Why I Keep Talking About…Alternativity, the Bruderhof, and Church of All Nations

Jesus is still wanted in Minneapolis. I took this picture at last year’s Carnivale de Resistance, unknowingly among my former Circle of Hope pastor, Joshua, and likely among folks of our then future faith community, Church of All Nations.

If my math is right there are over 30 (nearly 40, if memory serves) posts on the Circle of Hope blog about “alternativity.” I now have a few posts as well in which I mention or allude to it. What is alternativity? Responding to the blatant racism of the current presidential administration (as opposed to the more subtle racism of some of the recent previous ones), Rod White, the Development pastor of Circle of Hope, tries to answer the question of “what do we do?” in response to the oppressive domination of “the powers” and the complicity of all too many would-be Jesus followers in that oppression. He says:

The answer comes from being the Body of Christ, not just a reaction or a resistance, but an alternative reality.

Abundance

Scarcity is met with mutuality and generosity in the body of Christ. We will have to do better than to think about it. But we are trying.

Fearlessness

Fear-mongering is met with trust in what God puts together, not in what the invisible hand creates. We’ll need to integrate our faith into the actions of our daily life more. But we are trying.

Wisdom

Foolishness is met with truth telling, just like Paul boldly states the new reality Jesus is making. We’ll have to listen to the Spirit directly and in one another and test it out, not just flee, resist and resent. But we are trying.

Alternativity

Alternativity is the word we use to sum it all up. We are trying to live in it. Deactivating Twitter is my act of defiance as much as self-preservation. Tackling the health care debacle is about perseverance as much as survival. Writing this little post, complaining about our terrible experiences, griping about Charlottesville, denouncing Trump, quoting Paul, insisting that there are better ways and that we are living them right now is how I keep myself on track. And I hope it has helped you, too. We have an alternative reality to build with Jesus, and it can’t wait for things to get better.

Circle of Hope has a habit of getting together face-to-face from time to time to “do theology.” The results of some of those conversations show up on their The Way of Jesus site (an incredible resource for Jesus followers worth plumbing the depths of). Thus, in May of last year, as primary season was winding down during the presidential election, they posted on The Way of Jesus a reflection based on their conversation about the relationship between God’s kingdom and the powers. They say:

When we do theology about elections we run into the line that has always separated Reformed Christianity from Anabaptist. The Reformed Christians can be called part of “magisterial” Protestantism, retaining the sense of “magisterium” that also marks Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox members of the Church. Alistair McGrath says that reformers like Luther and Calvin, who had a huge influence in European and American forms of the church, taught that, “The magistrate had a right to authority within the church, just as the church could rely on the authority of the magistrate to enforce discipline, suppress heresy, or maintain order.” In addition, the term magister relates to the emphasis on authoritative teachers. Often this is seen in the names of theological schools descending from magisterial reformers (i.e. Lutheran and Calvinist).

“Radical” reformers, who were later called Anabaptists, thought the church had fallen from grace and wanted to restore it. They traced the root of the fall to point of the fusion of church and society of which Constantine was the architect, Eusebius the priest, Augustine the apologete, and the Crusades and Inquisition the culmination.

When Constantine claimed Christianity, he turned the church right-side up, so to speak, from its former upside-down reputation. He consciously thought he was baptizing the empire. Perhaps his motives were good. Many Christians in his day, like the historian of the Church, Eusebius, thought he was the gift of God to end persecution and to honor the faithfulness of the church as it triumphed over the evils of Rome. Christians in Constantine’s empire extolled him as their champion. Bishops personally escorted him into battle against rival nations. The church quickly adapted to this new opportunity and used empire means to achieve Kingdom ends. The adaptation meant the end of God-ordained, missional non-alignment with imperial powers.

The Anabaptist’s disgust with Constantinianism is not about the sincerity with which Constantinian Christians use top-down, coercive, worldly power or about the goodness of the ends toward which they wield such power. The shift labeled “Constantinian” is the willingness of God’s people to deform their specific God-given identity by merging with worldly power structures and using top-down, coercive, worldly power to accomplish what God has given his people to do without such power.

How do they know that the Constantinian way can and must not be equated with “the way of Jesus?” Well, they look to Scripture, for starters:

Jesus demonstrably did not take the same route as Constantine, although he received the title king.

When the Messiah came, he distanced himself from the Jerusalem establishment (John 2:13–21).

Jesus did not reconstitute Israel land-based empire based in Palestine but prepared his people to be scattered across the world by his Spirit (John 4: 21– 24; Acts 1: 8).

Jesus unmasked the powers’ claims to be benefactors and self-consciously adopted the suffering servant posture (Luke 22:25– 27).

Jesus proclaimed a kingdom whose citizens are committed to peacemaking, enemy love, and transnational disciple-making (Matt 5: 38– 48, 28: 19).

Previously scattered Jews from as far back as Jeremiah’s time formed synagogues throughout the world that became central to the church’s missionary expansion (Acts 9:19-22, 14:1, 17:1– 3).

The earliest Christians viewed themselves as aliens, exiles, strangers, and dispersed ones (Jas 1: 1; 1 Pet 1: 1, 2: 11-12) whose citizenship is in heaven as opposed to Rome or Jerusalem (Phil 3: 17-21).

Finally, then, they conclude that “We are pretty much descendants of Anabaptists and the pre-Constantine church.” Then, while offering some ever helpful reminders such as “The Bible can’t really be seen if it is read from an empire perspective,” they offer this nugget, which brings us back to alternativity:

The main way we respond to the ways of the world is to build the alternative: the Kingdom of God being lived out as the people of God, the church. We go to the system from the church and return to the church. We hope the grace we bring transforms and changes the world, but when we are not assured of that, we know who we are and where we come from and we preserve the possibilities of a better world by existing.

That’s it, right there. To the extent that we as the church and the Bride of Christ embody an alternative reality to the powers, principalities, and systems of this age, then we live into our prophetic calling to declare with our very lives, as Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove wrote and I discuss elsewhere, that “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle” (italics added).” Though we live yet “between the times,” we are to be an outpost of God’s kingdom come. Thus,

In the midst of violence, we bring peace.

In the midst of (perceived) scarcity, we bring abundance and generosity.

In the midst of fear-mongering, we bring fearlessness.

In the midst of so much foolishness, we bring wisdom.

In the midst of domination by the powers and principalities of this age, we bring alternativity.

Consequently, as Rod White writes in the title of another post that has been a touchstone for us in our season of “devolution” and “getting small,” “for the slaves of Christ, existence is resistance.”

Thus, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Bruderhof has been on my mind of late. As our year of devolution and learning to be peacemakers winds on, and most recently as we’ve felt called to move on from Mill City Church and explore becoming part of Church of All Nations, I’ve found myself returning for inspiration again and again not only to Circle of Hope but also to the Bruderhof. They, of course, are the community of 2,000+ Jesus followers on several continents that not only resist capitalism in order to follow Jesus- as we feel called to do- but almost reject it altogether (collectively, they own some businesses, all the proceeds from which go back into supporting the life of the community). They were founded by Eberhard Arnold in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power, and today, nearly a century later, they live together in rural villages around the country and around the world, and even have some community houses in urban areas like the Bronx. Everything they do, they do together. They literally sell all their possessions and give any proceeds to the church, which is a requirement for any person or family that seeks to join the Bruderhof. Thus they live into God’s economy in a more real and tangible way than scarcely anyone else I’m aware of or could imagine. Since those who join the Bruderhof don’t engage in capitalism, they hold everything in common and do not earn wages. The necessary work for their life together is divvied up among the members, and each does his part. No man or woman is richer or poorer than any other. All belongs to all and is received from God as a gift for all. They practice communal discernment and decision-making, and hold one another accountable to Jesus and one another as they practice their way of life together. As they say of themselves here:

We are an intentional Christian community of more than 2,900 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents. We are a fellowship of families and singles, practicing radical discipleship in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. We gladly renounce private property and share everything in common. Our vocation is a life of service to God, each other, and you.

The Bruderhof was founded in 1920 by Eberhard Arnold in Germany. None of us owns anything personally, and our communal property belongs not to us as a group but to the cause of Christ. Anyone who has decided to become a member freely gives all property, earnings, and inheritances to the church community. In turn, all necessities such as food, housing, and health care are provided for. Members generally work for and in the community, but none of us receives a paycheck, stipend, or allowance. In our homes and daily lives, we try to live frugally and give generously, to avoid excess, and to remain unfettered by materialism. In these practical ways we seek to witness that under the stewardship of the church, everything we have is available to anybody in need.

I’ve probably known of them, at least dimly, for a while, but their faithful witness lo this past century as a distinct community of Christ that stands in contradistinction to that of empire- whether that of Nazi Germany as they were being founded or the U.S. today- is striking and admirable. They are themselves an embodied word of truth spoken to power. So my dim awareness of them has come alive of late as I’ve been reacquainted with Eberhard Arnold, whom I wrote about here. On Circle of Hope’s Celebrating the Transhistorical Body blog, they remembered Arnold on Nov. 22 of last year. I was surprised when reading their post about him to be reminded that it was Arnold who said that “Truth without love kills, but love without truth lies.” This quote can be found in the header for Rod White’s blog and is one of Circle of Hope’s proverbs. I was also surprised, though in hindsight I shouldn’t have been, to learn that it was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) that helped the Bruderhof escape Nazi Germany. For those who don’t know, “MCC is a global, nonprofit organization that strives to share God’s love and compassion for all through relief, development and peace.” Thus, they are the relief, development, and peacemaking arm of those from the Mennonite and other Anabaptist traditions, and Circle of Hope contributes a significant percentage of their tithes and offerings to MCC.

Anyway, there is much affinity between Arnold/the Bruderhof and Circle of Hope. Both have Anabaptist roots. Both strive for alternativity, though in very different settings. Thus, on MLK, Jr. Day of this year, Rod White re-posted on his blog a piece from the Plough (the publishing arm of the Bruderhof) titled “Alien Citizens: Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, and Why the Church Is Political.” I urge you to go read it. Above I spoke of the Circle of Hope writer who wrestled with the implications of a Trump presidency not by saying that this administration is “bad” while some others were better and the alternative potential Clinton presidency might at least have been better than this Trump one; rather, they said that any secular administration can only ever be the latest attempt by the powers to secure their rule. Meanwhile, what we really need and are to strive for is the alternativity of the kingdom of God, a truth which would be no less true if Hilary were president. Similarly, in the piece from the Plough by Will Willimon, he writes about the questions surrounding how to respond to the Trump presidency. He says:

For Christians, these questions, while interesting, are not the most pressing. Jesus’ people participate uneasily in American democratic politics not because we are torn between the politics of the left and of the right, but because of the singular truth uttered by Eberhard Arnold in his 1934 sermon on the Incarnation: “Our politics is that of the kingdom of God”.

Because Arnold was a man of such deep humility, peacefulness, and nonviolence, in reading his sermons it’s easy to miss his radicality. How well Arnold knew and lived the oddness of being a Christian, a resident alien in a world where politics had become the functional equivalent of God. How challenging is Arnold’s preaching in our world, where the political programs of Washington or Moscow can seem to be the only show in town, our last, best hope for maintaining our sense of security and illusions of control.

Christians carry two passports: one for the country in which we find ourselves, and another for that baptismal nation being made by God from all the nations. This nation is a realm not made by us but by God; Arnold calls it a “completely new order” where Christ at last “truly rules over all things.”

He continues:

As storm clouds gathered in Nazified Germany, and millions pinned their hopes on a political savior who would make Germany great again through messianic politics, Arnold defiantly asserted that the most important political task of the church was to join Paul in “the expectation, the assurance of a completely new order.” How quaint, the world must have thought; how irrelevant Christian preachers can be.

Rather than offering alternative policies or programs to counter those of the Nazis, Arnold made the sweeping claim that “all political, all social, all educational, all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ. This is what glory is.”

This, again, is alternativity in a nutshell. And what a bold claim it is! Could it be that “all human problems are solved in a concrete way by the rulership of Christ?” Is it possible that to whatever extent humanity’s problems have not been solved is the exact extent to which we do not truly or fully subject ourselves to Christ’s rule instead of that of Washington, D.C.? Notice that Arnold says such problems are solved “in a concrete way.” This is no abstract theologizing in a blog post, as I may be accused of doing here. In yesterday’s worship gathering among the people of Church of All Nations (more about Church of All Nations later), the worship leader alluded to the recent trip by some 17 folks from Church of All Nations to the Bruderhof to learn from and fellowship with them. He said that their theology is a “lived theology.” In other words, they spend much less time talking about it than they do simply doing it. As they say in response to the question “Are Bruderhof members religious?”:

We are religious in the sense that our Christian faith is of utmost importance to us. That said, most Bruderhof members are not religious in the sense of highly developed or frequently displayed personal piety. We are extremely ordinary, and tend to speak less about our faith than some other branches of Christianity.

To live in a Bruderhof community you have to want to follow Jesus. Whether you call that being a Christian is not so important – but you have to want to follow Jesus and live the way he showed people how to live.

