Advent: The Hope of a Voice

Today marks the first day of Advent, the season of anticipation, longing, waiting, before the celebration of Christmas begins. Advent, it refers to “the arrival of a notable person.” In the Christian tradition, the first Sunday of Advent focuses on “hope.” Hope is one of the big three that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 13, “faith, hope and love.” It’s an essential element to the life of those who don’t have all that they long for in this life. Hope keeps us feeling when we want to go numb. Hope offers us another day of breath when the walls of our lungs are caving in. Hope compels us to not give up, but to carry on to keep heading towards that which you believe in.

I want to speak of what hope could look like through the eyes of a Medieval peasant who has been told by the Lords, the Freemen, the Knights, the Church leaders, and the King, that they actually have it good in life. The peasants were the lowest on the totem pole. For those who aren’t familiar, “feudal system” or “feudalism” essentially describes the social and political order that originated in Europe during Medieval times (roughly 800-1400 CE). In it’s simplest form, the system consisted of unarmed peasants who mostly remained moderately poor to very poor by the dominant power’s design. These peasants would have also been subservient to noblemen (lords) and soldiers (knights) who worked for the king in some way. The lords were the ones who held ownership, ‘lording’ their power over the peasants by essentially refusing them the right to provide for themselves. In other words, they created co-dependent relationships with the peasants. The feudal system worked as lords grew in power and prestige. The chief way lords grew more powerful was by acquiring more peasants and making those peasants work the land so they could pay more taxes, and possibly “rent” more land. For a visual, Les Miserables gives sad imagery to this type of system.

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Lords competed in this economic system to get more peasants to rent their land, to gain more profit, to tithe more than their neighbor so they can be recognized by the church leaders, and hopefully to King would find favor with them. This corrupt system kept people in their place, and allowed the powerful to become more powerful. Oppressive living was celebrated, and hope for a peasant was not a desirable topic for lords and kings. They liked it when no talk of hope for the future was going on. But every now and then, a voice of hope would arise among the peasants, or for the peasants, and a stirring of hope would arise. This voice of hope, this prophet/prophetess would see the abuse and injustice and could not be silent anymore. That’s the beginning of hope, when their is a voice for the once voiceless.

The voice of these prophets would call lords, kings and other peasants alike, to wake up and open their eyes to see the grief of the land and to begin to lament the lostness of the nation and it’s rulers. Kings would be called to lament the fact that their rule has marginalized many, and left the oppressed majority in sickness and poverty, that has become a hatred for the king and for all that he stands for. This prophetic voice will loudly declare that the reign of the king will not last forever. The prophetess will call all who have ears to hear to begin mourning their pain and turmoil, and will call kings to mourn the end of their reign.

Many times, the only way kings can begin to see their own end is through the critique of the prophet, but do not be fooled by this critique. This critique serves a purpose, because as the critique is broadcast and spread throughout the land, the wrestling of those who once lived in apathy begins to mix together something very strong and unstoppable in some ways. Critique soon moves on to hope. A sad reality in many cultures is that the one who begins to critique the dominant culture is almost always seen as (or made to look like) a trouble-maker, a law-breaker, untrustworthy, a liar, or a lunatic. It’s funny how the voice of hope is always attacked by those who fear to lose most from hope arising.

New, regenerated life comes only after death, but a king must first have ears to hear this. “For a seed to give birth to life, first it must die.” For the peasant, the call is to lament the reality that they’ve been duped, taken advantage of. There’s been grave injustices done at their expense and that needs to be acknowledged so they can properly lament. The hope of this message comes when their eyes are open to a new reality of a life of freedom, when new songs and dirges break forth in the streets of the commoner.

These prophetic messages are not desirable to the ears of the dominant culture, because this message has unavoidably upset a status quo that lends itself to the benefit of the powerful. There’s no place in the “royal” public domain where failure can be faced. Kings don’t want imaginations of the peasants to run wild and begin imagining the good life, that would be the roots of hope, of a revolution. This is why oppression occurs and people are silenced. When prophetesses arise among peasants, lords and king come down on the peasants even more harshly than before, and “hope” that the peasants themselves will turn on the prophet, and even blame them for their suffering. Even if it’s done passive aggressively with a tone of “love,” to mask a hidden motive of control, corrupt leaders will silence talks of systemic change. Kings and lords have a lot to lose.

The feudal lords promote numbness to the problems of the state; the prophets promoted a renewed imagination through critique. These critiques ultimately acted as the birth of a new reality of hope for the oppressed. When the systems of power are critiqued, those on the margins almost always see it as “good news,” because the ability to imagine an alternative community can soon become a reality. Critique and grief combat numbness. Hope and imagination combat despair.

