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Disturbing French church buildings — and what we’re not building

church ruins in Lyon

Lyon was beautiful to see. But Lyon was disturbing.

But then I could probably say that about you. You are undoubtedly a beautiful, even wondrous piece of God’s art, but you are disturbing at times.

The world is so beautiful! – it stretched out mile after mile in the French countryside. I saw it. But it is also disturbing.

In Lyon on a beautiful day, we tore ourselves from the lovely view on the bridge over the Saone River and came to St. John the Baptist Cathedral in the Old City (a UNESCO site). Behind the cathedral were the remains of even older church buildings. All that remains of them are an artful arch, a remarkable baptistry surviving from the 4th century and stubby markers of where there used to be walls (my pic above).

St. John the Baptist Cathedral church building in Lyon
Those niches below the rose window used to have statues

The French Revolution

What had remained of the churches of Saint Stephen and the Holy Cross in Lyon were reportedly destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-92) like so many old church buildings were torn down and often used as quarries after they were nationalized. The still-standing cathedral was spared because it was turned into a “temple of reason.” Somehow the ancient baptistry survived. You can read more about the destruction of church buildings here. We saw even more ambitious vengeance when we visited Cluny, a huge, bucket-list, historic complex reduced to almost nothing. When we visited Fontenay Abbey, founded by St. Bernard (also on my bucket list), we saw it stripped to the bones.

After visiting Versailles and Fontainebleau, I could understand even more why people wanted to destroy the ancien regime with its fully-politicized and oppressive church. I have never really been comfortable with most churches dominated by powerful men. I could not even spend a full day at the famous Taize last week, when I realized how women were marginalized. The need for change felt like an emotional itch that needed to be scratched then and now.

As I wandered through history, I could not help wondering what the revolutionaries are doing to the present-day church once I got a personal look at what they did in the past. It did not work out that well in France.  After a decade of hysteria, villainy, murder and ineptitude the French Revolution ended up with Napoleon, ensconced again at Fontainebleau. The U.S. might be ripe for the same kind of thing and install Trump or DeSantis. Meanwhile, its fully-politicized church, largely listening to Fox News (or not), would keep tearing itself apart as surely as people literally tore down stones in Lyon.

missing statues heads on the church in Lyon
A couple of survivors got their heads chopped off.

The age of the Huguenots

The Church of John the Baptist in Lyon is striking. When you look at it more closely, you realize it has also been struck. That fact speaks to me.

One of its founders was St. Irenaeus (b. 130!). By 450, a bishop built a big building there. By 1079 the archbishop there was named the “Primate of all the Gauls.” The present building was begun in 1180 and called complete in 1476 (these buildings are all a constant rehab project). Some people blame the missing and defaced statues on the cathedral on an outbreak of Huguenot  looting in 1562. Huguenots were statue-hating Protestants like John Calvin (92 miles away in Geneva who died in 1564). They were kin to the Puritans in England and the U.S. There is a lot of church history in your face as you face the church, which left me with more questions than answers.

The church I experienced for most of my adulthood feels a bit looted, of late, from the right and the left of the political spectrum. Part of that is me being old. But more, I feel violated because, just like the Huguenots and like the Revolutionaries who followed them, reaction to the horrible excesses and corruption of the rulers these days is more about tearing down the past than building a sustainable future. I told one of my guides we spent some time in the church during one of our tourist stops and he gave me a pitying and puzzled look. I said, “We’re like that.” But he was surprised anyone still is. The French church has never recovered from the Huguenot wars and the Revolution. I have a lot of friends who aren’t recovering very well right now, too.

I am disappointed over how often the newly-powerful keep doing the same damned things that are as plain as the nose on your saint’s face — chipped right off a Lyon statue! The new regime often throws the baby out with the dirty bath water when they throw a statue into the Saone. (I am not sure anyone did that but those statues are somewhere!). Yet another leader turns out to be a sexual predator and it is off with everyone’s head and burn some books. The ever-present powermongers get a whiff of how they could use your convictions for further profit or fame and we all think being at loggerheads is normal and every institution needs purifying (often in the name of tolerance and intolerance).

What Church are we building?

It seems I must have visited most of the French church buildings by now — they leave them open, so we go in to pray or sing. They were often beautiful – so regularly beautiful you begin to take for granted the art, skill and passion that went into creating them. But they were disturbing. Empty. Echoing with violence and corruption as well as with praise. I met God repeatedly and wonderfully in them – but they have a lot yet to teach me.

We are in the process of making ruins of the 20th century church. I admit to abandoning it once Ronald Reagan got a hold of it. I probably threw out some babies. There is a lot worthy of reform and I hope we are doing it somehow. But I can’t see what we are building. The lovely things so many people attempted to build in the last 20 years are being swept away for what?

History has a lot to teach us about what creates faith lived out in community. The French revolutionaries thought history began with them so they missed some lessons. I can sympathize with them, though, and I feel the fervor of people who want change now — when it comes to racism, sexism, gun proliferation and climate policy, among many things, so do I. But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

The church in the rearview mirror

I went on retreat last week because my class required it. I wanted to go, theoretically, but I had a lot of natural resistance born of the grief I bear over the loss of my community. I’m glad I went. No matter how many times I experience it, it is always a wonder to feel the ocean of grace in which we swim when life is feeling dry.

If you are grieving (and what Covid-experiencing person is not?) or depressed, or in some other state of mental illness (which is the broad plain on which we all stand right now), you probably feel some resistance to doing what is good for you, too. Like someone texts and asks, “You want to get a drink?” You look at your sweats and reply, “Don’t think so. Early day tomorrow.” Then you sit back down on the couch and wonder, “Why did I do that?” Maybe you call them back. Maybe you get another bowl of ice cream. It is resistance. I had some.