Much of the world thinks (so-called) “Christianity” is about believing certain things (giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions) and being sure to utter a single prayer at least one time to make sure you get your “fire insurance” and thereafter is about imposing your beliefs and morals on others through the power of the state (how very Constantinian!). What if we were instead known by our love for one another and those around us? What if our efforts were directed at living the kind of life Jesus embodied and taught us? What if we rejected not just empire and the politics of the powers but also the economics of the powers? In the face of the oppression of the powers that divides us into “haves” and “have-nots” be it via capitalism or any other worldly economic system, what if we shared everything and thereby made not only such oppression irrelevant, but also made irrelevant whatever worldly economic solutions the powers allow, again because we renounce the world’s economic systems and share everything? It is just such questions that the Bruderhof attempts to answer not primarily with their theology, but with their lives.

Willimon touches on this in the Plough piece when he says, “As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.” Indeed. I alluded above and have written elsewhere about our recent entrance into Church of All Nations. There are many reasons for this. I’d like for now to note that, as we’ve participated in a couple of worship gatherings and the simple community meals that follow and as we’ve listened to sermons and read articles written by Pastor Kim online, I’ve been struck by the lack of publicity at the very least regarding any sort of social outreach or justice related initiatives. I don’t mean to needlessly be critical of any other church we’ve been a part of or other churches like them, but the study in contrasts is, literally, remarkable. Whole swaths of “Christianity” out there adopt “missional communities,” for example, to marry the mission to somehow “be the church” through service and outreach to others, with community. It seems to me, though, that this is a marriage of convenience that is nonetheless necessary if you’re still trying to “do”‘ (or even “be”) “church” within the convenient folds of Christendom. If you don’t even realize the extent to which you’ve been compromised and perhaps literally “owned” by empire, then it’s hard to see how all your outreach programs and justice initiatives, as well-intentioned as they may be, merely perpetuate the rule of the powers, principalities, and powers over/against that of Christ and his kingdom. Meanwhile, instead of “having a social policy,” we’re supposed to be one. To the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing perpetual temporal power grabs in seeking to influence society through elections, to the extent that we embrace alternativity by renouncing violence in all its forms and, to the extent possible (ha, hear my compromising fearfulness?), resist capitalism and participate in God’s economy by sharing possessions and giving to those who ask of us- to whatever extent we do all this no “social policy” or program is necessary. From what I can tell so far, this alternativity is something that Church of All Nations is going for too. I’ll have a bit more to say about this below.

Returning for now to Eberhard Arnold, the Bruderhof, and Willimon’s Plough piece, I’ll say again that Arnold founded the Bruderhof about a hundred years ago. Like I and my family, Arnold became convinced that the Sermon on the Mount was to be lived, not just “loved” as some idyllic dream to aspire to. He likewise learned that living the Sermon on the Mount could not be done alone. Community was required. As I’ve said, you can’t follow Jesus alone, especially not if you’re trying to follow him down the narrow path of radical discipleship, through the narrow door of enemy love and participation in God’s economy. Thus, the Bruderhof was born.

Willimon’s Resident Aliens piece in the Plough has much to contribute to this discussion, and bears further quoting at some length. He writes:

Asked by The Christian Century to respond to the twenty-fifth anniversary of my book with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, a dozen reviewers dismissed the book as politically irrelevant, sectarian escapism from the great issues of the day. None noticed that the book was meant to address the church, not the US Senate. Resident Aliens was a work of ecclesiology that assumed that when Christians are pressed to “say something political,” our most faithful response is church. As Hauerwas famously puts it, the church doesn’t have a social policy; the church is God’s social policy.

Many of our critics showed that they still live under the Constantinian illusion that the United States is roughly synonymous with the kingdom of God. Even though the state alleges that it practices freedom of religion, the secular state tolerates no alternatives to its sovereignty. Christians are free in American democracy to be as religious as we please as long as we keep our religion personal and private.

Contemporary secular politics decrees that people of faith must first jettison the church’s peculiar speech and practices before we can be allowed to go public and do politics. Many mainline Protestants, and an embarrassing number of American evangelicals, cling to the hope that by engagement with secular politics within the limits set by the modern democratic state, we can wrest some shred of social significance for the Christian faith. That’s how my own United Methodist Church became the Democratic Party on its knees.

Saying it better than we put it in Resident Aliens, Arnold not only sees Christ as “embodied in the church” but calls the church to go beyond words and engage in radical, urgent action that forms the church as irrefutable, concrete proof that Jesus Christ really is Lord and we are not: “Only very few people in our time are able to grasp the this-worldly realism of the early Christians.… Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by,” on the basis of our knowledge of who God is and where God is bringing the world. Our hope is not in some fuzzy, ethereal spirituality. “It takes place now, through Christ in the church. The future kingdom receives form in the church.”

In his sermon, Arnold eschews commentary on current events, as well as condemnation or commendation of this or that political leader, and instead speaks about the peculiar way Christ takes up room in the world and makes his will known through the ragtag group of losers we dare to call, with Paul, the very body of Christ. “It is not the task of this body of Christ to attain prominence in the political power structure of this world.… Our politics is that of the kingdom of God.”

Because of who God is and how God works, the congregation where I preach, for all its failures (and I can tell you, they are many) is, according to Arnold, nothing less than “an embassy of God’s kingdom”: “When the British ambassador is in the British embassy in Berlin, he is not subject to the laws of the German Reich.… In the residence of the ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.”

Arnold’s sermon is a continually fresh, relevant rebuke to those who think we can do politics without doing church. Among many pastors and church leaders, there is a rather docetic view of ministry and the church. We denigrate many of the tasks that consume pastoral ministry – administration, sermon preparation, and congregational leadership – because we long to be done with this mundane, corporeal stuff so we can soar upward to higher, more spiritual tasks. Arnold wisely asserts Incarnation and unashamedly calls upon his congregants to get their hands dirty by engaging in corporate work: to set up, create, form, and learn all those organizational skills that are appropriate for an incarnational faith where we are saved by the Eternal Word condescending to become our flesh.

There’s so much to unpack here, but I trust I’ve already done some of that work and could do no better than Willimon, to be sure. I do want to highlight some things, though. Willimon notes that Arnold describes the church as being “an embassy of God’s kingdom” and reminds his readers that in an embassy the only “laws” that apply are that of the kingdom/state that the embassy is from. Thus, we are to live as if the authority of Christ and his kingdom “trumps” that of any secular power. Where the state tells us to keep the economy (and all its related wars) going by consuming ever more, Jesus calls us to sell our possessions, share God’s gifts which were given to all for all, and give to those who ask of us. Where the state devalues black and brown lives through its racially biased education, housing, employment, and criminal “justice” systems; and through the mass incarceration of people of color via the school to prison pipeline (in order to keep profits flowing to the prison industrial complex), we are to assert and live as if black lives matter.

I could go on, but I also want to echo Arnold in saying that “Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears today. That is why embodied, corporeal action is needed. Something must be set up, something must be created and formed, which no one will be able to pass by.” Likewise, he said, “The future kingdom receives form in the church.” Doesn’t this sound a lot like “the end of our story has interrupted us in the middle?” Indeed.

Willimon goes on to allude to the Charleston church massacre and its aftermath. He says:

I know a pastor who began his sermon after the Charleston massacre by asking, “How come our Bible studies in this church have not been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us? Church, we need to figure out how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not. Our little congregation is called to be a showcase of what a living God can do!”

It’s a profound question Willimon’s pastor colleague asked. Why don’t more people want to kill us? The “politics of Jesus” were sufficient to get him executed by the state, and he promised that we would be persecuted too. May I suggest that if we (European American) U.S. residents who want to follow Jesus are not being severely persecuted, it’s not because of the “freedoms” that U.S. soldiers are said to die for. Rather, I would argue that it’s because we spend most of our days pledging allegiance with our lives to the ideals, dreams, and aspirations that are symbolized in the U.S. flag, rather than to Christ and his kingdom.

So then, as I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the Bruderhof of late, I’ve been surprised to see what a vital presence they have. Despite the pastoral setting of most of their communities, they have not retreated from the world (because the Sermon on the Mount cannot be put into practice in isolation from one’s actual and metaphorical neighbors). They operate the Plough magazine and publishing house, which I’ve quoted at length above and am glad to subscribe to. They have a vibrant presence on social media, especially Youtube, where one can find a plethora of explainer videos and vignettes from their life together. Take this one, which explains who and what they are in their own words:

 

I also want to show you this one, titled “Living in Community is Not the Answer:”

 

This several minute long video by Melinda, a young woman from the Bruderhof, is a profound meditation on life in community and what it’s for, and on our relationship to the powers as we seek to embody alternativity, though of course she doesn’t quite put it that way. In the video Melinda is answering the question posed by a commenter, Christian, which he describes as a “haunting question.” Christian asks: “Is community an end in itself, the cause for dedicating your life, or is it preparation for the mission?” Melinda answers by saying that we are called to life together, but such life is not an end in itself. She says that “community is the vehicle by which we can help and uphold ourselves in our dedication to the cause” (of following Jesus, together). She concludes by stating essentially that the life of alternativity that we are called to must be a life together because we can not do it alone. She says that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves means that we can not be richer than our neighbor and can not turn a blind eye when our neighbor struggles or falls into sin. She says, “Show me a way of doing all that without full Christian community, and I’ll consider it.” Then comes the coup de grace, as she repeats what I think another Bruderhof member must have said in responding to Christian’s “haunting question.” She says:

“I’m not sure why this is a haunting question. My haunting question for Christian is why he feels like owning his own stuff and living for one’s self is preparation for mission.”

It’s an incisive rejoinder which I, putting myself in Christian’s place, do not have a good answer for. So, as the Bruderhof was on my mind, and given my knowledge that some folks from Church of All Nations were at the Bruderhof over the past week, I looked for a Church of All Nations (CAN) sermon to listen to last Sunday when we couldn’t make it to their worship gathering because one of us was sick. I chose this sermon, titled “Saved from What?” I already knew enough of CAN and Pastor Kim to know that this would likely touch in some way on radical discipleship as an alternative to the “traditional” USAmerican presentation of the gospel that I’ve described at length on this blog, including above. I wanted to hear it and expected to view it as something of an answer to another recent sermon I heard about what following Jesus means. That is, I had a pretty good idea that this sermon would be about alternativity. Gratefully, I was not disappointed.

I was surprised, however, as the sermon, from May of this year, was in Pastor Kim’s words, “essentially all about the Bruderhof.” Pastor Kim speaks at length about the call to community and alternativity as embodied and practiced by the Bruderhof, and holds it up as something to be strived for by CAN. As Kirsten and I sat listening to this, when we heard him mention that the sermon was largely about the Bruderhof we looked at each other, a bit stunned. We had spent much of that day reacquainting ourselves with them. Arnold had already risen up as a guide to our next steps in our journey of “getting small” that we keep talking about, and again I’ve written about that. I had likewise been pleased to find all the resonance between how the Bruderhof embodies alternativity and the way Circle of Hope strives to do so in a very different, urban context. And I knew that Church of All Nations currently (at the time, a week ago) had a delegation visiting the Bruderhof, but I did not expect this sermon from May to be largely about them too.

We’ve had several moments in our journey over the past year in which we felt like it was very hard NOT to say that God was somehow speaking to us. Several times we heard the same piece of scripture, for example, from several different, diverse sources, all coming to us at the same time, a time in which we had ears to hear that bit of Scripture anew. This moment as we listened to Pastor Kim preach online about the Bruderhof felt at the very least like another one of those bread crumbs along the trail we are to follow. It was confirmation that we were paying attention to the “right” voice(s) at the “right” time. Imagine my delight, then, when I came across this article online, written for the Plough by Pastor Kim, no less, for the upcoming issue. Bear with me as I give you the whole thing below, because it’s worth it. It’s not really that long, and if you’ve read this far, I appreciate it, for starters, and you’ve shown yourself to be committed to seeing this through to the end. I’ll have just a few words to add of my own below. Pastor Kim writes:

In October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther ignited a movement in the Western church that would lead to the Protestant Reformation. It was a bold response that captured the people’s yearning for comprehensive reform of a church that seemed to have lost its moorings. In modern times it has become apparent to more and more Christians that the church seems to be obsessed with its own institutional survival, which is akin to a dog chasing its own tail. What kind of reformation do we need today for the church to remember its identity and pursue its mission?

Every few months at Church of All Nations (CAN), we offer a class for visitors who want to become members of our congregation, and by extension, of the church catholic. In the class we discuss discipleship, membership, and the theological concepts at the core of our community. But the majority of class time is devoted to a two-thousand-year overview of the Christian story. Why do we spend so much time discussing history? We see no other way to know who we are as a church, and where we are going, apart from knowing how we got here.