Not much has changed today, except the amount of wealth there is to go around of people. The system says it’s more free than before, but there’s still a pecking order. The rich and powerful can use their money and power to get out from under the law, thus proving that there really is no law, order, or justice, at least for them. The law and order is still for the commoner, the peasant, the ones who are lower on the totem pole. Nelson Mandela once said that “in prison, illusions can offer comfort,” but if you’re not in a literal prison, these illusions become the prison.

All around us, if you’re paying attention, are illusion. The dominant culture wants those on the bottom to see life a certain way, through numb-filled-glasses. So many of the concerns of the peasants arise from planted impulses to become someone or something that we are not. We have been indoctrinated into this authoritarian-political-consumer culture that dominates the weak. We are told in many different ways by many different people that certain realities of our culture/nation are untouchable truths, and that particular ways of being and behaving are not only preferred, but expected.

The prophetic hope-builder in the 21st century has the difficult task of evoking and displaying a new way to be human, to nurture alternative forms of living, and to expose the dominant powers of the day as fraudulent. It is at this point, where kings and rulers die (metaphorically and literally), where new life and new eyes emerge. After all, wasn’t it the prophet Isaiah who received new life and new eyes in the year the king had died (Isaiah 6:1)? When false kings die, the true King can be seen. This is what prophets/prophetesses long to see happen.

There’s much more that can be said here, but for now, the prophetic language of grief is meant to critique the numbness of the kingdom so that lament can happen and imaginations can be birthed again; HOPE. For without voicing the pains of oppression, lament and grief will never truly happen, and if lament and grief never happen, true healing and HOPE will never be realized. A false reality will prevail and the “royal consciousness” will continue to silence. We need prophetic imaginations to have the freedom to spread throughout the land. This is the way of the true kingdom where alternative communities reside, where the status quo is flipped on it’s head, where forgiveness comes from confession; power from weakness; life from death; glory from humility; beauty from ashes; sanctification from suffering; joy from obedience; healing from grief; fullness from being emptied.

At the point of re-gained imaginations, hope can rise and the true King can be seen and known, and the peasants (marginalized and traumatized) can realize their true destiny. The language of hope from the prophet cuts through the despairing, dead imaginations of the peasants, and allows the feudal system to be exposed for what it is. At this point, once again, the peasants can sing and dance and celebrate the hope of the good life. The Not My People of Babylon can be a part of a homecoming where the poor, the grieving, the humble, and the hungry receive their freedom in midst of the celebration. This is precisely where and when the freedom of God is realized.

This is what Jesus not only offered, but made happen. His life for ours, the kings and the peasants alike. Jesus is the great equalizer. He brought the valleys up and the mountains low. He was not a respecter of man. He displayed true power, sacrificial love, and the willingness to die so that all could live, even lords and kings. This Advent, today, we long for Jesus to not just be known cognitively, but to be experienced and embraced intimately. Facts about Jesus can only take us so long, until we need Jesus among us, tangibly, prophetesses who stand with the weak so that the powerful (kings) and the weak (peasants) both have an opportunity to live.

Here’s to hopeful, active waiting. Your voice matters!

Refugees, Immigrants, and the Accessible God

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It is often in the place of the dominant culture where freedom is most fully experienced. I know this may still be surprising for some, but in America, where we were established on the freedom and the right to pursue happiness, the freedom that was dreamt of only became a reality for those who had access, or for those of whom access was created for; and let’s be honest and clear… access was not created for all. And yet, there is a voice, a faint one, from the margins, of the lonely, tired, forgotten ones, crying out, “Love me…”

For those without access, alternative social communities had to be formed to give voice to the voiceless and powerless, to fight for the rights and freedoms that are experienced by the dominant culture, of which are usually the ones creating more boundaries around their freedom, in fear of losing power, prestige, or possession. Walter Brueggemann calls this the “religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation” The Prophetic Imagination, 17.

The king (dominant culture), usually, does not want a free god, rather, he wants a god he can control, because if god would ever disagree with his rule, he can persuade and manipulate him to do as he wishes. The result is a god who is not free in the sense of being accessible to all. The god of the “royal consciousness” is absent to the minority, the marginalized, the immigrant, the refugee. We expect this to happen within structures and systems where a Christian worldview isn’t the prevailing belief, but when this “royal consciousness” resides within the Church, among God’s kin, His children, we begin to have some confusion within the family.

Again, I want to remind us that God is radically committed to giving access to those who have none (i.e. while we were dead and in sin, Christ died for us “so that” we could have access, so we could be included… to live!). When God’s freedom is limited inside feudal-type systems, especially these systems created from within the household of God, one could imagine the disconnect many have with Christians closing doors to those on the margins.

The God of the Bible is always moving to the margins, exploiting those who oppress the margins, bringing alternative ways of living for those on the margins, and making access for those on the margins to be included, to have space to belong. Indeed, it is from the margins that the thrones of false kings are overturned, and where the true King arises.