My retreat view

Nevertheless, there I was in Brigantine looking up the beach to Atlantic City from the 7th floor of that weird resort that sticks out like a sore thumb. I love to walk on the beach, so I did. I don’t usually walk with headphones in like everyone else, but I did. I don’t know why I retain the Dave Crowder Band in my iTunes worship playlist, but there he was:

He is jealous for me;
loves like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory.
And I realize just how beautiful You are
and how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so.
Oh, how He loves us,
how He loves us so!

I sang on the deserted beach, “You love me. Oh, how you love me.” And tears surprised me. I needed to remember. I needed to keep walking, with my afflictions eclipsed by glory.

Don’t hold on to the church that was

I’ve been having a tough time living outside of community for over a year, now. I don’t really move on. I retain a sense of belonging to all the places I have been before. I’ve always left them with a blessing and mutual care. Not this time.

As I read through my journal from the last three months, I came across a moment when I was quite low and felt drawn to sit in the chair before my icon wall and see if they said anything to me. There was Mary Magdalene kneeling before Jesus outside the tomb. He told her, and he told me, not to hold on to him.

This exchange between Mary and Jesus always says a lot. That’s why it became a well-known icon. This time I heard it revealing how Mary is holding on to this splendid moment. Jesus tells her, “There is more to come. Go tell people it is coming.” More specifically to me, I heard. “Don’t hang on to the Jesus that was – as wonderful as that experience was. There is more to come for you and them.” I have been waiting in the upper room, more like wandering in my wilderness. And the time has come.

I finally needed to see my old church in the rearview mirror. I don’t mean like the Meatloaf song, exactly. But I’m sure you’re missing him, too. I mean I had to finally admit the old church is gone (which is fine, things grow and change) and the new church does not want me there. Actually, the email the Leadership Team sent to me had a policy statement for former pastors attached which said something like, “Here’s how you do not exist here for another year and then we can negotiate your return.”

Time to move on

Miller with his workbook

Even though I have this big feeling that bothers me, when I look at the road ahead, as short as my road may be, I know there is an awful lot of beautiful scenery coming. Last week I had two experiences that made the way clearer. I got officially shipped out by my former leaders and I picked up Donald Miller’s book A Hero on a Journey.

I did not like Blue Like Jazz (Miller’s best seller). As it turns out, he also doesn’t like it that much anymore. I’m not super jazzed by his new book either. But he doesn’t think it needs to be perfect. He’s changing. I’m changing. And I am surprised he is helping me.  One of my clients is reading the book, so I thought I’d check it out. Among the many good things Miller does as he channels Victor Frankel, Jesus, and any number of entrepreneur gurus, is to remind me that meaningful lives happen when you are going somewhere you want to go and you name it.

That’s how Circle of Hope got going. It was all about being the church for the next generation. I wanted to go there. I hope that is where it is going now. I may not know much about that because I think people aren’t supposed to talk to me. But I’ve decided to keep going and I trust they will, too. We’ll all meet up again someday. Jesus is still walking beside me, but right now he’s like one of those companions whose step is always a bit ahead of yours. They are with you, but they know the way. As a result, new things happen. Here I am writing memoir style like Miller, assuming you’ll benefit. Here I am looking into what is next, knowing Jesus knows the way just as he has always demonstrated. Who knows what could happen?

This leg of my journey is starting out like the Gotye song that interested me so much in 2013 (and has interested 1.5 billion viewers on YouTube since). There has been a lot of cutting off since 2013 (and remember it’s counterpart “ghosting?”). I got a four-page policy statement detailing how they would “treat me like a stranger.” And yes, “That feels so rough.” It’s a loss. Telling a bit of the story feels like a good way to get moving.

As influential people pushed me toward the edge, I started noticing how many people out there are in the same boat — out to sea in an ocean of pandemic and institutional crises. I had wanted to prevent such disaster in my church with my elaborate transition strategy. But that didn’t pan out. (I’m from The Golden State). I can accept that fact. We are all moving on. Jesus is excellent at finding a new way.

Turn into the wind

I can’t imagine myself living outside the church in the future. I’ve never been outside of community like I am, for now. After I got the email it was final. I wrote them back and wished them well. And I definitely meant that – I love those people and I love their church. Jesus is walking beside them this very moment. Who knows what could happen? I suggested they call me up (or text, of course), now that they have me situated.

Whatever good things I am finding as I hit the road, it is still hard to see that church, the old one and the new one, in the rearview mirror.

And yet it is shockingly easy to turn into the sea breeze and find myself singing

You love like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of your wind and mercy.
Oh, how you love me!

Why Five Congregations?: It is more than a strategy

Becoming part of any organization, from a corporation to a little league can be very confusing for a while — a church, especially Circle of Hope,  is not that different. You can walk into all our meeting places, except Ridge Ave, when no one is there and any number of people who come in will ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me about the same time and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Most of you meetings are on Sunday night?” Once the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit. They predictably said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in five congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). People need a lot of Jesus doorways in different forms.

  • We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us.
  • We are slaves to our own understanding; we need reconnected to what is beyond us.
  • We are sinful and broken; it is only by the work of Jesus and his merit that we can be forgiven, and restored.

We want to make Jesus accessible like he has made God accessible to us. That’s why we are five congregations in one church.

