Another church is possible

I suppose I carry a bit of a perpetual sadness about ‘church’. Not my church in particular, but in general. I think that if I was starting with a clean sheet, I’d probably suggest doing something different altogether. A huge part of that feeling comes from when I open the pages of the New Testament, and find that what we see there rarely seems to resonate with what we’ve ended up with. It is Francis Chan who has recently written a lot about what would you really start doing if you based your gatherings on glimpses of gatherings in the NT.

I’ve been reading Corinthians a lot recently. 1 Corinthians 11 – 15 contains Paul writing to offer teaching and correction to the church there, and what he suggests, in my view, sounds good! Yet, I think of the set up of large churches (by UK standards) like the one I lead, and realise that what he describes there is almost impossible due to the spaces we squeeze ourselves into and the format we’ve inhereted from generations of Christendom Christianity. There are just too many of us together on a Sunday morning to function anything like what Paul was talking about. Take a look at 1 Cor 14: 26 – 33 for a moment:

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Now, leaving aside the focus on the particular gifts mentioned, what you see here is a very multi-faceted, multi-voiced congregation with a plurality of leadership and ministries in operation. There is the strong mix of order (which is the point of the passage) and freedom in the Spirit. I read this and don’t imagine a room of 200 people, and I certainly don’t see them sitting in rows – I imagine they’re in a space where they can see each other, in a circle, perhaps – probably a space in a larger home, from what we know.

Another thing I don’t think I see very much is the maturity in churches for this to work. Frank Viola makes this point in several of his books. He basically proposes that your average church is ill-equipped and hugely inexperienced in any other form of Christian gathering to make this sort of thing a reality. He does, however, set out a journey in one of his books to help a group of people navigate such a reality.

The closest I got to this was the experimentation we began in Aberdeen, where we were seeking, in many ways, to ‘start fresh’ with a tiny team in an urban priority area where your natural ‘come to church and listen to the preach’ was just not going to work at all. We focussed all our meetings around food and on 100% participation from everyone gathered! It was highly missional as we invited people who weren’t yet Christian even to speak and ask questions of any particular passage we were looking at together. We encouraged the believers to come to the gathering with something to share or contribute. Don’t get me wrong, it was like babysteps church…and it was slow work building up confidence, partly because this wasn’t a community where education levels were high, it was a non-book culture, and so things were very different. Having said all that, it was enough for me to seal the conviction that another church was possible.

Ironically, after that experiement, I’ve since found myself in much more formal settings, but because I had that tantalising taste of something different, I guess I’ve never been able to re-settle fully into the old regime. Truth be told, I have a longing that one day I’ll escape the old structures! Equally, I’m interested to hear of people who want to imagine a different path, convinced that there is indeed another way.

I think my strongest conviction is that our current models of church are detrimental to discipleship. They’re counter-productive in that they encourage passivity. Now, I enjoy giving a (hopefully) good preach, but I’m under no illusions as to the limits of that approach to disciple people, or indeed to create a fullness in the life of the gathered church. There is a place for preaching and teaching, but surely not at the cost of interaction, full body ministry, active operation of the gifts of the Spirit, Spirit-led order, and real life-on-life engagement?

Thing is, so many of us are stuck in our inherited models, and for the want of a bit of boldness, miss out on deep treasure to be found in Christian community. I’m just ‘thinking out loud’ here…I’m also reflecting on ministry over the years, and even my own setting now, asking the questions about what will release the church to be the church for our 21st century context. I’m also at the stage in my life where, if I don’t have the courage to invite others to explore the alternatives, I’l only ever be a person who perpetuates the status quo. No…I think the time has come to be brave for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God. I’m thankful to be part of a church who, at least in part, are open to new possibilities.

A more radical discipleship?

An honest reflection is that the picture of discipleship that I was taught and trained in growing up as a Salvationist was considerably more radical than anything I’ve found in practical experience outside that movement. I’m not saying everyone was 100% in line with this teaching, that this always remained a priority, or that I was always meeting the mark, but it was consitently out there (at least in my settings) It was radical in several ways:

