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What does Madison Avenue Have to Do with Jerusalem?

In the late 90′s I was a pastor reading business books with my missional cohort in our Sacramento mission field. We were attending conferences at Willow Creek and Saddleback trying to figure out how to “create a safe place to hear a dangerous message.”

It wasn’t just seeker methodology we were mining. We were exploring cell churches, house churches, multi-site churches, and just about any methodology that seemed to offer some hope at missional effectiveness which we mostly understood as being individual transformation and numerical growth.

When We Put the Business Books Away

After a few years of this, without any milestone or conscious decision, our missional cohort (we affectionately call a “cluster”) we began to put the business books away.

As a group we noticed it when our broader network of “LEAD” teams (the West Coast Regional Team/ Christian Reformed Home Missions adaptation of our organic cluster experience) kept sending us business books and we weren’t interested in reading or discussing them. We finally asked them to stop sending us free books, something pastors seldom do. (It also coincided with Borders (when it was still in business) no longer accepting book returns without a receipt so we could swap them for books we wanted.)

In our immaturity I think we had a bit of sneer about pastors who still read business books. What had we “graduated” to reading? Theology.

10 Years Later

It’s now ten years since we made this change and I think I’m finally figuring out why we did what we did.

When we were reading business books we implicitly believed that the heart of what we were doing had already been settled and we were basically attempting to apply and propagate a settled, established thing.

I’m old enough to remember when Willow Creek was controversial. Their use of business methodology was cutting edge and made pastors and church leaders suspicious of their theology. For many of us, once we made our pilgrimage to Barrington IL we were greatly relieved to discover that Bill Hybels had put a seeker front end onto a doctrinal back-end that we could be comfortable with. His earnest and “excellent” seeker services were a set-up for the Four Spiritual Laws. “Fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ” was an updated term for a “contagious Christian”.

This was what North American missions seemed to require. It was primarily a way, like many ways that had gone before it Sunday School, VBS, door to door, evangelistic crusades, tracts, soup and sandwich gospel missions, Evangelism Explosion "If you were die tonight…", to get people to pray the sinner’s prayer and get saved.

From Application to Articulation

The fundamental assumption of Seeker methodology was that application was what was required to resurrect the dormant zombies of Christendom. There was a broad consensus in the American population that what Christianity was and was for was settled, broadly embraced, good and still attractive. What our missional cohort implicitly felt in our work was that this consensus had come to an end. It was increasingly obvious that:

  1. An assumed frame around Christianity was very much in play.
  2. There was no longer a cultural consensus about what Christianity was for. The old answer of “a way to insure a blessed afterlife” could no longer be assumed. (Whether or not this assumption was faithful to the faith or a reduction of it is also an open question.)
  3. That a positive impression of Christianity itself could no longer be assumed in the general public, especially in “blue states.”

Christianity needed a cultural rethinking for our context and there was/is no shortage of contributors.

Once you see this, it’s easy to see why we all started reading theology instead of business books. We needed foundational thinking about who we are, what we are doing, and why any of this is important. If we were to engage the communities around us these were issues that must be engaged.

Denominations (like mine) are late to the Game

Last week I was visiting the gravitational core of the CRC in Grand Rapids MI. While doing the work I was given to do these observations finally gelled in my mind. Denominations continue to major in application and we feel politically endangered by fresh articulation.

On this week’s “Phil Vischer PodcastSkye Jethani made the observation that 10 years ago it was believed that liberal denominations were in decline because of doctrinal unfaithfulness while conservative denominations continued to grow (and it was implied ) BECAUSE of doctrinal fidelity. Today, that is no longer the case. Everyone (except the Mormons) are shrinking and the “nones” are rising.

The CRC is not an exception to this trend.  Just look at the numbers from the last two years:

2012 Total Growth: 10,419
2012 Total Decline: 8,594

2012 Total Members: 251,727
2011 Total Members: 255,706

How can your net growth be 2,000 and still decline by 4,000? Lots of answers. I’d suggest the most important one is “seepage”.

Denominations (like mine) want to keep working the application angle. What new programs and initiatives can turn the tide?

