[ I have been asked to share a few thoughts about deconstruction, organic church and some of the lessons from our 12-year experience co-creating a Jesus-following community of faithful, forgiving friends.]
We have celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This certainly was a seismic shift in the Christian world, right up there with the Edict of Milan (313AD) and the schism between the Western and Eastern Church in 1054. It seems that, ready or not, every 500-ish years, the Christian church experiences a significant shift. A victory or tragedy depends on whether one had the most to lose or gain.
For at least the last two decades, many have sensed a new reformation taking shape. It started as a fairly broad critique of institutional forms of church and the nature of institutional structures in general. Much has been written on this issue, and we have seen a steady exodus from western institutional forms of the church regardless of the stripe. The speculation of why this is happening are many, but one thing is for sure the situation is complex.
In this brief article, I will be critical of institutional forms of church. I critique systems, not people per sae. That being said, if the shoe fits, wear it - not in the spirit of condemnation but toward greater healing, wholeness and a healthier community.
In general, people of faith and goodwill are recognizing the incongruence between their experience of life and faith experience and both their inherited western cultural and religious worldviews and their structures and unspoken values. For our purposes here, specifically within the institutional church (IC).
Across the spectrum of these structures, people are becoming increasingly disillusioned and suspicious of these once esteemed centrepiece structures of western society. To this point, in the Church, the steady stream of examples of abuse of power are legion - throughout history and across the denominational spectrum - sexual, financial, mental, physical, and spiritual abuse are well documented. Institutional discrimination in the form of racism, xenophobia, misogyny and queer-phobia have all contributed to the systemic rot that has been legitimized over the years in the name of being faithful.
This is certainly clear with the evangelical pursuit of political power, conflating church and state with an unholy fervour. One cannot deny the concerted efforts to establish an evangelical new world order established by all means possible - abuse of power, twisting of the message of Jesus, and the forced implementation of archaic law. A person would be forgiven if they see this as a ‘christianized kind of Sharia Law’ in North America.
No matter the manifested symptoms of dysfunctional Churchianity, people, by the millions, are recognizing the institutional churches are not connecting them to life in thoughtful or meaningful ways, and the systemic misuse of power is causing people to look for alternatives. Like the desert fathers, they are fleeing the ‘city/empire church’ and seeking God in the desert.
Who are these People?
These are not baby Christians, Jezebels or malcontents; these are folks who, for the sake of their faith, realize they have to leave the church. These are quite often well-seasoned followers of Jesus who can no longer hold their noses at business as usual. Those who are no longer willing to offer their (and others) lifeblood to grease the gears of the religious, industrial complex. Many of these people, after years of faithful service, wake up with a deep sense of disconnect between the Jesus they have come to know personally and the operating principles of the institutional structures they have been serving.
After a season of often intense loneliness, these people begin to find others on the journey. These people tend to gather relationally, and they begin to sense the leading of the Spirit for a deeper sense of life together. They discover that their sense of leading and conviction are quite similar- they have similar church experiences, ponderings ... and, yes, similar wounding.
Together they explore and begin to address the smudges and unhealthy impact of often years within the institutional church as their eyes adjust to the emerging spiritual paradigm. They examine the ideas, theological basis, and organizational structures that had served as a gilded prison cell. Often these are identified as clergy/laity divide, the worship team, the building, the platform, church hierarchy, covering, shepherding, tithing (Financial abuse), biblicalism, chronic spiritual workaholism of the faith they received, and even the way the chairs are organized.
Folks early on in this deconstruction are extremely averse to anything that may even hint of the ecclesiastical oppression they have experienced. As such, they resist any organizing or educated teaching unless they have a favourite author/podcaster to who they can relate from a safe distance. Much of the gathering tends to be quite loose, with resistance to ideas that may call for anything that might pinch at their rugged individualism. I get it; when you feel like you were abused, taken advantage of or just disillusioned - to quote the famous song by The Who- we won’t get fooled again. I get it, really I do - I was there.
Voices in the Desert
In time these folks find blogs and podcasts of those who are early on in their exodus but perhaps a little further down the road in their thinking. In general, these folks are often prolific in verbiage and short on lived experience. They will go on at great length about their theories, but they are rarely tested in the crucible of real life. Make no mistake, these are well-meaning folks on the Way - trying to figure things out. The challenge is when they experience some ‘success’ with their untested ideas, they often decide to stop and set up their own cottage industry ministry. Unfortunately, sometimes this manifests more as keyboard warriors and not so much about actually living it. Yeah, they are hipper, maybe talking about some of the realities of the desert life but in many ways missing the very lessons that the desert teaches. These folks are most recognizable as they tend to cast an identity based on what they are against. They are lulled into irrelevancy by the platitudes of likes and share on social media. But surely everyone knows you can gather a crowd by simply throwing stones at others. These folks can be welcome outposts in the desert, but this is not the end of the journey.
God is good because God is faithful, and the Spirit leads and as best as we can respond to the leading of the Spirit. Oftentimes, after some time at the outpost, we wake up and discover we are still angry. We still are very much about being against the IC instead of being about Jesus. We realize that a steady diet of what we are against is not really discipleship but rather a spiritual junk food that leaves a body sick. Tragically, we realize that the passion for our little communities of coffee dates begins to wane. Differences of opinion silently, piously lead to slow attrition. With only what we are against to unite us (even with a Jesus veneer), we eventually realize that it is nowhere near robust enough to foster and support a life-giving community. By necessity, we press on.
