I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For…

I think I understand Bono now.

I’ve got this church, with a fair number of friends in it, but nothing that actually resembles “Christian community.” The last vestiges of that blew apart when our small group suddenly, and without warning, imploded. It’s evangelical in most of the good ways and a few of the bad, and the folks in the church have good hearts and desire to follow God.

But I’m not growing there (though spiritually I have been engaged in perhaps the greatest growth-spurt of my life – outside of my church). And I also worry that in the end, my theology may find me outside of what is “acceptable.”

Then there’s this other church which I attend on occasion. Big church, but very friendly. Sermons are knocked-out-of-the-park fantastic. Great facilities, good children’s program, theological position which is much closer to mine than the church I go to. But I don’t know anyone there. And did I say it’s big? And it’s still basically evangelical, whereas I am finding myself more and more in the post-evangelical, ancient-modern, missional/emerging part of the Church catholic.

And yet a third that I have just discovered, though it has been around for more than a century in our city and many centuries overall. In fact, it’s about as close as you can get in the Protestant world to a direct line back to the early church. You know, the one with the Book of Common Prayer. I LOVE the liturgy, feel united with Christ in the Eucharist, and in general enjoy the flow of the service. But I wonder if I could really ever feel at home there, and seriously doubt that my wife could do so.

And finally there are my desires. My desires to be a part of a real community of faith – something which I have tried again and again to find only to be disappointed and disillusioned at the end of every experience – at times because I have let the community down and at times because the community has let me down.

I desire to find a place where I could be mentored in learning a spiritual rhythm to teach my family, rather than having to make stuff up as I go along.

I desire to find a place where two years isn’t considered a long time to be in the same “small group” and there isn’t the assumption that because you aren’t growing numerically it must mean you’re not growing.

I desire to find a place where we can love the poor and the lost, the outcast and the unloved, together.

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

Random Questions About My Church

Perhaps its the meds that I’m on to get over this cold, which have been anecdotally implicated in causing mood swings in people, but I’m pretty down on my church right now (most of which probably has less to do with my church and more to do with it being part of the larger subcategory of evangelicalism). In no particular order, here are my current gripes:

  • Can I continue to be a member of my church when I question one of its articles of faith (inerrancy) and absolutely reject another (punishment of non-believers)?
  • Can liberals and conservatives actually worship together in the same church? During a contentious election? Really?
  • Not that I haven’t said this before, but I am really bothered by the way we do communion.
  • I basically live in weekly fear that people will find out what I really believe about God. How generous is my church’s orthodoxy? And if I ask that question, do I risk getting tossed out on my ear?
  • I would really like some liturgy. Please? And a few hymns as well. I think I’m the only one.

I think it’s probably just the meds.

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Weeks 3 and 4

I actually did complete my “post-evangelical pilgrimage,” but managed to come down with a series of illnesses which have pretty much knocked me down for the past month so I haven’t had a chance to write about it. At last, I have the time and energy to do so.

For the last two weeks of my “pilgrimage,” I stepped firmly outside of the comfort zone of my evangelical tradition and visited the Episcopalians and the Catholics. While I have attended services of both traditions in the past, I really enjoyed hitting them back-to-back, as it gave me a really good sense of the continuity between the two.

Being a non-liturgical Christian, I did quite a bit of stumbling in the two services. Besides being able to respond “thanks be to God” to the pronouncement of “the Word of the Lord,” I was unable to follow the liturgy in the Catholic service (I believe there is something analogous to the Episcopalians’ Book of Common Prayer, but it wasn’t present in the pew in which I sat). With the Episcopal service, I was able to follow along, but had to get used to the switch between the BCP, the hymnal, and a supplemental hymnal that they had. Not to mention the standing and sitting and kneeling going on in the midst of that.

That being said, I REALLY enjoyed both services. While I believe evangelicalism is very good at making us aware of the immanence of God (sometimes to a “Jesus is my boyfriend” extreme, sadly), the Episcopalians and Catholics are very good at lifting us into his transcendence. In these two services, I truly felt that I was on holy ground and in the presence of the Lord God.

