Church (S)hopping, part II: A “Proverb-“ial Interlude

One of the wonderful things the Circle of Hope community has done is to compile a list of "proverbs" that guide their life (together) and practice. These are not "sound bites" or subsitutes for Scripture or one’s own theological reflection. Rather, they are assumptions which that particular community holds in common and which (hopefully) guides the way they go about "being the Church" on a day-by-day basis. These proverbs inspire me and get me pretty jazzed up about following Jesus together, if only I have partners and a community in which to live all this great stuff out.
 
Those proverbs that particularly capture my theological imagination I’ve put in bold below, for what that’s worth.
 
So, without further ado, below are a selected number of Circle of Hope’s "Proverbs," circa 2003:
 

Revealing Jesus Incarnationally

 

  • The church exists for those yet to join.
  • "Friendship (or Relational) Evangelism" is one way to describe our deliberate attempts to make disciples. Our main method is "incarnational;" so we accept that what we do will never be instant.
  • The skepticism of others is warranted if our message does not originate from a community that demonstrates the love of Christ.
  • In an individualistic age, being the Church is a counter-cultural statement.
  • Like any healthy organism, we grow. So we are always preparing to birth a new cell, plant the next congregation, and generate the next venture of compassionate service.
  • Life in Christ is one whole cloth. As we participate in and love the "world," we bring redemption from the Kingdom of God to our society. Jesus is Lord of all; so we have repented of separating "sacred" and "secular."
  • We are "world Christians," members of the transnational body of Christ, concerned with every person we can touch with truth and love.

 

Moving with What the Spirit Is Doing Next

 

  • Those among us from "traditional" Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of "church" in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility.
  • We intend to keep all the great things God has given through the church of the past and be totally at home in our own time, ready and able to relate to the people of our day.

 

Growing Personally Deep with God

 

  • Prayer is the key to our success.
  • Solitude and Silence are crucial tools for experiencing God’s presence.
  • Without worship, a person shrinks.
  • We appreciate and use all of the spiritual disciplines from all traditions that believers have developed over the centuries.
  • The city presents a great spiritual challenge; the evils can be powerful, the unfulfilled potential can be heartbreaking; discerning and battling local spiritual powers is essential.
  • Accepting failure and moving on in hope is basic to living in the grace of God.

 

Doing the Word

 

  • The Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project (italics added) .
  • Jesus is the lens through which we read the Bible.
  • We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth.

Generating Justice Through Compassionate Service

 

  • Compassion is our calling card. Without service there is no demonstration of the gospel .
  • We express justice by sharing what God has given us with the poor and oppressed.
  • We are obliged to speak out against unjust laws and practices that oppress people and ruin creation.
  • We do not generally hand out resources; we extend a resourceful hand.
  • In the U.S. the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable.

 

Developing Relationships and Community

 

  • The "Great Commandment" (John 13:34-5) is to be obeyed. One’s ability to love others unlocks their life.
  • Our cells (cell groups) are the basic components of our living body in Christ .
  • Following the example of Paul, we have a 20/20 vision of ministry, teaching one another "publicly" and from "house to house" (Acts 20:20).
  • Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.
  • In our cells, Jesus is the (only) "agenda."
  • Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.
  • The Love Feast (I can explain this one for anyone who wants to know- it’s a beautiful and amazing thing!) is a corporate expression of who we are as a people…
  • What denomination we are is not crucial to our identity; being connected and accountable is a matter of living in love.
  • One does not join our church. One joins our team.
  • The church is not a "thing" that does things; it is not a building. We are the church and we support one another as Jesus expresses himself through us. A congregation and a cell (group) are always larger and deeper than their meeting or meeting place.
  • When we talk about accountability, we are talking about mutually helping one another fulfill what we have already agreed to be or do.
  • Everything a Christian does happens in community. Thus, we express who we are by being cells and we express what we do by forming mission teams.

 

Encouraging Dialogue

 

  • Everyone is recovering from the sin addiction; expect conflict.
  • Truth without love kills. Love without truth lies.
  • Engaging in healthy dialogue is what keeps us real. We want everyone among us to experience respect and understanding as they explore what they think and feel.
  • Our system is held together by a dialogue of love.