A Note about Detox
There is indeed a season of legitimate detox. It is a very necessary time when we can address the ugly and visceral. However, the old adage is true - when you are going through hell - don’t stop! It is encouraging to see more seasoned voices emerge in the movement, those who are genuinely good guides through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and on out through the other side. Carefully evaluate your guides, mentors, and the voices you latch onto - sadly, for a host of reasons, many are invested in you being as bitter, angry and stuck as they are.
A Hard Lesson
This is tough, but it is here that we learn a lesson in the desert. We begin to understand that identity is not based on what we are against but on what we are for. Likewise, we understand that The Way is not an individualistic ‘just me and Jesus’. We understand that identity is formed in the context of relationships or if you like a community. Together with all the saints, we experience the height, depth, and breadth of the love of God. That in communities centred upon Jesus, we become something greater than our sum total.
It is here that we begin to explore the way we are community together in non-institutional ways. We begin to see a foundational issue. We begin to see the deeper, more insidious issue of power and how power is stewarded. Coercive power has been fundamentally baked into our human nature and forms the basis of our worldview, and for many, this coercive power is inextricably consummated with our religious structures and theologies. It is to this point that how we understand power is paramount to how we understand the nature and character of God and God’s disposition towards creation. What is the nature of divine love, and what does it mean when we say God is love? I contend it looks a lot like Jesus. Divine love is cruciform.
As we journey deeper into the implications of genuine love, it challenges - in a wrecking ball fashion - most of our western Protestant-Reformed theology and praxis. We must be confronted with the reorienting Spirit of Jesus at the taproot of our inherited violent spiritual worldview, or we will continue to get it wrong. We might build sexy, slick ministries that appear woke and relevant but given time and the right stresses, you will come to the bitter realization - same shit, different pile.
As we are apprehended by this and allow it to renovate us, we can begin to re-imagine Church with new eyes, with a truly prophetic imagination. We progressively discover the heart and rhythm of the Beautiful Way. We are exorcised from unhealthy attachments to coercive power and awaken to the reality that God uses power to serve, to make beautiful. Power is laid down in service to others (the powerless). It looks like choosing to be last, laying your life down for your friend, taking care of vulnerable people, embracing the foreigner, the orphan, the widow, the outsider and those on the fringes. With the consistent practice of cruciform love by forgiveness, enemy love, and turning the other cheek by its very nature healthier community begins to emerge. Communities based on love-inspired relationships where everyone gets to play is loved and safe to explore the depths of faith and life.
Communities of the Beautiful Way are communities of self-giving love. These communities recognize, cultivates and affirm the gifts within the community. And yes, this includes apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, and pastors in a healthy way that is consistent with self-emptying love. These gifts are functions to serve the community, not a position of institutional authority. The gifts are just that - freely given and freely received. There’s nothing to fight for, nothing to control. Nothing trumps the centrality of love(healthy) relationship. Relationships over issues because we understand that how we do what we do says more about who we are than what it is we achieve.
In this, we can rediscover genuine intentional and relational discipleship, and the rhythms of the community are the natural expression of our faith and life together. The forms and tools we utilize are those that best serve the life of the community - not the efficiency of a machine and it supreme value of conformity for control and efficiency's sake.
It is a mistake to think organic means no organization, no structure.
If chairs in rows serve the need of the community, then have chairs in a row. If having our musically gifted brothers and sisters serve the life of the community - great - rock on! And if someone is gifted to teach - if it serves the community's life from time to time, let them teach. The key is we resist the temptation to spiritualize and deify the tool or the form, to use them as a part of an unhealthy power play for political position, and recognize that the life energy of real people is not to be sacrificed on the altar of these tools or our egos.
To Sum Up
As we awaken to the reality of the seductive taproot of coercive power and practice choosing genuinely loving ways to steward power, we discover that we can use any tool that is consistent with and serves self-giving love. When we live into love, together we embody the God who (is) loves, and this love is invitational, never coercive and looks like the self-giving love of Jesus lifted up on the cross.
Bluntly, the simplistic approaches of moving the furniture around to be more organic are, at best, just the very, very beginning. It’s really not about sitting in rows or a circle, platforms, song leaders, leaders in general, or a teacher - this is a grossly anemic reaction to the IC. With great sincerity, based on well over a decade in the desert - these kinds of suggestions are akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic! It may be the journey's beginning, but please, keep going.
People of God, there is more, and it demands courage and conviction. At the core of it is an ongoing seismic Spirit-led reorientation toward self-emptying love. The invitation of the Spirit is to open ourselves to the God who (is) loves, learning and experiencing the genuinely transformative love relationship and then choosing to live it. This work of the Spirit naturally brings the chiropractic adjustment to our hearts which forms the fertile basis from which a healthy life and life together grows.
You see, philosophers, navel-gazers, and pontificator have their place, but the true community architects of the Beautiful Way are simply those captivated by self-giving love and dare to live into it in real life. This is the cruciform way. The Beautiful Way.