Now to the meat of both services: the eucharist. Obviously, not being Catholic, I was unable to partake of the elements in that service, whereas I was able to join with the Episcopal congregation in receiving the sacrament. But in both cases, it was during the Eucharist that I was most aware of the presence of God. Which given the fact that the two churches will not allow their members to receive communion in the others’ services makes me wonder why we can’t get past this barrier (I know, I know, five hundred years of history and fine points of doctrine).

But it also made me question the way that my own church performs communion (and even raised a question inside of me as to whether we actually DO administer communion at all). One of my biggest complaints about my own church is the self-service nature of the communion – there is no blessing of the elements during the service, and each person individually goes up and takes their own elements during the time communion is given.

And it also raised theological issues – one of the areas where I break from evangelical doctrine (there are quite a few, but this is an important one) is with regard to what is actually going on with the elements during communion. For our church, and for most evangelicals, the bread and wine – er, grape juice – are just symbolic. There is no presence of Christ during communion. But from my experience, my understanding of church tradition, and even the scriptures themselves (see Paul’s description of individuals falling sick and dying for receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy fashion), it seems clear that regardless of WHAT happens during the Eucharist, SOMETHING does happen and Christ is present.

Now, I’m not exactly sure in what capacity Christ is present – do the elements become the literal body and blood of Christ as the Catholics claim, or do the elements merely reside alongside Christ’s presence (I apologize if I’m misinterpreting the doctrine) as most Anglicans/Episcopalians would say, or is it something else entirely? I’m not sure. But I definitely feel that there is more there than just a symbol, and my sense of God’s presence during the Episcopal and Catholic services reinforced that belief.

So in conclusion, I have some serious thinking to do with regard to the Eucharist. While my predisposition is against the kind of doctrinal division which has hounded the church since it was born, I have to seriously consider whether I should continue to receive communion in my church, whether I should continue to receive communion in my church but also supplement it with the Eucharist at a church like the Episcopal church, or whether I can accept that Christ can be present even in our self-service communion as long as I am looking for him there.

But setting aside my personal struggle with the issues raised by the Eucharist, the biggest thing I came away with from these two weeks was the fact that we are all one Church, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, and my prayer is that one day we would be able to live like that church.

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Week 2

I’m a bit late with this post since I’ve had such a crazy week at work, but I wanted to get something out here before I attended yet another church which might color my experiences from last week.

Last week I stayed basically within my “evangelical comfort zone” by visiting an Evangelical Covenant church. The result? I really liked it. If I had to create my “ideal church service” for where I am at right now, this would be it. A mix of hymns and contemporary worship, liturgy, scripture reading, and congregational prayer. And an excellent sermon. The only thing missing was communion, which presumably was missing because I was there on an “off” week (I’m going to rectify that by attending an Episcopal church this week).

Since the congregation was about 100 people, I didn’t feel like I stuck out quite as much like a sore thumb as at the church I attended the previous week. The crowd was pretty mixed with regard to age, and predominantly white (since I attend a primarily Asian church and have a mixed Asian-white family I notice these things).

All in all, another excellent experience with a different type of church than I used to.

Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage: Week 1

Over the course of the next couple of months I am embarking on what I am calling my “Post-Evangelical Pilgrimage.” My goal is to step outside the friendly confines of the evangelical tradition in which my faith began in order to gain an appreciation for what is going on in the larger Church, in its various traditions.

Today, I took a bit of a baby step by going with my youngest son (14 months!) to a small (30-50 people) Church of the Nazarene congregation around the corner from my house. It’s a church in the precarious position of trying to bring in younger members while still ministering to the needs of its older members, who make up the majority of the congregation.

I’ve actually been to one other, much larger, much “hipper” Church of the Nazarene church (which has many things to recommend it), and let’s just say – this was almost nothing like it. And it certainly was nothing like my home church, in all of its young-adult, loud worship, self-service communioning glory (take those as both compliment and critique – they are both).

There are many things that I like about my church, but I really enjoyed my time at the Nazarene church today both because of what was missing and what was present.

What was missing? The noise! One of the things I absolutely love about evangelicalism is the passion of its adherents. But that very passion – loud worship, loud prayer, loud loud loud – is also one of my biggest criticisms. I think modern-day evangelicalism, in its desire to be hip, relevant, and not boring, leaves very little space for God on Sunday. We crowd him out with the noise of our exuberance!

