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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Breaking Free From the Unexamined Tendency to Coagulate Spiritually, Ecclesially, and Missionally.

I'm just beginning to formulate what is percolating in my head and heart these days as I respond to the unsettling I feel. If it's like similar unsettlings over the years, it's feels initiated by the Holy Spirit. He wants me to begin something, change something, or re-look at what I'm doing. However, I always must be careful because of my motivational design to make an impact by exploring and going beyond. When it's just me, I head down rabbit trails or wander around as if I lost my best quarter.

Nothing results.

Time is wasted.

The wind gets chased.

My title for this blog is from the first question I posed from my last blog: When the Container Isn't Fitting For The Brew. Questions About Church: question really addresses how churches can lull easily into an unexamined holy huddle, a community unto itself where most of it's energy and resources are directed inward.  The church - "the called out and gathered ones" - is gathered in one place: a church building where much of its communal life (worship, fellowship, programs and ministries) is lived out. Unless people go regularly to the location they eventually lose touch with that community because it's where we connect with each other most frequently, the exceptions being missionaries sent out, college students, or the elderly and infirm who can't make it to the church building. The central location shapes a common identity and culture, but it also narrows our focus on one another in a way not meant by God, I think. In a funny way, we are the church who go to church.

Now it's true that when not "at church", Christians are supposed to practice certain spiritual disciplines, namely prayer, contemplation, study of the Scriptures, "fellowship" in a small group, having the brethren over to the house for dinner, or lending a hand when other people in the church need help, etc. We do practice such disciplines in varying degrees of frequency depending on spiritual maturity or a natural proclivity for such things, like study , for instance. They are vital practices for spiritual growth, but spiritual growth for what purpose? Internal cultural expectation also determines how much we pursue such disciplines

By the way, lest you jump the gun by assuming I'm in some fashion advocating not meeting together at all, I'm not. I agree with the writer of Hebrews who warns we should not neglect meeting together, rather we should use such times to encourage one another, and stir up one another to love and good works. Notice in this one text there is both and inward and outward focus implied. We meet to be the church in relationship to our God, one another, and the world (read community) around us. We are Christ-followers sojourners, citizens of another transcending, eternal Kingdom, who for a time are gathered together to help each other surrender our hearts fully to God Jesus and mature toward picking up our crosses and giving ourselves away in love and service. As we grow, we're also summoned to join him in the redemptive mission he has called each and every one of us to undertake through our deepening knowledge of TRUE REALITY, using the gifts we've been entrusted with for his glory. Ours is a cause to die for.

The question I'm asking with this post concerns what I view as an unexamined tendency of churches over time to coagulate spiritually, ecclesially, and missionally. The word coagulate is often used biologically as having to do with the clotting mechanism of fluid, especially blood. To coagulate is to cause to change or be changed from a liquid to become viscous or thickened into a coherent mass. Another word which expresses my idea is congeal: to make or become fixed, as ideas, sentiments, or principles. In other words, that which is liquid solidifies into a fixed, cohering form; the liquidity congeals rather than "exhibits a characteristic readiness to flow." Applied to church life these words capture how gradually our church cultures become embedded, even calcified in patterns, routines and assumptions which become in and of themselves. They can avoid scrutiny because it's just the way we do church together. And we're pretty sure its fine if we do so, in fact it's probably the the right way to do church.

When coagulation and cohering occurs, we congeal communally. Our fixed points of reference create a sense of order and normalcy; it's church, our church. We know what to expect and can even run somewhat on autopilot because we know the script so well; it's been the same for years. Few surprises. Why change what works, right? Nobody seems to notice or asks: "Well, how come we always do it this way and not that?" Or, "I know we've been doing this thing for years; it's our tradition, but why does it have to be exactly the same, done at the same time, in the exact same way?" I know it's because we're comfortable with what works for us. Comfortable looks good in a world increasingly uncomfortable for many these days. We like the Christmas Eve Service done the same way our predecessors celebrated it. Prayer should be on Wednesday night. Everybody will be lost without a bulletin. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Some definitions in terms:

I. Spiritual Coagulation is essentially congealing the spiritual life into fixed practices and disciplines which fit us. For instance, having a quiet time, or reading the Scriptures, or listening to Christian music. Each practice  settles to rote if we're not careful or resourceful - and sometimes even if we are. We're edified by these practices, for sure, but I also know I and others go through "dry" seasons when nothing seems to pop in our spiritual lives. Some of that is normal and needs persevering until the spiritual "Spring rains come." Such persevering through the arid places is essential to maturing. 

In community, we practice certain spiritual disciplines together and they become are featured in our shared spirituality. They're routines we support, and connect us to God (they certainly can and do), so we assume their merit. But, they can become "going through the motions" fairly quickly unless we often check our hearts to see what level of intimacy we have with God. Doing the stuff is not necessarily an ever-deepening desire to know and love God. Passion cools and habit supplants it gradually. The problem is we lose hold of  a genuine relationship. He desires us to get to know him for a lifetime, not know about him as a silent partner in our spirituality. Christian spiritual practice must flow from loving God and his ways in my opinion. Men and women differ in how they express this love (affective and intellectual), but spiritual intimacy is characterized by it. Spiritual coagulation can seriously deaden the capacity for wonder regarding God. For instance, I see this in many people who can't remember if or when God showed affection toward them. Even the idea he'd do so is foreign. Wonder is quieted by dutiful habit.