It doesn’t take long for our new member candidates to see that our congregation, though part of the mainline Presbyterian family, draws its inspiration from the radical reformers persecuted as “Anabaptists” by Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. The Anabaptists’ clear identification of church–state collusion as idolatry made them a threat to both the Catholic Church and the fledgling Protestant movement. At CAN, our commitment to costly discipleship doesn’t come from Reformed catechisms and creeds, but from the way that the Confessing Church emerged to challenge Nazi rule in Germany, and the daring witness of Christians like ­Dietrich Bonhoeffer – their courage, “real world” theology, and pastoral insights.

Today, we are seeing growing impatience with the institutional church’s accommodation to temporal power. Younger generations, no longer willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, are driving the mass exodus out of the Western church, which they see as a primary source of pain and abuse in the world. But for those who have not given up on the church as a vessel of God’s grace and transformation, the contours of a new reformation are beginning to surface.

Our congregation, for instance, is trying to root itself in the anti-imperial gospel community that Jesus inaugurated in Galilee. We hope to be heirs of an unbroken tradition of radical faithfulness to the God of Israel. Though the church has given in to the temptations of empire throughout her history, we are encouraged by the long and continuous witness of uncompromising faithfulness to Jesus as well.

Embroidered textile image of road and sky

Rachel Wright, The Road Less Travelled, embroidered textile. <a class="fancybox" title="The Road Less Travelled (detail) by Rachel Wright.” href=”https://d3em11qce8cdd0.cloudfront.net/-/media/images/plough/quarterly/2017/14fallreformation/14jinkim/14_kim_road_viewlarger.jpg?la=en&d=20170912T144544Z&#8221; rel=”PloughGallery”>View full image.

The Early Church

What can we learn about reformation today from the early church? The Gospel of Mark opens with John the Baptist proclaiming “repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” John was consciously harking back to the traditions of Moses and Elijah, legendary leaders of Israel who practiced the dual roles of prophet and pastor. They boldly entered the courts of Pharaoh and King Ahab and demanded justice. They re-taught the people how to live as family, how to practice hospitality, and how to rely on God for their daily bread. John the Baptist had a simple message: The kingdom of God is just around the corner, so you better get your act together. At the core of his teaching was an ancient biblical ethic of mutual aid and restorative justice: Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; whoever has food must do the same.

Jesus opted to be baptized into the radical wilderness movement that John had faithfully stewarded for years. The Gospels give us a portrait of a scandalously loving and spirit-filled messiah who healed those plagued with evil spirits. He dared feed the hungry whose common lands had been gobbled up by massive estates. He taught the Galileans how to live with one another like Moses had originally taught them. God’s law was to love one’s neighbors as family, to not scheme about tomorrow, to not give in to the strife and petty jealousies that fracture communities and make them easy to divide and conquer.

When Jesus died, his followers experienced his presence among them. The brutal execution of their Lord could have ended the movement. Instead, they saw that Jesus refused to counter violence with violence. When the women reported an empty tomb, they took it as a sign of Christ’s vindication. The story of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord to “the right hand of the Father” became a rallying cry for those who knew Jesus in his life. Jesus had stayed faithful to the Father, the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even on pain of death. Rome had done its worst, its most terroristic act, and Jesus turned the whole spectacle on its head with the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” For the disciples, death had truly lost its sting.

Paul, the “strict constructionist” rabbi who sought to protect the integrity of Pharisaic Judaism by any means necessary, was also a privileged Roman citizen. He was interrupted on his way to Damascus by the stark presence of the resurrected Messiah. Blinded by the Lord’s presence, Paul went from being the chief enforcer of temple law to “least of the apostles.” As an alternative to Caesar’s patronage in the imperial familia, Paul could now offer a place in the loving family of God, the body of Christ.

For most of its history the institutional church has been both the master and servant of Western empires.The church has been a force for good in countless ways, and it is right for Christians to celebrate that heritage. But an honest accounting also requires us to admit that for most of its history the institutional church has in alternating ways been both the master and servant of Western empires. Is there another way? Can modern disciples truly follow the Way of Jesus over the American Way?

Embroidered textile image of sky

Detail from The Road Less Travelled by Rachel Wright

A New Generation

The church continues only as the next generation accepts the call to be Christ’s body, and his hands and feet to the world. As a pastor in a mainline church for twenty-five years, I have noted the dwindling numbers of young people in the local church. The children of boomers see the church today as complicit in, and co-opted by, the ways of the world. They have little ­interest in perpetuating the Constantinian arrangement in which churches produce loyal foot soldiers for the empire du jour.

The Protestant Reformation and the Radical Reformation were supposed to inaugurate a new era of integrity and faithfulness for the church. But today we see that, whether a congregation is Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, Mennonite, or Presbyterian, they are overwhelmingly white, old, and declining. Such is the fruit of the Reformation after five hundred years.

The church I currently serve was founded in 2004 with a demographic of mostly Korean- American immigrants raised in this country, roughly twenty-five to thirty-five years old. In recent years, CAN has become a slightly majority-white church, although our members still hail from over twenty-five nations and cultures. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that two-thirds of our congregation is made up of twenty- to forty-year-olds. Ministering to a mostly millennial congregation has given us some insights about the future of the church in a postmodern context.

What is it that our young people don’t buy anymore?

  1. Uncritical patriotism and American exceptionalism (“my country, right or wrong”).
  2. Unexamined white supremacy, both the nativism of the Right and the paternalism toward people of color by the Left.
  3. Unfettered consumerism at the expense of global fairness and environmental sustainability, and endless consumption as a personal coping mechanism.
  4. Rugged individualism and the subtext of the American dream – the accumulation of enough skills and wealth so as to be completely independent.
  5. Christian denominational sectarianism, parochialism, and triumphalism in the face of religious pluralism.

Young people today are desperate for what only the church can offer:

  1. Our young people are searching for their vocation. Many are educated enough for a job or career in the present order, but are desperately searching for a calling.
  2. Our young people hunger for healthy relation­ships, to meaningfully and deeply relate to another human being (half grew up in divorced or single-parent homes, and others in dysfunctional households).
  3. Plagued with loneliness, isolation, and alienation, our young people are seeking enduring Christian community that functions like a diverse yet intimate family.
  4. Our young people are looking for stability in a highly mobile world, and concreteness in an increasingly virtual and socially networked existence.
  5. Our young people desire authentic faith. They are prone to agnosticism or even raw atheism, as they see little evidence of a God that makes a difference in the religious institutions of the day, namely the local church. If local churches would respond evangelically to these needs, they would open the possibility of spiritual renewal for this searching but confused generation.
Embroidered image of houses on a cliff edge

Rachel Wright, Living on a Cliff Edge, embroidered textile. View Larger.

A New Reformation

Many professional religious leaders are working tirelessly for the church’s “renewal,” hoping that a new reformation might save the institutional church from demise. But people today are not interested in institutional score-keeping like membership, attendance, budgets, and square feet. If the only motivation for reform­ation is preserving a middle-class lifestyle for the clergy and preventing the sanctuary from turning into a condo, then people are saying, Let the temple be torn down, for Jesus can raise it up in three days. Amen, so be it.

We firmly believe that, after five hundred years, the Protestant Reformation is giving way to another tectonic shift in what it means to be church. A new reformation is coming indeed.

One element of that reformation will be learning to live together in intentional Christian community. Our congregation has been forming households of unrelated people almost from our beginning, and now we have multiple community houses that are structured, ordered, and thriving. We were making steady progress, or so we thought, until we began to learn about the Bruderhof way.

We were blown away by this community that goes back almost a hundred years – the lifelong commitment to the community, the common purse, working for businesses that are owned and operated by the overall community, the care of its members from cradle to grave (if they choose to stay). CAN is in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, a highly urbanized area, and cannot as yet match these characteristics. But we have been inspired by an actual community that has done it and is living out the Acts 2 way of being church – of sharing all things in common in an age of individualism, greed, loneliness, and despair.

For us, a radical reformation in our time demands that the church live into its vocation as ecclesia, meaning the “called-out ones.” Christians are to be called out of a sick society built on the evils of racism, sexism, militarism, exploitation, and destructive competition. We are to create a new community of love. This does not mean withdrawal from society or indulging sectarian impulses. Church of All Nations is in the middle of an urban and suburban landscape, and hopes to witness to God’s love for the world, right here where we are.

With this goal, we seek to pool our people’s resources, talents, ideas, and labor for the common good. We want our members to feel that their work is rewarding, that the fruit of their labor is being shared justly, that they work together, live together, play together, and worship together because it is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity. We will have to participate in the broader economic system, but we will not allow capitalist dogma to influence our internal economics. We will draw people from our immediate context of great brokenness, but our mission will include the casting out of imperial demons and the healing of bodies and souls so that we can relate rightly to our God, our neighbors (human and non-human), and God’s good green earth. We aspire to create an urban village founded on the love and teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, a type of Bruderhof in the city, and to share God’s abundance with an impoverished world.
Is this part of the next reformation, or just a pipe dream? We’re not sure, but we are grateful for the witness of the Bruderhof, and pray that Christians can live together in harmony as a counter-witness to a world falling apart.

Pastor Kim offers a compelling vision, does he not, of a kind of Bruderhof in the city? Is it any wonder that we feel drawn to CAN just now? We can’t escape the haunting questions asked above by the pastor colleague of Willimon and by the member of the Bruderhof. Why, exactly, is it that that the way we not only study but live out Jesus’ teaching in the Bible has not “been truthful enough, intense enough, for anybody to want to kill us?” Why haven’t we more fully figured out “how to be so faithful in our life together that the world can look at us and see something that it is not?” Or, as the Bruderhof commenter challenged, why do we “feel like owning (our) own stuff and living for (ourselves) is preparation for mission?” Quite simply, it’s not.

Thankfully, we do have the witness of the Bruderhof, whatever unavoidable shortcomings their life together may entail. I can’t help, though, but wonder if Pastor Kim is aware of Circle of Hope. Their life together has shortcomings too, but they’re the only urban church I know of that is really going for alternativity in the way that Pastor Kim seems to want to be a part of, and I and my family do as well. From the very intentional way they go about being the church together through cell groups and a network of congregations that form one church, to their frequent witness and action against the powers in solidarity with marginalized groups, to their willingness to boldly renounce capitalism and violence and share the resources they develop freely (see here, for example, or read about how they share resources here and the power that unleashes here), to their Bruderhof-like subversive use of the world’s economic system to generate resources for their life together (go here and here, for example)- all of this seems to me to be an embodiment of what a “Bruderhof in the city” might look like. Like CAN, Circle has folks that live together in community, so much so that Rod wrote a resource for them as they do so way back in 2004. CAN was a “sponsor” of the Carnivale de Resistance that we attended last year, which I wrote about here and for which our former Circle of Hope pastor Joshua was a member of the Carnivale team. Naturally, Circle of Hope has a Carnivale de Resistance support team, and the organizers of Carnivale spoke at a CAN conference a few years ago. Circe also has a Watershed Discipleship team and as a community has been profoundly influenced by Ched Myers. Meanwhile Ched, of course, also came to speak at that same recent CAN conference. I could go on, but for now suffice it to say that there’s much resonance among Circle of Hope, the Bruderhof, and CAN. Therefore, with Circle of Hope and the Bruderhof as inspiration, I and my family are glad to enter into the life that CAN is having together. We pray that we will ever more fully embody, together, the alternativity that we are called to. Lord, let it be so.

Devolution and Getting In The (Right) Way

I like MPR’s caption for this photo from their story about Church of All Nations here in the Twin Cities: “Young Christians in the hallway.” Indeed, they’re not just young Christians; they’re young Christians who are part of a church with no dominant ethnic group.

It was this heartfelt talk (click the link) in the wake of the recent events in Charlottesville that did it for me, really. I mean it. You can just stop reading now and listen to this talk. If the only thing this post accomplishes is to get you to listen to this “sermon” (he says it’s not really a sermon) by Pastor Jin S. Kim of Church of All Nations here in the Twin Cities, my work here will be done.  I’ve known about Church of All Nations (CAN) for a little while. I don’t quite remember how it came across my radar. It may have been because CAN is one of the few churches here in the Twin Cities that has cell groups, and actually calls them cell groups, thus indicating, one would think, at least some familiarity with the concept. As I’ve mentioned many times, it was a cell group based church in Philly, Circle of Hope, that we were a part of in two stints from ’96-’98 and from ’03-’05 and which remains so very formative in terms of my imagination for what the church can and should be. It’s why I keep talking about it. Over the past year, though, I’ve come across CAN repeatedly.

I’ll say more about CAN in a moment, but first let’s talk about the central theme of what I and my family have been learning over the past year- “getting small.” Remember, we’re learning to give away privilege and power so that we can relate to the Empire of our day (the violent, capitalistic U.S. one) the way that Jesus and the first of his followers related to theirs (the violent, Mammon loving Roman one), from “under, not over.” We’re trying to get “small” and maybe even get into “Paul’s slavish shoes” a bit so that we can better be slaves for Jesus, just as he slaved for us. Here’s the post again that unpacks all this better than I ever could. On my break at work I often walk from the building I work in up to my alma mater, Luther Seminary. Yesterday as I was thinking on my walk back to work a word came to mind: devolution.

Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary online says about devolution.

I’m most interested in the first part of the first definition: “the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level.” This really gets at what I mean when I talk about “getting small.” Note that I don’t mean the “formal” sense of the word, “descent to a lower or worse state” because a lower state socioeconomically in U.S. empire is not “worse” than my more privileged one. If anything, I am in the “worse” state because my power and privilege insulates me from the reality of my need for a Savior. Indeed, if “getting small” has to do with decentering “whiteness” and relinquishing at least a few of the many privileges I enjoy because of my skin tone, if it has to do with recognizing that nothing belongs to me and that private property is a concept foreign to God’s economy and his kingdom- and therefore if I have two coats while my brother or sister have none it is incumbent upon me to give him one and apologize for keeping what God clearly gave me to give to him- if all this is true, then my aim is to transfer the worldly power that has accrued to me unjustly. My responsibility is to delegate the influence I’ve been given to my brothers or sisters who exist on a “lower level” in worldly society. I have to get small, and close, to those on the margins of secular society that I want to love and serve and be loved and served by and learn from, because solidarity requires proximity. Thus, this has been a year of devolution, and it’s far from over.

You may recall, then, that Ched Myers has been a big influence in our year of devolution in 2017. His book Sabbath Economics had a follow-up book written by Matthew Colwell, Sabbath Economics: Household Practices, which was one of the books we read in January that helped launch us down this path. It was in that book that we learned that “solidarity requires proximity,” and in regard to Jesus’ phrase  “the poor will always be with you,” it was Ched who said that this saying by Jesus “…is not about the inevitability of poverty but about the social location of the church.” Anyway, Ched does great work, including his recent book Watershed Discipleship, which I’m eager to read some day. Ched is part of Bartimeus Cooperative Ministries, and they help run this little site I discovered this year called Radical Discipleship. Among the great resources that site offers, one is a list of “Communities of Discontinuity.” These are communities around the country that are in some way trying to embody resistance to Empire in order to follow Jesus instead. On that page they quote Ched in one of his seminal works, Who Will Roll Away the Stone, in which he said that “…we are attempting to live in ways incongruous with and even defective from the expectations of our gender, race, and class.” Sounds a bit like devolution, doesn’t it? So among these communities of discontinuity are Circle of Hope, of course, and also South Street Ministries in Akron that we were also a part of at one time and whose pastor, Duane Crabbs, we have great affection for. Carnivale de Resistance and Christian Peacemaker Teams are listed. The Dorothy Day Catholic Worker is as well along with the Mennonite Worker here in the Twin Cities, which is run by Mark Van Steenwyk, whom we’ve been privileged to partner with of late. Rutba House, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s intentional community, is listed, as is The Simple Way, where Shane Claiborne got his start. And then there’s the Underground Seminary, also here in the Twin Cities.

When I clicked that Underground Seminary link for the first time, I discovered that it is run by CAN, and so I encountered them again. Incidentally, I also discovered that it was amazing and I wished that I could perhaps have gone there for seminary instead of where I did. Pastor Kim says that they started the Underground Seminary because in his work with pastoral interns at CAN he found that he kept getting “exasperated by the arduous task of deprogramming seminary grads” and so “thought it’d be better to equip them to be radical disciples from the start.” That said, when I went to seminary the Underground Seminary didn’t exist and I doubt I would have been ready for it if it had.

I mentioned Mark Van Steenwyk of the Mennonite Worker above. His is a radical voice that I appreciate, and it turns out that he and Pastor Kim are good friends. They’re both local, and Pastor Kim wrote the afterword for one of Mark’s books.  Mark also interviewed Pastor Kim for the amazing Iconocast podcast, which Mark used to be involved with. It’s another worthy listen. And then in this article, Mark quotes Dr. King, who spoke of a “mythical concept of time” by which “white” moderates “paternalistically believe” they “can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” by advising black folk to wait for a more “convenient” time to pursue civil rights. Regarding the myth alluded to above, Mark says:

But our myths weren’t born on the streets. They were forged in the pulpits of thousands of congregations. As my dear friend, Pastor Jin Kim of Church of All Nations, says: “The church provides the foot soldiers for the American Empire.”

If you’ve been reading this blog and know anything about me, can you see why I might like Pastor Kim? Here’s one more pearl of wisdom from him, just to drive home the point. In a two-part article for Sojourners, he wrote:

The meaning of evangelism is the proclamation of good news to the world. How can we continue to exclude and avoid those with whom we are not comfortable and live into our evangelical calling at the same time? If we do not shed this primitive tendency, and yet heed the call to be evangelical, do we not risk exporting our ecclesial tribalism far and wide? How can we say we are evangelical if the good news is not good for the whole world? If the gospel is proclaimed under the rubric of the homogeneous unit principle, I would argue that this is distorted news, even false news. The acid test of evangelism must be: Is this good news for the poor?

But the church has largely forgotten the poor, instead focusing on the perceived poverty of individual rights driven by debates over human sexuality and ordination. What about plain old poverty driven by the historic legacy of racism, a politics seemingly motivated by a preferential option for the rich, and the exploitation of the newly arrived on American shores?

A Local Community of Discontinuity

So Pastor Kim is pastor of Church of All Nations, which has kind of an amazing story. The people of Circle of Hope talk often about the “new humanity,” in which “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For example, among Circle of Hope’s proverbs, they say:

◉ We are always trying to stretch across barriers: across racial/ethnic, class and cultural divides.

◉ 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.

Such reconciliation is what CAN is all about, and about which they say: “Our central mission is to do the ministry of reconciliation.” This shows, as CAN is one of the most diverse congregations, I suspect, in the country. As Pastor Kim wrote about CAN in 2010:

This quote comes from this book.

Though according to this 2012 MPR story about CAN, there is a growing number of people of European descent that make up CAN, their commitment to embodying the new humanity is evident. As a Presbyterian congregation, they have deacons. There are 10 of them, and 8 of those ten are women. In most churches, it’s the other way around. There are 17 folks on staff (I don’t know how many are paid), and 9 of them are women, while 10 represent ethnic minorities. About all this diversity and the promise and potential pitfalls it represents, they say:

Many of us who began this journey assumed that we would be dealing with much more conflict as many cultures and worldviews add to the complexity of congregational dynamics. What we have discovered, to our delight, is the exact opposite. The very decision to join a church in which one chooses to be a minority seems to draw the kind of people who are willing to “lay down their sword” of power and privilege. The Korean American founders had to set the example first. Today, we all seem to be caught up in a virtuous cycle of who can lift up and value other individuals and cultures, to “consider others better than oneself.” The culture of public confession, corporate repentance, joyful celebration and vulnerable relationality that we have cultivated here is key to understanding the dynamism and eschatological hope evident in our life together.

This language of “laying down one’s sword of power and privilege” is obviously music to my ears, and as suggested above, I am indeed drawn to this church, but I’ll say more about that later. For now, just note that such language again is very much in keeping with “getting small,” with the year of devolution in 2017 that I’ve been describing.

Part of that devolution, though, indeed part of that giving up of power and privilege, has very much for us meant also quite really, if not literally, laying down one’s sword. As I’ve said, in the Sermon on the Mount, on the cross, and in our lives we’ve heard Jesus repeatedly calling us to renounce violence in all its forms, and so we’ve yearned to be part of a faith community that also understands this to be at the heart of the gospel. You can imagine, then, my delight when I discovered this bit of writing by Pastor Kim, in which, speaking of Jesus, he says:

He will not wage war to bring peace. He will not use violence to end violence. In Jesus Christ the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the ox, will break bread together. In Jesus Christ “we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Our impulses of impatience, vengeance and violence will be changed, not by a violent inauguration of the last dispensation, but by the eschatological pull of God’s kingdom on all creation, old and new. When Jesus suffered violence on the cross without retaliating, he emptied violence of its power once and for all. Violence itself was crucified in Jesus.

Hearing the notion that violence itself was crucified on the cross with Jesus was somehow new to me in 2017. I heard it in Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove’s book The Awakening of Hope, in which a chapter is titled, “Why We Would Rather Die Than Kill.” Then, of course, I heard it in spades in both of the Brian Zahnd books I read this year, A Farewell to Mars and Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, as well as in Greg Boyd’s magnum opus which I’ve started reading and heard him speak about, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. Meanwhile, Pastor Kim has been writing and talking about this at least since 2010.

So let’s review. 2017 has been our year of devolution as we’ve worked on “getting small” so that we can follow Jesus “from under, not over.” Inherent in that effort is a recognition of history and an awareness of our standing vis-a-vis the larger culture. That is, we live in the shadow of an Empire more powerful than the Roman one that loomed large in the culture of Jesus’ day and in the imaginations of many of the Biblical writers. Our relationship to that Empire, inasmuch as it makes claims and seeks power and control that properly belongs to Jesus and his kingdom, must be one of resistance. As Jesus followers we must resist not just consumerism but capitalism itself. We must resist not just “bad guys with guns” but violence itself, including that which is so frequently engaged in around the world with impunity by the U.S. government, not to mention in local police forces around the country. We must not accommodate Mammon and Empire- the powers and principalities- but by living into God’s economy, renouncing violence, and pledging allegiance to Christ and his kingdom alone, we must therefore subvert Mammon and Empire.

Another photo from MPR’s story. There are flags in CAN’s sanctuary, probably even a U.S. one in there somewhere, but including the U.S. flag as one of dozens rather than holding it up on par with the “Christian” one is a subversive act that puts Empire in its place.

Still Trying to Keep Up With Jesus

Church of All Nations (CAN) is a community that “gets” all this, and more. They’re organized, at least partially, in cell groups. They started an “underground seminary” to raise up radical disciples who don’t have to be deprogrammed of their imperial, capitalistic outlook. They have a staff person whose job, in part, is to help organize the intentional community houses that are connected to their church. In short, there is much, much to like about this faith community. I know it’s not perfect. It can’t be. But they embody a prophetic witness that is simply remarkable.

So why am I writing about all this? As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, Kirsten and I have struggled for some months now to find our place within Mill City Church. We have so appreciated that faith community over the past year that we’ve been a part of it. It was within Mill City Church, after all, that we heard the call to get small and renounce violence, to take seriously our responsibility to follow Jesus by renouncing any kingdom that is not his so that we can “give to God what is God’s” (our allegiance, our loyalty, our very lives; in short, everything). Of all the puzzle pieces God put together to lead us in our year of devolution so far, being part of Mill City Church was a crucial one.

That said, the more we’ve learned along the way, the more marginalized within Mill City Church we’ve felt. This is probably a good thing. We are, after all, trying to get closer to those “on the margins.” However, it seems the call to radical discipleship and the conclusions we’ve reached about what it means for us are not shared by, according to one of Mill City’s pastors, “anyone else” within the church. Nor, we were told, would that call be included overtly in any of the teaching of Mill City’s pastors any time soon. Thus, in a recent meeting with two of Mill City’s pastors, it was made clear to us that if we are to continue on the path we’re on and remain part of Mill City Church as we do so, it will, at the very least, be a very lonely journey. We know that the path we’re trying to walk is a “narrow one that few find.” So on the one hand this served as something of a confirmation that we were moving in the right direction, but it really put in stark relief what we would be up against as we tried to keep moving in that direction within this church. As I said in a sub-heading in another recent post, “we followed Jesus into Mill City Church. Jesus kept moving.”

So it is with mixed feelings that I write that we will be moving on too. It was made clear to us again that we would be alone within Mill City Church if we kept trying to follow Jesus the way we feel called to. We can live with that, but we don’t want to be a distraction, or worse, a divisive element within a church that may not be everything we thought or hoped it was. Thus, as I recently told someone in an email, “there are times when it has seemed that in order to follow Jesus we’d have to abandon the church altogether. We’re praying we’re wrong about that, because we know we can’t follow Jesus alone, especially if we’re trying to resist violent, capitalistic U.S. culture as we do so.”

And that just brings me back to all I said above about CAN. You can see, I hope, why it would be an attractive faith community to us. All the things we’ve been learning this year they’ve been living for more than a few. Still, none of that was sufficient to cause us to jump ship from Mill City and start over again among Church of All Nations. However, the talk I linked to at the very top of this post was sufficient, at least enough to cause us to want to give CAN a try. It’s that talk that I listened to, jaw slightly agape, and then got Kirsten and listened to again with her. This talk is remarkable, in no small part because of the fact that in it Pastor Kim tells the truth about history when he calls the U.S. a “racist” and “fascist” state, and does so right from the pulpit, fearlessly. Beyond that, though, I found as I listened to it that I had another epiphany.

