Explorations in Theology

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Church of Elsewhere

Much of what I pick up on the soles of my feet is something to be washed off, but at times the dust, the residue of history and kingdom moments I pass through I want to accumulate, I want to bring this with me so that it colours where I go, who I meet and what I do. This is not something you can do with the stuff you need to wash off, it wont be appreciated.

Sometimes we feel a need to visit places, touch the land, meet the people in the hope that pollination takes place. That we become infected with what has infected them and in so doing become transformed, progressed, better enabled to be what we are meant to be, in the service of others.

I had a lovely friend called Zoe who signed up for a discipleship and missions programme where you could make suggestions of where you would want to be for a period of active mission. She wanted to join a dynamic bunch doing education in schools on England’s south coast, instead she woke up to see a cow outside her window in Wales. Amazingly, a place she would stay for more than a decade.

The Jesus followers there were a prayerful prophetically, sensitive bunch called Antioch in Llanelli. At times their prophetic insights were put into video format to be passed around the country like yeast. I liked their symbolism a lot, one of these was the sole of a boot saying ‘dreams with tread on for new terrain.

I think this notion resonated with people, rejected any idea that they had arrived. It suggested that the journey was ongoing and that we needed to prepare for new things.

Perhaps the boots with fresh tread indicated that it was going to be a long walk out, in and through the creation.

I felt I needed to connect with and touch what they were about. I loved it when we got to pray together, I also loved walking down the steps of a local river where hundreds would have queued during the historical revival, to be immersed in the makeshift baptismal. I wanted some of the history to be carried on my feet.

However it was one of the prophetic, poetic videos which would impact me the most and adhere itself to my journey.

The premise was that God had placed Jesus as head of his church, his body, which was the fullness of him in and through the creation. (“And God put all things under [Jesus’] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

It was a visit to that verse which brought out the sense that the body was the mobile, integrated aspect of himself through all things, through the creation and through the life and work spheres. This imagery seemed to be the opposite of the church I knew and the one that dominates the landscape. What I saw all around me, I had for a long time referred to as the church of elsewhere.

Perhaps, I can qualify that statement a little more by saying I had experienced several group settings where I would ask those gathered what they considered to be the spheres of society and each time it would be the same, education, healthcare, business, family and church.

The problem for me here is that it was my firm belief that “church” was never to occupy a sphere of its own, but instead have fully embedded itself in all of the actual spheres of life and society. The challenge or should I say challenging question in the video was ‘what does it mean to be the fullness of him in and through education? (cue teachers voice), healthcare? (cue doctors voice), gypsy sites (cue roma) etc

To be honest, because of our occupation and strong orbit around church as a sphere, as church of elsewhere, this is actually a question that still, 2000 years on, we are unable to fully respond to.

I used to be involved in church networks and pastors networks, which I foolishly felt was a gathering of those charged with reaching and transforming our locality.

After the ritual of the male voice choir worship session at one of these, I was allowed to ask a question:

  • Do we believe that our missiology informs our ecclesiology…
  • That those we wish to reach and serve in ‘the mission’, shapes and informs how we ‘do church’?

Almost everyone nodded, in that ‘but of course’ kind of affirming manner.

I asked ‘Who of us has inherited an established ecclesiology which greatly limits or inhibits our missiology’ … cue less enthusiastic nodding.

It is problematic that we are operating out of something, which even to our own thinking I so foundationally conflicted.

The leader of the pastors network, a much respected man once gave me a sound-bite which I have quoted in a multiplicity of settings, ‘If we do what we always did – we get what we always got’ – which isn’t enough. His softly spoken Scottish accent still survives as a formative voice in my head. As someone who was working hard on the impossible task of bringing our institutions closer together, I am not sure he realizes what a critical role he played in my moving away from said restraints.

Once over a cup of tea and some shortbread, we had a philosophical conversation where I was saying that I don’t have any more energy to invest in changing a seemingly immovable object.

My heart had always been to see the church change, but I had seen little of this. Mostly, the church as a whole was pinning its hopes on the next acceptable book to read , which would help them see the changes the previous book had promised but failed to deliver.

I remember saying that I was guessing he had seen the church go through 40 years of incremental, manageable adjustments, instead of significant change to itself, so that it could finally become an agent of change in society.

I said that if this was the case, I’m not going to be sticking around. His answer I felt was deeply honest ‘ yes, I am afraid that I agree with you, the church is likely to opt for another 40 years of minor adjustments’.

