To Live {why the church.5}

He felt…another kind of awake. {Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin}

Jesus is our shalom…creating within his body a new humanity, a new way of being human. {St. Paul}

In these bodies, we will love / In these bodies, we will die / And where you invest your love, you invest your life. {Mumford and Sons}

Perhaps the plainest way to say it is this: the church exists because Jesus rose from the dead.

Easter happened, and Easter is the prototype for all God’s intentions for the world. God did not raise Jesus into the spiritualized psyches of his followers. God did not raise Jesus by enshrining Jesus-ideals into an ethical philosophy for cultures to emulate. God raised Jesus’ rotting, blood-crusted flesh from a dark, musty cave. Dead Jesus lay in the tomb, but alive Jesus walked out.

So now, whenever we hear the prophets and the apostles speak of God’s cosmic project of New Creation, we know what they are talking about. Dead things coming back to life. Old things restored, new. Not ideals, but a reality. Physical. Present. Body, God’s Body.

The church is what happens when resurrection gets to work. Humans are communal creatures. I feel a bit silly pausing to make this obvious point, but… Without friendships, we are lonely. Without a love or a child or an intimate relationship, we are not whole. When we call someone a hermit, we aren’t passing a complement. We are hardwired for committed, intentional, sustained, I’m-with-you-even-when-I-don’t-like-you relationships. Against this, though, we all have horror stories and vast mounds of disappointment. Maybe we’ve given up. Maybe we’ve settled for something shallow or cheap, imitations. Maybe we’ve grown cynical – perhaps the most damaging turn of all.

But resurrection happened, and now we’re discovering what it means to be alive. In other words, we’re learning anew what it means to be truly human. And to be human means, at least in part, to live a physical, particular, embodied life within God’s physical, particular, embodied community, the church. If God were only trying to elevate disembodied souls into distant heaven, perhaps the church wouldn’t matter much (other than to organize, strategize and get this work done efficiently – but I think I’ve sufficiently run that horse into the ground). However, if God is reconstituting (resurrecting) the whole of his good and beautiful creation, well then, the church (the physical, embodied people of God) becomes ground zero.

Knowing this, we could never act as though the community of God is merely a means to something God is doing. Rather, the community of God rests at the heart of what God is doing. And God is doing a heck of a lot. God’s mission is to rescue and love and remake and welcome and forgive and embrace and basically overrun this whole sorry mess with the wonder of resurrection. The old Hebrew word works best: shalom. Wholeness. Well-being. Utter, comprehensive goodness.

This is God’s mission. Not ours. God is doing resurrection. And God will resurrect in a God-way, a Trinitarian way – forming a people who begin to live in Trinitarian love and begin to embody resurrection in the tangible spaces, the streets and dining room tables and nursing homes. It’s slow. It’s messy. Most days, it looks like an absolute disaster. But if relationship and communities, if each and every individual story, matters – then this is the only way.

Here’s the crux of why I need church. I need church because I’m selfish and cynical and proud and a shadow of my true self. I’ve lived among death for too long, and I want to live. I want to be a human alive, a human resurrected. And true humanity is physical, relational, with others, over the long haul. I need the church because Jesus rose from the dead, and I want to rise up from among the dead too. I want to learn “another kind of awake.”

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So, I’m not sure when I’ll return to this series. Might be done. However, I would love to interact to any questions this raises for you – especially if you are struggling with finding your life and place within a physical community, a church. Why do you struggle with this? What questions do you have? Why do you think that maybe it isn’t important? Email me (winn [at] winncollier.com) or post here. If it’s the sort of question I could interact with on the blog, I will. If it is more appropriate just for email dialogue, fine too.


