A version of some thinking we’ve been doing as Brethren in Christ church planters.
I think the story of Jesus and our own stories of following the Lord’s lead are crucial to church planting in this next era. A person entering our meeting has plenty of preconceived notions about what church is in the United States. They need to run into a person whose story is being written with Jesus, not just a story that can beam in on a screen – they are up to their eyeballs in those, and not just someone else’s story — like the ones written in the Bible.
I think Circle of Hope has a unique story about living out the historic Brethren in Christ ethos to offer as a gift to our post-Christian culture. Our leaders are feverishly trying to manage our “mosaic” with less resources all the time and with outdated practices, so we will see how we fare in the coming era — that story is being written. So far, it looks like we are getting further fragmented instead of united in love. Some of the reasons for that may have to do with a lack of dialogue about who God is calling us to be in a changing world. It seems like many of us have outsourced thinking to our leaders and they don’t have that much time to do it!
How we see the new environment being created before our eyes may help us decide what we ought to do to follow Jesus through it. Here are the two most common ways people find a way through: as a migrant or as a tourist.
William T. Cavanaugh is the director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. His newest book Migrations of the Holy is a great encouragement for church planters who are facing the great divide happening right now in Western history: the move into post-Christian culture and post-modern thinking. The BIC have been a small boat on stormy seas for most of their history. This may be the biggest storm yet, and we’ll see if the boat can survive it. Technology, capitalism and war have created a global economy with all new assumptions and it presents a host of challenges for Jesus followers, especially the followers who want to multiply their churches, either a cell or a congregation.
Cavanaugh says that every person in a globalized world dominated by nation states and the giant corporations that keep the states going for their profit has three choices for dealing with their mobility: they can be a migrant, a tourist or a pilgrim. What I mean by mobility is very broad. An obvious example is: we travel — like travelling across the country for a meeting or planning a destination wedding. We change countries – like I moved from California to Central PA – a true cross cultural experience (yes, I know they are supposedly in the same nation). Even more, our relationships and ideas are mobile. We carry mobile phones and the younger we are, the more connected to them we are.
Navigating these circumstances as a group takes some good communication. Here’s an attempt to give us some fuel for dialogue about church planting in our era, before all we are talking about is the latest episode of the Walking Dead (and, of course, becoming them). Are we migrants or tourists? The Brethren in Christ, historically, have reflected each of these circumstances: migrant, tourist and pilgrim. We’ll talk about pilgrim next time.
A migrant is person who has exercised border-crossing mobility. The nation states have freed the movement of capital across national lines, but they have not freed the movement of labor, by and large. So migrants are points of contention in most places. U.S. money can go to Mexican factories just across the border, but Mexicans cannot come to the U.S. to get it the same way Americans get it. The borders try to deal with the question of identity with which postmodernity is consumed — are you an indentifiable, legal someone or not? For instance, the Mennonites are breaking apart over sexual identity — they are being forced over mental and religious borders by philosophy, governments and corporations. The BIC decided to call the denomination a “mosaic” because we do not have much of a practical identity.
The original Brethren in Christ in this country were part of the radical reformation Christians who migrated into William Penn’s generous idea of a commonwealth. They maintained their language and religious traditions. They were migrants. I choose to think they had an Anabaptist sense of separation, practical holiness and community. But they were also migrants who banded together to preserve their past and common identity. They found their identity by being “other” than the rest of the people. A lot of churches are self-protective migrants who don’t connect to the country. Peter and Paul call new believers to adopt this identity as aliens and strangers in any number of passages. To this discipleship, the BIC in the new world had the overlay of being a migrant people who were not accepted in the mainstream. They did not have to leave the world, they were rejected by it and had to find their own way.
You can see how someone new to the Brethren in Christ might like to become an Anabaptist theologically with a New Testament sense of being a stranger and alien because of the community’s radical faith. Meanwhile, people whose ancestors were migrants might enjoy becoming part of the mainstream. I like to see myself and our church as invasive separatists. But I think most Anabaptists these days are invaded separatists. They are not aliens in their identity, they are merely alienated migrants consumed, like everyone else, with finding their seat at the national table.
A second way Cavanaugh sees that a believer can navigate the global world we live in is to be a tourist. This will be more familiar to most of us, I think. The migrant sees the bordered world from below, like the Mexicans in my neighborhood who keep an absolute vacant face until they see someone they know. The tourist sees the world from above, a giant white man with plenty of money to travel and experience all the interesting people looking up at him as he peers through his imperial magnifying glass. That’s how they exercise their mobility. It is an interesting phenomenon of the loose borders of the postmodern world: one can scan the globe and imagine herself engaged with “otherness” in any part of it.
Not long ago I was in Disney World for a couple of days. Disney is the epitome of tourist experience of reality. From the beginning of our visit it was “make a memory” and “dreams will come true.” There was a princess from every culture plus a fairy one to offer the propaganda. This is a very common way for Americans to see the world, as tourists expecting their dreams to come true. Disney collects all the otherness for you so you don’t even need to cross the safety of the border.
Disney is a magical experience put on by cast members. I think it is extremely tempting to be cast members of a memorable experience each week when we put on worship shows — since people will love them. If we can get them to wear our brand, like Mickey Mouse ears, they might even love it all better. Some huge churches have perfected tourist Christianity. I think the BIC have tried hard at this too, mostly unsuccessfully.
It is hard not to think that when the Brethren in Christ were invaded by the holiness doctrine in the 1880’s and into the twentieth century that it was a little bit touristy and that is why it was so roundly criticized and why we managed to squeeze out the excesses of the movement. I think it was an intriguing encounter with “otherness.” The United States was turning into a common country with common communication devices and a government that was capable of infiltrating its entire territory with force and taxation. Magazines and new ideas spread like wildfire. And the BIC were also intrigued. I choose to think of their interest in the holiness movement as interest in the movement of God’s Spirit. But I also think that people were sick of Anabaptist culture without its reformation fire and Pietism that had become legalistic principles and practices. So they built camps to hold revival meetings that generated the intriguing experiences and which eventually became spots to vacation. By this time most of the holiness-oriented churches in the BIC are dying out or have turned over to evangelicalism and just complain that the denomination has lost Pentecostal fire.
You can see how many people in this era might be attracted to people who have an authentic relationship with the living God, spirit to Spirit. You can also see how people who were still living out 1910 in 1980 would like to get on with it and sing like Disney with everyone else. Holiness makes a person weird. And being weird makes you an object of the state’s protection, not an actual member of the community. It is always tempting to offer what people are buying.
What is your story? Is our church filled with migrants and tourists? I think Jesus, the Bible writers and radicals from the history of the church, have offered us a better model: the pilgrim. But before we get to that, it might make sense to assess where we are starting. Is our story just a variation on the movement of the global economy? Or do we follow a different Lord?
The companion to this piece follows:
THINKING like we ought to belong together — even these days
Here is the lead in
What it takes to plant churches