The U.S. Is A Racist, Fascist State

I was reminded that one of Mill City’s pastors had a 5 minute “family meeting” before giving their regular sermon in the wake of the events in Charlottesville. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but an effort was made to call out the injustice occurring and call us as Jesus followers to renounce racism and resist it. It was good, but it was brief, and then the pastor moved on to the bulk, and arguably the substance, of their prepared remarks. Let me be clear that I’m not criticizing what happened at Mill City’s worship gathering that morning. At least the events in Charlottesville were mentioned and racism was called out, which is more than occurred after the Jeronimo Yanez verdict, for example (and the preacher on that Sunday has publicly apologized for saying nothing about it). I do, however, want to contrast what happened at Mill City’s gathering with what happened at CAN’s after the events of Charlottesville, because the difference is instructive. Pastor Kim had a “family meeting” in his talk too, but that meeting was the substance of his remarks. It’s all he talked about, and he spent not 5 minutes doing so, but 40. And he told the truth. He didn’t say something about “racism” generally as a factor that some individuals in Charlottesville allowed to motivate them to do hateful things. He said the U.S. was itself a racist, not to mention fascist, state. And he did this with authority that none of Mill City’s pastors could ever have, because they’re European American, while Pastor Kim is not, and neither are the majority of his staff. Nor is CAN itself dominated by any one ethnic group, while Mill City is far and away, from the looks of things on Sunday probably 95% or more, made up of people of European descent. In other words, save for some notable exceptions, Mill City is all “white.”

So as I listened to the urgency in Pastor Kim’s voice as he described what could happen if racist, fascist forces eventually “came for” people of color in this country and perhaps for “people of color- lovers” too- just as Nazis eventually “came for” Jews in Hitler’s Germany- it struck me that it was only in a context of proximity to people of color that the impetus to do more than just “stand in solidarity” with the oppressed in some metaphorical sense gains the traction that it needs. The pastor that gave that 5 minute talk about Charlottesville to all the “white” people who make up Mill City is to be praised for, and often speaks herself about, all her efforts over the years to cultivate relationships with people of color and build bridges, etc. That is indeed very praiseworthy. But when you’re sitting in an auditorium again full of “white” people, she could even have said everything Pastor Kim said about Charlottesville, and the words simply wouldn’t have held the power that they did when Pastor Kim said them. A “white” person preaching to “white” people about loving black folks and resisting racism is all very well and good, but I kind of doubt it will change much. On the other hand, a “white” person such as myself who hears those same words spoken by a non-“white” person who says them to a congregation that is filled with people of color from many nations around the globe is moved to act.

Our Place Is Not Between the Rescuer and Those In Need Of Rescue. Our Place Is Between the Oppressor and Those They Would Oppress.

Pastor Kim gave a great analogy in his talk about a loved one in need of rescue. If you’re separated from that loved one in grave danger by a crowd of people who may have the best intentions in the world, but who aren’t paying attention to your loved one’s cry, then they become a formidable barrier to any effort to get to and save your loved one. As Pastor Kim said, the crowd that is in the way might be very well-meaning, but if they’re not “woke,” if they’re not actively trying to save your loved one too or at least getting out of the way so that you can, they remain part of the problem. As I listened to this, I realized that my friend Jesse who’s pursuing his PhD at Temple, working largely on matters of race and the church, is right. For some time, as far as I know, he’s been convicted that he and his family as “white” folks follow Jesus best if they do so as part of a black church. Solidarity requires proximity, as I keep saying. If people of color in this country need “white” folks to not just build bridges and have good intentions, but to really be in solidarity with them, then proximity is necessary. We need to be close enough to be “in the way,” but not as a barrier between the rescuer and the oppressed. We need to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed. So long, then, as I and my family remained in the mostly “white” Mill City Church, we remained “in the way” in the worst kind of way. So we followed Jesus into Mill City Church, but Jesus kept moving.

Granted, CAN is not a mostly black church any more than it’s a mostly “white” one. But I don’t think there will be ethnic neighborhoods in the New Jerusalem. I know every congregation probably realistically can’t be as diverse as CAN, but if CAN is a microcosm of the new humanity, if it’s a “foretaste of the feast to come,” it’s a prophetic reality worth striving for. So where no truly diverse congregation like CAN is available, I think “white” folks ought to be “all in” in a local black church. Then at least the oppressed are not an abstract ideal to love metaphorically as you educate yourself and try to get “woke,” often from a distance; instead, they are your friends and neighbors, your brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you worship on Sunday and work at being the Church together, however hard that might be. That said, we are blessed to live now about 4 miles from where CAN has their building, and so for all the reasons above, we feel very called to keep following Jesus into their midst. Who knows what will happen? What I hope, though, is that instead of being “in the way” in the worst possible way as a well-intentioned “white” person standing between  the rescuer and those in need of rescue, we will instead find ourselves “in the way” in the “right” way, that is, on the way with Jesus, along the way of the cross. Lord, let it be so.

On a final note, I should add that I don’t regret our time among Mill City Church in the least. I think being a part of this church was a necessary step in our journey. It turns out it was just a step, but we couldn’t make this next one without having made that one. Thus, we are very grateful for our time among them, and hope to continue our relationships with those from Mill City that want to. After all, we’re all trying to follow Jesus. Sometimes this involves moving rapidly along the way. Sometimes it seems like no progress is made at all. Sometimes we move in the wrong direction. As I’ve repeatedly said, Kirsten and I spent the better part of 20 years hardly following at all in many ways. Still, Jesus keeps calling us. Lord willing, we’ll all keep trying to answer, and follow, and keep up with him. Again, Lord, let it be so.

Striving No More, Part 5b, Or Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church

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I’ve now spoken at quite some length about the road that has led us to this point, where we’ve started connecting with Mill City Church. If you haven’t read the first five (!) parts in this series, I highly encourage it. It’s impossible to fully understand what I’m about to say without at least some knowledge of why I keep talking about Circle of Hope, how I’ve come to understand that “without worship, we shrink” (in part because of the influence of Keith Green and Rich Mullins in my formation as a person, and a person of faith), why I keep talking about House of Mercy but we have struggled to connect with that community since returning to the Twin Cities, and why I’ve come to reluctant acceptance of- but hope not to have to talk too much more about- 3DM. All of that background is, at the least, very informative.

I should mention that we didn’t wind up beginning to connect with Mill City Church because we were “church shopping.” I’ve long been critical of that type of consumeristic approach to church, as if it were a religious “good or service” one received in exchange for money, attendance, etc. Usually I’ve made this critique self-knowingly, aware that like a good USAmerican I have a tendency to treat church in just this way. But that’s not what happened in this case. As I’ve said, though it’s true that we were struggling to connect with House of Mercy like we might hope to, we were trying to figure out a way to make it work. In the midst of that, I came across Mill City Church very unintentionally as a result of my participation with Mile In My Shoes (MiMS), the running group I’m a part of in which I’ve been running with folks experiencing homelessness once a week. There are several posts on this blog about MiMS from earlier this year. Anyway, one of the leaders of MiMS is part of Mill City Church, and one of the pastors of Mill City Church, Stephanie, came along with that leader and ran with us for the Torchlight 5k. Also, Stephanie’s fiancée, J.D., made a documentary about homelessness here in the Twin Cities that one of Mill City Church’s missional communities helped host a screening of, which Samuel and I attended. This is how Mill City Church (MCC) entered my awareness. You might imagine just from the above that I was intrigued.

So I started doing some homework. I already knew MCC had missional communities, and so as you might imagine if you read my previous post in this series, I was wary. Still, I wanted to know more. You’ll hopefully recall from my last post my growing conviction of the importance of listening and “getting on board” with what God might already be up to in a local community. This has long been important to me theoretically, going all the way back to seminary when I read books like Lamin Sanneh‘s Translating the Message and Leslie Newbigin‘s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Sanneh’s book, especially, blew my mind as I was invited to consider that when the gospel is first translated into new languages, those languages sometimes already had a word for “God,” which sometimes then gets used to talk about the Christian God.

There’s much to unpack there (and, probably unfortunately, debate), but my point is that God no doubt was already at work, already doing something, before Christian missionaries arrived with the (hopefully) good news about Jesus, and this dynamic has been at work throughout history and even in Scripture itself (see Paul preaching on Mars Hill to the worshippers of the “unknown god”). Newbigin adds to the discussion by inviting USAmerican “Christendom” to realize that “missions” isn’t the exporting of U.S. civil religion to other lands and cultures (if I’m not putting words in his mouth); rather, it’s something that happens within each of our USAmerican homes, hopefully, but then especially when each and every one of us who would follow Jesus step out our front doors and start trying to love our literal neighbors. Newbigin listened to USAmerican culture after returning from a lifetime’s worth of missionary service overseas and realized that the greatest missional challenge the USAmerican church might face going forward was right in front of it, at home in its own rapidly changing culture. Here’s a sermon from one of MCC’s pastors, Michael Binder, in which he talks a bit about Newbigin. It’s worth a listen. Binder quotes Newbigin:

“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society…it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 232-233)

Hmmm…recognizing that the church “exist(s) for the sake of those who are not members” sounds a lot like the “the church exists for those yet to (become a part of it),” doesn’t it? In any case, Sanneh and Newbigin helped lay the foundation in my understanding that God is present and active everywhere at all times, even in languages that the gospel is being translated into for the first time; so therefore our responsibility is to do the hard work of listening and paying attention to what God is already up to so that we might join him in what he’s already doing.

My understanding of how to do this best, of how to listen and pay attention to what God is already up to somewhere, was bolstered as I encountered Christian Community Development and the “three R’s” that guide it: Relocation, Reconciliation, and Redistribution. Especially for people who want to follow Jesus but are products of white privilege like myself, “relocation” from literal places of privilege to the places that very privilege literally affords you the ability to flee from is vital. As I’ve heard them say in the Christian Community Development Association, after all, “God (in the person of Jesus) didn’t commute from heaven every day.” No, he relocated from his place of power and privilege to our place of struggle. Likewise, those who want to serve disadvantaged communities do it best when they literally make such communities their own. They will be most active at working to change struggling inner city schools, for example, when their kids go there too. If you want to really listen to and understand a people, their culture, and their problems, try living among them. Reconciliation, between humanity and God of course, but especially racial reconciliation is just as important, and redistribution of wealth is too. For all the misguided, ignorant attacks of the current President for even approaching a discussion of redistribution of wealth, this is something deeply rooted in scripture, and I, for one, believe Ta-Nehisi Coates is right, but I digress.

Anyway, I had encountered Christian Community Development probably first with Circle of Hope, but especially later when I met Duane Crabbs and his family in Akron, who have so faithfully lived out the principles of Christian Community Development. Duane’s story is worth telling again, and I’ve re-told it here, here, here, and here. In any case, it was in a sermon of Duane’s that I first heard the unattributed quote that has since been so important to me: “If you’ve come here to save me, don’t bother, but if you’ve come here because you understand that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” When you relocate to live among a people and do the work of really listening to them with an eye for what God might be up to already among them, then you begin to understand that there is work to be done, together, to live into the goodness of God’s kingdom in which peace with justice are the lived experience for all, not just some.

So as I’ve come to learn more about Mill City Church, I’ve learned that this- listening and getting on board with what God is already up to- is central to their approach to being the church. In fact, the pastor I mentioned above, Michael Binder, writes extensively about it. He says, first of all, that they assume…:

“…that God is at work in our local context, and has been working long before we have been there. God is out ahead of us in the neighborhoods where we live, inviting us to participate in the things he is doing. If God is out ahead of us, then two questions guide our participation in his mission: “What is God doing?” and “How can we respond to that?” These are simple questions, but they can be hard to answer. Yet asking them is the first step in learning. They put us in a listening posture. They position us to become “divine detectives” in the neighborhoods where we live, work, and worship.”

He then goes on elsewhere to describe this “divine detective” work as one of their “core commitments.” He says:

The first core commitment (of someone wanting to become a covenant member of Mill City Church) is to a spiritual practice of daily discernment, where each covenant member daily asks, “What is God up to?” and “How does God want me/us to respond?” By committing to this practice, covenant members seek to approach each day as a chance to be part of what God is doing in whatever setting they find themselves in.

This is a commitment that they not only ask the individual covenant members to commit to, but is something they commit to together as a church. Mill City Church’s website and smartphone app both offer access to podcasts of their sermons and even some “trainings” they offer, and over the past month I’ve probably listened to close to a dozen such sermons/trainings, such that they’re starting to run together in my mind/remembrance. Nonetheless, it was in this sermon that I heard that Mill City Church is committed to team leadership at every level. This is important, and reminds me of Circle of Hope, as two of Circle of Hope’s proverbs are that “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor,” and “Leaders listen to the body and to God; their function is discernment as much as direction.” Likewise, in that sermon I linked to above Stephanie said that for Mill City Church “the purpose of leaders in our community is to equip other people, not to decide things for them.” She says that “We don’t give everybody all the answers; we help us together ask good questions, and seek after what God might be doing.” She adds, “We have 5 pastors who see everybody as having influence, and everybody having the opportunity to listen and respond to God. We don’t have more pastors so that we have more people listening to God for you, but more people listening to God with you.”