[further why the church? posts:part one, twothreefour]

God’s Body {why the church.4}

The church is not an ideal to be striven for; she exists and they’re within her. 
{Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest}

In retrospect, I can say that I joined the church out of basic need; I was becoming a Christian, and as the religion can’t be practiced alone, I needed to try to align myself with a community of faith. {Kathleen Norris}

Church is the core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not the kingdom complete, but it is a witness to that kingdom.
{Eugene Peterson}

We are tempted to think of the church primarily as a human affair, our human arrangement to try to get religious stuff done. We believe God wants us to follow certain principles and directives, that God wants us to make our world better – but it’s up to us to figure out how exactly to go about it. Church, in this paradigm, is the way we organize our religious activity for the greatest efficiency and broadest impact. God gives us the goal (sometimes articulated as getting to heaven or raising healthy families or transforming society), but the energy, the strategy, the humph — well, that’s all us. It makes sense then that when the church isn’t “working,” when it doesn’t seem efficient (and it rarely is) or productive, we should take our leave. We cancel our membership in the club and go look for another, more productive stratagem. Or we just give up, dog-tired and disillusioned.

However, the church is not what we are making of the world. The church is something God is making in the world. The church is God’s creation, not ours. The church is first an expression of what God is doing (and has been doing since In the beginning…). The church exists as this physical mystery crafted from the raw material, the timber and stone, of God’s people — those people whom God is “fitting in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together.”(Eph 2:21)

And this imagery of God as a master craftsmen fashioning a strong, sturdy abode is pitch-perfect for how Scripture describes what God is up to in and among us. God does not meddle primarily in theories or abstractions. God’s core impulse is incarnation. God always goes physical. Christian faith is not ideals and principles and morals separated from the mortar and sinew of physicality and relationships. Christian faith is always embodied. This is why Paul would say, “we see [God’s people, the church] taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.” (Eph 2:22)

We see it. We touch it. We live in it, with others. We experience it. We love (and are loved) within it. We are frustrated by it. We hope for it to be more. We are surprised by the grace it offers. We find it clunky. We find it strange. And we know deep down that we are missing something true whenever we are distanced from it…And, in those distant spaces, we often sense a yearning within us to return home.

It almost sounds like, well, a family.

Family is about right. Paul uses precisely this picture to help us grasp a sense of the church’s essence (Eph 2:19). Scripture gives us multiple other images as well (one theologian counted ninety-six), all unique and varied, multi-faceted. However, what we will notice with almost every image is its physicality. It is something of substance, something tangible, something you can get your hands on, something you can live in or with. Something you see. The church is a city (Rev 21:2), a tribe/people (I Pet 2:9), fishermen (Mark 1:17), salt (Matt 5:13), branches on the tree (John 15:5), God’s farm (I Cor 3:9), God’s building (I Cor 3:9) and a letter (2 Cor 3:2-3), to name a few. The church is not a philosophy,  an ethical system, a warm, gooey sentimental feeling. The church is flesh and bones.


It’s popular to say we like Jesus but we don’t like the church. I understand; I’ve said it myself. However, Jesus and the church are inseparable. The church is Jesus’ body (I Cor 12:27). The church is how Jesus embodies himself in the world. The church is how God goes physical. To say we want Jesus but not the church is like saying we want love but not marriage. Or friendship without the tangible commitment of time and presence, desiring some vague notion attached to the concept of friendship without the hard work of actually being a friend.

My hunch is this: many of us give up on the church because we expect both too much and too little. We expect too much because we have been sold big jugs of grade C moonshine. It never tastes as good as promised. We’ve bought an ideal, what the church is supposed to be, a place where no one is lonely and everyone gets their God-fix and we are always fulfilled (or quickly moving that direction) — and we are certain to see tangible, immediate results of how our life is better, our kids are clean and keen, and our world is being transformed before our very eyes. But we aren’t an ideal. We are a family. And families have weird uncles and feuds and kids who get carted off to jail. Families have lots of love and rich stories, but there’s always pain and disappointment and seasons where it’s just plain vanilla, unexciting. Families need to forgive and to repent. And keep becoming more and more who God has in mind for them to be. However, there is something of profound beauty and value embodied in a family, even amid all its lunacy and disfunction.