Let me be clear that in many places, and with many people, greater programmatic performance can still achieve numeric gains and this is a good enough reason not to abandon the continued pursuit of programmatic improvement. We should be able to walk and talk at the same time.

Why do we, however, instinctively default in that direction? Because the other direction scares us to death for dozens of really good reasons.

What’s So Scary About Articulation?

Denominations (like mine) are built upon a consensus reached decades if not centuries ago. They have been able for many reasons (cultural, ethnic, practical, political) to maintain that consensus, at least formally. Publicly, overtly, tinkering with the consensus is deadly, dangerous, career ending, relationship threatening stuff. It feels safer to salute the flag than to have a conversation about “for which it stands”.

Part of the problem is that there are many, many voices out there clamoring for change on all sorts of levels and the easiest way to deal with them is to say “NO” but then do “yes” in small, quiet, creeping ways and that really isn’t such a bad way to operate. We really have to square up and face some uncomfortable but also comforting truths:

  1. We will avoid change.
  2. We will continue to change without admitting it.
  3. Change will hurt us.
  4. Change will help us.
  5. Change will be more gradual than we think is best.
  6. Change will come more quickly than we want.
  7. Something or things will probably hold together, but it won’t be like it used to be.

Learning to Talk

Can denominations really learn to articulate again in helpful ways?

Denominations are chatty beasts. They are always releasing statements about all kinds of things, some to their people, some to the broader world, most of it is ignored. What denominations have great difficulty with is conversation.

In the CRC we just concluded an attempt at a conversation regarding The Belhar Confession.  Whatever you think about the outcome (the CRC invented a new category so it didn’t have to put it along side our three older documents) what I learned from the process is that we’re quite uncertain about how to have a conversation as a denomination. We’ve had a decades long conversation about Women in Church Office and then tried to wrap up a new confession in a few years. We’re uncomfortable with timing. We’re unclear on process. We’re uncertain on practical outcomes.

If it is true that we’re not sure how to have a conversation then how do we create community around a gospel locating and articulating consensus? My best guess is that whatever we do, or however we get there it will be messy, just like it has always been.

As a learning group (which is really what our missional cohort or cluster basically is) we needed to read theology (again) and talk theology (again) to continue to learn how to engage in mission because if you’re misty on what is you’ll likely be pea-soupy-fog on how to apply it.

Honest Talk

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in ministry it is that it is often difficult to get people to admit in church what they really think and believe. I’ve also learned it is essential if you’re going to have a real conversation. In my experience a healthy process involves both the freedom for honest (respectful) conversation within a community with enough relational toughness to contain maintaining relationships. I think the CRC still has the potential for this but it is something that requires overt embracing and maintenance.

In the CRC in the last few years we’ve had a few defections and exilings. John Suk comes to mind as do the two Calvin College professors who explored issues of Adam and Genesis. Their exilings and defections are on the left, I’m sure there are others on the right as well.

Communities require boundaries and boundaries mean that communities must have a sense of who and what is in and who and what is out. There can be no other way. At the same time there also needs to be a way for communities to process both the bounded set dynamic necessary for community and the center set dynamic. Communities need bounded set dynamics for self-definition and center-set dynamics for continual reform, re-focusing and renewal.

The Way Forward

1. Continue to Converse with Our Tradition

We came to this place from a place. We need to continue to converse with our tradition to have identity in moving forward.

2.  Continue to Converse with our Context

We are located in a place. In Christian ministry deed is word.  Application is only understood in the context of articulation.

3.  Strengthen Our Capacity for Radical Conversation within Strong Relationships

If we as a community can be helpful to our wildly diverse neighbors and friends in terms of helping them understand and then follow Jesus, we must learn to articulate who Jesus is and what Jesus means to Sacramento California, Nairobi Kenya, and Elkhart Indiana.

4.  Fear Not

We learn from the Bible, and from our tradition that this is finally God’s mission and if God is who he says he is (in the Bible) we should not be afraid.

What Misery, Deliverance, Gratitude should lead us to be are people willing to take audacious risks and embody book of Acts boldness.

The age of decay will eat all of our bodies as well as our institutional expressions. If we believe in the resurrection, there should be a certain faithful freedom that accompanies all our work.

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