In contrast, I was acutely aware of the presence of God in the quiet of the service this morning. No gut busting praise music here – just classic hymns which expressed theological truths of God beyond “we love you, Lord” – sung by the worship team, the pastor himself. No powerpoint presentations. Just the congregation, the minister, and the word of God. Jesus unplugged.

And what was present? The Holy Eucharist. No self-serve elements. No little plastic cups. But the assembled people of God coming forward to receive the body and blood of Christ together.

I really enjoyed my time there this Sunday. The message was excellent – a reminder of God’s ridiculous grace which would forgive a ten thousand talent debt and command us to do likewise with the much smaller debts owed us. The fellowship was warm. And the service helped focus me more reverently on the Lord this Sunday.

Spiritual Practices in Missional Community

One of the most exciting aspects of the post-evangelical journey I have just begun is the opening of my faith to spiritual practices from parts of the Church far removed from my evangelical home base. The fact is, for the first sixteen years of my life as a follower of Jesus, my arsenal of spiritual practices was limited to two:

  1. bible study
  2. prayer

While I certainly still value those two practices, I have become aware of and come to appreciate a number of other practices which have helped me draw nearer to God. In the past year or so I have added the following practices to my tool chest:

  • contemplative prayer
  • praying the daily office
  • taize
  • candles as a means of focusing worship
  • the sign of the cross
  • meditative walks
  • recognizing God’s presense in the mundane
  • liturgy

Each of these spiritual practices has helped me draw nearer to the mystery of Christ and grow in my relationship with the triune God. As a father of three, I only wish I had the discipline to practice them more in the midst of my busy, frequently tired lifestyle.

I believe that a good missional community provides a framework for its members to pursue spiritual practices both individually and in community, drawing from the two thousand year tradition of the Church in all of its flavors – evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on. These spiritual practices provide the foundation for growth in Christ which allows the community to bring the church to the world.

The ‘Community’ in Missional Community

The second characteristic of missional community as I define it is “pursuing community on a daily basis with others both inside and outside of the community.”

The reality is that at least in the United States, this is not how the church lives today. We live our lives – individually – during the week, and then commute to our regional mega-church (or even local less-than-mega-church) on the weekends for our fill of “church”. The more committed may go to church more than once per week, and even involve themselves in small groups, but with a few exceptions, we don’t see the kind of daily Christian community that we see in the Book of Acts.

Which is both a shame and a major threat to the continuing existence of the Church.

I’m going to go out on a post-modern limb here, but I am becoming more and more convinced that the modernist structures of church which have, at various times, served the church well in the past no longer function. Instead of making disciples, we meet the needs of our consumer congregations. Rather than influencing the world, we tend to lock ourselves away in the “Christian ghetto” in an attempt to try to protect ourselves from being influenced by the world (or even worse, we use the machinery of the state to expand that “protection” to others who do not even want it). And instead of reaching the lost, we by and large grow our congregations by poaching existing believers from other, “less hip” churches.

Now, that being said, I want to make it clear that I do not consider the faith of those involved in traditional churches (be they evangelical, mainline, Catholic, Orthodox, or what have you) to be defective, nor state that those churches do not have a valuable role and purpose. In fact, I am involved in one myself. However, my point is that in the long-term, the traditional church structure as it exists today will continue to decline, and only a radical re-imagining of the church will allow the Gospel to continue to expand in the post-modern world.

Like the monastic movement which kept the faith alive through the middle ages, we may be entering a period where a newly imagined church will be required to keep Christ’s lamp lit through a difficult period of transformation for the world. And the existing church structures, increasingly co-opted by the principalities and powers of consumerist culture, simply are ill-equipped in the face of the challenges ahead of them.

I believe this is where the community aspect of missional community comes in.

It is in community that we can pursue new rhythms of live – accountably – which will help us swim against the tide of consumerism which has enveloped our society.

It is in community that we can support one another financially in the event of economic calamities, so that our brothers and sisters in community can continue to be fed at the banquet table of the Lord.

It is in community that we can raise our kids to hold fast to the powerful good news of Christ in the midst of a world which increasingly doesn’t care.

It is in community that we can show the world a different way – a way that I believe is so attractive that it will challenge many to start caring and join in.