At the same time, we expect too little of church. We miss the mysterious and everyday ways God takes on flesh and bone. We need eyes to see how we are being formed into a new kind of person, amid a new kind of community. These long stretches of commonness — living with others, hearing each other’s stories, discovering our vocations, working through the irritation of friendship with people who see the world differently than we do, raising our kids, loving (and being annoyed by) our neighbors, working through the joys and pains of our marriage (or singleness) — are the necessary, mundane ways God has chosen to take up residence it this world.

Every bit of this is physical, every bit necessary. There is no other way.

[further why the church? posts:part one,  twothreefive]

The Economy of Church {why the church.2}

Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitute the basis of our community. What determines our brother-hood is what man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us. {Dietrich Bonhoeffer}

We are part of God’s great renovation project for human beings. We work, but we work resting. {Richard Foster}

Being a dad is a significant job. We have a crucial task to raise our children to be moral, virtuous adults. The world needs better people, more civic-minded citizens who will live and work to serve society. The most effective tool to change culture and counteract rampant violence and greed is to raise a generation who, when their time comes, will clean up this mess. My first role as Wyatt and Seth’s dad is to instill good values in them so that they can in turn utilize their skills and influence to change their world for the better. If I properly leverage my fathering efforts, providing my sons with the correct mixture of affection, discipline, vision and training, I believe our world will improve.

******

What a bunch of rubbish. Are you repulsed by me reducing the wonders and joys of fatherhood to a formula to implement some cause, even a cause as noble as improving the world? Are you agitated that I would suggest maneuvering fatherly love for a calculated agenda rather than simply cherishing and nourishing ones God has given me to love and share my life with?

Many of us, perhaps unwittingly, think of church in these same sterile, exploitative terms.

Many of us talk about the church primarily in terms of what the church is to do. We know God has a vision for his world, to love and renew and restore it – and we understand the church sits at the nexus of how God intends to get on with this vision. Our response, however, often follows typical American entrepreneurial fashion. We see a job to be done, and so we roll up our sleeves and mastermind a strategy – and then push and prod to work it. In this schema, the church is primarily God’s publicity arm. God tells us his action priorities, gives us a range of resources to utilize for the enterprise, and then we amass the energy and effort to make it happen. Essentially (perhaps this will sound familiar), God leverages his efforts, providing his sons and daughters the proper mixture of vision and affection and instruction – and then God watches for us to make the operation take shape.

Thankfully however, God’s intentions for his people in his world do not begin with what we are to do but rather with who we are. Unfortunately, we are much better at arranging our activity than we are at knowing our identity. We are competent (in varying degrees) at exegeting culture and formulating (or critiquing) structures and adjusting both our theology and our praxis. We can start a movement or an anti-movement. We can organize a church’s leadership flowchart and motivate people to works of justice and mission and mercy (and to opening their wallets). All good things, but they aren’t the starting point. Or the ending point, for that matter.

Eugene Peterson recently shared his concern that many of us have “no ontology of church. It is all pragmatic – what we do for God.” We prioritize our responsibilities and maneuver our tasks, but we have no comprehension of what our presence (just the fact that we exist in God’s world) actually means. We don’t know who we are to be, and we keep jumping to what we are supposed to do in order to make up the gap. This kind of activity will always be hollow. And, for many of us, it has worn us out.

In this way of things, the church is always looking for the next fix, the next idea, the next angle or inspiration or cultural sea change. Whether we are progressives with our social agenda or conservatives with our evangelistic blitzkrieg, what we share is our conviction that everything rises and falls on God’s expectation that we make something happen. We are just trying to figure out what to do, dammit!

Of course, we can not talk about the church without talking about the church’s work in the world; but we must talk about God’s work within the church first. We are to live in community, but the Spirit has made us his beloved community first. We are to bring shalom to our neighborhoods, but Jesus has made us a people who receive and experience shalom first. We are to announce God’s love to the world, but God has first made us a people drowning in his love. (This touches on my hesitation with some “missional church” language, where we define mission primarily in functional terms while we relegate other portions of the church’s essence to serve as only a means to a “missional” task.)