One could argue that much of the Old Testament is filled with God focusing “only” on the Israelites, making it about this “one” people. But to see this would be to neglect the thrust, or what some scholars would call, “the arc of the narrative of Scripture.” The arc of the narrative of the Old Testament is pointing “one” people who will represent the “many,” which will eventually, point towards one person from that one people group, who would make access for all peoples.

From Exodus (22:21-22), to Psalm (86:9), to Isaiah (Is. 60:3-4), to Malachi (Mal. 1:11), and all scattered in between, we read of God’s heart to welcome ALL the nations, to make room for the sojourners, the poor, or those running for their lives (Deut. 4:41-43). God’s heart has always been to unite the nations, that His name would be great among them, and a family reunion wold once again be realized by kin from across the globe.

And for “such a time as this,” in a day where there’s a plethora of corrupt leaders that are driving out humans from their land, evil gangs terrorizing, promising to slaughter and humiliate whoever stands against them, nations making profit off the poor, and powerful stakeholders trying to control world destiny, families are being displaced, seeking refuge and security, landing in cities all over the world. A very small percentage of these families are landing in the U.S., in a city near you. Even among those who are fleeing, there some wolves (real or perceived), pretending to be poor sheep running for their lives, only to infiltrate other nations to poison them. Yet, there is still a narrative arc that points towards love, acceptance, access, and belonging for those who are part of the household of God. It is terribly dangerous to live out of a Christian worldview, and sadly, few Christians are living into this.

I have found myself in many conversations with Christians who have called me foolish, lost, blind, naive, and the like, all because I think we aren’t opening ourselves up as much as we should as a nation to refugees and immigrants. But Scripture has a different understanding of being foolish, and so should God’s people. I feel we’ve protected ourselves from the suffering of these suffering sojourners through policy, fear of terrorism, nationalism, and good intentioned blog posts like this one🙂.

As a nation, I can believe how we could feel protective and not intimately join in the suffering of the plight of brothers and sisters from other nations. I get it. We have a lot to loose in America. Freedom is under attack in new ways, threats that we’ve never faced are now before us, the economy is fragile, and the nation is divided.

It is a different way of live within the household of God. Our leader is rich, full of resources, is not trapped by geographic boundaries, is not motivated by fear, does not see death as losing, isn’t represented by one church or logo, and love and belonging are his weapons of choice, especially love and belonging for the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the poor, the sojourner. Sadly, within the household of God we spend a lot of time talking about loving our neighbors in crisis, and little time living it out. We’ve allowed the culture of our day to rub off on us so much that the fear of loss, self-protection, and discomfort from suffering has handcuffed us. I know this is not true for everyone in the house, but when the vast majority of the family members aren’t getting it, when is the proper time to call this a crisis of faith?

The family is in critical condition and in need of resuscitation. We’ve lost sight of our first love, and new gods have stolen our hearts and we don’t believe it when people tell us so. The “royal consciousness” of God’s people has been high-jacked by a lower consciousness that sees self-preservation as more important than sacrificial-love.

God creates access for all. This is what He does, and his household does the same. The fullness of God’s access is best seen through the lens of Jesus. The God-man, coming to remove the barriers we’ve made to access God, became human. Think on that for a moment, the God of perfect glory stepped in to the margins by becoming human. He was born to Mary, an unmarried teen mom, who soon after her birth became a refugee in Egypt. When it was safe to return home, He grew up on the wrong side of tracks, where nothing good ever came from, right? Never went to formal school, worked His father’s trade as a mason/carpenter, promising never to amount to much, except to be an honest tradesman (something that’s hardly valued these days).

At the proper time, He left the business, had no where to call home, and lived off the generosity of others, calling a ragamuffin group of shady characters full of pride and anger to follow him. He brought worth and value to the women who followed him and included them in his work which was risky, since he was single, right? He touched the untouchable leper and the outcasted bleeding woman, slowed down long enough to listen to the improper yelling blind man and offer him what he needed, stayed in the home of a single Samaritan woman who got around with the fellas, and welcomed the tears and treasures of prostitutes to be poured over his body, so that he might be anointed to die the next day on a tree that represents a cursed man, dying for a cursed people who cursed the Him, only to be marched outside the gates, in the margins, outside the city center, to be crucified and left to die.

Then he went to the most ultimate marginal place, death. Jesus went there too, only to convert the tomb into a womb, thus giving life, value, worth, dignity, and access to not just those on the margins, but those all the way to the palace too!

God went to the margins, because it’s there where everyone has access. The rich can go serve the poor, or fancy their favorite spot whenever they like. The poor do not have the same access to the rich man’s part of town and favorite places. If the God-man was born in a castle, only the powerful and privileged would have access to Him, but thanks be to God, He went to the margins, became a part of the margins, and invites us in our new life to follow Him into the margins. This is the God of the Bible I’ve come to know, and it’s why I’m persistently writing about and living and moving into the margins of our culture.