It is this last point which leads me to the question of “who is this community for?” I would argue that the community is not only for those who are members of it, or even more broadly for “Christians.” But in fact, the community exists BOTH for those inside and for those outside of its boundaries. In this sense, the types of missional communities which will sustain the Church in the 21st century will be those which model the radical inclusivity of Jesus in their dealings with the world.

It is this very inclusivity – the bringing of the church to people rather than attracting them to “church” once a week – which will allow the church to embed itself into our post-modern world as another – and I would argue better – alternative to the rampant consumerism which is killing our planet and driving us off an economic cliff.

The ‘Missional’ in Missional Community

In my previous post, I mentioned that one of the four goals of missional community was “living a missional lifestyle to befriend, love, and care for a specific group of people.”

Let me unpack that.

When I was in college, the word we used to describe what I now believe is being called “missional” was “incarnational.” In other words, Jesus incarnated – became flesh – and lived with us. He experienced all that humanity had to offer while at the same time remaining fully divine. And then he sent us out to do the same for the world around us (without the divine part).

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, the church lost track of the concept of the incarnation – the idea that Jesus and his followers should take the kingdom of God with them to a hurting world around them – and instead chose to create an alternative society which left the world. The redemption of the world was replaced by the concept of eternal fire insurance, where a faithful remnant would hold fast and try to pull as many people from the burning world as possible before it was consumed. I believe that, by and large, this is where the American church stands today.

We see the consequences of this choice all around us. Rather than seeking to reach out to people with values different from ours in love, we wage a culture war against them to “protect our children” from them. Rather than spending our resources on behalf of the poor, we build larger buildings and fancier ministries for those who are like us. And rather than taking the church into the neighborhood with the object of recruiting new citizens for the kingdom of God, we poach the already-believers as the overall membership of the church sags.

Let me step back a minute before this starts to sound like a polemic. I believe that the church in America is trying to do the best it can with what it has been given. But I also believe that God is doing something new in our midst – he is crafting new wineskins for each of us so that we can join him in the next phase of his story. It’s never comfortable to take on new wineskins, but the alternative is no wine at all, and who wants that, really?

I believe the “new wine” that Christ has for us today is a re-orientation of our “mission” away from the provision of fire insurance to a dying world. Instead, God is calling us to work along side of him and amongst the people he loves to bring redemption into a hurting world.

God has given each of us a community of people – believers and others at various places on the path – to whom we are to model the incarnational love of God. Remember, Jesus’ call was not MERELY for us to preach the Gospel to all nations, but to make disciples of them as well. Discipleship can begin far before the “moment of decision” and certainly does not end when someone prays the sinner’s prayer.

To be continued…

Missional Community

As God has led me in a new direction – post-evangelical, missional, and emerging – the reality of the disconnect between our lives as Christians in 21st century America and the lives I see modeled by Jesus, the disciples, and the early church has become ever more jarring. This is not to say that I have adopted a view which states that it is impossible to find and follow Christ as a “normal American Christian.” I am certain that God is present in the American church as He is present in His Church around the world.

But I think there’s more. We’re satisfied with the small glimpse of the kingdom of God which we allow ourselves when God wants us to experience much more of the fullness of His kingdom (remaining well aware that there is still more fullness to come when He brings about the new heaven and the new earth down the road).

So it is with this tension in mind that I am beginning to think seriously about what it might look like for myself, my family, and my friends to seek the greater presence of the Kingdom in our lives. And at least at this point, the idea I am toying with is something I am calling “missional community” (apologies to others who may have elaborated on this idea before or in better/different ways).

In my vision of “missional community,” a number of families and a number of singles would move into a neighborhood together with several goals in mind:

  • Living a missional lifestyle to befriend, love, and care for a specific group of people.
  • Pursuing community on a daily basis with others both inside and outside of the community.
  • Living common spiritual practices together to increase the depth of the members’ faith.
  • Giving sacrificially to ensure that other community members can remain in community regardless of difficult economic circumstances and that the needy outside of the community can be blessed.

I’m not quite sure that I would go as far as to call this type of community a “missional order” or a “New Monastic” one, but certainly it draws from that movement.

I’m sure I will have more to say on this topic over time, but this is just a beginning of the thought process for me. In the end, whether it comes into being is mostly a factor of whether it is God or myself who has set these thoughts in motion.