This approach of listening and responding to God- together- is absolutely crucial, and is something that gives me hope. It gives me hope particularly because of what it has meant for Mill City Church. It means, first of all, that members of Mill City Church are, like those of Circle of Hope, covenant members. Michael Binder writes that a simple question posed by someone already involved in Mill City Church, “Why should I become a member?”, challenged him to realize that “membership was largely a formality” for Mill City up to that point in its young life (as it is for all too many congregations, I would argue). Binder says he was “ambivalent” about membership up to that point because he “worried it reinforced a consumer mentality about church.” He reflects about health club memberships and says: “you get a lot for the money you are paying. As a member, you have the right to all these different goods and services any time you want to come. That wasn’t the attitude we wanted to cultivate among the people seeking to join the life of our church.” Realizing that “something had to change,” he says: “Ultimately we decided that we wanted membership to describe a way of life, not merely what we believed or what we “got” for being in the club. We wanted membership that demanded something of people.”

Over the course of a year, then, they worked to discern what membership should look like and came up with covenant membership. Obviously, they came up with a covenant too, one that is marked by three core commitments. The first is “daily discernment” as noted above. The second is loving their “community” (defined both as the church community and their neighborhood) . He says: “We commit to connecting with fellow members throughout the week and seeking out relationships with new people. We want to connect with people who are different from us in age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, and socio-economic background.” Regarding the third and final core commitment, he goes on to say that:

“Our last core commitment describes our desire to serve Northeast Minneapolis, where we worship and where many of us live. This includes active service with our local partners, as well as prayer for the life of the school where we worship on Sunday. Serving locally is an essential part of what it means to be the church for us.”

And boy have they served locally! Binder writes elsewhere that:

After some time of walking the neighborhood, going to neighborhood meetings, meeting neighbors, and learning what the local community cared most about, we received an invitation from a director at the home for people living with HIV-AIDS. They wanted us to put together Christmas gifts for the residents. God was up to something. After having the chance to provide Christmas presents, we asked for permission to start holding meetings in the conference room of this building. Week after week local pastors starting meeting in this space, receiving hospitality from the people in the building. Next, people from our church asked if they could throw monthly birthday parties for residents, and relationships continued to grow.

Consequently, he says, “Over time, our church became connected with the people in this place, and the neighborhood knew it.” This was evident when the local neighborhood association “had money available to spend on something the neighborhood cared about,” but found that “they were having trouble getting input from people who lived in two local complexes: one large low-income housing unit and a building that was home to people living with HIV-AIDS.” This was the very HIV-AIDS housing unit Mill City Church had already been involved in loving and serving as described above; so the neighborhood association decided to throw a party which they hoped would “be a safe place for us all to gather, have a good time, and complete a survey on how to spend neighborhood money.” Binder says:

Over the course of just a few years, the neighborhood had learned that our church cared about those living in these spaces. We had become people who had enough relationship and credibility to invite them to a celebration where their voice could be heard by our wider community. This was an incredible opportunity. So we said yes, and we threw a party.

But that probably isn’t even the best example of how Mill City Church has been loving their neighborhood, and how that love has started spreading throughout the city. Mill City Church meets in Sheridan Elementary School, a local public elementary school in Minneapolis. This was and remains a very intentional decision. Binder writes:

We meet on Sundays in a public school, like many new churches. Despite the expectation of many that we will move into a worship space we own, we have decided to stay in the school for as long as we can because of the relationship it fosters between the church community and the school. This means forfeiting the comforts of our own space for the sake of relationship.

That relationship has blossomed, and one result is The Sheridan Story:

The story began in 2010 when the school administration at our namesake, Sheridan Elementary School, discovered that students were stealing and hoarding food on Fridays so that they would have something to eat on the weekends. After learning of this need, The Sheridan Story was launched as a project of Mill City Church and Woodridge Church. In our first month in Fall of 2010, we provided a bag of non-perishable food each weekend to 27 students. Two years later we were able to open the program to all students at Sheridan School reaching over 300 students. Spring of 2013 brought our first expansion into another school, Delano Elementary, increasing our impact to some 350 children.

By 2014, “The Sheridan Story operated in 29 schools reaching nearly 1800 children and by Spring 2016 we served some 4,000 students in 96 schools.” Here is a map of the schools The Sheridan Story operates in now:

 

If you’re not tearing up, check your pulse.

Again, it is listening to what God is already up to in the particular neighborhood of NE Minneapolis that Mill City Church is being rooted in, and responding to it as faithfully as they can, that has brought Mill City Church to where it is now, and it is why we are being drawn to them. Michael Binder also writes: “We try not to create any ministry that already exists in our local area, encouraging people to join the work of non-profits and other churches who are already doing work our people want to be involved in.” They’re not re-inventing any wheels, but are instead glad for whatever momentum existing “wheels” already have and choose to chip in and do their part to keep them going. Take their youth ministry, for example. Mill City Church recognized that while there were 52 churches in Northeast Minneapolis, there were only 2 full-time youth leaders. So Mill City Church partnered with those other churches to create Northeast Students:

So listening to God, together, and responding to what he’s up to in the community that many of Mill City Church’s members have relocated to in order to make common cause with those they want to serve is why Mill City Church has covenant members at all; it’s why thousands of kids throughout Minneapolis but especially from Sheridan Elementary are a little less hungry on the weekends; it’s a big part of why Mill City Church has team leadership at every level; and it’s why Mill City Church is made up of missional communities. Michael Binder writes:

Just a couple years into our life as a new church community, I started to realize that the structure of our church’s life (Sunday worship, small group, service projects) did not fit our vision of helping people participate in God’s mission in their local neighborhood. I realized someone could be coming to worship, going to small group, and serving at the food shelf or school without necessarily having to engage with anyone from Northeast Minneapolis that wasn’t already a part of our church. It became clear we needed a different structure for the life of our church if we were really going to equip people to “love our community in the name of Jesus.”

We began to explore the idea of creating “missional communities,” groups of 20-40 people who would see themselves primarily as missionaries to a particular neighborhood or group of people. This model seemed to create an environment where engaging with people outside our church was not optional but a necessary part of participating in the life of the group.

There was just one problem. We had a lot of people participating in small groups. We decided that killing our small groups and asking everyone to form missional communities would have been too drastic of a change. Instead we piloted one missional community and discipled leaders who could help lead future missional communities, while still supporting small groups. People sensed the change and there was some resistance to it, but the disappointment came at a reasonable rate. We spent two years in this experimental phase before we were ready to offer more people the opportunity to participate in these missional communities. Those two years felt like an eternity, especially for a young church. But it was really a relatively short period of time to make such a significant change. And because we advanced at a slower pace, we were able to make the transition without minimal disappointment and resistance.

Today Mill City Church has 8 missional communities, with more on the way. And in fact, it’s in part due to the work of one of them, the one focused on loving people experiencing homelessness, that my family and I began being drawn to Mill City Church at all. Here’s a little about Mill City Church’s missional communities:

Again, it’s because- and I should add only because- Mill City Church’s missional communities came about as a result of all that good listening and responding to what God’s already up to in their local community that I feel able to humble myself a bit, try to really discern a little too, and join in myself. As I have said elsewhere in this series, at some point had to conclude that if God is real and Jesus is worth following and my experience of community that you get called into when you try to follow him- if any of that is at all legitimate, then God has to be present and active everywhere at all times, always calling us to join him in his work and to do so together, if we’ll only pay attention and get on board. Read this post again. I think it’s clear that this is precisely what is happening with Mill City Church, and I’ve seldom been so glad for anything in all my life.

Let me start to come to a close by talking about this sermon that Pastor Stephanie of Mill City Church recently gave. There’s a lot that’s notable about it, especially for me, as it’s largely about community, and about listening to God in the midst of it. First of all she says that “rugged individualism is a cultural norm in North America, but deep community is a part of the counter-cultural reality of the kingdom of God that God invites us all to be a part of.” She says that community is so important for Christ followers in part because “God exists in community” as Father, Son, and Spirit. As I wrote in May 2007:

“Love…doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love is something you do, and this idea has long been my best explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which as I see it is merely an attempt to understand God’s relationality. So God is love in God’s self because God exists relationally in three parts, but that love isn’t insular. It’s outward focused, which is why ours must be too.”

She goes on to say that “the #1 mistake in reading the Bible” that USAmerican Christians make “is that we read the bible individualistically.” She says “these books (of the Bible) were written to groups of people almost exclusively” and that “almost every place in Romans, for instance, where the word ‘you’ is said it’s actually you all.” Sound familiar? This was one of the biggest revelations for me all those years ago when we became part of Circle of Hope and then again when I was in seminary, and I’ve written about that elsewhere in this blog series. Following the Bible, not to mention Jesus, “is a group project,” as I keep repeating. What really got me, though, was her reminder that listening to God is a group project too. She says that (your awareness of) “the fact that God might want to be saying something to you that you’re not even asking him comes down to whether you are listening to God with other people in your life.” I realized recently I largely haven’t been. I’ve been trying not only to follow Jesus, but to listen to him, on my own. She adds, “when Paul says we’re ‘testing and approving’ what God’s will is, that’s something that is done together; it’s not something we can do, completely at least, on our own.”

Stephanie then gets at a theological notion without speaking of it directly. It’s the notion of living “between the times.” This idea has to do with the “already/not yet” paradox of the kingdom of God- that it’s already upon us because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus- but is not yet fully realized, as we can so readily tell by the pain and suffering that still daily surrounds us. Thus, we live between those two times, between the inauguration of God’s kingdom and its final fulfillment. Because this is so, Stephanie says that “we can’t ever be totally 100% sure of what God is saying to us,” but “the model is clear for us that we should try (to listen), and we should do that in community, the way that God exists in community as Father, Son, and Spirit” (as noted above). She says listening to God in community “gives us the best chance that we’re (going) to be transformed by God’s voice so that there’s a renewing of our mind communally and individually,” and therefore “that we’ll be able to, together, test and approve (that something is) God’s will.”

Michael Binder also encourages us not to go it alone in a recent sermon we heard him preach. He speaks generally of the worship experience when the living church (remember, the church is not a place but is instead a people) gathers on Sundays. He says the purpose of coming together not just in communities but as a whole church is to have their stories reshaped, including the common story that is unfolding among them. For this reason he says the worship experience is more than just “four songs, some announcements, and a sermon.” He says “Worship is us remembering our story, encouraging each other, admitting our brokenness, receiving forgiveness, sharing in communion, becoming friends with each other, and sending each other out into the world to become  part of what God is doing.” He says, “I don’t know of another concrete way to keep reshaping your story, than to keep worshipping God.” He adds: “that (reshaping your story) is what this (the worship experience) is designed for, and if we don’t do it, it isn’t that God is mad; it’s that you can’t become the person that God created you to be without worship in your life…” Again, as I keep repeating, “without worship, we shrink.” I’ve been shrinking for a while now, and the chance to start moving in the other direction again is another reason why I feel drawn to Mill City Church.

Even all this, of course, doesn’t begin to tell the full story of who and what Mill City Church is and what they’re up to. From what I can tell, Mill City Church is mostly white and is fairly young, but I’ve seen people of all ages there and there’s even some socioeconomic diversity, including at least some participation on the part of folks experiencing homelessness, or at least folks who at one time were. And while Mill City Church may, based on my cursory observations, be “mostly white;” it’s not exclusively so and I have seen some people of color around too. More to the point, I know Mill City Church is working to be an anti-racist congregation, though they may not use or be familiar with that language. In the wake of recent events in the country and around the world, Mill City Church had a sermon series called “Gospel and Race” in which they explored the idea “that we need to cross racial and ethnic boundaries in order to understand and live out the gospel. We believe this is not an option, but a necessary part of what it means to be a gospel person.” Thus, I was glad and relieved to listen to this “traning podcast” which was a roundtable discussion among some of the pastors and several biracial couples that are part of the congregation. I’m aware that Mill City Church may not be very far along just yet on the path to fully representing the diverse, multi-cultural “new humanity” God calls us into, but I know full well that many churches seem to utterly lack awareness that this is what they’re called to. They’re not even having the conversation. The fact that Mill City Church is, gives me hope.

In the early days of Circle of Hope there used to be a lot of talk about “gravity.” It was a metaphor that was another way, I think, of getting at what it’s like to be part of a people on a mission together. When you’re around the folks that make up Circle of Hope, you can tell that stuff is happening. Vacant lots are being cleaned up to make way for community gardens. Blighted buildings are being bought and rehabbed to be turned into thrift stores and art venues and worship spaces. Baby and children’s goods and clothing are being exchanged. People are getting to know Jesus even if they don’t “believe in him” just yet. There’s an energy and vibrancy that is compelling, that draws you in. Read my first post in this series again or check out their website to learn more. Speaking of gravity, I just can’t escape (see what I did there?) the idea that I’m having the same kind of experience, that same sense of inexorably being “drawn in” to Mill City Church. As I told Kirsten in the car a little while ago, I may have done so (been drawn in to what God is up to among Mill City Church) “kicking and screaming” (at least on the inside) at first, but it’s happening. I’m sensing that same sort of vibrancy I described above.