We present an inaccessible God when do not stand and fight for the suffering sojourners. When we neglect to see their plight and ignore their cries, we represent to them a God who does not hear and who is not concerned with lower-level dwellers who aren’t citizens of America. We don’t hesitate to call them illegal or terrorists, and never once have we slowed down long enough to acknowledge their stories, validate their pain, and cal out the injustice of the home situation that has left them desperate. This is a huge problem with in the household of God.

My prayer is that Christians in the church would be able to see this same God that moved to the margins and be challenged to move to the margins as well, however God might challenge them, especially in regards to the refugee and the immigrant. I pray that people within the household of God would prophetically create alternative social communities for the forgotten ones to belong.

“Crisis” is too small of a word to describe the state of humanity right now. The Church can’t do this alone, but surely the Church can lead out in it and be a display people modeling the love and movements of our leader and savior, Jesus. God help us live into the margins and learn to be radical lovers of our new neighbors, who many of them have been part of some of the oldest churches in the world. God has brought the nations to a country with freedom of speech and religion, and it has not been an accident. Now the Church is responsible to display the accessible God in word and deed.

CCDA and the Ethos of Love


CCDA. It stands for Christian Community Development Association. It’s a one-of-a-kind association, at least from what I’m aware of. It’s odd how you can be one member among thousands and yet feel a sense of being at home, a sense of belonging. It’s an association birthed from pain, struggle, injustice, and a desire for Jesus to show up in the midst of it all, which is Jesus’ specialty. 

Maybe the feeling of being at home and belonging is real because there is solidarity in the struggle, or at least for those willing to be honest with the struggle. It’s like folks who are in war together, taking cover in the trenches, knowing that they are radically different in many ways, yet family, willing to take the next bullet if it means protecting them as they run across the battlefield to tend to a dying sister. When you’re in the trenches, you don’t have time to ask your comrade whether or not they see the Bible as inerrant, inspired, authoritative, or not. It’s in the trenches where you don’t have time to make sure your convictions line up exactly so that you can be sure your tribe would approve of your partnership. No. When there’s war, we partner with everyone who’s pointing towards the end goal.  

I’ve been a part of other associations where partners would be in the trenches together and would start arguing about the gifts of the spirit: “I can’t cover you bro if you believe in speaking in tongues,” or “Get out of my trench with your Arminianism!” Believe me, I understand the importance of right belief and how that can shape a culture or a people group. But I also believe that there is a higher law within the Christian doctrine, that supersedes all other laws, and it’s the law of love. The command to love one another is soaked with messages of acceptance and patience and long-suffering. The command of love is saturated with an ethos of belonging that precedes right belief or acceptable behavior. 

It’s precisely this higher law of love that has permeated the CCDA culture, which creates an ethos of radical love, that looks to many within various Christian tribes like a move away from the gospel and “good doctrine.” I believe it is the willingness to associate with the margins that makes one become labeled by another tribe as “on the slippery slope” or “walking the line of orthodoxy,” but are we called to make our tribe feel at ease with our doctrine, or to love without abandon? Love trumps all (no pun intended), and I don’t believe this is a cop out answer, even as I know the understanding of love has been watered down and chopped up as something that is overly sentimental or an acceptance of anything regardless the consequence. I’ll camp out in the “Love trumps all” camp and let the power and culture of love defend itself. 

I say all this because it’s been three years since I’ve been to a CCDA conference and joining my friends from Phoenix and from around the nation was a homecoming again, a homecoming of radical love and acceptance of a diverse people who have given their lives to presence themselves among brokenness. Even though many were strangers and new friends to me, I still felt at home. I was encouraged, I wept with others who wept, and wept for the pain of my family and others. I felt completely full in some ways, and completely poured out in other ways, and it was still good.

Isn’t this what we are all longing for, to go home, maybe for some of us to find home for the first time, ever! But once we’re home, we are received and valued and honored and loved for who we are. Men and women and children working and partnering together, sharing gifts, not holding title or rank over another, and when it does happen, there is confession and tears and forgiveness. This is a picture of a healthy family. It’s what Jesus offers us when we were far from home and lost. He comes to us, as homeless strangers, and says, ” You belong with me… this is your home. I see you. I see your pain and loss. I understand you sense of homelessness. I know your longing and see your shortcomings, and I want to be with you.” 

Belonging! Belonging precedes right belief or behavior. This is Our God, and this is our call to love one another as well. It’s diversity not for diversity’s sake, but for loves sake. It’s a messy call that will make you a heretic to many, but a saint in God’s eyes. This is what family is like at CCDA. This ethos will be part of the change we truly are longing for, which also means it’s the ethos that will birth in its people a divine patience for others who would disagree with this way of life. We truly all need each other, more than we’ll ever fully know. 

Church: Divine Household or Refined Methods?

