kids head out to their program that helps parents know what is going to be talked about in that program. Some will sing a kids song. Christians have a weird love for puppets, so there may be puppets too.
  • More singing. There might be a break in the service at some point where the kids head out to their thing, some churches will use this as an opportunity to talk to people. New people. People like you. Be prepared for some more small talk; but remember, the people talking to you are probably as scared of you as you are of them. They’re trying to welcome you so that you get a sense of what’s going on. They might actually really genuinely love you; hopefully they do. And that could be the start of something profoundly amazing like real friendship.
  • Some praying. We believe we can talk to God. Which is a weird thing that might be a bit confronting. But part of why we get together is to pray together and to recognise God for who he is — for Christians that means talking to God as the one who created everything, who is ultimately in control of everything, and who saves us (that’s the Jesus bit).
  • Some Bible reading. One of the other things we believe is that God talks to us — and that he does that through the pages of a 2,000 year old book. This, again, might seem weird. But nobody claims we believe totally natural stuff; we believe the supernatural is natural, and that a book that old can say things about life now. Churches read and understand the Bible differently and understand the truth it contains differently. Some people think everything is literal, some that everything is metaphorical, some that you should read and apply the Old Testament directly to life now, others that you have to understand the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament… ours, like some others, thinks that the Bible is all about Jesus, that it tells one story from start to finish; the story of God saving the world.
  • A talk. Someone will get up and hopefully they’ll speak about the Bible passage that was read, and about Jesus. Hopefully they won’t go for longer than 20-30 minutes.
  • A prayer
  • Another song.
  • Food. Churches often have coffee and morning tea or lunch floating around after the service. If you like the idea of hanging around with the people you’ve sat with for an hour or so, then you should stick around. This is a good chance to ask questions about anything that happened or anything anyone said so that you don’t go home puzzled for weeks by the strangeness of it all. People love answering questions.

Sometimes there might be some other things going on — baptisms and communion — hopefully these will be explained as they happen, but they’re not every week things in most churches. Some churches do a weird thing called an ‘altar call’ at the end of the service where they ask you to come down the front if you’ve decided to follow Jesus. The thing is, you don’t need to come down the front of church to decide to follow Jesus you just have to believe that he’s who the Bible says he is — the divine king of the universe — and decide to follow him. Altar calls have always felt a bit sales and marketing 101 to me, but some people like them, and lots of people have started following Jesus by walking down to the front after the service.

What next?

Give feedback. So you’ve been to church. Did you like it? Tell someone. Did you hate it? Tell someone that too. Or don’t. But it’d be nice for your friend to know what you thought, they’ll be wondering; and churches like to hear about how the experience was too.

Ask questions. If something wasn’t explained well, and you’re offended or curious, ask someone what it meant. Maybe we’re bad at explaining ourselves, maybe we’re weird, maybe it was some strange jargon that we have forgotten is weird, or maybe we’re offensive — but remember, this post is for the curious, so be curious. Think of your trip to church as though you’re a tourist wanting to figure out what’s going on.

Find out more about the community. Since church is a group of people not an event you don’t just go to church, if you like the Sunday thing, and the people seem friendly, and you want to know about Jesus (or any two of those three), the next step is to find out how to be part of the church community (some churches do feel a bit more like events than communities). A switched on church will be keen to help you do just that, this might look like what churches call ‘small groups’ or ‘home groups’ or ‘cell groups’ (it’s not a prison thing). These groups are a good chance for you to meet people and ask questions, but joining them can be pretty intimidating; when you join, and if you join, is up to you, but they’ll be on the agenda at most churches so it’s good to know what people are talking about if they use those words. I’m a big fan of small groups and the idea that you really understand a church community when you see how people meet in homes and in small groups not just in the polished ‘event’ on a Sunday. So if you’re curious, definitely check them out. You can always leave church stuff at any time (that’s why it pays to know where the exits are).

Follow up stuff. Going to church is a bit like dating; and when you think about it, it’s potentially a pretty major relationship decision. For the church, knowing if or when to call after a first date, or whether to play it cool with an email, a Facebook message, or an SMS, is a bit of a guessing game based on how well people got to know you and the chemistry or whatever. There’s a good chance that if you give someone your details, you’ll be followed up. Don’t freak out. If you’re not interested, just say that. Ask them politely not to contact you, or make it clear you’ll initiate contact if you want to know more or pursue a relationship. If you are interested, try a second date, even on your terms, arrange to chat with some people at a cafe or somewhere, or just head back next Sunday.

Most churches really want a few things for you; that you hear about Jesus and understand what Christianity is all about, that you get into a community that’ll love you and look out for you, even if you don’t end up believing all the Christian stuff, and that you take the time to think this stuff through. If one week is enough for you to figure out you’re not interested, then don’t go back. But you might stay haunted by that sense of loss, and that sense that we’re not alone in the universe…

But you might have questions about going to church that this post hasn’t anticipated. Ask them here! Church is actually pretty great — the community, not just the event, and the life-changing story of Jesus is greater still. Great enough to get people hanging out with each other from across different social demographics in places all over the world, over 2,000 of history. It might be worth checking out. Who knows. It could change your life.

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A video to help give you a sense of how we do church

Chances are you’re reading this because you’re my friend, you may have worked with me, gone to school with me, you might always have that nagging suspicion about my sanity because I work for a church.

Are you one of the many Aussies who grew up going to a church run school, or who occasionally got dragged along to Sunday school by a friend, or relative? Are you a little bit curious about why, given your experience of church, anyone bothers getting out of bed on a Sunday to hang around with a bunch of people they don’t really know, who they probably have no good reason to love?

We’d love to help answer this curiosity, and so, this video is something our church Media Team put together to help re-introduce the idea of church. Most churches have moved on from the sort of church you might have experienced in your childhood. We’re mostly only 10 years behind the curve now when it comes to technology and our ability to understand and make culture. But hopefully we’re catching up.

If you haven’t been to church for a while, and don’t know what to expect if ever you ‘darken the doors’ of a church now, or don’t know what it is that churches that aren’t the church you might remember from your school years, or Sunday school as a kid, here’s a little run through of how and why we do things the way we do at our church.

You might be watching this video because you work for a church and you’re trying to figure out what you have to say about your church, or what you can offer the people around you. I quite like this as a departure from some of our previous ‘vision videos’ where we describe who we are in terms of what we want to achieve. I was very involved in some of those, this time around, my version of this video involved a talking smart fridge of the future. I think we can all agree this is a better video because it didn’t go with that idea.

If you haven’t been for a while, and you live in Brisbane, then why not come check us out one Sunday — or, if you’re not in Brisbane, or nowhere near South Bank, Carina, or Springfield (where Creek Road churches meet) let me know where you live and I’ll introduce you to a church near you.