 

Fomenting Diversity and Reconciliation

 

  • We are always reaching across barriers, across racial/ethnic, class, and cultural lines.
  • Racial reconciliation is a matter of demanding justice, not just peace.
  • A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.
  • We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represents the new humanity.
  • All cultures are fallen, yet Jesus reveals God in all of them. The church does not need to force people to leave all aspects of their culture in order to worship God through Jesus Christ.
  • Welcoming the "stranger" is at the heart of being a Christian. Hospitality exposes the fear of the giver and receiver to the transforming touch of God.

 

Expressing our Gifts, Talents, Art and Worship

 

  • It is essential to discover, develop, and use one’s spiritual gifts.
  • God is an artist. The artist who follows him creates to reveal the glory of God too.
  • Respect for gifts and abilities is not reserved for older people.
  • Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach, and serve.
  • Our public worship needs to be in public language focused on those yet to join in, but not restricted to that.
  • One doesn’t need to be smart of completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.
  • We stretch ourselves to worship with diverse styles. God is transnational, transcultural, even transhistorical.

 

Sharing Resources

 

  • We share our resources of time, money, and love person to person, with the leaders, between congregations.
  • All our money belongs to God. The percentage we share in our Common Fund reflects our mutual commitment to be an authentic church.
  • Minimally, members of our covenant share in our public meeting times, participate in a cell (group), express themselves in service and contribute to our Common Fund.
  • As part of our obligation to mutually share resources with the poor and lost, we invest at least 20% of our Common Fund income in causes beyond the basic operation of our church.

 

Guiding the Church with Multiple Leadership

 

  •  A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.
  • Leaders listen to the body and to God. Their function is discernment as much as direction.
  • We learn best person to person, not program to person.
  • Our basic mission is to build cell (group)s and our primary leaders are deployed and trained for that work. We wait for people to take the lead in further enterprises, or we don’t do them.

Church (S)Hopping, part I

Well….this post is long overdue. I suppose I’ve avoided writing it because I know the process of doing so will force me to come to terms with/confront some truths that I am simply not comfortable with. What, you ask, could I be talking about? Of course I’m alluding to our recent decision to "take a (likely permanent) break" from our involvement in Sanctuary, our heretofore faith community in NE Ohio.
 
Anyone who knows of my faith journey over the past ten years knows of our involvement with and deep investment in Circle of Hope and House of Mercy, our faith communities in Philadelphia and St. Paul, respectively. Both congregations come at the "problem" of the post-Christian era we now find ourselves in with unique, and uniquely effective, approaches, and I have been immeasurably changed by my immersion in both communities. I only hope that I can honor my unique privilege to have been a part of each of them by synthesizing the best of each in my practice as a Christ-follower/faith-community-member going forward. Of course, as I write so glowingly about Circle of Hope and House of Mercy, you may wonder why I would ever leave either one of them, and what all of this has to do with Sanctuary; so I will try to answer the first question as I make my way to the second.
 
I believe it was simply the grace of God that led us to Circle of Hope as it was just getting underway in the Fall of 1996. Kirsten and I were newly married at the tender ages of 20 and 21, respectively, and had just moved to Philly largely because of my desire to serve there after my Kingdomworks experience in the summer of ’95. Having come from traditional (Modern American Evangelical) church backgrounds- in my case in the Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) and in Kirsten’s case in some very conservative Baptist circles, there were many things about "Circle" that struck us as being new, fresh, intriguing, etc. We loved that it met in the upstairs of a storefront in Center City Philadelphia, that you could "come as you are" (wear jeans, shorts, whatever), that the band had such a bangin’ punk rock flavor (minus the pretense of trying to appear "cool" about it), etc. We were thrilled that Circle seemed to attract so many other young urbanites just like ourselves. As we began to hear that Circle was a "cell group based" congregation and started to figure out what that meant, we were thrilled by the idea that these folks really had a "life together" that mattered to them and those around them. It was refreshing and wonderful when David, the guy who would become my first cell leader and a hugely significant mentor in my life for the next two years, came up to me at one of the first Public Meetings (aka "PM"- Circle of Hope’s weekly worship gathering) we attended and said, "Hey, if you’re looking around for the leaders, well…we’re just getting started; so you’re it! We need everyone to step up and do stuff," etc.
 