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“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

The Spirit blows where he pleases or sometimes, he even chooses not blow at all. This should be scary to a church culture that has plans, methodologies, measurable outcomes, that guide them and determine how “church” is done. See, here’s the thing, the Holy Spirit will not be reduced to or restricted by our forms, methods, or measurable outcomes.

While I believe that smaller gatherings, in a home for instance, allows the body of believers a greater freedom to respond to God’s Spirit, just meeting in homes can become another method. The wonderfully dangerous thing about methods is that they leave us in control, feeling like we are the ones building the Church, determining her shape, her form and her methods.

So even a Home Church type movement is in danger of going the way of the institutional/larger church models, and indeed many home churches are anything but a biblical alternative with their hatred for anything other than their model (another false consensus effect in action). Any form claiming to be “the right way” of doing/being the Church is in danger of missing Jesus and quenching the Spirit of God. We need to continually ask ourselves, “Who is building the Church?”

The only one who is truly building the Church is Jesus Christ, who is the same reality and substance that replaced and reformed old models and shadows and rituals of the days of old (Hebrews 8:5-6). Jesus, the One who is greater than the Temple, greater than nationalistic Churches, and greater than our Western institutions, is among us today! What’s He saying?

As the late Brennan Manning says, “There is no need to mince words. I believe that Christianity happens when men and women experience the reckless, raging confidence that comes from knowing the God of Jesus Christ.” And it is precisely these people who become “the Church”, the gathered family of God, experiencing Jesus, and therefore able to truly offer him to those who don’t know Jesus.

We do not build a building in Roman form and call it “the Church.” We do not have special organizations or religious institutions in which we call “the Church.” What is the Church? It is the people of God living in union with Christ and His whole family within the household of God. It is the family of God building one another up into the fullness of who we were meant to be. Family discipling family, growing up, maturing, and inviting those on the margins into their family dinners, offering adoption in Jesus’ name for all who believe. That’s the Church.

Our religious procedures and techniques, even the home church kind, can be the enemies of the real Church, God’s people. Through mimicry, we can hinder the realization of what we endeavor to be. God has not called us from the building of institutions to the building of home churches or smaller, more intimate gatherings. No, He has called us to gather around his Son, Jesus, in the glorious communion of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, and give him freedom to continue to form it in new and fresh ways.

Jesus, the Christ, is the starting point. His Spirit is now in charge. He’s our life, our joy, our power, our starting and ending point. He is the form we are to conform to, which gives us freedom to gather in new and fresh ways, in patient slow ways, in seemingly insignificant ways, and in ways that are rooted in particular places, caring for a particular neighborhood or people group. Jesus gives us freedom to be the Church in new contexts and at new times, other than in church buildings on Saturday night or Sunday mornings.

Our heritage of over 1700 years of being preoccupied with various forms and methods that do not produce life, forms of godliness without power, is very hard to kill in us. The title “Methodist”, given to one of the major denominations, describes the mindset of many of the institutional churches of our day, looking for the right method.

The Reformation was more external than internal in many ways, although many great doctrinal changes were made as well. Most of the changes however, were in the material form, which led to all the bloodshed that came with the reform. Much of the reform was void of the Spirit. The doctrine of “Salvation by grace through faith” was clearly established, yet death would come to those who disagree with them. Is that what following Jesus produces? Concern with external reforms has been the center of most Catholic and Protestant reforms.

Have we forgotten that we, the 21st century Church, are represented by Israel in the Old Testament: “But my people have forgotten me; they make offerings to false gods; they made them stumble in their ways, in the ancient roads, and to walk into side roads, not the highway…” Jeremiah 18:15

We are the family of God, the body of Christ Jesus, forming the divine household of the Trinity. Within the household of faith, life takes one form and one form only: Jesus. The true Church is the body of Christ without walls or divisions. What was the first century church concerned with? Following Jesus; not a method or even a movement called “Christianity”. That was the first century model and could be ours today as well. This is the form. This is Church 101, 201, and 301. The Church is nothing more than God’s family re-gathered around Christ Jesus and reconciled to one another, breaking down walls of division, offering Jesus to all, constantly reforming, and listening to the Holy Spirit to encourage and critique what she’s doing.

Religious movement is what happens among “Christians” when Christ is absent. My prayer is that God would make our religion obsolete in the face of Jesus Christ, that church would once again become a divine household of people instead of a refined form of gathering.

Slow Church and Church Growth: What is a Successful Church?

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This thing called ‘our flesh,’ or others would call it ‘the natural mind,’ has been culturally conditioned to believe that our forms and methods about how to build the Church are more important than God’s forms and methods. Now of course, none of us say this outright, rather we do what is comfortable and familiar to us to the point of doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, believing this is God’s form or method, but really it’s culture that has shaped how we do it, and what it looks like. Driven by our egos and a desire to self-preserve, we often lead ourselves while saying we are following Jesus. Our desires reveal what we really want though, and we can see it in the dominant model of building and growing churches.