Among the people of Mill City Church, hungry kids are being fed. Refugees and people experiencing homelessness are being loved and served. Relationships are being built with those who’ve been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Neighborhood churches are working together, pooling resources to better love the youth among them. And I haven’t even talked about what they’re doing with kids Nathan’s age. Among other things, they’re using the Jesus Storybook Bible, our favorite children’s Bible and frankly the only one we can tolerate, to tell the “big story” of God’s “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always, and forever love.” I love this Bible because it distills for 5 year olds what I incurred massive student debt to learn in seminary, that the Bible is best understood as story, for starters; that it’s the big story of God’s love, God’s wooing of humanity through the ages; that while the Bible has heroes and rules, it’s not just about learning how to live like those heroes or following all the rules (I’ve long said that “rules are for relationship”); and it’s not even really about us and what we should do. It’s about God and what He’s done. When we learned that this is what Mill City Church would be working on with Nathan’s age group, we breathed a big sigh of relief, as if a heavy burden we’ve been carrying alone for a while had suddenly been lifted.

As all this is happening among the people of Mill City Church, much work is being done also to listen to God and to do so together, and that’s why I’m willing to risk trusting these people. Because they’ve done so to this point, they’ve begun to move with God in many of the same ways that I’ve felt drawn to. Thus we are affirmed that God’s movement in us was not a solitary vision, not a call God made to some people some place else that we missed out on when we moved away. Hence, it seems that God really is living and alive and active at least among these people in this place, and so we’re excited about the prospect of joining them. I have been striving, often alone, or at least that’s how I felt, to be part of a people on a mission together. Clearly, that’s not something you can do by yourself, and so I despaired. Today, I’m hopeful that my solo striving is over. Tomorrow, we’ll meet up with the folks from Mill City Church in NE Minneapolis where there’s so much “gravity” for our life these days anyway. Mill City Running is there, where one of the managers is the founder of Mile In My Shoes. The Herbivorous Butcher is there. The “I Like You” store is there. Rusty Taco, a D/FW favorite, is there, and Glam Doll Donuts is opening in the neighborhood. That’s a lot of gravity. Most of the draw, though, comes in the form of this family God is gathering to love this geographical community, this neighborhood, and the hope that we can be a part of it. Sign us up.

Striving No More, Part 4, or Why I Keep Talking About House of Mercy

This is part 4 of a 5 part series. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. So there’s a bit of writing I’ve been trying to get to- a story I want to tell- but I keep finding I can’t get to the crux of the matter until I first got out why Circle of Hope remains so central to how I want to “be the Church” with any future faith community, and then still couldn’t move on until I talked about worship (in song) and the influence of Keith Green and Rich Mullins on my faith formation as well. Now, I need to talk a little about House of Mercy. As I’ve mentioned, between our two stints in Philly with Circle of Hope, we spent five years here in the Twin Cities, and were a part of the then relatively new House of Mercy. A lot happened in those five years. Kirsten’s dad died, and immediately thereafter my mom. I attended Bethel and wrapped up my undergrad. there through their degree completion program for working adults. I went on to Luther Seminary and did most of the MDiv program before having what can only be described as an existential/crisis of faith and graduated with an MA in the (ever marketable) History of Christianity instead. We moved onto campus at Luther and brought my Dad with us from Texas, where he had two major surgeries and was bedridden in our seminary apartment for quite a while, but it probably extended his life for quite a bit. Kirsten went to Bethel too and got her B.S. in nursing.

Along the way, House of Mercy was a very meaningful faith community for us to participate with at the time. They not only loved us through those parent deaths, but as I’ve previously said, I grew to really appreciate their mission focused on the “recovery of evangelical (good news) theology, liturgical eclecticism, and active service in the world.” I like the story of how Mark, Russell, and Debbie (the three founding pastors; Mark since left) looked around and realized none of their friends believed in Jesus anymore, in no small part because the good news about Jesus had turned into bad news in the hands of the church. So they decided to start a church to try to undo some of that. We read about House of Mercy in the local paper shortly after moving to the Twin Cities all those years ago. It was an article that talked about alternative approaches to “doing church” at the time and mentioned a few local congregations that were trying to be different. This was 1998, and House of Mercy was one of them. We liked that, like Circle of Hope that we had just left for the first time in Philly, House of Mercy seemed to be doing a great job of attracting young folks like us (at the time), especially the “unchurched” and “overchurched,” as I came to call them. House of Mercy was and still is a really safe place both for folks who hadn’t grown up in church and those who had grown up in the church, and regretted it. It was a safe place to be a little cynical. It was a community in which I learned that “doubt” need not “be the enemy of faith,” but could “be its partner.” It’s a community in which I heard (I think I actually read it, but that’s of no matter) Debbie say that “faith is relentlessly relational, and thus unsystematizable.”

Thus we really appreciated, and still do, the preaching of Mark, Russell, and Debbie. Bart Campolo, one of the great mentors in my life and someone I’m still privileged to call something of a friend, used to give a little test to try to make a point about the importance of relationships. He’d ask a group of people to name the five most influential sermons they ever heard and how they changed their life. Inevitably, people struggled to do so. He then would ask them to name the five most influential people who really made an impact on their life, and of course people could. The point, obviously, is that people don’t usually remember sermons very well, but if you do the work of building a relationship with someone and invest in their life lovingly, they’ll remember you. The conclusion then, was that if you want to influence someone, you have to spend time with and love them, not just preach to them. I believe that’s true and can attest to the power of this approach, but I mention it because Mark, Russell, and Debbie’s sermons were often so very good that I’m sure I could tick off more than five among them that I remember, and that made an impact on me.

In fact, I’ll name a few such sermons. In one, Russell tells a story, as he often does. He re-tells the story of the Garden of Eden, but at the end, as Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden and God locks the door to it from the inside, as I remember it, there’s a hopeless moment in which the two of them find themselves truly alone for the first time, and no doubt afraid. Suddenly, much to their great surprise, and again as I remember this sermon all these years later, God hops over the fence and joins them on the other side, telling them, “I’m coming with you.” Another time Russell preached a series in which each sermon started with the band playing the line from the REM song “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” The series consisted of Russell again telling a story, this time about the end of the world as it is imagined to one day occur by some “evangelicals,” or as I’ve long called them, “fundagelicals.” Anyway, in the story things don’t go as they think it will, and my takeaway from the series was Russell’s question, “What if the end of the world comes one person at a time?” I think it’s a profound question, and gets at the notion posited, I think, by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce, in which people are free to leave hell if they choose. As Wikipedia describes it:

The narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city, the “grey town”, which is either Hell or Purgatory depending on how long one stays there. He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of Heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the passengers on the bus — including the narrator — are gradually revealed to be ghosts. Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift. Shining figures, men and women whom they have known on Earth, come to meet them, and to urge them to repent and enter Heaven proper. They promise that as the ghosts travel onward and upward, they will become more solid and thus feel less and less discomfort. These figures, called “spirits” to distinguish them from the ghosts, offer to assist them in the journey toward the mountains and the sunrise. Almost all of the ghosts choose to return instead to the grey town, giving various reasons and excuses. Much of the interest of the book lies in the recognition it awakens of the plausibility and familiarity, along with the thinness and self-deception, of the excuses that the ghosts refuse to abandon, even though to do so would bring them to “reality” and “joy forevermore”. An artist refuses, arguing that he must preserve the reputation of his school of painting; a bitter cynic predicts that Heaven is a trick; a bully (“Big Man”) is offended that people he believes beneath him are there; a nagging wife is angry that she will not be allowed to dominate her husband in Heaven. One man corrupted on Earth by lust, which takes the form of an ugly lizard, permits an angel to kill the lizard and is saved.

Wikipedia goes on to summarize the book by saying that thus:

…it is possible for a soul to choose to remain in Heaven despite having been in the grey town; for such souls, the goodness of Heaven will work backwards into their lives, turning even their worst sorrows into joy, and changing their experience on Earth to an extension of Heaven. Conversely, the evil of Hell works so that if a soul remains in, or returns to, the grey town, even its happiness on Earth will lose its meaning, and its experience on Earth would have been Hell. Few of the ghosts realize that the grey town is, in fact, Hell. Indeed, it is not that much different from the life they led on Earth: joyless, friendless and uncomfortable. It just goes on forever, and gets worse and worse…

This is why Jesus said that the “kingdom of God” was “near” or “at hand.” Following Him isn’t about “being good” by trudging through life now so that you can have a better life when you die; we aren’t “saved” by saying a magic prayer and getting our “fire insurance.” No, following Jesus, if it’s worth doing at all, is about living into a kingdom of unspeakable joy. It’s about knowing a love so deep and whole and full that one is compelled to share it, compelled to be a peacemaker, compelled to lay down one’s life for those around them. It truly is the end of one world, and the beginning of another. Obviously, I’ve thought about Russell’s question ever since.

Here’s another memorable House of Mercy sermon. Debbie’s sermons are uniquely good, and in one of them she talks about being “born again.” She says:

           …how did we ever take this metaphor (of being born again) and make it all about something the one being born does? I mean, who does the most work to get something born? …Maybe our image of God would be richer if we quit thinking (of him as an) impassive, stoic, old man on a throne, and imagined a pregnant woman, waddling and crying, yelling from time to time, with the pains of labor, sometimes angry, sometimes tortured- giving birth to her children. What’s it like for the one being born? What’s it like for us? …I think sometimes I imagine salvation is being removed from the possibility of pain and suffering. But that’s so much not what it’s like to be born. As soon as we start that trip down the birth canal, we become vulnerable to all sorts of wonderful and frightening and beautiful and horrible and sad and amazing things…

…Maybe we’re being born. Again. Maybe the spirit really does move and blow. Maybe it’s happening all around us all the time. Maybe God is saving the world. Maybe there’s groaning and blood and pain in the birthing process and maybe it doesn’t feel like being in the womb. And maybe it isn’t always a nice warm breeze but thank God for breath and life and for enduring the labor.

Powerful, eh? All that said, though, what really worked for us, I think, about House of Mercy all those years ago was that pretty early on, especially since it was still a new church, Russell approached me and asked me to get involved. He gave me something to do. He recognized my burgeoning passion for justice- and community- and asked me to lead a new group he wanted to call the “Service and Reconciliation Work Group.” I said yes, and started this group. Naturally, I ran it like a cell group, and we did some cool things together. We volunteered with Safe Zone, a drop in center in St. Paul for teens experiencing homelessness. They (the church) sent me to the Call to Renewal, a conference put on by Sojourners for folks who wanted to help the church be better about pursuing justice. Eventually, the pastors trusted me enough to turn the Service and Reconciliation into an actual cell group, and over the course of the next little while that one group multiplied into three before we eventually left the Twin Cities and returned to Philly and Circle of Hope for our second stint there. I think part of why they trusted me to do this is because they recognized, as I had, that House of Mercy was great about bringing people “into the front door” of the church, using the unfortunate “church as building” metaphor, but it didn’t do a great job of giving them a good reason to stay, and so kept losing people “out the back door.” Cell groups gave some folks anyway a reason to stay, and when we returned to the Twin Cities and began to reconnect a little bit with House of Mercy last year, Russell thanked me and said that many of the folks who have been most integral in helping House of Mercy keep churning along all these years had been involved in a cell group.

Nonetheless, Russell said the pastors “weren’t that into them” (cell groups, or “community practice groups,” as they later called them), and that’s something that I’ve struggled with. Let me be clear and say that it’s not that I want House of Mercy’s pastors to be anything other than who they are. I love who they are, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. They officiated at our 5 year vow renewal, for example, and were kind enough to do it again as Kirsten and I celebrated 20 years of marriage recently. I hope it’s clear from all I’ve said above that I have deep respect for them. No, what I struggle with is cell groups or “community practice” or whatever you want to call it as something of an “add-on” to a congregation’s “DNA,” and it may well be that I’m the only one having this conflict. This may just be my problem; it may not be a problem in its own right. As one of my Circle of Hope pastors recently reminded me, “I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you.” I’m sure that’s true. Still, I suppose I yearn to really work at “being the church” with others who are just as “into it” as I am, and part 5 of this blog series will reveal where that yearning has brought my family and I, at least for now.

Striving No More, Part 1, or Why I Keep Talking About Circle of Hope

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The cell group we left when we left Philly/Circle of Hope the first time, in 1998.

This is part 1 of a 5 part series. This post started out very differently. I set out to write about our ongoing struggle to follow Jesus, now in MN, and what that means for our participation in a local faith community. As is usually the case, however, I felt like I couldn’t tell that story very well without giving some background on our participation in other faith communities, including and especially our experience with Circle of Hope. Since I find myself telling this story so often, it made sense to pull it out of its context as a precursor or the background for any other story I might tell and instead let it stand alone as its own tale. It is, obviously, a story in its own right, and a foundational one for me, no less. This also gives me the ability to refer (link) back to it the next time I feel the need to re-tell it as context for further adventures. So, here goes.

