SpiritFarmer


What if we started over?

Last week, in an effort to fool myself into thinking that I’m a tech geek (even though I know zero coding languages, don’t know most of the fancy acronyms, and don’t use the tools I have access to very elegantly), I watched the 80 minute video from Google’s I/O Conference, in which they rolled out their latest brainchild, Wave.  The video demonstrates some pretty cool stuff that will be game changing – like integrating e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, Twitter, wikis, collaborative projects, and entertainment.  If you’d like, you can watch it here.

The video stimulated a lot of questions and thoughts in me, particularly about the implications of these technologies, and how they will be used (both well and poorly) by Christians.  But the statement from the video I keep going back to actually happens very early on (at about 5:00 or so).  The lead developer, who is doing the demonstration, is introducing the mentality behind Wave, and says something like this (very paraphrased):

E-mail is by far the most popular form of communication on the internet today.  That’s very interesting, because e-mail is more than four decades old.  With some relatively minor changes, it still functions in much the same way it always has.  But we decided to ask the question, “What if we were to invent e-mail from scratch today?”

In other words, they want to reimagine communication with today’s tools, rather than continually tweaking yesterday’s templates all the time.  The answers they came up with are very cool – at multiple points in the demonstration, the developers in the audience get all giddy and cheer wildly.  Congratulations Google.  I’ll leave it to others to determine whether they truly reinvented e-mail or not.  Whatever the case, they did succeed in integrating today’s tools and rules, and they certainly got a buzz going among a very important constituency.

I think the reason their question of inventing e-mail from scratch stuck out to me is that it’s very similar to a phrase I’ve heard more times than I could count from pastors and church planters – “What would we get if we just stripped down all of our Christian traditions, and went back to the way the early church did things?”  Tons of books and articles have been written, and a lot of “new” models have been offered up.  But I’m left wondering whether that question doesn’t miss the point a bit.  The fact is, Google didn’t go back 40 years and try to rebuild stuff as though nothing had changed.  No, they used the current technologies available to them to try to accomplish some breakthroughs in electronic communication.

When “we” go back to reinvent church, we go back to Acts and Paul’s epistles to try to distill the simplest expressions of what the first century sisters and brothers did.  We try to rebuild church in very simple forms again, with as few changes as possible to the original systems.  We don’t take our contexts into account nearly enough – for example, we don’t consider that Rome’s big technology was its system of roads, whereas our superhighways are virtual and global and information driven.

I’d like to suggest that this way of approaching things is broken for at least two reasons: First, as we can see from the cranky tones of some of Paul’s writing, the early church wasn’t exactly getting it right all the time.  So when we try so hard to emulate the early church, we’re pursing a broken system.  This may be one of the consequences of letting the inerrancy mentality control so much of our attention – “If it’s in the Bible, it’s got to be literally true, and therefore, should be replicated as closely as possible.”  But if that’s what we’re doing, the very best we can hope for is to build a form of church that gives people the opportunity to be greedy, gossipy, sexually immoral, and power hungry.  (Hmmmm, if that’s our standard of measure, maybe we’ve gotten closer to the first century church than we had thought!)

Second, we’re not being honest about what we’re trying to do.  We’re not even trying very hard to go all the way back.  We take a vast amount of theological, historical, and cultural baggage with us when we look back.  Even people who read authors like N.T. Wright in order to understand the first century Palestinian context stop too short.  When I hear people saying they want to do church the way the early church did it, they don’t really mean they intend to strip down their evangelical systematic theology, their Western wealth and (white) power, their Protestant Reformation, their Christendom power, their Augustinian conceptions . . . they just want the pragmatics of meeting in peoples’ houses and sharing possessions and giving money away to those in need.  The idealism is commendable in some ways, but it’s mostly just that – idealism, and an artificial idealism at that.*

I would like to suggest that if we really want to get back to basics in the way we embody the bride of Christ, we do so more honestly.  When Pentecost took place, and the church was both born and unleashed in a series of radical events, they were creating something truly new, without a template.  They had a religious memory and heritage, which they honored in many ways, but they also knew the rules had changed.  We, too, have a religious memory and heritage – some of which can rightly be honored.  But if we’re going to do/be church the way they did it back then, we’ve got to be creative enough and courageous enough to know when to break the rules of our day, and take some risks.  In our fear of abandoning “orthodoxy,” I think the vast majority of us lack the courage to break those rules.  We’re so beholden to our denominations, our subculture, our seminaries, and (once again) our power that we chicken out.