This distorted vision of God’s dream for the church falls flat, leaving us empty and disillusioned. I’ve lost count of the number of my friends who have walked away from Christian community because they felt as though they had been exploited and misled. Much of our church talk of creating meaningful relationships ends up feeling as though it is really only a ruse to keep people in the seats and writing checks (buns and funds). A lot of the strategies and ministry pushes lead to more activity but rarely to more life.

If we act as though the merits of church are ultimately defined by results and getting things done, we shouldn’t be surprised when people pack it up. No one likes being used for results. And truthfully, on these criteria we don’t always stack up that well against the competition. The church has its moments, but other movements have had their successes too (the ONE campaign has had better luck addressing third-world debt than any collection of churches I know). Depending on your concern, better bang for your buck might move you elsewhere…if results or bang for your buck is the name of the game. But perhaps we have irreplaceable, intrinsic value far richer and deeper than the bottom-line, more essential even than the results we churn out. Perhaps we should follow Peterson’s advice and “eliminate success from our vocabulary.”

Defining the church first and foremost as God’s way of getting things done makes God the ultimate utilitarian. God cast as an industrialist, myopically focused on efficiency and production. No wonder we feel used. If we are merely commodities in God’s economy, what is our inherent beauty? Thankfully, we are not merely economic units to fuel divine output. Chastened capitalism may be the best arrangement humans have cobbled together, but God does better.

God certainly has grand purposes for his world, and our vocation is certainly right smack in the middle of how God intends to set the world right. However, I’m pleading for us to work from first things before we move to second things. God has not placed a people in his world simply to carry out his agenda. God has placed a people in his world to embody and revel in – and serve as an encounter with – the Trinity’s divine love.

What if the church’s mere existence in the world is itself a central piece of God’s work. What if God’s people are a Trinitarian sacrament, a community whose presence offers tastes of laughter and righteousness and restoration, glimpses in the now of the new creation that is to come. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

[further why the church? posts:part onethreefourfive]

Why the Church?

“I like God; I just don’t like organized religion.”

“Why would I need to be part of a church? I can be a Christian just as well on my own, without all the headache and without all the hypocrisy.”

I’m a pastor, so I hear these lines a lot. A lot.

And I get it, really do. Most of us have set in pews (or theater seats), bored out of our minds or steaming with anger. We’ve been shamed and manipulated and talked down to. We’ve heard sermons hyping the next cause, the next “vision,” only to realize soon enough that the whole enterprise has way more to do with the pastor’s ego or the institution’s survival than with the truths we intuitively know – just know – Jesus would be about: compassion, justice, mercy, integrity. We’ve been burned by a church’s political agenda or theological haggling or myopic culture or moral shortcomings.

Our hopes have been trampled by the many (many) relational disappointments. Often, we find more of Jesus among our friends who wouldn’t be caught dead in any church than we find among our acquaintances who appear dead in just about every church.

So we chuck the whole thing. I understand; I’ve cycled around that block a few times myself.

Noticing this trend toward disillusionment with church, a fair number of us pastor-types kick into high gear, trying to prove how different we are from those churches, how relevant or authentic or organic or missional or postmodern or post-postmodern we are (and if you have no idea what a few of those words mean or why any church would label themselves such, I applaud you). Not your grandpa’s church, we say (I jest not – I once thought use the line and thought myself quite clever). But still, it all seems huckster. We’ve been sold the same entree before, and the newfangled packaging doesn’t make it any better this time around.

We feel used. Bored. Fatigued. Done. We may not even intend to walk away. We just drift – and there is nothing solid anymore, nothing of value or meaning, to keep us connected to this community of faith we once knew. So, we go about our lives. We are still moral. We love our families. We certainly maintain some kind of spiritual dimension. But church? Not so much.

Does it matter? I think so, and I’d like to take a couple posts to tell you why. I’ve wrestled with this a long while. I’ve been disillusioned too, thought perhaps the whole affair a farce. And yet here I am, and a big chunk of my life is spent among a small community known as a church. I’ve come to believe it really matters.

