What kind of church will you be part of? 

i have written a little bit before about my diving into studies this year with a course called Leadership in Urban Transformation, a one year certificate through the University of Pretoria looking at Theology and the City.

This week finds us in week four of our physical class weeks and so i had an assignment due and read a book called ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ by Walter Brueggemann to prepare myself for it. Inspiring and challenging book – do yourself a favour.

Anyways, i thought i would take the chance to share a few of the Brueggeman passages that i used in my assignment and give you a glimpse of some of the associated thoughts i had while doing it. Hopefully this might inspire some thoughts of your own…

Culture of the Day

‘The essential question of the church is whether or not its prophetic voice has been co-opted into the culture of the day. The community of God’s people who are striving to remain faithful to the whole counsel of God’s Word will be prophetic voices crying out in the wilderness of the dominant culture of the day.’ [Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination]

When we read ‘culture of the day’ we typically think of Empire and the Rome vs. South Africa comparisons. Who are government? What is their aim? What are the leading ideologies and paradigms that we operate under today? What belongs to Caesar? And so on.

But I want to suggest that there is another level of asking this question – that would definitely be seen as blasphemy to a good many – and that is a church-as-religious-institution vs. church-as-followers-of-Jesus dichotomy.

What questions, challenges and reflections can we hold up against the ‘dominant culture of the day’ when it comes to the offline traditional institutional church?

Are there any aspects of Sunday church that prohibit or stifle any genuine attempts at being church?

Are there any parts of Sunday church that distract us from what it should mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ once we’re outside of the building?

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An Alternative Perception of Reality

As Brueggeman points out, ‘I have tried to say that prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Rather, prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and His will for justice. The issues of God’s freedom and His will for justice are not always and need not be expressed primarily in the big issues of the day. They can be discerned wherever people try to live together and show concern for their shared future and identity.’ 

‘An alternative perception of reality’ is one which points at the Sunday thing where the people meet at the place to do that stuff and dares to suggest that ‘Church might potentially be bigger than that’.

i wonder if it’s possible for you to entertain that thought without rushing to the conclusion that i am somehow bashing church?

Any ideas that suggest that some form of intentional gathering of Christ followers that doesn’t happen on a Sunday might still be considered church tend to be met by deep suspicion by those who ‘know that church happens on a Sunday’.

We use terms like ‘para-church’ organisation to make sure that people know that as churchlike and as following-Jesus-and-doing-the-thing-of-Jesus-together as that thing might seem, it is definitely not church! Almost church, sure. Kinda church, absolutely. But not really the real thing that we know as church, right? So don’t dare call it church cos that is what happens on a Sunday with those people at that place. Why else would we say the phrase, “go to church”?

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Prophetic Energising and the Emergence of Amazement

When trying to answer the question, ‘How do I gather a group of people who might respond to an invitation to reimagine an online church community?’ Brueggeman in a chapter titled ‘Prophetic Energizing and the Emergence of Amazement’ and in a section called ‘Penetrating Despair’ speaks directly into that by calling us to Three Actions:

Symbols: the offering of symbols that are adequate to contradict a situation of hopelessness in which newness is unthinkable

Hope and Yearning: Hope, on the one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion, and one does that only at great political and existential risk.

Speech about hope cannot be explanatory and scientifically argumentative; rather it must be lyrical in the sense that it touches the hopeless person at many different points. More than that, however, speech about hope must be primarily theological, which is to say that it must be in the language of a covenant between a personal God and a community. Promise belongs to the world of trusting speech and faithful listening. It will not be reduced to the “cool” language of philosophy or the private discourse of psychology. It will finally be about God and us, about His faithfulness that vetoes our faithlessness. Those who would be prophetic will need to embrace that absurd practice and that subversive activity.

Newness that redefines: The prophet must speak metaphorically about hope but concretely about the real newness that comes to us and redefines our situation.

In terms of an online church gathering of somewhat frustrated or disillusioned Christ followers, that hope in particular is crucial to any kind of buy-in. The antidote to the sense of deep sadness that accompanies discovering that the answer you believed in might not in fact hold truth is an absurd ‘What if?’ to directly challenge your initial conclusion.