So what do you think?  Am I wrong that most of us haven’t tried very hard to go all the way back?  Am I unfair in my assessments?  This post if fairly off the cuff (though it’s taken me quite a long time to write it).  Please tell me if you disagree – I’d like to tease out my own thinking on this some more, so I’m not looking for a fight.

*I’ve not read Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity, but from what I understand, he deals with a lot of the stuff that’s been layered onto “church” over the years.  I also understand that he’s squarely on the idealistic side.  If I’m wrong on this, please let me know – I just felt the need to note that I’m not trying to either plagiarize him or take cheap shots at him.

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7 Comments so far
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Great post, Steve! I think your right about what pastors say in terms of going back to the NT model and that it’s incomplete and not entirely what we should be imagining for today’s church.

I myself have said these kinds of things more often than I care to admit, with too little knowledge of what I was really saying. I hear more and more pastors saying they want to “break the system” and to be honest, I think most pastors are too reliant upon their fulltime church salaries…coffee house work schedules…and the general laid back approach to ministry. It’s not to say they aren’t working hard and making sacrifices to love and serve people, but if we’re to do what I think you’re suggesting, it’s going to mean massive personal change for church leaders and their families before we can even talk about systems and structures.

While doing some rebuilding down in the New Orleans area last week, I met a man who used to be a pastor…quit his job and now relies completely on support from friends and organizations. He introduces himself as a missionary to the St. Bernard Parish where he creats short films and documentaries, all with the purpose of bridging churches and secular organizations together. The fact that he considers himself a missionary while livng in his hometown was something that stood out to me. I thought that maybe we need fewer people with all kinds of church titles, and more who really go about being simple missionaries.

Just some thoughts. Again..great post on an important subject. Especially for those of us here on the Eastide.

Comment by rexhamilton

I really appreciate your thoughtfulness in approaching this. For my initial off-the-cuff reaction: God’s dream was for a people rather than their form of organization. We concern ourselves with the form way more than God does. In part, I think, because it allows us to wring our hands with inaction rather than getting involved in the lives of people around us and walking along with them.

Comment by Cameron Crabtree

Nice job, Steve. Your post a couple of days ago made me sit through about 35 min of the demo. Very cool, but way over my head. I’ll wait for the geeks to explain it to me about 3 years after it comes out.

I agree with your assessment that those wanting to “get back to basics” don’t really want that at all. If so, then they’d re-argue the humanity/divinity of Christ, which books to include in the cannon and whether or not men need to be circumcised to join the faith. We have too much history/investment to do anything remotely like becoming the “Acts Church.”

Obviously, what is usually being said is that we are/have gotten off the path in some areas. Henderson and Casper talked about that some. Fog machines and techno light shows come to mind (although, even those can/might be used in ways to bring the gospel message into current culture, if not done in a cheesy way). So the question that we should ask is “What path does Jesus want the 21st century church on?”, not “How can the we make the 21st century church like the 1st century church?”.

I am intrigued by your statement “…we’ve got to be creative enough and courageous enough to know when to break the rules of our day…” I wonder what the top 3 rules are that you’d say we need to consider breaking in order to bring the essence of the early gospel into modernity.

Great conversation starter. Now let’s watch the “Wave” grow.

Comment by Chad McMillan

[…] Because we really don’t want to Second, we’re not being honest about what we’re trying to do.  We’re not even trying very hard to go all the way back.  We take a vast amount of theological, historical, and cultural baggage with us when we look back.  Even people who read authors like N.T. Wright in order to understand the first century Palestinian context stop too short.  When I hear people saying they want to do church the way the early church did it, they don’t really mean they intend to strip down their evangelical systematic theology, their Western wealth and (white) power, their Protestant Reformation, their Christendom power, their Augustinian conceptions . . . they just want the pragmatics of meeting in peoples’ houses and sharing possessions and giving money away to those in need.  The idealism is commendable in some ways, but it’s mostly just that – idealism, and an artificial idealism at that.* […]

Pingback by Why don’t we start all over? | JordonCooper.com

hi,
i’ve posted this over at jordon cooper’s — that while I agree with your sentiment, it’s not fair to imagine pentecost as blank slate, those folk had hundreds of years of religious memory – religious memory, to get over,

steve

Comment by steve

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Chad – good question about which rules to break. I’ll keep chewing on that and post on it.

Steve – thanks for stopping in from your side of the world! I guess my response is to agree that the early church had some specifically negative memories to get over. But that’s where the “breaking the rules” aspect of what I wrote comes in. That may not fully address what you’re after, but I certainly don’t mean to suggest that they had a totally clean slate to work with.

Comment by steve lewis

thanks for clarification,

steve

Comment by steve




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