EMC #3: Subversive communities

Author: Stuart Lindsell

Subversive communities

We are community called to serve in many different communities. We are not an institution that provides religious goods and services. The emerging church movement calls the latter ‘consumer church’ which rather than subverting the powers at work in our society embraces the same values. In the Americanized church the important thing is to turn life and faith into a simple pre-packaged consumer product. This is what John Drane calls the “McDonaldization of the Church.” Consumerism has taken over. William Beckham describes the changes that have repackaged the biblical norm.1

The Lord’s Supper from a common meal to a ceremony
Worship from participation to observation
Witness from relationship to salesmanship
Leadership from called servants to professionals
Discipleship from on-the-job to classroom
Body life from lifestyle to membership
Buildings from functional to sacred meeting places
Child care from parental to church responsibility
Bible study from doers to hearers
Evangelism from go structures to come structures

Missionaries understand that we are not here to encourage people to come in but to call people to cross over from one way of life to a radical alternative. God has positioned us in communities to release the Kingdom from the inside. Our call is to demonstrate what it looks like when a community of people live under the reign of God in every aspect of daily life. The Lord will then add to the believing community those being saved.

Jesus was a subversive story teller both in word and deed. He told stories and lived a life that undermined the pretence of the prevailing powers of the day. Tony Compolo tells a story from his own experience. He was staying in a hotel in a large city in the U.S.A. attending a conference at which he was a speaker. In the night he found it difficult to sleep so went for a walk in the early hours of the morning. He found a corner shop that was still open and as he was drinking his coffee he suddenly realised that he was in the middle of a pick up venue for prostitutes. Overhearing a conversation at a table nearby he heard a woman talking to another and complaining that it was her birthday tomorrow and no one would remember or even bother about it. She couldn’t remember the last time she had a birthday celebration. The other woman told her to pull herself together and get real because no one was going to think about her birthday as long as she was in this line of work. After they had left Tony asked the owner of the coffee shop if he knew the woman. ‘Oh yes’ he said ‘she is a regular here every night’. ‘Well’ Tony said, ‘if I paid for it could you arrange for a birthday cake and a bottle of wine tomorrow night’. ‘No problem if you are paying for it’ the owner said. The following night when the woman came in she was surprised by a wonderful birthday cake and celebration wine. She was moved to tears that a stranger was interested in her feelings. When she had gone the owner asked Tony ‘are you some kind of religious leader’. ‘Well yes I am’, Tony said. ‘And what kind of church do you come from’, said the owner. ‘Oh’ said Tony,’ the kind that puts on parties for prostitutes’.

I have told this story as it was recounted to me, so forgive me Tony if I have not got it exactly. But the point of the story is that this surely was a wonderful representation to the coffee shop owner of who Jesus is. He puts on parties for prostitutes. The café owner from that time on had a new image, a subversive one even, of what church is – certainly not the traditional one.

Connected communities

Community is about our connections and our connectedness. God has made us with a great need for him but also for one another. We have an instinct for community – we want relationships, we want friends, we want to belong, we want a sense of purpose with others but the paradox is that is we also want our individual freedom at same time. That is the big challenge but I would suggest that in Christ we have both dimensions.

If we want to understand God’s intention for community sometimes we need to take a look at life itself. As Margaret Wheatley, the business guru, reminds us, ‘Life is a vast web of interconnections. We live in a universe that is alive and creative and experimenting all the time to discover new possibilities’.2 Life wants to happen – you can’t organise it, you can resist it but life has a wonderful way of triumphing even over death. Every gardener is aware of that fact. In her award winning ‘Leadership and the New Science’, Margaret says, “I believe the fundamental work of this time – which requires the participation of us all – is to discover new ways of being together. Our old ways of relating to each another don’t support us any longer, whether it is at home, in community, at work, or as nation states”. And I would add – or at church. She goes on to say “We are all pioneers and discoverers of a new world, and we all need one another. It’s up to us to journey forth in search of new practices and new ideas that will enable us to create lives and organisations worthy of human habitation”.