This is one of those blog moments that I especially hope would turn into a conversation, but that will of course be up to you. And for my friends who are not Christian or who claim no religion of any sort, please bear with me. I’d love for you to listen in – and interact too if you like. At the least, you’ll understand more of why this exercise in Christian community has, against the odds, warmed my imagination and given me fresh belief that God really does intend good for this world.

[further why the church? posts:part twothree, fourfive]

Faux Community

In The Villages, Florida, a well-funded developer has created a planned community unprecedented in vision and scope. The Villages has been created to look historic, look quaint, look pristine. With fake historical plaques, fake railroad tracks, ubiquitous golf carts that look like Bentleys and Mini-Coopers and a population engineered to weed out the undesirables (in this case, the young whipper-snappers), The Villages population has exploded, from 8,000 to 80,000 in ten years.

Here are a few snippets from the recent NPR story:

But history means something different in The Villages. The whole place was built in a year or so, Blechman says. But it has made-up history, including a man-made lake, which is supposed to be 100 years old with a lighthouse, and two manufactured downtowns that were themed by entertainment specialists from Universal Studios…

Everything’s owned by the developer,” he says. “The government is owned by the developer. Everything’s privatized – and they’re happy with that. You know, they’ve traded in the ballot box for the corporate suggestion box.

I don’t fault anyone residing in The Villages for wanting an energetic, beautiful space for spending their golden years with friends, and I’m sure that there is much about life at The Villages to commend it. However, this is a sorrowful ode to our longing for community – we are so desperate for community that we will create a plastic version of it if we must, just to get some modicum of the real thing.

Truthfully, I think that many of us have done the same in our churches. We have put together structures and groups and hang out the shingles that say “community.” If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we have quite a facade going, and we’re shriveling up inside. We’re The Truman Show.

There is no way to get the real thing without the mess. You can’t build much of anything genuine overnight, no matter how well-funded or polished or comprehensive your master plan might be. I can’t discover a lifelong friendship without the mess and mingle of odd-hour coffees, shared experiences, boring seasons, weddings and funerals and long stretches where nothing of any consequence is happening – nothing other than living in the middle of another person’s life, and them in mine.

As one resident said, “Golf carts should look like golf carts.” Amen, sister.

Brokenness, the Genesis Project and a Table

Two weeks ago, I shared words from Barth that say better than I could the joy and the terror I find in preaching. Here are words from Henri Nouwen that say, again better than me, what has become a core conviction about leading and loving in God’s community:

I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.

Actually, I should say that on my best days, I believe this. Other days (most days, probably), I run from these words. I’m fairly addicted to people thinking I have my trash together. I like to have the answers. I like to be right. I like to be the leader everyone wants to listen to. I want to have the good ideas. I want to work out my own problems. And that soul-draining, mask-wearing way will kill a person, let me tell you.

I’ve found a small company of friends who help me to remember the truth: that what I have to offer really has very little to do with me. They help me believe in the good news that my story is not the ultimate story. A few of these friends work with me in a little grass roots collective known as the Genesis Project. I don’t know that I’ve ever mentioned it here, but there you go – another little bit about my life. GP, as we insiders call it (and you’re welcome to be an insider too), has a good story, but ultimately it has grown out of friendships and a shared belief that we are a mess, that we need mercy and grace – and that Jesus meets us in community. Our official line, because every organization is supposed to have such a thing, is this: “the genesis project is a collection of friends with a heart for providing soul care for the leaders of developing churches.”

We are friends who, due to our own stories, are keenly aware of the soul-draining realities of vocational ministry – and particularly the version known as “church planting.” And we hope to spread our friendship around a bit (to spread the love, in other words).

So, I am eager to announce the Genesis Project’s spring gathering, The Table. This small communal experience is designed for those leading new churches who are intimately connected with their own brokenness and need for grace – and who desire for Jesus to speak into these places among a community of friends.

The applications are now available online, and we will receive them until January 15th. The Genesis Project is funding this gathering, and it will be offered as a gift. Space is extremely limited, but if all goes as we hope, we will host others in the future.

The Problem with Organized Religion

This week, Wall Street Journal columnist Gary Hammel reflected on “organized religion’s management problem.”