More directly, we have a great purpose and we are doing the best we can to live up to it. The Bible gives us a mission statement for our family business. It guides us. People call it “the great commission.” It is Jesus’ last words to his disciples.

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

The essence of the Lords’ plan for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. We have planned our life together to do what we have been given to do, making the most of what we have to make an impact in our time and place.

More practically and specifically we are five congregations because it is an practical, radical, attractive strategy. Some people reading this might bristle as soon as the word “strategy” is used, but it is what it is. Strategy is just about getting from here to there in the best way we can imagine. We’re trying “to get to” making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. It is at least possible that Jesus uses billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, charismatic talking heads on big screens and all that to call together disciples. But his main strategy is you and me and anyone else we can get to follow him telling someone else that he is our way, truth and life, now — and showing that in a way that can touch our hearts and minds, face to face. We might not be as desirous or patient as God, but the Lord has decided to need us, even if we have not decided to need Jesus, yet.

So our strategy is to go with Jesus on this, he is the way. His way is our way. He is the truth and the life; we want people to get to God and their true selves through his work. We also presume that you will hear and feel the great commission and be a follower who connects with others who will eventually follow the Lord you follow. You love God and you love them so you find ways to makes a connection just like God found a way to connect to you. If you don’t care about that, we are mostly out of business, because that is what our family business is.

Here is how we do it.

We make a cell. That is how Circle of Hope started, with the nucleus of one cell. And if you look at Jesus and the twelve disciples, that’s basically what he did, too. So we had one, then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and watching them live or them die on their own spiritual strength. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

South Broad was the first congregation that formed (at 10th and Locust, then Broad and Washington). It drew from the entire region. We have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton Pike also has a very wide region — all of South Jersey. North Broad also see themselves as having a wide pull, but mostly they are North Philly. Frankford and Norris draws from all over, but they are mostly Kensington and Fishtown. Our newest congregation on Ridge Ave tries to attend to all the Northwest. We used to have congregations in G’town and Frankford, but they dispersed.

Multiplying congregations is part of our strategy: When the congregations get over the 200 adult mark we start looking to see if they are going to have enough expansiveness to multiply. We think of it as bees in a hive — when the hive gets too big, it “hives off” into another hive. Right now, South Broad has about 130 adults after sending people off to the Northwest last year. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 50 or so to begin a new congregation. Better to have 270 and send 70, but that would be a judgment call we would have to make.

There are a lot of practical reasons for having multiple congregations instead of one big one, but our best reasons are about making disciples. We have a strategy for making authentic disciples of Jesus in the megalopolis. See if you think we are making the right decision.

Being one church in four congregations allows us to be big and small

We are as small as a cell, and as big as the whole church; as face-to-face as a congregation and as unknown as what the Spirit is doing next on the frontier of the constituency.

In terms of congregations, since that is theme of this post, we like the congregations to be relatively small. I say relatively because most churches in the United States are smaller than our typical size. Even though you see all those megachurches on TV, most churches are between 70-100 people. They are a big cell group with a very energetic leader, the pastor. It takes multiple leaders and multiple cells not to be a 100 person church; we think having multiple cells is more expansive. So for us, small means about 200, which is about the number social scientists say an interested member of a social group can hope to connect with in some meaningful way, like remembering names. We like to be face to face. Jesus had twelve, then the 70 and then there were 150 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. It was personal.

But there are also advantages of scale, being five congregations in one church. In larger groups, one person or one clique has a tough time dominating, so there can be multiple centers of leadership and accountability. That’s why we like to have two Sunday meetings, so it is built into us that there are more people than just the ones who are in the room. One of the biggest advantages of scale is sharing resources. Circle of Hope has a common fund, so if one congregation has less money than they need, the others can help. We have one mutuality fund, so we can distribute it where there is most need. We have a common set of compassion teams that we all share. We have the covenant list and share list that are fruitful places to contact a lot of people. We draw from the whole network for our Leadership Team. Our pastors are not singular, but are a team, so they have less psychological issues with isolation and get a lot of stimulation.

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be complex and simple, old and new

We are as complex as a network of cells, teams, businesses and events that have grown over time and as simple as the next new relationship we make.

On the complex side, it might be quite daunting to think that one congregation could come up with Circle Thrift and other good businesses. I am sure we would still have big ideas, but more complexity takes more time and staff and organization.

At the same time, we are quite simple. Our pastors do not run the one big church all day; they are mainly local pastors. We hope you feel like you can call up and talk to your pastor. I have a new friend with a 2000 person church in Delaware. People are on a three-month waiting list to get on his schedule, and he is their pastor. We want to know and be known, and that includes our leaders.

Being big and small also allows us to be old and new. At a Love Feast several years ago Gwen overheard someone saying, “Welcome to the covenant. I joined in three months ago.” So she chimed in, “Yes, welcome. I joined in 16 years ago.” Hiving off new congregations helps us stay new and attentive. Being a long-lasting network helps us have continuity and stabilizing lore.

Being five congregations as one church allows us to be in a neighborhood and also city/region-wide

We are fully part of our neighborhood and fully part of our whole city and region.

A few years ago we started naming our congregations after their addresses. We’re all identified with neighborhoods; our region likes things local. You may not do this, but quite a few people over the years have signed in on the welcome list as “Tony from 12th and Mifflin,” or some such address. We want to actually live, as congregations, in our neighborhoods. It is true we have cells in all sorts of neighborhoods, but the congregation has a home, too, in its neighborhood, and we like to think we are a vital part of it.