One of the issues that confront us in the west is that we have a kind of paradigm blindness. We desperately need new sightlines – new ways of seeing. We often speak of the church community, as indeed the apostle Paul does, as a body. Our problem is that this gives us one sort of mental picture, often a very static one related to the regular meeting of the local church but the body in reality is an incredible network of connections. Blood vessels and lymphatic systems, nervous systems and a whole host of other networks, many invisible to the natural eye – the reality is that the body is an amazing organism that is dependent on the networks working together in harmony and yet, at the same time, each part doing its individual job. The control centre of course is not those with the gift of leadership but the head himself who not only loves his body but cares for it and nurtures it and washes it with his word.

Church is therefore a community expressing itself through the unity and diversity of many wonderful and creative networks. It has individual and corporate expressions and both dimensions are important. Those who stress unity sometimes undermine diversity while those who stress diversity can sometimes undermine unity. However in God’s world there is often a hidden inter-connectedness. Margaret points out that an Aspen grove can cover thousands of acres and appears to be groupings of individual trees. Actually it is one giant organism that is connected below ground by one massive root system. God sees what we often don’t see. We must not judge unity only by what we see and hear but recognise that God is the great connector at levels that the natural man does not perceive. This is not to undermine the importance of visible unity but our expectations of what visible unity means often stretches little further that an annual joint church celebration or the official meeting of ‘churches together’ leaders.

The Heart of community

In book of Acts the first thing we notice about the renewed community of believers is that they find their new identity in the fellowship (Koinonia) of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word is of course wonderfully rich. It speaks of open community, sharing community, egalitarian community and extended family. There is no hierarchy to be found here but recognition of the richness of the gifts and callings that God has now poured out on all flesh.

Koinonia is what marks out the followers of the way from their Jewish friends. They are no longer marked by the works of the law but by being people of the Spirit. They are counter-cultural. They invite people to participate in a new generation, a new community that has different values and a new lifestyle. In Acts 2: 42-45 we note:-

  • Their experience of community was natural and enjoyable. They were not built around a cause or held together by programmes or common goals or agreed agendas but it was their love for one another that marked them out as the redeemed community. The quality of their lives had been transformed.
  • Spontaneity – they were not highly organised but friendship brought them together. God sustained the friendships. They were not an organisation but an organism with life at its centre. Now a holy people their homes became holy places.
  • Rich hospitality – they allowed life to touch their material possessions.
  • Supernatural – the supernatural God demonstrated through apostolic gifts that he was a partner in their corporate witness. They were a community saturated with the presence of God

Connection Points – Ligaments and sinews

Nets of course have their nodes and networks have their connecting points. Relationship and friendship continue to be fundamental to community. The places and the contexts where we come together serve very fundamental needs. In body language these connections are ligaments and sinews. For those not biologically inclined a ligament is a tough band of tissue connecting or supporting a bone or an organ. A sinew is a cord or thread which provides solid resilient strength.

In Ephesians 4: 16 Paul talks of the body held together by supporting ligaments and in Colossians 2:19 of how the body is supplied with strength from the head by means of the ligaments and sinews which hold it together. Clearly for Paul our relationships are ligaments and sinews. The body grows and is supplied with strength from the head through the channels of ligaments and sinews i.e. through relationships and friendship.

Firstly, they provide a connection. You cannot be a follower of Jesus without a connection in his body. In Colosse non-spirit minded people had lost connection with the head because they had lost connection with body. The body has to be connected together. A body without ligaments and sinews has no corporate identity. It will fall apart. That’s why every believer needs to know who God has intimately connected us to. We cannot be directly connected to everyone so we need to at the very least to know the two or three that Jesus defined as basic to the new community he was establishing. Those two or three who come together in Jesus name are promised both the authority to bind and loose and more importantly the presence of Jesus himself..3

Secondly, ligaments and sinews provide strong joints. We need fellow travelling disciples who will hold us to our commitments. As covenant community we need those who will remind us of the demands of discipleship and help and encourage us in our walk toward maturity in Christ. The oft quoted reminder from Hebrews 10:25 about the need to come together is in the context or our need for mutual encouragement and spurring one another on to love and good works. We must also remember that the writer was addressing house church people not twenty-first century congregations. The dynamics of their coming together were very different from today but the same basic need..4