Attempting to offer friendly critique from an outsider, Hammel provided a number of insightful observations. I found his piece intriguing on multiple fronts. First, I just think Hammel is an interesting writer (his phrase “mugged by change” will get some play with me). Second – being a pastor, I hear a good bit about the problem with “organized religion.” In these conversations, often, I’m nodding my head with a strong, “amen, brother (or sister).” Other times, I have this haunting suspicion that we are asking some of the wrong questions and as a result, landing in some of the wrong brier patches. Perhaps that topic will be for another day…

Hammel had a few encouraging things to say about the church’s influence:

The fact is, society is made more hospitable by every individual who acts as if “do unto others” really was a rule. And contrary to what you might believe, evidence suggests that, on average, “religious people” really are nicer—in practical feed the hungry, clothe the naked, sorts of ways. (And if you’re one of those generous folks, you’re undoubtedly embarrassed by the minority of believers who are quicker to judge than they are to love).

And a few distressing things to say about the church’s current predicament:

Moreover, it’s usually necessary to decapitate the old leadership team before an organization can embark on a new course. In other words, fundamental change in large organizations happens the same way it happens in poorly governed dictatorships—belatedly, infrequently and convulsively. And that’s pathetic. It shouldn’t take the organizational equivalent of a deathbed experience to spur renewal. We need to change the way we change…Over the centuries, religion has become institutionalized, and in the process encrusted with elaborate hierarchies, top-heavy bureaucracies, highly specialized roles and reflexive routines.

I most resonated with his guiding hypothesis: “The problem with organized religion isn’t that it’s too religious, but that it’s too organized.”

My sense of what Hammel means by this (or at least my own conviction that I’m reading back into his words) is not that we are too purposeful or that there should be no visible, flesh-and-bones reality to our faith – commitment to a community in which we embody our faith with others, for instance. Rather, I think Hammel suggests we are too manufactured, too programmed, too full of all our plans and certainties about who we are to be and what we are to do. Our faces are set like flint toward our destination – and we will exert whatever energy, raise whatever funds, pimp whatever value or political cause — in order to get there. If we have always approached things in a particular way and if this particular way affirms how we view the world (whether or not that’s the way the world actually is), then reality-be-damned, off we go (or here we sit, whatever).

And it’s a sham. It isn’t real – religion-faux.

When we follow that path, we lose our imagination. We sacrifice the simple (and essential) Jesus-way of friendship, curiosity, awakened hearts and courageous living, all on the altar of efficiency, safety, power and image.

And Hammel is right – that’s a problem.

Embarking on the Ludicrous

I recently read a piece from a well-known figure in the church leadership world. He wrote of a zero-tolerance policy for any language or practice within their church that did not make sense to those who were uncommitted to the story of God. I think I understand – and agree with – some of his concern. I am beyond done with caveman Christianity, practicing the faith with near total disregard for the questions and realities of our friends who are among the unconvinced. I too share irritation at flat, tired Christian lingo, the entire ghetto mentality prevalent in many of our Christian subcultures.

However…

I’m actually drawn the opposite direction. Rather than railing against those things that make little sense to those outside faith, I believe the gospel calls us to live toward realities that don’t make a single bit of sense to any of us, no matter what angle we come from.

Truly, the kingdom of God is laughable, if we take it seriously.
~the way to save your life is to give it away
~love your enemies
~seek the peace of all, even those you despise (or who despise you)
~live for others above self
~take risks and abandon control
~believe that Jesus rose from the dead – and one day will bring all dead things to life
~give yourself to the long, hard work of community
~abandon the droning, captivating sounds of selfish consumerism
~care for the least among us
~live as though success does not determine our identity

Based on the cultures we have breathed in and on the selfish nature of our own heart, we would have to say that those lines are idyllic nonsense, complete poppycock.

And yet, this is precisely the life Jesus calls us to. If we seek to be communities of people living in Jesus’ way, we are embarking on the ludicrous. If the way we live and speak and love makes sense to those around us – or to ourselves – I fear we are wildly off course.

Here’s to the ludicrous life…