On the other hand, we don’t want to be just our neighborhood, because our region’s neighborhoods see themselves as so distinct they don’t even talk to each other sometimes. Broad St., right outside my door, was a demarcation line for 50-60 years until that began to break down lately. We thought it would be a good representation of Jesus to be in different neighborhoods, but actually be one church. We did not want to give in to the arbitrary dividing lines that keep people apart.  We even decided to cross the river, and that was no small deal. Tons of people work every day in Philly and cross the bridge, but when they think about doing that to be one church and it seems like a big deal. We like to push the boundaries of what seems possible.

It does not make any difference how we are structured if no one cares about the family business. It would break a lot of hearts if we actually did it, but I and the leaders are pretty much content to let the whole thing die if no one applies themselves to working the strategy. I think I should trust your passion to run the business, just like Jesus trusted his first disciples. You have to want the Lord, have the purpose, and do the strategy, or it is all just a lot of talk.

People do not move into eternity with mere talk. They need to make a relationship with God in the person of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. For many people, each of us is the only Jesus-is-my-way kind of Christian they have ever met. It is not an easy business to be in, but it is our family business. I am doing my best to tend it with you.

Triggered in church: On the road to secure attachment

Aching loneliness, feeling detached, a broken sense of belonging or being able to connect — all these feelings are flourishing in the church right now. The Times is talking about it and so are we. The experience is not new or foreign to any of us. But we need to be reminded. We can forget that we all have a sense of aloneness we don’t like; it’s not just them and it’s not just me.

Let’s be careful

We should be careful with each other!

“love” by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov , at Burning Man 2015

Maybe you should stop what you are thinking most of the time and picture an adorable baby in front of you instead of a threatening or threatened loved one.  Stuff is happening inside!

Maybe you should let the first thing someone says go right by — that thing that hurt you or disturbed you. Let it go by and let the person have another chance.  They might not be clear on why they say what they say: why make it worse by holding them to their first try?

Under it all they might feel detached and trying not to feel that, or they want to be attached and they are really trying to feel that. We are complex. And the church is an ideal, God-given setting to sort things out. But quite often it is the place where things get messed up. [Bonnie Poon Zahl on Christians and attachment theory].

Things can get hurtful

Image result for gossip chain rockwell

This is hypothetical, but it will probably sound familiar. Let’s say you are a worship leader and you overhear someone telling one of your friends that she feels you have an annoying singing voice. You feel so hurt you go find your husband and make him take you home immediately. You feel so defensive you tell your husband the whole story and that you want to quit singing. You start listing why the person who talked about you is terrible, even worse than you.

When your husband tries to talk you out of it, you are furious that he is not on your side. He tries to get the other person, who he knows, off the hook. That makes you feel like he is leaving you alone in your distress. You even say, “Just like my father never took my side and then he deserted me.” You refuse to talk about it anymore and just look mad and sulk the rest of the day.

The next day you go and talk to your women’s group about it. They are upset and they tell you to call the pastor. So far you have not talked to the person you overheard or your friend to whom they were talking. But at least fifteen people are having your attachment issues. Their own loneliness, detachment, broken senses of belonging and connection are triggered. Vicariously, they are all mad at your father for abandoning you. You can’t stand to feel that aloneness from way back, so you pile the feeling on everyone else and blame them, from your father to the person who talked about you.  Now your listeners are invited to do the same.

Some dangerous-feeling relationships are also places to heal

A woman recently told me about feeling things like this in church and asked me why she went to meetings! Who knows what could happen? It has been hard for her and she expects people to keep hurting her!  She always sits in the back, when she goes to the meeting, so she can slip out easily, without risking the connection she wants for fear of the hurt she dreads.

I felt for her. Her past is full of the worst kind of hurts. So I suggested her strategy might be OK for the time being, as God eased her way into love. The church is great for easing into love, if we let people move into it at their own pace, and help them keep moving. I also suggested that, in the long run, God is going to keep after us until we are securely attached to Love, until our security breeds security and alleviates conflict rather than creating or perpetuating it.

Someone you know, or maybe you, are emotionally unable to tolerate being part of the church where their attachment issues were triggered and repair was not made. I know you can’t just “let the feelings go by.” But whatever it was that triggered your exit might not be as bad as you think it is. After all, the woman who who was hurt in my example had not even talked to the woman who hurt her or the friend who was listening to the criticism she overheard. God is with you if you want to try to get back into the community and do the repair work that not only wins a friend back, but provides an opportunity for your wounds to be healed. God touches our aloneness and is present in it to sustain and even help us be born again.

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[{I think a draft of this may have gone to subscribers by mistake. It was almost done, so no great harm. But sorry.]

Being a network of congregations and why that got going.

Some people discovered this piece among my pages last week. I thought I would share it again. It first appeared in the Dialogue Quarterly, fall of 2005

Let me say right off: we may use the 21st century word “network” to describe ourselves, but what we are doing is as old as Jesus. As usual, we’re ancient/future in our outlook.

That’s why we needed to put out this issue of the Dialogue. We wanted to focus on the network of cells and congregations that forms Circle of Hope because we sometimes seem strange to people. Supposedly, being a Network it is hard to “get.”

Maybe that is because people have been “got” by other thinking so the Bible is hard to “get.” One can hardly take a step in the Bible without running into God working through what might be called a network of people or without being called on by Jesus to form one!

Continue reading Being a network of congregations and why that got going.

Does God care if our church exists?

logo 2007Every once in a while we need to ask the Lord if we should just close up the enterprise and do something else for which we are better suited! There is nothing worse than a church that doesn’t need the Holy Spirit to keep functioning, right?