What’s silently tragic about this, is that we inevitably begin to care for ourselves, or our tribe first, and we quickly become ethnically, nationally, culturally, and socially divided. It has been called the homogenous unit principle by some. This idea that churches grow faster and more conversions happen when people are lead by those who are ethnically, nationally, cultural, and socially similar. This is a church growth model that has been rejected by many leaders, at least in theory, but as we look at the way their churches are still being structured, this principle is winning the day.

Again, it’s a good intentioned self-preservation, that slowly erodes our ability to see other forms that God may want for his Church. This type of self-preservation always leads to the dehumanization and oppression of those who aren’t like us. We have anesthetized ourselves from the reality that we could actually be deceived in our understanding, and prove the social theory of the false consensus effect: the tendency for humans to over estimate the degree in which everyone agrees with us.

Chris Smith and John Pattison are co-authors of the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. This book indirectly answers the question of what it looks like to be successful as a church, as Chris and John unfold a new kingdom ethos for being the Church, present and rooted in a particular place. In the opening chapter they address the danger of our culture’s commitment to individualism (which plays into the false consensus effect):

“In the Western world where individualism reigns supreme, there is unfamiliarity, awkwardness and even slowness in our calling to live as a community of God’s people. We are so accustomed to living and acting as autonomous individuals that the idea of being God’s people in the world can be tough to wrap our heads around. Being God’s people is messy at best. We are broken human beings with fears, prejudices, addictions and habits that are harmful to ourselves and others. It can seem more practical and convenient (and even considerate!) to keep to ourselves and minimize the risk that we’ll get entangled in the lives of others. And yet, as much as we are formed by Western individualism, and though we have allowed that individualism to shape the way we read Scripture, our calling in Christ is to community, to a life shared with others in a local gathering that is an expression of Christ’s body in our particular place. The people of God become a sort of demonstration plot for what God intends for all humanity and all creation.”

Our preoccupation with the question of how to build the church, what a successful church looks like, or how to build something large and significant for God, has led many of us away from the simple truth that Jesus will and is building his Church through a display people (a family). Jesus didn’t write scripture, he was Scripture, and he left us not with books, but with a community, a gathering of new creation family members.

We desperately need God to restore to us the simplicity and power of our faith in Jesus, a faith that rests in God’s sovereignty and believes that if we gather around the person of Jesus, God will grow the Church together as a new family in new and fresh ways.

Later in their book, Smith and Pattison clarify a core ethos of what “Slow Church” is: “Slow Church is rooted in the natural, human and spiritual cultures of a particular place. It is a distinctively local expression of the global body of Christ. ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood’ (Jn 1:14 The Message).”

Pastor, missionary, theologian, and author, Lesslie Newbigin, has written extensively on the nature and mission of the Church, and reminds us that the emphasis in scripture is not on church growth, that’s God’s job. The emphasis is on faithfulness. Jesus says in Luke 18:8, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Will the Son of Man find faith in the Western church, or will he find sophisticated forms and methods that have become clubs with members who are more pre-occupied with running a good business, than being faithful. We have to keep asking ourselves, have we worshiped the form of church more than we worship the one who formed the Church? Have we been more impressed with church growth models and large churches that offer everything and do it with perfection and creativity, more than we are impressed with faithful living among a local community? What really makes a successful church? Is a slow growth model that is rooted in the patient ways of Jesus, committed to building a neighborhood parish to care for the least, the last, and the lost even worth it? Is it possible for a church to be more concerned about being present in the neighborhood they’ve been planted than in growing numerically so it can become financially self-sustainable in our Western church model? This is my prayer.

Lessons from Jesus: The Family Gathering

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“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Jesus is saying many things here, but one we often miss is that He is referring to His family gathering ‘together’ in this passage. The Greek word for “gathered” here is synegmenoi, which comes from the word sunago, which means “to lead, to assemble, to gather together”, and in this instance it is referring to a gathering at a particular place. Where is that place? Jesus makes it clear to us when he says: “In my name.” The gathering together around, or in a name, is referring to a family gathering, where families would gather together according to their ‘name.’ A family reunion of sorts.

The beloved apostle John tells us in the prologue of his account of Jesus’ life, that he came to his own [people], and [they] did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed ‘in his name’, he gave the right to become ‘children of God’,” (John 1:11-12, emphasis mine). To believe in Jesus’ name, his family tree, his divine heritage, is to become part of his family, to receive his name. The Church, at the core of it’s function, is a family gathering in Jesus’ name. Often times, in our pursuit to shape a certain form of church, we miss and lose the function.

Family, it’s the basic unit of society. It’s the place where we share our lives together; where we find belonging. It’s a place, in the case of a healthy family at least, where pretense is absent, where we don’t need our masks, where we run to for comfort and rest. In the family unit, everybody knows one another by name and “real presence” is lived out and practiced intimately, the way Jesus intended His family to relate.