Anyway, we kept hearing Rod, Circle’s founding pastor, say "YOU’RE the Church. BE the Church." Of course, the way Circle lives this out is through their cell groups, and once we joined David’s cell and really captured the vision for being the church through cells, that vision really caught fire in my theological imagination and there is a deep degree to which I have never been the same since. Rod has often described this vision for being the Church as an Acts 20:20 vision, alluding to Paul’s description of his ministry as one in which he "proclaim(ed) the message…publicly and from house to house." In very simplistic form, then, this is why Circle of Hope meets weekly from house to house in its various cell groups, and then all the cells come together publicly also on a weekly basis to celebrate the life of the Church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. Another commonly used (biological) metaphor is that of the physical cells that make up a person’s body. All of the cells are different and unique and work together to make up the body. They also work together to cause the body to grow, primarily through the process of multiplication. Cell groups are meant to multiply too, and this is reflected in the structure of a cell group. Each group is led by a leadership team comprised of a leader, an apprentice leader, and a host. The leader is always mentoring/training his apprentice to lead the next group. Hence, each cell is meant to "multiply"- or die. The idea here is that the individual cell group will grow as its members simply go about living their lives. Because following Jesus and being the Church, hopefully, is so integral to each member of the group, they naturally talk about this with their neighbors, friends, co-workers, loved ones, their favorite barista, etc. Hence, "evangelism" happens, but not the "hit-and-run" variety in which strangers stand on street corners and pass out tracts to strangers or "invite" someone "to church." Instead, folks are invited, via naturally existing relationships, into the life we’re having together as the Church. In this way the individual cell grows until it gets bigger than ten folks, making it hard to maintain the intimacy and safety of the smaller group, creating pressure to multiply. Not coincidentally, leaders emerge through the discipleship process an apprentice cell leader undergoes with his leader, and the other members in the group are encouraged/discipled to develop and utilize their gifts, and thereby the "priesthood of all beleivers" becomes more than a catchphrase as it actually happens. This is not a pastor-centric model. In the cell church, ministry happens when the people minister to one another, not because the professional "minister" does it all for the whole group. This is also not a program-based model and is instead a prophetic call to return to the heart of God’s mission in the world- the ministry of reconciliation through the restoration of right relationships.
 
I could go on and talk about how one becomes a Covenant Member with (not "of") Circle of Hope, or I could describe our quarterly Love Feasts, but perhaps you get now that I remain captivated by this vision for how to go about building God’s kingdom, and I can point to how effectively this has happened through Circle so far, as one cell group in 1996 has grown over the years to comprise a network in Philly of about 30 cell groups and two distinct congregations. Sadly, though, we made the hard choice to leave Philly and Circle of Hope after only two years, in 1998, in order to indefinitely move to MN to be with Kirsten’s dying father and her family. Once there, we fairly quickly found House of Mercy, which had started around the same time as Circle and so was barely two years old when we arrived.
 
In the House of Mercy community we found another congregation that was doing an amazingly effective job at reaching the "unchurched" and "over-churched" of Generation X, though in quite distinct fashion from Circle. Mark, Russell, and Debbie- House of Mercy’s founding pastors- started the congregation when they realized that none of their friends believed the Jesus story anymore. They focused House of Mercy’s energy on three hallmarks: the recovery of evangelical (simply meaning "good news") theology, liturgical ecclecticism (recognizing that Christians had been "doing church" for thousands of years, such that unlike some "popular church growth schemes" which seem to ignore the past, they wanted to in their practice honor and borrow from the best of what the church has done over all those years), and active participation in the world (largely through service, though the arts also play a huge role in what House of Mercy does). Having had the privilege to sit at the feet of Mark, Russell, and Debbie for nearly five full years, I can likewise say that I have been profoundly influenced by their life and practice. Perhaps especially through their proclamation of the good news, I have learned from them much of what I know about grace and about prophetically speaking the truth to the powers that be. It was also their influence that largely guided my seminary experience, including choosing which one to go to, for starters.
 