So I asked a few questions of our Leadership Team the other day which I had been asking myself.  A few people got right back to me with some encouraging answers. I am sharing them with you, basically unedited (but anonymous since I didn’t ask them) to see what you think. What would you add?

I know people read this blog from all over, but I hope you won’t tune out. It would be interesting to hear what you say. We’ve been told we are full of it before, so no need to be shy. But also, what you see from far away might be helpful for us who are way into this quadrant of the Church over here. Leave a comment or send me a note.

Continue reading Does God care if our church exists?

How an organism becomes a mere organization

One of the crises of being a thirtysomething (or a precocious twentysomething) is answering this important question when it comes up: “Now that I can do something, do I have the courage to do it with integrity and conviction? Will I keep faith or will I shrink back when the challenges hit me?”

Circle of Hope is not only full of thirtysomethings (as well as many precocious twentysomethings), we, as a network, probably resemble a maturing person who has managed to accumulate some wisdom and capacity (such as our PM skills, many cell leading experts, compassion team ingenuity, money, buildings, structures and strategies, and well-developed relationships and marriages). We are definitely hearing the challenge from scripture:

“Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised….We do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (Hebrews 10:35-9)

Stifled by our own organization?

Many churches begin as lively organisms with great ideas and spirit. They are kind of like energetic, inspired twentysomethings. Once they survive for a few years and gain their confidence, they have the challenge the writer talks about. They need to persevere. Can you keep being the wild, receptive organism that made you great, or will you become a mere organization? A thirtysomething church like Circle of Hope could definitely “shrink back” from its wild inspired, organic beginnings and become a mere organization like all the rest in the world and, essentially, be destroyed — or at least see its genius be neutered.

How do fertile organisms get neutered into organizations that just keep doing the same kind of things the world has always done? No one would likely choose to have that happen! Maybe it is like the proverbial frog in the kettle. Supposedly a frog will not jump out of a pot of water that is slowly being heated up until it is so hot they are cooked! Likewise an organism like us could slowly acclimate to organizational habits that stifle what made it great to begin with. How’s the water?

Here are five ways our organism might become a mere organization:

1. People fit the ministry into their time schedule

An organism can become a mere organization if people tame it to fit into their personal schedule. If people could reduce their faith down to a meeting, they would probably do it – not on purpose, of course, but just to be practical. It is easier to do one’s faith than to be faithful. No one consciously chooses this, it just happens as soon as you can put the Sunday meeting into your calendar.

The disciplines of our time schedule are crucial to having faith. But they are designed change our false self into our true one. When the schedule becomes the essence of our new self, an organized schedule can become more of a jail than a liberating tool. If adopting a schedule of meetings did not make you a person who helps liberate others who come to your meetings, you must have missed the point of the meetings. If the meetings did not make you a 24/7 Christian who uses meetings to grow and help others grow, there is a problem. If you have managed to fit the church as an “extra” into your already hectic life, then there is really a problem.

2. Leaders argue about who is in charge of what

An organism can become a mere organization if the leaders spend more time worrying about their power than they do working together for the common good.

Organizations specialize in setting boundaries and defining structures; this is crucial. You need a structure to finish a project; you need a map to get from here to there. Disorganized organisms die, or are eaten by more organized organisms. Figuring out how be an organized organism can be hard. Most people just give into “organization” and end up like a spiritualized version of the government or a corporation. Unhealthy or uninspired leaders can spend a lot of time figuring out their territories and wondering about who violated their protocols rather than imagining how to do the project together or how to get the church from here to there as we follow Jesus.

3. The structures can’t adapt quickly enough.

An organism can become a mere organization if the structures become sacred rather than tools in the hands of an inspired community. If they can’t change and grow, they shrink back to the level for which they were effective.

As the Apostle Paul keeps saying in his letters, a main problem with humans is that they love law and despise the grace that sets them free. Rather than live by the law of love, they make rules to save themselves from having to do that. Once a useful rule is in place in a church, it takes courage to change it. Changes require dialogue and healthy dialogue requires love – and a commitment to having healthy conflict. What if we needed to change how we do things in order to do what God gave us to do now? Could we do it? Or would we just tell each other to try harder at what no longer works?

Infographic du jour
4. Love becomes sacred, not strategic

An organism can become a mere organization if people don’t have the freedom to cause trouble. In our era people often throw a “trump card” in a conversation: “You are offending me.” Love means you are supposed to have the sense to never offend someone by violating their opinion or sensibility.

Autonomy and personal freedom are the greatest goods in the world right now. Christians are nice enough to go with that. So some of the most loving organizations stopped doing anything Jesus wants to do a long time ago — but they never have a fight! At least they are not fighting to become world-changing disciples. If they are fighting it is because they are offended!  God’s love is creative and purposeful, not self-protective and easily provoked.

5. We get conformed by approaches from the world that don’t know Jesus but which can run an organization.

An organism can become a mere organization if it imports techniques from the world without putting them through “faith check.” Many techniques work for getting something done, but not all techniques work for nurturing the body of Christ.

We need to be trained for life in the Spirit and that means we can’t import everything we learned from the world in which Jesus found us. Some techniques from the world will conform us to themselves more than become a tool for transformation in our hands. Even our yearly mapping process, based, as it is, on a common “business plan” and subject as it can be to “investigative inquiry,” needs to be watched.