Breaking free from spiritual coagulation is spiritual fluidity. Fluidity is the physical property of a substance that enables it to flow. Flow can be defined as: "the action or fact of moving along in a steady, continuous stream." It implies movement, momentum, direction and continuity.  Spiritual fluidity can be defined as a property of the believer to move toward God, move with God (being enabled to follow; keeping in step with the Spirit), move out from God, i.e., to have a relationship with "the Transcendant Other" after he graciously revives our hearts and opens our eyes.  

Spiritual fluidity is the dynamic of learning to discern the Presence and quiet voice of the Spirit in real time. It's gradually, but earnestly coming to discern the movement and directing of God in circumstances, then recognizing his leading. The disciplines and practices we use are only intruments to tune the heart and mind. They have little efficacy beyond their potential for opening discernment and connecting with the living God. Both obedience and freedom flow from opening to God. Fluidity moves and searches and explores and experiments. It even leaps into the unknown as God beckons from a whisper, or a grasping of Truth. Faith fortifies spiritual fluidity, not mere routine or comfortable rituals. Breaking free to be spiritually fluid means extending our reach, and grasping for more of God, always at the ready to see wonder break in, or love to show up to still our fears, ravish our hearts or fortify our faithfulness. Spiritual fluidity breaks us free from tepid hearts, but regular attendance on Sunday.

II. Ecclesial Coagulation is the unexamined tendency of churches to gradually codify and cement their spiritual experience and cultures into structural, operational, experiential, and theological formalism. Ecclesial formalism can be defined as an unexamined or "excessive adherence to outward form at the expense of inner reality or content." In other words, unexamined, embedded rituals, ecclesial presuppositions, and traditions stultifying a careful, but creative, responsive freedom to explore fresh ways of worshiping God, or expressing church culture, or doing ministry (inward and outward focused), or being followers of Jesus in a world awash with spiritualities.We turn experience of God and thinking about God into procedures and methodologies, which eventually tamp down the impulse to come empty-handed to God for reviving and inspiring. And I do mean empty-handed with no agenda but to worship and hear from God as to his desired, but fluid shape of things.

I am not anti-theological discourse, anti-scholarship, or anti-liturgy. I've just seen how we can set in stone what was meant to be expressions of a particular people at a particular time as they wrestled with what it means to know and follow the God who revealed himself and called them to relationship. So I've never seen it fitting to identify myself through a particular denominational affiliation (I was baptized a Catholic, spent 2 years at a Methodist church, 20 years at a Presbyterian Church, 7 years in a non-denominational house church, and currently 5 years at imagine/Northampton, a missional church plant), or theological position ( I affirm parts of reformed theology, Orthodox theology, and free grace theology), or spirituality (I'm charismatic, missional and contemplative). I've been most comfortable over all these years referring to myself simply as a Christian, or of late, a follower of Jesus.

Breaking free from Ecclesial Coagulation is Ecclesial Fluidity expresses our on-going, fluid discernment of the indwelling and vivifying Presence of God through the work of the Holy Spirit who also summons each church to join him as he already works in the neighborhoods, communities and outward relationships in which we're placed. We follow him in prayer; we follow him worship; we follow him in ministry because we know him, and we've come to recognize his voice and his ways. He's alive in our individual and corporate midst. Reality says if our God is utterly free, and utterly committed to his redemptive purpose in all creation, he is already on the move and at work, so we must walk past our boundaries to keep in step with him, including our ecclesial containers and routines for life together in His Presence. There should be a freshness in our seeking and finding him, an expectation in our gatherings, a newness which can include ancient or traditional forms and responses to God, but not as if we're a franchise serving the same "happy meals" week in and week out because "it's what we like and do at" First Baptist,Wesleyan Methodist, Holy Trinity, St. Cyril, Holiness Tabernacle, Christ Presbyterian, Crestwood Community, or The Cool Missional Church With The Cool Missional Name.

Ecclesial Fluidity also means thinking of church as a regional body rather than each individual church as the primary focus of our attendance and attention. What if we went deep into to bringing down our barriers and combining resources (spiritual and natural) for Kingdom work in the region. What degree of Kingdom difference could we make if we combined strengths? Could it be at all possible to work through or set aside our theological differences, acknowledging we see things differently theologically, socially or politically, but are allied around helping the poor, healing the sick, freeing the oppressed, binding up the broken-hearted, and breaking down walls of fear-soaked hatred with love pointing clearly to Christ and His magnificent Kingdom? Why shouldn't we join together to listen and pray, to brainstorm and share resources, to combine our best thinking and our greatest strengths in helping each other be the the Church in our community. What if we built on what we hold in common, no matter how meager? It'd be a good start. If people saw what binds us, they could overlook what separates us; perhaps we could too.

