One of the big questions that arises in the many discussions I’ve had about beginning a new missional community is “Why do you have to leave the church to do it?”
As I’ve thought about this question, I remember a popular little story that may illustrate why leaving the church is necessary. A young wife decides she want to cook her first Christmas ham for her family. She remembers her mom’s ham as being succulent and delicious and so she calls for the family recipe. She discovers that part of the family recipe is to cut several inches off one of the ends. The young wife can’t figure out why this would make the ham taste so good. She asks her mom, but her mom says, “I don’t know. That’s how my mom always did it.” Curious, the young wife calls her grandmother in hopes of discovering the secret. After asking her grandmother the question, her grandmother begins laughing. “Sweetie, cutting the ham doesn’t make it taste any better. I used to cut a large slice off when your mom was young because the pan I cooked it in was too small for the ham.”
Twenty years ago, a generation of Christian leaders blazed new trails by exploring a more contemporary form of Christian community. They introduced rock-and-roll music, casual dress, and relevant sermons to Sunday morning services in an attempt to reach their world.
Yet, their reasons for “slicing off a piece of the ham” made sense in their time and context. Twenty years later, as our culture continues the shift from modernity to postmodernity, the reasons are not as relevant. Therefore, new forms of Christian community are needed to make God’s life and love real to them.
First, many in our culture are not as convinced by “evidence that demands a verdict.” There is a growing suspicion regarding absolute truth. For many, reality and truth are not defined simply by evidence, logic or what works. What convinces many people now is embodied truth. People don’t just want to know what one believes, but whether it is embodied and practiced as daily reality.
Second, there is a growing interest in historical tradition. Whereas the contemporary church attempted to break from the past in order to be more relevant, more and more people are interested in exploring the ancient traditions, theology and practices of the church. As one writer puts it, “The future runs through the past.”
Third, theology is also changing. Forty years ago, theology was propositional. One would argue through evidence about the reality of God. However, theology is shifting toward narratives. One writer says, “The case for the Christian faith is no longer reason against reason but faith against faith in opposing stories.” Theology is part of a story or a “metanarrative.” Metanarratives are comprehensive stories for the whole world. In other words, theology is no longer ruled by reason and scientific method. Instead, theology is formed through reflection on the narrative or story of Israel and Jesus. This ultimately leads to different theological issues and positions than what the contemporary church is addressing.
Fourth, people are hungering for mystery and beauty in spiritual issues, more than simple answers. When Jesus said, “I am the truth,” he was declaring that truth wasn’t abstract. It was embodied. Therefore, truth can only be known by those who live it.
Fifth, people are living more active lifestyles while hungering for deeper community. The average family is racing from one activity to another. The church’s call for commitment to Sunday services, mid-week Bible studies, and areas of ministry is only contributing to more frantic lifestyles and less opportunities for genuine community.
These are but only a few shifts in our culture.
In truth, I believe reaching people today doesn’t necessarily require a new kind of organized church. Rather, it requires a new kind of Christian. It requires authentic disciples of Jesus, who like him, have learned to die completely to themselves and have entered God’s kingdom so deeply that they are able to embody, demonstrate and announce God’s life, love and power easily, naturally, and effectively in all circumstances.
As I read the New Testament and as I read about Christians from other Christian traditions and in church history, I’m amazed at how many attained such spiritual maturity. Yet when I contrast that with my own lack of growth and with the general consensus of religious sociologist that American Christian spirituality as a whole is at a similar level of spiritual immaturity, I begin to wonder. My guess is that to become a new kind of Christian requires a new way of BEING the church. It goes back to the old adage, “The system you currently have is perfectly designed to produce the results you currently have.”
And that is why I need to explore something new. Not everyone needs to leave the established church. However I do. This is an issue of obedience. Over the past four years, God has begun forming me into a new kind of Christian. With this formation has come a new theology, new ideas, and a new dream. Therefore, I must follow God into this new exploration and attempt to be as faithful on my watch as others before have been on theirs.