Don’t shrink

The only way to avoid these pitfalls, it seems to me, is to not “shrink” but persevere in faith, hope and love. Being inspired by the Spirit is a whole-life work. Perhaps being a twentysomething lends itself to the wildness necessary to be a Jesus-follower. Being a thirtysomething, or more, is naturally dangerous to faith. The organism called the church has the same kind of maturation challenges. Do you think we will succeed in tackling them?

Wonder. We manifest the Spirit.

The first thing that happened to me yesterday in my experience of the body of Christ was sitting around a table with a devoted team having a phone interview with a great guy who wants to be in Shalom House. It was a wonder.

We made a connection around one of our favorite parts of the Bible: Acts 2. His faith got me going! Look at just a couple of lines of the famous account of Pentecost and we’ll get started.

Dali Pentecost wonder
Dali Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place….All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

A new community

Christians, in general, put so much emphasis on personal experiences of God that we often miss the fact that the Holy Spirit’s basic work is to form a new community, an alternative culture, a new creation, God’s family business. We are all together and God makes something new happen; that’s how it works.

After the crucifixion and resurrection, the remaining followers of Jesus, the ones who had not scattered never to return, the ones who were not too afraid of the Roman and Jewish opponents to stick with it, were all together waiting for what Jesus had promised. They were praying and hoping for something new. Even though their own families thought they were nuts, they banded together in expectation and faith. The Holy Spirit came upon all of them, as a group, and they all demonstrated the fire.

That’s the blueprint for our church. I know some people are not fired up and are not demonstrating, but that’s all we’ve got. I know some people perpetually live in the house and don’t pay rent, some keep consuming bits of religion instead of owning the store, but they don’t wreck the heart of us. We’re all together, we are filled with the Spirit, our tongues and lives are loosened to demonstrate Jesus or we’re a joke. And we are no joke.

How the Spirit forms the body of Christ

In First Corinthians (well, maybe THAT’S the favorite part of the Bible) the Apostle Paul gives some pretty exhaustive teaching about how the Holy Spirit forms the body of Christ. It all starts with people who are not among the wise in the ways of the world revealing the Spirit’s power, not like slick marketers, but like clay vessels carrying glory. The leaven of the Spirit makes us a particular kind of dough; we are culture where

  • people are sacred not sex objects
  • relationships are spiritually discerned, not just adjudicated by laws
  • real freedom is worked out even while the free are compassionate towards those who can’t handle the radicality
  • people gain strength to discipline themselves for completing the Lord’s mission
  • everyone’s individual gifts are honored as part of the new community, an organism that lives out truth and love
  • we are the resurrected body of Jesus

The Holy Spirit keeps creating a spectacle of grace. I think sometimes when we do our public ceremonies, like sharing in communion or lighting the fifty candles on Pentecost Sunday, we often avert our eyes and let people have a private moment as they eat and drink or light their candle. It is very intimate, and it almost seems embarrassing to have it out there in public. Some people won’t even do it because it makes them afraid to be so noticed. But we should not avert our eyes. We should watch people and pray for them and be one with them as they are doing their acts that symbolize their oneness with us as the body of Christ. We often keep a lot of space to protect people’s autonomy, but I think we should touch each other like we have all been touched by the one Holy Spirit. We are living beyond ourselves. Just like Paul writes to the Corinthian church:

 

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.  Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

The common good

The Spirit of God fills each of us, but it is for the common good. The Spirit works in each of us, but God is doing His work in the world. One of the best demonstrations of the Spirit we can make to the world is by sticking together: we exist, we share, we love, we are self-consciously the body, we don’t go to Circle we are a Circle of Hope in Jesus Christ. From that base we conduct the family business; the world is like our family farm and we are all important to the harvest.

Our kind of service means that we did not withdraw into a small group and preserve our holiness. We put out a sign on major streets and let people know we’re open for business. We made major financial commitments to buildings, staff, stores, and mission teams. We created maps, plans, disciplines and schedules to keep us pointed in the right direction and relevant to the next person, for whom we exist to touch and incorporate into the body of Christ. A few of us just hang out in what we have built by the fire of the Spirit at work in us. But most of us are manifesting the Spirit for the common good.

The last thing that happened to me in my experience of the body of Christ yesterday was being in a group of men who were asked to share how God was moving them to live as people who claim Jesus as Lord — and they did it. It was a wonder.

Intent: Jesus Is Not Tupperware and You Don’t Sell Him.

I was going to take a picture of our pitcher. But I found the exact one on Etsy for $8

Gwen was marveling at a Tupperware pitcher the other day. Someone gave it to us for our wedding and it is still working well. Other pitchers come and go, but the sturdy little Tupperware goes on and on — which, I suppose would be a good reason to trust Tupperware. The corporation would be delighted if you formed a love relationship with your plastic pitcher and the business behind it.

A lot of people do trust Tupperware-like operations. You might know that Tupperware was among the original direct sales organizations that sprung up after World War 2 — Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise gave women something to do after the men came back from the front and told them to go back to the kitchen. Now they have about 2 million people who sell products worldwide. Individual, entrepreneurial capitalism is like the new American dream which comes complete with a post-Christian religious-like philosophy [addictive Tupperware propaganda here].

The method is so ingrained in our society that a lot of people seem to think the church is, essentially, a Tupperware party. You invite a bunch of people, show them your stuff while eating appetizers and try to parlay your relationships into a Jesus sale. People have certainly criticized Circle of Hope because their friends don’t want to come to our Jesus party and buy Jesus. They want to improve the product. That’s if they even want to be involved at all. Plenty of people would rather die than be involved in direct sales!