Casting a vision of the ‘What if?’ that resonates with people’s present hopes and satisfies their inward yearnings is the way to pique their interest.  What if I don’t have to throw out church completely? What if it is all about reimagining or understanding what church is differently? Because therein lies the rub. I am not in any way at all trying to introduce a new vision of what church might be, but simply cast people’s eyes and vision back to how I see Jesus having intended church be all about ever since the beginning.

i was very much attracted to a quote that says, “We will never change the world by going to church. We will only change the world by being the church.” That in itself provides a symbol of the distinction between that which is believed and that which is known or experienced. The quote is written over an outdoor mountain scene which itself is a stark reminder that church does not only happen indoors.

One significant factor concerning the ministry of Jesus was that He spent time in the temple and He spent time on the side of mountains. And both would be categorised as being and doing church as no matter what venue He inhabited Jesus busied Himself with the things of God.

When it comes to ‘Newness that Redefines’ that feels like exactly the hook that is needed.

Stories of people who have been ‘in church’ their whole lives but are now feeling/seeing the disconnect between what they believe and what they see lived out; many of the people in the ‘Love Jesus, not so sure about church’ community have been pulled towards various acts of social justice and personal engagement with the world outside of the church building and are not seeing that backed up by the preaching or in many cases the lived out experience of the church – when the Justice Conference in South Africa in March 2017 joined the dots between Jesus and Social Justice, so many people saw this as a revolutionary new concept as opposed to something they should have so easily spotted again and again throughout the whole story of Scripture; thirdly when it comes to money I know a lot of people [myself included] have struggled with a model where the majority of tithe is spent on buildings and salaries and not so much the needs of the marginalised.

Into each of these spaces a ‘Newness that Redefines’ speaks boldly and confidently into what might be. Again, not creating a new thing so much as going back to the original blueprints and realising that we had perhaps not paid careful enough attention the first time around.

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Daring to dream of something new

Brueggemann suggests that something that slows us down or potentially stops us completely from designing something new is considering the practical aspects of that thing. If we focus on how it might practically work, we can lose sight of simply letting our minds and spirits wander to all the beautiful and exciting possibilities that might be.

‘How can we have enough freedom to imagine and articulate a real historical newness in our situation? That is not to ask, as Israel’s prophets ever asked, if this freedom is realistic or politically practical or economically viable. To begin with such questions is to concede everything to the royal consciousness even before we begin. We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.’

And a little further, ‘The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.

The same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.’

I think perhaps that this is the key – we can tend to get sidetracked, slowed down or paralysed completely by the practical implications of a new way that we never make it to the point of imagining what that new way might look like.

There will be a time when you need to get practical and figure out the nuts and bolts of the new reality, but perhaps by creating a large enough space, and maybe letting the artists and poets and song writers run loose ahead of the pack, we will be able to dream up an alternative future that is so appealing to us, that we will collectively do whatever it takes to bring it closer to reality.

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When i think of church, what comes to mind is the people of God doing the stuff of God together. Jesus spoke about it in that prayer – Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven – we see strains of it in Matthew 6 – Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and all these things will be added unto you –  there are loud, bellowing, strains of it in the greatest commandment – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself – as well as in Jesus’ call to discipleship – If anyone would follow Me, they should deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow Me – and we definitely see it in that most stunning of passages in Acts 2 which paint a picture of a church that just churched every day in every way:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

How absolutely tiny a picture of church you must have if it only happens once a week and doesn’t have any discernible impact on much that happens throughout the rest of your week.

How small your picture of church if it never speaks to your money and how you spend it and how you give it away?

How trivial your image of church must be if it doesn’t give space for as well as compel you [by the love of Christ in you] to be hands on involved in some way with those who might be described as ‘the least of these’.

How offensive your idea of church must be if it doesn’t somehow inform the way you pay those who work for you, or cause you to act when there is a water crisis in your city, or leave you with the belief that you are somehow better than someone who looks different to you simply because of skin colour or race.

i want nothing to do with that kind of church.

But a group of people who love Jesus and are looking to live out Love-inspired lives that invest in the people and planet around them and are willing to wrestle and experiment and get it wrong and get up and try again and be honest about their pain and struggles and doubts and fears? Well bring that group on. Because that sounds like church to me. i imagine it sounds like church to Jesus too.