If only two or three of the family members get together, it’s still considered a family get together. The same his true for the Church. When two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, he is there “in the midst of them”, honoring the family gathering. If Jesus is in the midst, if he is the center, the focus, the chief reason for the gathering, then those two or three, and others who are watching, are experiencing and witnessing the mystery of the Bride, the gathered Church, Emmanuel, God with us.

There is nowhere in all of Scripture where anyone stressed, directly or indirectly, the supposed importance of gathering in large numbers. The twentieth-century (and now twenty-first century) Western (modern) Church has been trained and formed to do most things in a big way. “The larger the better”, we often say. Many Church gatherings of today have become incredible multimedia events, supposing that the numbers justify the means. Concerned with numerical growth, and the supposed need for the Church to appeal to the masses, this new program-driven machine, mass manufactures unique religious experiences, tailored to appeal to the interests and cater to the comfort of a specific demographic or a specific tribe or local church.

This form has been so pervasive, that even small churches have invested great amounts of money to compete with large church technology and programs. We desperately need new forms that affirm the smaller gatherings as beautiful in God’s sight if Christ is the center of the gathering, and not have the small church pastors feel like failures for not becoming the next famous pastor with 100’s or 1000’s of butts in their seats.

One of the great preachers of the twentieth century, A.W.Tozer, says this: ”One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization does not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team.”

We need to re-learn the basic math of Christ’s kingdom: 2 or 3 gathering in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God; in street terms, the Church. I like to call this the Mustard Seed Church; small intimate gatherings, patiently working together across the world to display the beauty and worth of Jesus, producing great fruit and large trees for many to come and find food, shelter, and shade over the centuries. This Mustard Seed Church is more of a new ethos than a new form. It can be experienced through larger gatherings as well, but it will take much intention and many challenges to leadership and congregants alike, to abandon the thinking that the big crowd and good feeling worship is somehow more church than the small street gathering around the corner.

But the catch to this basic family gathering is that formations come and go, and transformation is messy and slow. Picture change within your own family structure. If you’re family is anything like mine, we all love each other, but are radically different, and appreciating the beauty of diversity and arriving at a place of unity within our diversity, takes hard work, commitment to staying together, and patience over the long haul. This is what “church work” is supposed to look like; small family gatherings, patient brothers and sisters slowly maturing along with other family members, keeping their home and table open to sojourners and guests, all with a heart to be reconciled together in Christ. But as we know, families don’t always choose to live in truth and work through the pain and tension.

Jesus, in explaining the kingdom of God to his disciples, said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Luke 13:18-19) I don’t think Jesus is wanting us to take this literally, but rather wanted us to understand the nature of a mustard seed, the smallest known seed in his day, that very slowly, and slowly is the key word here, over the course of a season, would grow into a large, fruitful bush that offered much to it’s immediate environment. It’s an agricultural understanding of growth, which is slow and arduous.

The Church, like the kingdom, is organic, pliable, easily shaped into various forms, and in Jesus’ words, is like the mustard seed. By looking at a dead mustard seed, you cannot tell what the plant will look like when it’s full-grown. The pattern is in the seed and every seed is different and unique; it will bear fruit after its kind, but in different patterns and forms. In the same way, the Church has its own divine DNA and will grow accordingly as God sees fit, from era to era, and context to context.

Immediately after the mustard seed parable, Jesus shares another parable about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like on earth: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33) For those concerned with Church growth, this passage ought to be on your radar! A very small amount of leaven is powerful enough to leaven a whole batch of bread.

Two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name, in a home, in the office place, a courtyard, a community center, or a church building, or a downtown park, are leaven. These small intimate, intentional gatherings, are like a mustard seed, or a little leaven, that makes all those around them, watching them, rise up and become who they were supposed to be, but this is a slow process. The witness of a family gathering’s visible love for each other, declaring the love of Christ next door, upstairs, or outside, that is the purpose of being the Church.

Jesus did not send us to entertain the world, but to go into it, underground like a seed, or smothered in the middle of it like leaven in flour, with the subtle and yet overwhelming dynamic of His love, in the context of being a family. This is the Mustard Seed Church, or the Leaven Church, where just a little bit goes a long way. It is a matter of keeping the right math, or the right ingredients: 2 or 3 gathered in Jesus’ name = The Family Gathering of God, or as Lesslie Newbigin says, “The Household of God.” These ingredients will always change the world in huge ways. Do you believe that?

Often times our belief is hindered by layers of Church culture that has sold us many false notions of success. Pope Francis has been an outspoken proponent of the Church reforming not in form as much as a reform of our hearts, our ethos. In one of his many profound speeches he has made, he has said this about the Church: “We are impatient, anxious to see the whole picture, but God lets us see things slowly, quietly. The Church [has] to learn how to wait.” We need to hear those words and let them sink into our ethos.

“Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13 of the leavened dough and the mustard seed remind us that God’s transformation comes slowly, working outward from the place where the change begins. In an age when instant gratification reigns supreme, the lesson of these parables is provocative and surprisingly insistent—but this seems to be the way God usually works in the world.” Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Smith and Pattison, 24.

The Tension

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Life is full of irony. Sometimes it’s a light-hearted, funny irony, and at others times it’s an irony that causes you to enter the tension. We want to be successful in business, but for many it comes at the cost of a healthy family life. We long and fight for justice, yet many products we buy are unjustly produced. We long to eat healthy, yet most of the “good” tasting food is full of sugar, fat, and grease (at least for my taste buds!). We want to be unified, yet we have this pull to label, box in, and identity on a certain side. We want to serve the poor, but when we do, we often realize it’s we who are being served. We pray for answers, but when the answers come, they aren’t what we’re looking for, so we miss it. We hate racism, but when we truly address it we can’t deny the small (or large) seeds of racism in ourselves. Our children are living in relative comfort, while other children are rocked by a bomb, sitting alone and bloody, scared, confused (I guess this isn’t irony as much as tragic disparity). As Christians we brag about being servants of Christ, but when we’re treated like a servant, we become angry and feel entitled to better treatment (again, this is at least true with me…) Irony, yes. Irony that produces tension.
Tension: the state of being stretched tight. These issues, when exposed to us, seem to stretch us tight, create discomfort, and the tension sets in. “What do we do with this?” Most of the time, the easiest answer is to find a way to relieve the tension, so we run to one side of the issue and neglect the other side. Problem solved. Until the next issue arises, and if we’re honest with ourselves, these tense issues rear their ugly heads every day. We can’t run from the tension, but we can deny it, numb ourselves from it, remain ignorant. We can… but could it be that these are the very things that destroy our souls. 
This is why Jesus constantly drove people into the tension. Time and time again when asked questions like, “What’s the greatest commandment?” “Who’s my neighbor?” “Do we pay taxes or not?” “How do you inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answers created tension. He didn’t give a pass to those looking for a quick way out or a quick answer through a doctrinal loophole. He pressed them to be honest, to live in to the tension of honesty, self-reflection, humility, sacrifice; to die to the habits that were killing them, and oppressing others. 
Most of the answers we are looking for in life, aren’t easy ones, or else we would’ve found answers already. And most of the time, the partial answer is mysterious and left open ended. It’s in this place of tension, where we can’t fall back on programmed responses. It’s here that we are thrown into the depths of our desires, our beliefs, and we are left to wrestle with who we truly are. Are we going to live in to the mystery, the tension, and trust that we aren’t the ones holding all things/all beliefs together? Are we going to allow the process of unknowing to shape us into a people who truly know the one who does hold it all together, at the cost (or risk) of being labeled by your own tribe as “going off the deep end,” according to your tribe’s standard, or are we going to settle, run to one side of the camp, and stake our flag on the “right” side. 
It’s in the tension where we have the opportunity to become properly tuned. Jon Foreman gives a great metaphor for tension, likening it to guitar strings that are strung tight enough to hold a tune. It’s in the tension where we play on tune. Strung too tight, we bust. Not strung tight enough, we make awful noises. If you have honest friends around you who aren’t just a fan of yours, they’ll tell you when you’re  about to bust, or if you sound horrible. When you are offended by a friend or acquaintance, you are then offered the gift of tension. Who are you going to choose to be? Are you going to run to one side and stake your flag, or will you live in to the tension of teachableness, humility? This is all too convicting for me, even as I write this. 
Right now, in this season, we have a great opportunity to live in to the tension of life without running to one side or the other, claiming the other side as demons, or wrong, or lost. I confess, I’ve done plenty of flag staking, and I am not proud of it, and neither has it produced any beautiful lovely sounding music. It won’t, because it’s not tuned. Today, we have opportunities to embrace the beauty of mystery and unknowing. To admit we’re not the ones holding it all together (or to admit that our country or tribe isn’t the one holding all things together). 
Jesus constantly broke the mold of what was right, and I’m convinced followers of Jesus are called to live in to the same ethos, to passionately stand in the middle, confidently living in mystery and certainty. Embracing the tension in our own lives first, then embracing others who are struggling to find the confidence to stand where it hurts as well.
The glory of God is revealed through a broken man. Tension. 
The cross, the greatest act of love. Tension. 
The tomb becomes a womb. Tension. 
Beauty is found in death. Tension. 
Ashes produce life. Tension. 
The way up is down. Tension. 
The way to access power is to give up power. Tension. 
To become the greatest, you must become a servant of all. Tension. 
Gain life by losing your life. Tension. 
“With that in mind, I feel like dying to myself is a daily task necessary for true abundant life.” Jon Foreman