It is hard to describe the church outside of some economic metaphor, since our imagination for forming society in the United States is almost completely subsumed under how our economy works and what rights and laws are commensurate with making it doable and just. Half the time on the BIC Listserve the men (mostly) of our denomination are talking about politics as if the church has a big stake in the economy of the United States. I think we can do a lot better than merely debating just how crazy the recent Senate vote on watered-down gun laws was (although, Lord knows, the prophets need to turn up the volume). I think we can do better than integrating into the economy.

Intent holds us together

At least I don’t think we have much to say about society until we have a church. The church is how God does his work and demonstrates the life we have received. Here is a great teaching from the Bible that briefly sums up what the church is all about:

[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:10).

If you want to sell something, sell that!

Better yet, swear off economic metaphors for describing God’s people altogether, for a while. Because the church is not an economy in the popular, “consumer/free-market capitalism” sense. We are a people who God rules and through whom God reveals the character and purpose that creates us. We ARE a people in which someone can be included. We DO God’s purpose of revelation by which we include ourselves in the destiny of the world, whether it invites us to the party or not.

We don’t need an organization to work out Ephesians 3:10-11. And if the organization we adopt is modeled on consumer capitalism or American political theory, we’d be better off without one! We live out God’s purpose as individuals and in the course of daily life. We should organize our time to do that. The Spirit of God is in us and God is expressing life and love through each of Christ’s followers. But if we want to make ourselves known to the powers and provide a place for people to be included, it is pretty arrogant to think we can do that on our own. And since God’s intent is to work through the church, not just you or me, we should see ourselves as agents of the church, not as a church of me, myself and I. Because God has built each of us into the church, Circle of Hope is organized into cells and into teams. Our cells organize into congregations. Our congregations organize into a network. Our network is part of a denomination and is connected worldwide in creative ways.

What holds it all together? I focus on the word INTENT in Ephesians 3:10. God’s intention is the creative spark that again and again forms the body of Christ and animates it. And God’s intent is met with our similar intent, sparked by God’s Spirit in us making all things new. We hold together by the covenant that makes us a people and the agreements that make us doers of the word in so many ways. Our covenant, in particular, is what makes us more than a Tupperware party. We don’t hold weekly meetings to convince our members to buy another piece of the collection. We are all the “owners” ourselves and we present to others the person of Jesus, not a product; we call for relationship, not self-actualization through endless “freedom of choice.”

NOT a tupperware party

The leaders of the men’s retreat were working out our presumption of covenant love throughout the weekend. They took an audacious risk by making their small groups painstakingly diverse, crossing all congregations. Then they went even further by making dyads that were randomly selected by the small group leaders. Then they had these pairs doing intimate, spiritual things. They demonstrated a huge trust in God’s presence in the body. The had a huge faith that individuals would experience God’s truth and love and intentionally follow God’s lead. They assumed they could trust the small groups to include everyone. They trusted the dyads to do spiritual things. They presumed a covenant life and didn’t even allow for too much individual anonymity. I’m sure a few people were blown away, so far out of their comfort zone and over their capability that they are still reeling from it. But I did not hear anything about that yet. What I have heard is story after story of being moved, connected and inspired — and formed into a people as God intended.

Our destiny is to make God’s heart and God’s ways known to the world, to live out the eternal purpose of God made known in Jesus. Our destiny is not merely to keep deciding what we want to do. It is not to keep inviting people into sales events that presume they are merely meant for deciding what they want to do. We share God’s purpose. We are each someone valuable to God, and what we do has meaning beyond our capacity to choose. We are a people through whom God intends to work out his life and purpose, and what we accomplish has eternal ramifications. We have a God-intended destiny, and it defines how we take our steps together.

Why Four Congregations?

Becoming a part of Circle of Hope can be very confusing. I suppose that is true of any church or organization – it is also true of us. I have had any number of people come into our room at Broad and Washington when the people aren’t there and ask, “This is a church?” Quite a few have looked at me and said, “You are a pastor?” If I explain, they say, “Your meetings are on Sunday night?” Actually all this happened when the high school kids from Pequea BIC in Lancaster Co. stopped by for a little visit last summer. They said, “You have other sites and pastors?” It can be very confusing.

Here is the main reason we are one church in four congregations: Jesus said “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6). We are wandering in the dark; we need the light of the world to guide us. We are slaves to our own understanding and we need a reconnection to what is beyond us. We are sinful and broken, and it is only by the work of Jesus and his merit that we can be forgiven, and restored. We want to make Jesus accessible like he has made God accessible to us. That’s why we are four congregations in one church.

More directly, we have the purpose statement for the family business that guides us. They call it “the great commission.” It is Jesus’ last words to his disciples. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  The essence of the Lords’ strategy for redeeming and recreating the world is to draw together disciples who make disciples who make further disciples. Our structure is a strategy for doing what we have been given to do, making the most of what we have to make an impact in our time and place.

More practically and specifically we are four congregations for the purposes of strategy. Some people reading this might bristle as soon as the word “strategy” is used, but it is what it is. Strategy is just about getting from here to there in the best way. We’re trying to get to making disciples who thrive, who make it to fifty with a vibrant, world-changing faith. I think Jesus might use billboards, TV, airplane advertisements flying down the coast, and all that to call together disciples. But his main means is you and me and anyone else we can get to follow him telling someone else that he is our way, truth and life, now. We might not be as desirous or patient as God, but the Lord has decided to need us, even if we have not decided to need Jesus, yet.