While there I developed a rapport especially with Russell, and they honored and utilized my gifts by asking me to lead their Service and Reconciliation Work Group, which under my leadership later morphed (naturally, of course) into a full-blown cell group system. I started with one House of Mercy cell around 2000-2001, stumbled through a failed multiplication, and went through the process again so that by the time that we left the Twin Cities after five years House of Mercy had three existing cell groups. Still, after five years we did leave, returning to Philly in order to be a part of what God was doing among the Circle of Hope community again. I won’t go into tremendous detail here, but suffice it to say that I quickly rose up Circle’s leadership ranks upon our return as I soon led my own cell group and then became one of the Cell Leader Coordinators (a leader of other cell leaders and part of the leadership team of the entire network of cells and congregations). Kirsten and I also moved in with new friends from Circle in order to start our own intentional community in which we pooled our resources and sought in obviously deeply intentional fashion to "have a life together" such that we expected and hoped to grow old together, raise our children together, and really impact one another and our neighborhood for Jesus over the years. Obviously the events surrounding Samuel’s birth quickly caused those dreams to come crashing down, and I won’t re-hash that again here. If you want to know more, feel free to visit the archives of this blog, as I have written somewhat extensively about it previously. Basically, while under great duress, we got hurt fairly deeply and ran away to the suburbs of Akron with our collective tail between our legs. So here we are.
 
Stay tuned for a later post in which I’ll pick up the story again at this point and maybe finally talk, as promised, about recent events concerning Sanctuary, etc.

Out of gas/Out of time?

This evening turned out to be a little more interesting than I had hoped. After a busy day at work with three IEP meetings and one MFE Consent meeting, including traveling back and forth between the buildings I’m responsible for, I rushed back toward the Akron area around 4:30. After a couple of stops along the way, I made it up to Hudson to get Samuel at daycare around 5:45 or so. My low fuel light had come on while driving from Canton, and I didn’t exactly ignore it (so you can see where this is going), but as it turns out I also didn’t give it the attention it so clearly demanded and deserved, at least in hindsight. So, sure enough, as soon as Samuel and I got back on Route 8 to head back down to Cuyahoga Falls, I ran out of gas. It took roadside assistance about 45 minutes to get to us, by which time both Samuel and I were a little cold and the little guy was one very unhappy camper. Fortunately, Samuel’s distress and Dad’s sudden low approval ratings were nothing that a rare stop for a chicken nugget meal from Wendy’s couldn’t cure.
 
In other news, my fifty-year-old brother in Texas seems to be doing his best to join the "dearly departed" sooner rather than later. He suffers from Polycystic Kidneys, the fatal, common, and underpublicized disease that killed his mother, my Dad’s first wife. Gary is reticent to have much to do with doctors; he refers to them as "practicing medicine" and doesn’t want to be "practiced" on. So, for whatever reason, he allowed his disease to progress without medical attention to the point that he was literally on the verge of death the other day when he finally consented to 911 being called. He’s in the hospital now enjoying many rounds of dialysis in just the past few days. He will need to continue with frequent dialysis until he gets a kidney transplant- or dies.
 
Being myself, this all raises a host of questions for me, which I will try to delve into a bit in a later post. In the meantime, I find (strange?) comfort in the words and music of U2, which in the car today brought me nearly to tears, as is so often the case. I leave you with their ode to Judas during the last supper and in Gethsemane, "Until the End of the World:"
 
Haven’t seen you in quite a while
I was down the hold, just passing time.
Last time we met it was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom.
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time except you.
You were talking about the end of the world.

I took the money, I spiked your drink
You miss too much these days if you stop to think.
You led me on with those innocent eyes
And you know I love the element of surprise.
In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart.
You, you were acting like it was the end of the world.

In my dream, I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows they’d learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy.
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy.
You, you said you’d wait till the end of the world.