  1. Giving up my life – I was in no doubt as to who my life belonged to, and I was invited to submit my life to the purposes of God at every turn. That environment taught me to consider his purposes over and above any decision I might make, and that my life decisions should reflect his heart. I was regularly reminded that I was dead to myself and wholly given over to Christ. This shaped so many life-choices in so many significant ways. For example, when considering marriage, close to the first questions was ‘is this someone equally committed to the cause of Christ and the salvation of the world’ and our marriage vows reflected it! How many other marriage vows include a dedication to ‘salvation warfare’?! You were aware of the limits on people’s time, but there was an understanding that we were working under the same premise of seeking to be available to Christ. Someone of us even operated under the premise of being willing to ‘preach, pray or die at a moments notice’! Crazy, huh?
  2. Are you called…? – there was a huge emphasis on the question as to whether you were called to be a Salvation Army officer (minister). Not everyone was, of course, but everyone had at least considered it! The SA has a radical history of taking people, training them up, and sending them out to do stuff, especially younger people like myself I suppose, who learned to ‘cut his teeth’ in ministry from the age of 20, but long before that from the age of 15. Even friends who wouldn’t end up in full-time ministry in the church were at least given regular opportunities to preach, lead ministries, lead worship, speak, sing….etc etc. Of course, other callings are available – but giving up your life to officership in particular was a strong option.
  3. Expressive multi-voiced worship – always space to pray, testify, shout an ‘amen’ or a ‘hallelujah’, but more than that, a sense that we were all involved. Another huge part of this was the culture of response – preaching was ‘preaching for a verdict’ – that is, I was invited to make a response to whatever was preached and live it out, and express that through a culture of receiving prayer from others as part of the worship setting at ‘the Mercy Seat’ – a dedicated place of prayer and response. We were ready to respond to what God was saying.
  4. ‘Means of Grace’ – the building blocks of discipleship, such as prayer, reading the bible, worship, reading, etc were non-negotiables. If these weren’t happening, my Commanding Officer (minister) would probably want to explore why and help me get going with it.
  5. Sacrifical Lifestyle – not quite a vow of poverty, but a strong commitment to invest in the mission of God with all I had through careful consideration of my resources, even as a ‘poor teenager’. I was invited to have a sacrificial perspective on personal possessions (houses, cars, goods and gadgets etc) in order to release as much finance for the ‘salvation war’ as possible. Annually, there was a serious period of ‘self-denial’, the finance of which was given to mission. As a Salvation Army officer, one part of our ‘ordination vows’ were‘to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends’. The Treasurer in one place once challenged me on my financial giving as a teen, but when I showed her the receipts for the tins of soup I’d been buying to prepare for local homeless people, she let me off.
  6. Holy Living – not much wriggle room on sin. More than that, the belief that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to keep us pure, either preventatively or retrospectively. This wasn’t an unrealistic ‘Christian perfection’, but a gritty down-to-earth awareness that a reliance on the Spirit would do more than save us from temptation, but break powerful patterns of sin, addiction and strongholds. This did lead to a teetering on the brink of legalism in some departments, but on the whole, it was about much more than that, rightly understood.
  7. There’s a war on – I learned that the Kingdom of God was to advance, and that this would take some fighting both in terms of people finding Jesus and in terms of injustice locally, nationally and international. And this was not about ‘playing soliders’, we were to arm up and go to war with love, grace, mercy and hope. Prayer was the foundation of the warfare, but that was always accompanied with action on many fronts. This had a huge impact on our attitude to service and engagement in mission. There were so many great opportunities for very practical mission and engagement locally – street evangelism, open air worship, prayer walks, homeless work, detached youth/children’s work – you name it! It make everything I’ve done since feel very safe and tame! In many ways, it feels like we’re operating on ‘peace time’ principles, when, in fact, there is ground to be taken.
  8. Activism – the Army ‘system’ was geared towards getting things done. The layering of committee wasn’t there, the relative autonomy of Salvation Army officers as leaders, and the mission framework for ministry gave considerable freedom and worked well if used rightly. The pace of other church systems in comparison is woefully slow.
  9. Internationalism – we were very much aware of, and felt connected with, the world-wide work of the movement and many of us had direct or indirect opportunity to get involved. I very much enjoyed interaction with Salvationist brothers and sisters around the world, and especially opportunity to visit the Army in Russia, Romania, Belgium and Italy and find friends in every corner of the world with whom you already shared so much even although you’d never met before.

Those are just the few things that spring to mind. As I said, it’s not that this was fully expressed everywhere or, indeed, expressed healthily. However, when people ask me if I miss The Salvation Army, these are some of the things I do miss which I’ve yet to find replicated to any similar degree.

I guess I’m reflecting on these things that were the ‘staples’ in my early discipleship diet as I continue toreflect on what the discipleship invitation looks like today in my current context and church sub-culture. I guess I’m exploring the question of what, really, is the base-line for our life of discipleship…and, to be honest, have we all just gone a bit soft? Jury is out!