Thirdly, our ligaments and sinews are gifts from God as sources of strength, and support, grace and anointing. We all need input and we have to work at keeping those supply lines open and functioning. Four practices in particular keep the supply flowing are: –

  • Accepting one another

In Romans 15:7 Paul encourages the diverse Christian community in Rome to accept one another just as Christ has accepted us, in order to bring praise to God. Without it there can be no real sense of belonging. The Christian community is not an environment in which we have to perform well in order to be accepted. This is why we need to re-examine our cultural expectations of one another just as the Jewish and gentile communities in the church in Rome. The biblical principle is that we cannot reject those whom God has accepted. Accepting one another means that we show the same grace to others that Christ has shown to us. This attitude has to be foundational. Acceptance cannot be conditional upon conformity to regulations that are not rooted in Scripture. Paul called such false standards “human commands and teachings” (Col.2:22). It is amazing how quickly such arbitrary standards and legalistic expectations creep into the church.

  • Encouraging one another

Encouragement is a great motivator. It builds us up (1 Thess.5:11) and helps us to keep going even when things are tough. When we feel like giving up or pressures are causing us to waver in our devotion to Jesus, there is nothing like a good dose of encouragement to revitalise our energy. A speaker once described Christians like leaking buckets. Even when they are full of encouragement it eventually leaks out. “God”, the speaker said, “has called us to be bucket fillers”. That is why we have a responsibility to be continually filling one another up. The Hebrew writer even says we should do it daily (Heb.13:2).

  • Loving one another

In Ephesians 5:2 Paul also encourages us to “live a life of love, just as Christ loved us”. Christ Jesus is again used by Paul as the pattern for our life style. Living a life of love means following Jesus’ example. Firstly, it means unconditional love. Jesus loved people regardless of their response. It was not conditional upon their response to Him. He loved because He was LOVE and could be no other. God shows no favouritism (Rom 2:11); Jesus loved the last, the lost and the least. He healed ten lepers but only one came back and said thanks. He forgave those who crucified Him. He identified with prostitutes and publicans. Someone once asked a speaker what would happen if someone deliberately turned their back on God’s love. The answer came “in which case God’s love would merely shine on their back”. His love does not change, it never ends.

Many are disappointed when they do not receive any response from those they reach out to but love does not look for something for itself. It is not self-seeking. The Jesus community is not a mutual admiration society where we love one another for the benefit it brings. We love one another because that is the new commandment that Jesus has given us (1 John 4:21). It is our love for one another that Jesus said would mark us out as His disciples (John 13:35). Unconditional love for one another should be our distinctive life-style.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and martyr, wrote, “The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both”. When that time comes then we have the opportunity to really love. Love is a verb not a feeling. “Love”, said Paul, “always perseveres”.

The church is therefore not built around a cause or held together by programmes or common goals or agreed agendas but it is our love that should hold us together.

  • Forgiving one another

Forgiveness runs at the frontier of God’s love. He never stops forgiving. That is why when we fail to forgive we destroy the channel through which God’s love comes to us. We have adopted an attitude that is the opposite to God himself. If we do not have a forgiving attitude we can no longer represent God’s heart to one another. In fact we are doing ourselves serious damage. Following Peter’s question about how often we should forgive, Jesus taught the parable of the unforgiving servant. In the story the jailors end up torturing the man who will not forgive his debtors. This is despite the fact that he himself has been forgiven an enormous debt. With chilling impact Jesus concludes the story in Matthew 18:35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart.”

Liquid – the nature of community

Pete Ward.5 has reminded us of the simple fact that liquid has the ability to flow. It flows with natural contours not against them. Water for example always looks for natural channels to flow in. You can create artificial channels but it will naturally seek out its own. Any one who has tried to locate where exactly water is coming through the roof is aware of water’s ability to find a way where there is no way.

We note from the New Testament that the Jesus communities do not have organisationally defined boundaries. They were known as people of the way. Their lifestyle defined the boundaries but they were described by Jesus as people like the wind. The temple community could not work out where these peopele had come from or where they were going. Such are those born of the Spirit. Jesus taught that the people of his kingdom would always defy description. They would be like yeast in dough, salt in food, light in darkness, like seed growing into a tree.