As anyone who knows much of anything about me and/or has read much of this blog would know, to whatever extent I have, however little that may be, I “grew up” as a would be Jesus follower among the people of Circle of Hope. As I’ve often said, it was in that faith community that I learned that an isolated faith is no faith at all, that following Jesus is a communal project. It was among them that I learned that the church is a people, not a place, that “we are the church” and that it is therefore incumbent upon us to go and be the church, which is why it’s impossible to “go to church,” unless you mean you’re go(ing) to (meet the gathered) church. It was among them that I learned the power of storytelling as a means for working at right relationships, together. In fact, most of what I’m still trying to learn about how to follow Jesus has its roots in their proverbs, such as:

  • Jesus should be “lens through which” I “read the Bible”
  • As I alluded to above,”the Bible should be known and followed, and that is a group project”
  • The church “exists for those yet to” become a part of it
  • “Life in Christ is one whole cloth,” and so I should “repent of separating ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ “
  • I should be a “world Christian” if I am to be one at all; that is, the body of Christ is “transnational.” Therefore, if I am to pledge allegiance to anyone, it is to Christ and his kingdom. There’s much to say there about patriotism; for now, suffice it to say I am grateful for my privilege as a white male U.S. citizen but work continually at least to have some dim self-awareness of how many of my global brothers and sisters suffer so that I can enjoy that privilege
  • “Without worship, a person shrinks”
  • “We are discipled for mission, not just for personal growth”
  • “We learn best person to person, not program to person”
  • “In the United States the sin of racism impacts all we experience. It is a fact of life for which the dominators are accountable;” therefore they (the people of Circle of Hope) say:
    • “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 represent the new humanity.”
  • “In a culture deformed by violence, proactive peacemaking transforms our individual fears and faithfully witnesses to the Prince of Peace like nothing else;” therefore, I’m working to learn how to be a peacemaker, which is why I am against not just war, but violence of any kind
  • Circle of Hope, as I’ve oft described, is a cell group based church. Thus, they say:
    • “Our cells are the basic components of our living body in Christ. In them, Jesus is our ‘agenda’.”
    • “Our cells are the primary place where we help one another grow as disciples, face to face.”
    • “Living in covenant, like a family with a common Father, is basic to being a Christian.”
  • “Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.”
  • “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor.”

That basic concept of a cell group based church remains foundational and formative for my understanding of how the church can and maybe should work. As I’ve said before and they (the people of Circle of Hope) can describe much better than I, the metaphor is biological. Just as the human body exists as a collection of cells, each working together to serve the whole and allowing the whole (that is, the body) to grow as cells not just reproduce, but multiply; so too the church can function in this way as well. The local church known as Circle of Hope exists again not as a building or slickly produced worship experience or program or ministry, but rather as a collection of cell groups and, eventually in Circle of Hope’s history, congregations that work together in a network to serve Jesus in the greater Philadelphia region. Every cell, a circle of no more than about ten or so, has Jesus as “its only agenda” as described above. The cell has a leadership team consisting of a leader, apprentice, and host or hostess. The cell forms and covenants together, perhaps after telling one another their “stories” for a little while so they have a sense of who they are as a group. Their covenant specifies when they will meet, how often, and for how long. No cell is meant to go on forever. It’s written into each cell’s “DNA” that it will eventually either “multiply,” or die.

Once stories are told and a covenant made, each cell is free to focus on whatever they’d like to. Whatever they do, whether it’s read a book or talk about the latest sermon or explore coffee shops in the city, those activities are a means to the end of deepening their right relationships with God and one another as together they do the face to face hard work of trying to follow Jesus. When “life happens” and a group member walks into a meeting with what feels like the weight of the world on their shoulders, whatever activity may have been planned for that evening may be delayed or scrapped altogether so that the group can surround that person in love, support, and prayer. It’s about being a people on a mission together. All the while as the cell goes through its life cycle, the cell leader is discipling his or her apprentice so that when the group is ready to multiply, the apprentice is ready to step up as a leader of the next cell group. This is important because it really gets at the idea of the “priesthood of all believers” and turns it into a reality. As cell groups grow and multiply leaders are constantly being called out, trained, equipped, and unleashed to lead. There’s a part to play for everyone whether they lead a cell or not as it’s “all in” to do the work of not just following Jesus but having a life together. The people of Circle of Hope have bought and rehabbed old buildings and turned them into worship spaces, art galleries, and thrift stores that serve real needs in their community, including the need for jobs. The people of Circle of Hope have started community gardens and host an ongoing, free baby (and kids) goods exchange where everyone brings their gently used baby and kids clothes and offers it to their neighbors who might have an older or younger kid in need of just that size or that item.

In the meantime, if lives in the individual cell groups and in the network of cells and congregations as a whole are being changed and people are experiencing what it means to really be a part of something larger than themselves as they respond to the experience of actually having a life together that is rooted in Jesus, then each cell group is growing. This group project of following Jesus together is powerfully transformative, such that you can’t help but talk about it to your neighbors, friends, family, and co-workers. Among the people of Circle of Hope, you don’t really “invite someone to church” (remember, that’s impossible because the church is a people, not a place).  Instead, you invite someone into the life you’re having together as the church in your weekly cell group meeting. You might also invite them to the “public meeting” that happens on Sunday when all the cell groups gather for worship and teaching, but that meeting is also a big part of the church’s life together and serves as a celebration of all that good stuff that is already happening throughout the week. In any case, ideally each cell grows, and once it gets to be bigger than roughly 10 people or so (the “just right” size for meaningful face to face relationships in which there’s space and time for everyone to be heard, known, and loved over the course of a group’s life cycle), so long as the apprentice leader is ready, the group multiplies, forming two groups from one, with the apprentice leading a new group with his or her own apprentice and host, while the former leader selects a new apprentice and host, and the whole process starts over.

Multiplication is hard, and it doesn’t always happen, but forming a group that is designed to grow in this way, that has multiplication again written into its “DNA” is a powerful reminder again that the church exists for those yet to become a part of it. As members of that church, folks yearn to know and be known and loved for their own sake, to be sure, but again they’re learning that following Jesus is a group project. Therefore, they are not (only) their own. They’re not trying to “save” anybody by offering them “fire insurance,” by convincing or coercing them to say a few magic words before they die so that they don’t burn in hell forever. That’s not their motivation. Rather, the love they experience in the life they’re having together with Jesus makes for a genuinely better life than any they could have known otherwise, and certainly better than any that any one person could have known alone, and folks therefore want to share it. They have, after all, been invited to join God in the “family business” of reconciliation. By definition, then, a cell group can never be insular. It can never go on indefinitely in any sort of static form. God’s love can not be contained in this way. No one’s perfect, obviously, and no group is either. Some groups don’t multiply, in which case once their covenant period has come to an end the group dissolves and members are free to become a part of other cell groups.

I should say too that because this is how the people of Circle of Hope work so very intentionally at being the church, at being a people on a mission together, “membership” looks very different among them. It doesn’t happen by attending a class and signing an agreement to give of one’s “time and talents.” Like some individual cell groups make a covenant together that outlines what their shared life will look like, the people of Circle of Hope as a whole have done the same thing. Thus, to join the circle, you become a covenant member. Remember too that on Sundays the various Circle of Hope congregations have a “public meeting” to put a public face on the life of the church that is happening throughout the week in the cells. This meeting is a time for worship (remember, “without worship, we shrink”) and celebration of all that good stuff happening throughout the week. Similarly, as cells multiply congregations do as well and Circle of Hope has grown over the past 20 years from one fledgling congregation and a few cells to a network of five congregations and more than 50 cell groups. Thus, each quarter all the congregations and cells gather for a “love feast.” This is a celebration of the life the whole network is having together; it’s also a time when folks join the covenant that helps bind the whole network together. The process is intense, but beautiful. At a Love Feast, a covenant member will stand up in front of the whole assembly and introduce their friend who is joining the covenant. They might say, “This is my friend John. He’s a buddy from work who started coming to my cell. His family lives elsewhere and he didn’t have too many connections here. He didn’t really know a lot about Jesus and honestly may not have been that interested in him, but I’ve really seen him grow and change since joining my cell. He’s been really honest about some things and I’ve seen him really love the people around him well. I know he’s working to love and follow Jesus now too, and I’m proud to recommend him for membership in our covenant.” Then John will say a few words about why he wants to join the covenant, and then the gathered church can lovingly ask John questions. Then the group together assents to John becoming part of the covenant they all share together, and the party begins. It’s intense, like I said, but you might imagine, deeply meaningful and not much like most church memberships I’ve been around or know of.

So Kirsten and I were a part of Circle of Hope in two stints, from ’96-’98 and ’03-’05. In the latter stint I was a cell leader apprentice, then cell group leader, and for a short while a cell leader “coordinator” (a leader of cell leaders). Obviously, this model for how to be the church together has stuck with me and continues to captivate and shape my imagination. Obviously too we left Philly and Circle of Hope not once, but twice, both times under duress in the first case as Kirsten’s dad was rapidly dying here in the Twin Cities and in the second case in the wake of Samuel’s extraordinarily premature birth. In the latter case, we did not leave well or lovingly. Any meaningful relationship among imperfect people involves pain, of course, and we let ourselves get hurt when we weren’t loved in just the way we wanted or hoped to be as we dealt with the trauma of Samuel’s prematurity and all the disruption it caused in our lives. Instead of working through the issues that came up and growing as a result, and giving the community a chance to grow too, we skipped town. It wasn’t our best moment.

And truth is, since leaving Philly and Circle that second time we’ve struggled mightily in our efforts to be a part of any subsequent church. I’ve discussed that elsewhere on this blog. The one notable exception was House of Mercy here in the Twin Cities, which we were a part of for five years between Circle of Hope stints and which we’ve tried to reconnect with here since we’ve been back. There’s more to say about that, but this post is focused on Circle of Hope and why it continues to serve as the model for what I hope for from life together as the church. Before I end, I should add that every once in a while I’ve been in touch with one of the pastors of Circle of Hope since we left. I appreciate his leadership even from afar and even long after we’ve moved away- again- even if I didn’t always submit to it very well when I was there. I recently asked him to comment on the way a local church here in the “cities” is working at trying to follow Jesus together, and he had some helpful things to say. I’ll say more about that in a follow-up post to this one, but for now I want to comment on one of the things he said in response to me expressing some reservations about how that local church here was working at “being the church.” He said:

“I have to say that I think a lot of the things that trouble you are in you. Stay in therapy and don’t project too much on others — they won’t match up to what you need. Jesus will save you, not some outer experience (you know that). If you came back here, we would likely look wrong, too, by this time. Jesus may have also had an idealization of what we ought to be, but, fortunately, he healed us instead of holding us to it and just being eternally disappointed in how human we were.”

I suspect he’s right, and again I’ll have more to say about that in a follow-up post. For now, though, I want to focus on his comment that they (Circle of Hope) “would likely look wrong, too (to me), by this time.” I think part of what he’s getting at is that Circle of Hope has changed over the 20 years of their life together, most of that life now having occurred since we left for the last time 13 years ago. They’ve added some “proverbs” to their collection of them and taken some away. People have come and gone (though many have stayed). They’ve stayed true to their mission of being the church through cells, but because they work so hard to be relational not just with one another but with God and therefore to be organic; that is, living and alive; because this is so, their life together has changed too. For instance, they have compassion and mission teams now in addition to cells. These other teams are never programmatic but rise up when there is a need for them and go away as soon as that need is met. Cells remain the basic building blocks of the church. Compassion and mission teams work with the cells to help the larger network fulfill its calling in the region, especially as they are called to works of compassion and service. As they say: “None of our teams constitute a ‘program’ of the church. They are all an expression of the life of the Spirit in the body of Christ. They start with an inspiration and form when enough people want to join together to express God’s leading. When they lose steam or their service is done, they disperse.”

This may or may not be one of the changes my former Circle of Hope pastor was perhaps alluding to when he suggested that they “might look wrong” to me “by this time.” I don’t know. I do know that I continue to appreciate what Circle of Hope is becoming. As they listen to God and try hard to get with “what God is doing next” and listen to one another as they keep making their covenant together and do the hard work of being the church together, face to face, person to person, lives are being changed and they are impacting their region. I’m glad just to know that they’re out there and will re-double my effort to figure out what that means for me and my family here in MN.  I appreciate too that in the past I’ve gotten the message that what God is doing in the Philly region among the people of Circle of Hope is just that- what God is doing there. I don’t think they’d ever try to “take this thing national.” As I said, I asked my former Circle of Hope pastor to comment on how a local church here was working to be the church, here. Part of that work by that local MN church involves their connection to a larger, (inter)national group which I’ll comment on in a separate post. Anyway, about that, my former Circle of Hope pastor said, “why don’t you steer away from national things that should be local?” This question is contextual and his larger point was that, from what he saw online, he likes the local church here, but my point now is that the work of being the church together is always contextual too. God got really particular in the person of Jesus, and he continues to work quite particularly in local people in all the places and times where they can be found. I need to be better at not only paying attention to what God might be up to among the people here, where I am now, but perhaps more importantly, I need to be better at allowing myself to be one of them. In other words, I need to be better at letting God do his particular work in and through me, here in MN, whatever that may mean. Stay tuned.