Do we have an inherited system that is capable of the kind of change, which can sees its primary function as supporting the saints to come to fullness in all the spheres of society? Has it managed this so far?

When church occupies its own sphere, a physicality and a geography we visit, it can only truly focus energy on perpetuating its own existence, equipping a small percentage of the saints for works ‘in’ the service instead of serving the majority who are unsupported as they stand in and through the creation (perhaps still waiting for a call to the seemingly sacred roles of pastor, youth worker, community worker, house group leader).

The thing that excites me most about a different paradigm is that, if there is no separated off from life ‘church of elsewhere’, then there is no leadership and no ministry gifts of elsewhere.

Instead, we find those abilities helping people come to fullness in all the glorious diversity of where God has placed them to be lovers, servants and agents of change. Suddenly, I feel hope that we can actually find ourselves engaged in systemic change in the world around us, more than topically treating the suffering those broken systems create.

What makes me nervous, is it takes that misplaced sphere of church to take on a John the Baptist mantle and become willing to decrease so that, what is coming can increase. I don’t mean more manageable, incremental, minor adjustments.

It has to be significant mind-blowing paradigm exploding change.

11 thoughts on “Church of Elsewhere

  1. as one of those teachers cued. . . yes to all. For myself with my university and college students I seek to give them a model of how to approach life. Not that I am perfect or always right. In fact when a student corrects me in class, rightfully, I point it out and congratulate him/her for finding a better answer. I hope that models something important. I try to look to the skills they need for life rather than the topic I am teaching. And I seek to instill hope through honest conversations about climate change, resilience, how to approach the future and what integrity means. I do this in every course, no matter the topic, and no matter if I get in trouble with it. And yes, administrators do not always appreciate honesty or truth and I have at times been called in on it. I also try to model to them what it means to fight for truth and integrity. I have been known to encourage sit-ins outside the president’s office if the curriculum wasn’t doing its job. A lot can happen in a classroom that appears to have little to do with the content. It is a place of rich pastoral work, mentoring young people and encouraging so many who have mental health issues. Who needs ‘church’ when you can easily pastor a classroom of young people?

    1. right !
      I think your modelling good christian leadership. My measure of a christian leadership and how much it is centred within the construct and how much it is centred on the body in and through society relates to this spectrum:
      How can i help you get where you are going and be the best version of yourself – because a win for you is a win for us all?
      How can i help you build up and perpetuate what i am in?

      Its almost an urban legend now, the head teacher asked up onto the stage with others at the sunday gathering, to be prayed for because he helps with sunday school. Takes the mic and thanks everyone, but asks as he is both a school head and governer for a schools district, why he gets prayed for when he helps with 30 children and not when he is responsible for the growth and wellbeing of several thousand children?
      Our conscious or unconscious learning in the church construct comes from the culture of what we see valued at the front. Either implicit or expilicit behaviour tells 97% of the church that there are sacred roles which should be sought if you are to be supported and invested in. Its why in the shift to being the body in and through the life settings, leadership also has to find its place there alongside.

  2. Ahh just love this. Like a drink of cold Clear water on a hot nasty trudge. I read Acts 3 yesterday when God let down the sheet of clean and unclean animals to Peter and really cracked open of his understanding of his world, his faith so that he would be swept out of what he thought was what God intended and into the explosion of Gods purposes for the whole of mankind not just the Jews. Starting with one Gentile family. It changed their world, Peters world, the early church and our world today. I think it’s time for more sheets that bring new revelation. That’s what your words connect me to.

    1. Thats a powerful moment in the story of God shattering a held world view of who was out and who was in. I think in a similar way to who is in and out of the salvation story, we are being challenged to look at something which has become counter kingdom flow, removing us from the ends of the earth reach and put is in a ‘safe till heaven’ container. Living in Greece its tangible how the church story came through here and had poison put in the well that all would drink from ever after. Ecclesia was an occassional gathering of significant importance for the whole community, where you would go away and digest the information and make it muscle on your bones through change and action. A million miles from what we call the programmed high dependency gathering today. Also Plato and his contribution of separating the sacred back off from the world which was then viewed as a place we visit and seek to survive more than have the fullness of life there in Jesus. ‘ all creation groans and years for the children of god to be revealed’ still in my view