So our strategy is to go with Jesus on this, he is the way. His way is our way. He is the truth and the life; we want people to get to God and their true selves through his work. We also presume that you will hear and feel the great commission and be a follower who connects with others who will eventually follow the Lord you follow. You love God and you love them so you find ways to makes a connection just like God found a way to connect to you. If you don’t care about that, we are mostly out of business, because that is what our family business is.

Here is how we do it.

We make a cell. That is how Circle of Hope started, with the nucleus of one cell. Then we had two and quickly three, and on we have gone over the years, multiplying cells and having them die. That’s the basic body-life way we operate. The cells get together and form a congregation.

Broad and Washington was the first congregation that formed, so we have always had a wide region in which we operate, and we still do. Marlton and Crescent has a very wide, region, too, all of South Jersey. Broad and Dauphin also see themselves as having a wide pull, but mostly they are North Philly. Frankford and Norris draws from all over, but they are mostly Kensington and Fishtown. We used to have congregations in the Northwest and Northeast, but they dispersed.

Multiplying congregations is part of our strategy: When the congregations get over the 200 adult mark we start looking to see if they are going to have enough expansiveness to multiply. We think of it as bees in a hive — when the hive gets too big, it “hives off” into another hive. Right now, Broad and Washington has about 180 adults, in the congregation. If we had 230, we might think about sending off 40 or so to begin a new congregation. Better to have 270 and send 70, but that would be a judgment call we would have to make.

There are a lot of practical reasons for having multiple congregations instead of one big one, but our best reasons are about making disciples. We have a strategy for making authentic disciples of Jesus in the megalopolis. See if you think we are making the right decision.

Being one church in four congregations allows us to be big and small

We are as small as a cell, and as big as the network; as face-to-face as a congregation and as unknown as what the Spirit is doing next on the frontier of the church.

In terms of congregations, since that is the question, we like the congregations to be relatively small. I say relatively because most churches in the United States are smaller than our typical size. Even though you see all those megachurches on TV, most churches are between 70-100 people. They are a big cell group with a very energetic leader, the pastor. It takes multiple leaders and multiple cells not to be a 100 person church; we think having multiple cells is more expansive. So for us, small means about 200, which is about the number social scientists say an interested member of a social group can hope to connect with in some meaningful way, like remembering names. We like to be face to face. Jesus had twelve, then the 70 and then there were 150 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. It was personal.

But there are advantages of scale, being four congregations in one church. In larger groups, one person or one clique has a tough time dominating, so there can be multiple centers of leadership and accountability. That’s why we like to have two PMs, so it is built into us that there are more people than just the ones who are in the room. One of the biggest advantages of scale is sharing resources. Circle of Hope has a common fund, so if one congregation has less money than they need the others can help. We have one compassion fund, so we can distribute it where there is most need. We have a common set of compassion teams that we all share. We have the dialogue list that is a fruitful place to contact a lot of people. We draw from the whole network for our Leadership Team. Our pastors are not singular, but are a team, so they have less psychological issues with isolation and get a lot of stimulation.

Jonny Rashid sent over another image after this was published.

Being four congregations as one church allows us to be complex and simple, old and new

We are as complex as a network of cells, teams, businesses and events that have grown over time and as simple as the next new relationship we make.

On the complex side, it might be quite daunting to think that one congregation could come up with the Thrift Stores and the Good Business consortium. I am sure we would still have big ideas, but more complexity takes more time and staff and organization.

At the same time, we are quite simple. I am not running the one big church all day, so I am a local pastor. We hope you feel like you can call up and talk to your pastor. I have a new friend with a 2000 person church in Delaware. People are on a three-month waiting list to get on his schedule, and he is their pastor. We want to know and be known, and that includes me.

It also allows us to be old and new. At the Love Feast in July Gwen overheard someone saying “Welcome to the covenant. I joined in three months ago.” So she chimed in, “Yes, welcome. I joined in 16 years ago.” Hiving off new congregations helps us stay new and attentive. Being a long-lasting network helps us have continuity and stabilizing lore.

Being four congregations as one church allows us to be neighborhood and city-wide, region-wide

We are fully part of our neighborhood and fully part of our whole city and region.

A few years ago we started naming our congregations after their corners, Philly style. Philly is a city of neighborhoods; our region likes things local. You may not do this, but quite a few people over the years have signed in on the welcome list as “Tony from 12th and Mifflin,” or some such address. We want to actually live, as congregations, in our neighborhoods. It is true we have cells in all sorts of neighborhoods, but the congregation has a home, too, in its neighborhood, and we like to think we are a vital part of it.

But, on the other hand, we don’t want to be just our neighborhood, especially in Philly. Because Philly neighborhoods see themselves as so distinct; they don’t even talk to each other sometimes. Broad St., right outside out door, was a demarcation line for 50-60 years until that began to break down lately. We thought it would be a good representation of Jesus to be in different neighborhoods, but actually be one church. We did not want to give in to the arbitrary dividing lines that keep people apart.  We even decided to cross the river, and that was no small deal. Tons of people work every day in Philly and cross the bridge, but do that for something like being the church and it seems big. We like to push the boundaries of what seems possible.

It does not make any difference how we are structured if no one cares about the family business. It would break a lot of hearts if we actually did it, but I and the leaders are pretty much content to let the whole thing die if no one applies themselves to working the strategy. I think I should trust your passion to run the business, just like Jesus trusted his first disciples. You have to want the Lord, want the church, want the strategy, or it is all just a lot of talk.

People do not move into eternity with mere talk. They need to make a relationship with God in the person of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. For many people, each of us is the only Jesus-is-my-way kind of Christian they have ever met. It is not an easy business to be in, but it is our family business. I am doing my best to tend it with you.