In his second book illustrating what Jesus did and taught Luke gives us a picture of a community that the Holy Spirit took from place to place. Luke’s great theme is restoration – getting God’s people back on track. Israel had lost her way in terms of her calling as a witness and light to the nations but through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus sees his disciples being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth. They begin in Jerusalem, still connected to the temple, but by the end of the book the temple is far away awaiting its destiny of destruction. The disciples are now in Rome not far from Caesar’s palace another place awaiting its destiny. Jesus’ followers are destined to be a boundary breaking community that will travel across not only geographical boundaries but social, generational, class and racial boundaries. In this they were following Jesus. He laid the foundations for the Gentile mission. He was a boundary breaker – provoking Israel to see the faith even in the gentile community. To declare sinners, tax collectors, the poor and lepers “children of the Kingdom” was both a political statement to the Jewish establishment and a provocation for his followers.

Prophetic communities – pointing to the future

In our nation at this time God is re-orientating his people to our main task. This is not about having better quality gatherings but it is about bringing the gospel to every creature under heaven. Prophetic voices are calling us back to our missionary destiny and calling as a nation. Mike Riddell in his book ‘The Threshold of the future’ says “Christians must be willing to let God do genuinely new things in the history of mission”. A good definition of new is ‘what we have never seen before’. As a Brazilian friend pointed out ‘we say new and then we think old’. Our terms of reference are drawn from past experience. The challenge is to allow God to reshape us. He is the potter we are the clay. Acts, chapter 10, is indeed a wonderful paradigm for today.

Acts 10 records an incident in the development of the early church. It is a strategic moment, a missionary moment, because up until this point the apostles were still locked into Jerusalem. Some ordinary saints were doing a great job sharing the gospel with gentiles in Antioch but the apostles had not yet caught up with the Holy Spirit. Under the Hebrew Peter’s leadership they were comfortable living within the boundaries of the Torah. The Greek believers however set an example by moving beyond Torah and Temple.

Ross Patterson suggests the book of Acts ought to be renamed ‘the Acts of the Holy Spirit despite the apostles’.6 because they were still incredibly slow to understand what Jesus was doing. God chose Peter’s visit to his friend Simon the Tanner by the seaside of Joppa as a moment to change a way of thinking – what we sometimes call a mind set. Peter the apostle was still bound by his Jewish background and culture and was still questioning what God was showing him.

Through a series of miraculous events God took the hesitation out of Peter and then Peter did the unthinkable, an unclean act as far as his culture was concerned, he went to the house of a gentile. It was there in the house of Cornelius that there was a tremendous breakthrough for the gospel. As Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit came on the gentiles. Peter cannot forbid them to be baptised because God’s mark of ownership was on them. This despite his imbibed theology that gentiles first have to become Jewish converts before they can belong to the people of God.

It is an interesting place that God chose in which to pour out of the gentile Pentecost. It was not Jerusalem but Caesarea, showing us that this was not just a strategeic moment in the growth of the gospel but also a strategic place. Caesarea was an idolatrous city where man worshipped man. It was a place where God sent an angel to smite King Herod because the people hailed him as a God and he did not give praise to God. He was eaten by worms – a warning to all would be Kings. More significantly Caesarea was a gentile city on the great north road trade route.[7] Could it be that God had a strategy for the business people of Caesarea? If we read Acts carefully after Philip took the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch God re-positioned him in Caesarea. Could it be that Philip’s prophetic family sent on their way missionary traders over the paths of the sea to the gentile nations? One of the most significant ways in which the gospel travelled through the early centuries was through trade. When the first official missionaries came to the British islands they discovered the gospel was already here.

Prophetic communities are creative and innovative. Like Peter they listen and observe and then declare what God is saying by what he is so evidently doing.

Notes

1. The Second Reformation. Reshaping the Church for the 21st Century, William A. Beckham, 1995.
2. Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science, 1999.
3. Neil Cole in Organic Church demonstrates how simple but foundational the principle of three is in the scriptures.
4. See Simon Jones excellent article on ‘Going to church in the 1st Century’
5. Pete Ward, Liquid Church, 2002.
6. Ross Patterson, The Antioch Factor – the hidden message of the Book of Acts.
7. I am grateful to Richard Fleming for this insight.