  3. Hi Gaz, appreciated this and your last post thanks. Are the church and body of Christ are synonymous? If they are then we have quite a disconnect as so much of the body (I think) functions outside of what is labelled church. Missiology has often had to conform to a predefined ecclesiology or be considered para-church- how I dislike that term! Lovers and servants-yes. Thanks

  4. Lets call it what it is – bastard church.
    Whoever has the name church wins… is the concept, and all else has to be viewed as other that. Its an intensely toxic aspect of church as a self legitimising organisation where it has set itself up to be the authority given by god over the people. What you do outside of church, unless it has a clear umbilical cannot be viewed as ‘the church’. Worse still if its independant of that authority, like a grown up is independant of family to make decisions… it has to be viewed and titled ‘not really church’. It stems from the roots of the church courtecy of the pagan emperor constantine putting the bible together and establishing the one church for all time and all people, essentially the catholic model. I think it is in the book houses that change the world by wolfgang simson that he list all the changes in the church over hundreds of years. He marks restoration of the gifts, immersion, personal relationship with jesus and the brands of church that would produce, but outside of this, nothing has truly changed that we operate a catholic model, the building, the choir, the passive audience listening to the specialist. We have not changed much. But para church, is a vomitous invention of a system who’s authority is challenged, who’s legitimacy is challenged whenever we journey out into the creation.
    Pagan Christianity by george barna and frank viola addresses some of the above really helpfully.

    1. Well put! and yes, Viola and Barna have both been helpful. I’d recommend ‘A New Christian Manifesto: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom of God’, by Bob Ekblad. Bob lives for and with those on the margins, but manages to straddle the divide between old and new.
      A long while ago ‘we’ started using kingdom instead of church as church had become so loaded with preconception. Not long before discussions about what is kingdom surfaced so that social action etc is only kingdom if explicitly done through the church etc. (Scot McKnight-Kingdom Conspiracy) Can be Tortuous stuff, but valid perspectives too. Do we followers of Jesus continually flit in and out of the kingdom? I’m not physically in the organised bit, but am aware that I have to be intentional to keep moving on from old mindsets that pull back. Maybe I am still mid paradigm shift or due for another as perhaps the first didn’t go far enough. Cheers

  5. Simon, brilliant, thanks for sharing your inner world and self observations so honestly and i believe ‘insightfully’.
    I remember being in a discussion where a guest story teller drew a graph which on one side said ‘new landscape language and terminology’ and on the bottom ‘ new landscape living and action’. It was clear that across progressive church constructs there was a trend of adopting new language but it had not significantly changed behaviour. Like you, i believe that to be a personal and mindful journey.
    I like a guy in ireland said, about how in our unravelling comes a revealing but it is then what we do… in light of what we now know.
    I was a comment of Martins about how our love or even default simply to the familiar, helps us return to the norm, what was there before.
    I do think there is something ‘high dependency’ in the nature of the church construct, its centrality, its rituals, its emotion touching theatre etc, which has to put it alongside other addictions which are in some respects, an instant fix and momentary distraction from the bad shit. There is a lot working against our feeling free to explore and journey out, so i cant be critical of anyone exploring this. Yes Simon, a very personal journey, and perhaps unique to each person and the complexity of individuality.
    I still come back to an illustration from some time spent with ywam:
    We have to take what we hear, inwardly digest it, and cause it to become muscle on our bones through action.
    This was the problem of the graph, exposing the differences between adopting new language and actual change. Thanks for the book suggestion.

  6. Thanks Gaz, likewise have appreciated your honesty and insight in your posts. YWAM also has been an important part of my journey- going back a bit! Getting that muscle on the bone takes a while. I have previously likened leaving the old constructs to leaving gravity- the pull back is strong. Once in space however the view changes radically and for a time can be almost overwhelming and the freedom unfamiliar and even uncomfortable-returning to old addictions (certainties?) as you put it remains an option at this point, but remain and I suspect there is no returning. Fortunately it is far from empty space and new things come into view and focus.

  7. Thanks simon, i love the analogy of moving out of the gravitational pull and getting a much better view from space, but not empty space. excellent.

  8. Can you develop your thoughts on this statement?

    “What makes me nervous, is it takes that misplaced sphere of church to take on a John the Baptist mantle and become willing to decrease so that, what is coming can increase. I don’t mean more manageable, incremental, minor adjustments.

    It has to be significant mind-blowing paradigm exploding change.”

    I agree but wondering why it makes you nervous?

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