I'm currently processing how the ecclesiological imagination inherited from Christendom (modernity, and more particularly Protestantism/Evangelicalism) influences our current church endeavors, and how a freed missional imagination may envision a more faithful embodied witness of Jesus and his church. I began by discussing some issues our church encountered along our missional church planting journey (Are we there yet?). Last week I suggested that hidden within our language and reasons for shutting the doors of a church reveals that our imagination for “what church is” is stuck on the practice of Sunday worship (Sunday is not Church). This week I hope to move us away from viewing the Christian life as an autonomous experience and move us toward a communal ecclesia.
The late Christendom, and more particularly the Protestant/Evangelical, imagination sees both salvation and the life we live as an individual experience governed by personal freedom. This imagination leads not only to autonomous churches but also autonomous Christian living. In this sense, churches are centered around (or founded upon) Sunday morning experiences where music creates an atmosphere for the individual to have a personal experience with the Word of God preached from the pulpit (or stage). Once an individual says yes to Jesus (gets “saved”) very little, if anything, often changes regarding the lives they live.
This is not church. The person remains an autonomous individual with no deeper invitation into community or participation as co-creator. Some may join a small group or volunteer on Sunday morning but their relationship with God remains strictly personal and belief-oriented. How God may be working in the world and/or organizing his people (including the individual) does not enter their consciousness. We need a new imagination to center our churches around. One that breaks free of autonomy.
The Gospel, Salvation, and Ecclesiological Imagination
The Gospel is about so much more than salvation and the Church is about so much more than a Sunday service. Some components of the Gospel are often ignored: the establishment of a new King in Jesus, and the politics and economy of his Kingdom. When we are planting or leading a church, we are submitting ourselves to the governing presence of Jesus that includes his politics and economy. As citizens of this Kingdom we are encouraged through our participation in the politics and economics of Jesus so much that we choose to leave behind our autonomy and learn to live in mutual submission to one another. In doing so, we become a Christ-embodied people of God (the church), called and formed to be a people for the world.
Regarding salvation, when we suggest that someone is saved we often think of what they have been saved from but we rarely think about what they are being saved into and for what purpose. Similarly, social justice folks often think of liberating oppressed individuals and people groups from their oppressors but rarely do they consider what they are being liberated into. These are questions the missional church must consider from the beginning. When we say we are planting a church, we are suggesting that we are participating with God in forming a new people who are both becoming and co-creating (with God) the new creation.
On Facebook the other day, David Fitch discussed the phenomenology of salvation: "The shift from accepting Jesus as Savior (and Lord) to submitting to (putting complete trust in) Jesus as Lord (and Savior) fundamentally changes the phenomenology (experience) of salvation. From seeing/experiencing God at work in me (first) to seeing God at work in the world (first) governing all things in Christ for His purposes. Into this I am saved." This shift also fundamentally changes the phenomenology of ecclesia (church).
When we say that we are establishing new ecclesia** (planting a church), we are in essence submitting to Jesus as Lord as he forms a community of people participating with God at work in the world via Christ’s governing. With Jesus as Lord, we begin to organize ourselves around his politics (way of being) and economics. The fruit of such work looks a lot less like a Sunday morning worship gathering and a lot more like local fraternal communities. I want to use the language of family here but my fear is that our view of family is still too nuclear.
A Debt Based Economy and the Church
One dominant narrative creating a significant amount of stress and anxiety for individuals is our debt based economy. The average student now graduates with close to $40K in student loan debt. (The figure would be much higher if you take out students who do not use student loans.) This means the average person is already $10K in debt after one year of adulthood. Add on car loans, credit cards, mortgages, etc., many many people struggle with stress and anxiety due to debt. Stress and anxiety cause many to feel as though they’re drowning.
In the world of autonomous Christian worship, the person drowning in debt, stress, and anxiety may come to a Sunday service seeking some form of hope, hear the message of “salvation” and say, “Yes! I need hope and salvation.” During the worship, the person may be crying out to God for help with the stress and anxiety while sitting right next to him are others thanking God for a new raise and bonus. Unfortunately, the thought of how the economics of Jesus could be drawing them together never cross their minds. In the economics of Jesus, the one who has much should discover ways to help the one with little. In this scenario above, the one who just got a raise and a bonus could learn how she may help the one filled with stress and anxiety.
In a communal ecclesia**, there are many ways for a person to be liberated from a debt based economy in order to learn to live into the economics of Jesus. At Hill City, we have discovered that as long as a person is in debt, they are not fully free to live fully live into the mission of God. A person in debt is more dependent upon their job, often forced to work longer hours, and their income is tied up paying banks interest while paying off loans. We are asking how to escape this reality so that we can spend more time with one another as well as our neighbors.
We have and are continuing to live together in order to share the burden of the high cost of living in Northern Virginia. Those in our community skilled in budgeting sit down with others to review their debts, spending habits, and teach them about money. And we are learning to share resources. My family couldn't afford to purchase a car several years ago, but we realized a neighbor also needed a car and had a different commuting schedule, so we pooled our money and purchased a car we shared together. This arrangement worked very well until yet another family gave us their old car when they purchased a van. When our neighbors, coworkers, and family learn of these stories they are always intrigued.
These practices are not in and of themselves church but they do begin to form and reveal the communal ecclesia in action. The person stuck in debt is not simply given the hope of Jesus but invited into our community as an act of his love. We make room for them in our home, share our resources, and learn to budget together. The result is a greater appreciation for the Way of Jesus and a stronger spirit of love and gratitude in the communal ecclesia. As the person feels more comfortable, their gifts and talents are revealed and bless the community as well.
The autonomous evangelical experience looks at the person with debt and says, “I will pray for you.” The autonomous progressive experience looks at him and says, “Your debt is an injustice!” But the communal ecclesial experience sees the person and their debt, invites them in and bears the burden with together.
**As I continue to work out a new imagination for the missional church I am interchanging some language. Especially language around the idea of church/ecclesia/local community. This is an intentional attempt to help break up our old imagination.