I realize this reaching across the table would take some very determined work toward building trust. Mistrust, outright fear or anger toward others fuel our separation repeatedly. I acknowledge there may very well be irreconcilable differences in some areas of long-time dispute, but not in all. We need courageous and wise peacemakers who know the barriers well, but fueled by the Holy Spirit, labor tirelessly to open fresh ways of engagement so the Church can make the Kingdom real to an increasingly agonized and fracturing world. We will be known by how we love one another...or not. So could we learn to say, "I'm convinced you're wrong about that, but I love you anyway. Let's get to work." We could learn to challenge each other to think differently, but with unflinching grace and humility, even a sense of humor with an eye toward shared mission. Sometimes we all just get our divides ridiculous, wouldn't you agree?

Perhaps, if we did our work, someday we'd see our gifted communicators teaching and preaching in all our regional churches as needed. People would be free to participate in the body life of more than one church not because it's better at ABC Church, but because they're building relationships and offering their gifts to other believers. We'd not be so stuck on membership, rather we'd talk about communitas. Churches would share ministries and ministry leaders to build up the entire Body of Christ. Sometimes, depending on what might be needed, people could spend longer periods to help solve ministry problems or train others in certain needed skills. We could share resources such as our best creative ideas, problem-solving, money, buildings, equipment, ministry teams or program materials. We'd unleash the creatives, dreamers  innovators and strategic thinkers to imagine a better community. Maybe we'd have town-wide celebrations, regional service initiatives, or joint worship gatherings as a matter of unity the town could witness. The sky's the limit.

No longer would we maintain individual "territories" or "limit" God by trying to own what we've been given to give away.

III. Missional Coagulation is the unexamined tendency to codify the missional mandate at the heart of what it means to be the church in particular communities. Already, there are a pile of books and conferences outlining what it means to be missional: everyone is a missionary, disciple-making is the engine which drives the ethos of the movement, small organic communities are the best "container" for the "brew" of the Gospel mission; replication of decentralized missional communities is an ecclesial preference; ecclesial structure and life together are incarnational (not attractional), and informal; leadership is shared; scripted worship is not the centerpiece activity of the community; the Holy Spirit instructs the group toward the mission it's given, etc. Already the rules of being and engagement are articulated and formalized. Being missional is becoming a method. Strategy becomes ontology.

Breaking free from Missional Coagulation is Missional Fluidity. Here too, the Holy Spirit is key to achieving such fluidity.

Roger Helland in his blog The Holy Spirit and Missional Church ( ) explains it this way: Paul encouraged that “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).” The Revised English Bible translates it this way, “If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct its course.” We cannot keep in step if we don’t live by the Spirit. “Living by the Spirit is the root; walking by the Spirit is the fruit.”

To live by the Spirit is unnerving yet exciting, full of tension yet peace, with strange yet wonderful outcomes. We are open with unbridled expectation for Him to move, urge and guide, by obedient and risky faith fastened to the Father’s agenda. Clark Pinnock draws the example from Jesus, “The world did not set the agenda for Jesus. People could not predict what he would do next, because he had no plan but sought what the Father wanted. He did not operate from a program. Need alone did not constitute the divine call. He waited for God’s urging and the Spirit’s guiding.” With all the discussion about “being missional” (which I agree with), we must spend as much time discussing “being spiritual” where being missional and spirituality are vitally connected, where the presence and power of the of the Spirit ignites, spreads, and feeds the fire of mission. I call this a “missional spirituality.” Don’t you long for a practical theology for an empowered missional church? Perhaps we need to recover that missional-spiritual stream of vigorous Pietism that called for “pious desires” and “the deeper life” in union with Christ by the Spirit.

I agree. Missional Fluidity is all about following the Spirit who is creating opportunity in people around us and inviting us to join him. That joining starts with praying and asking for the ability, again, to discern what he is doing in folks around us. We can certainly explore missional models in the world, and read all the seminal thinkers writing about the missional church. But in the end, we must stay in close relationship with the Spirit, knowing his ways from what the Scripture says about him, listening to his voice in prayer, and having eyes to see his effects on the people he has summoned us to love in the Kingdom. Such fluidity is spiritual and alive in real-time. In my life with God I've seen many people quit this intimate relating to the Spirit because of fleshly abuses and the fact that we don't always hear and discern him clearly. Mistakes are made, or we just fall into confusion, feel stymied , then quit. I think we make a big mistake by not persevering in humility and earnest desire to know him, so we can keep in step with him. I know there'll be many twists and turns along the way, but missionally congealing into models, methods and fixed strategies is too high a price to pay.

I'd love to her what you think about this. I'm learning and being drawn toward change. In my next blogpost I'll address my wondering if there's a way to be diffuse, but deeply together, and unified when not together.
Stay tuned.
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