Un-Learning Church – The Inverted Steeple Approach

One of my first recollections of church is a Southern Baptist cliché. I think I was 5 years old, so the year would have been 1971.

An aunt was babysitting me for the weekend and she took me along one night to her church revival.

It was hot summertime in Arkansas, the place was packed and all my 5–year-old mind could hear was a preacher saying I was going to hell if I didn’t repent. Hell, fire, losing my soul, dying lost – that’s what I recall as being the message.

I was scared to death and became so uncomfortable I started crying and throwing a tantrum. Eventually, my behavior was so unruly my aunt took me to the car for the remainder of the service so as not to be a distraction.

Why that background is important, I really don’t know, other than to say the “fear” of God is something that stayed with me for many years, until quite recently, in fact.

Most of us who are “good church people” have pretty much learned “church” in similar ways. It’s the “place” we go on Sunday. We sing songs, we pray, we hear the weekly message, maybe a few people get “saved” at the altar call, and the next Sunday we do it all over again.

Most of my adult life, I was a pretty good “church person.” I rarely missed, gave my time and resources, taught Sunday school. Still, I had failures along the way, and I took a performance-based approach to “make up” for all the shortcomings in my life.

As one wise leader recently put it, there was always the “nagging chihuahua” of sin and failure nipping at my heals telling me I wasn’t forgiven, and God was mad.

And so there really never was a time when there wasn’t a spiritual void in my life. Either I was missing something, not doing something right, or really just didn’t understand.

It’s the latter of the three to which I’ve now drawn my conclusion.

TURNING POINT

About six months ago I walked away from church. Right or wrong, it was a personal decision.

I simply, in good conscience could no longer be a part of revising constitutions and bylaws, scrutinizing line-item budgets and trying to re-create what was created originally some 30 years ago. It felt to me as if it were an empty effort. For me, recreating a vision of the past was a missionless mission.

In many ways, I believe that we (the body) have taken ownership of the church – and not in the best of ways. While we’ve been well-intentioned, we’ve taken the wrong turn at the fork in the road. We’ve tried to make the church what we believe it should be, but if we open our eyes to the reality of the world, it clearly isn’t working.

One of the most profound works I’ve come across on this topic is a book titled: “On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_12?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+verge&sprefix=on+the+verge%2Cstripbooks%2C229

Here’s an excerpt that summarizes this issue upon which “Verge” focuses:

ADDRESSING THE MISSIONARY PROBLEMS

“The related problem comes from the likelihood that around 60 percent of America’s population (much higher in Europe and Australia) is increasingly alienated from the prevailing forms of church. In missionary terms, it means they are culturally distant from us. As a sent and sending people (that is, missional people) it is our task to take the message to them and deliver it in ways meaningful to them. This means we need to reassess the situation in light of best-practice missionary approaches.

“We need to ask the question, what is the gospel for this people group? What would sound like good news to them? This means we must first attend to the existential and religious issues people are facing, before we can communicate how the gospel addresses them. Think of it this way: don’t plant churches; plant the gospel, and the church will grow out of it (emphasis mine). This will mean we go back to our primal message and allow it to reframe the way we see church – not the other way around. It’s imagination fired up by the gospel and its missional implications that drives the church to become more authentically evangelical.

“If we persist with the current status quo, we are, in effect, asking the non-believer to do all the cross-cultural work in coming to church. Remember, we are the sent ones – not them. So we not only bring people to church (that will work for the 40 percent); we also take church to the people (to reach the other 60 percent and growing). We can’t front-load church into the equation of mission. We must go to the people group and – once we have understood their culture a whole lot more – then ask ourselves the question what is church for these people? We can’t presume to have the answer up front.”

In our missional community group a few nights ago, I heard a perfect execution of the method outlined above.

A young couple fresh out of Dallas Theological Seminary answered the call to serve as missionaries in Portland, Oregon – considered by some to be one of the most “unchurched” cities in the U.S.

They learned quickly that building a “church” as we know it, was not the answer.

They intentionally located themselves in a low-income neighborhood with a high population of lesbian-gays and single moms. And from there, they immersed themselves in the culture, getting to know people, helping where they could, spending time with people and ultimately gaining trust to form home groups where people could be real, transparent and loved without judgment.

From there, the MC (missional community) groups began meeting one Sunday a month as a “church.” And three and a half years later, they meet every Sunday for congregational worship. The weekly MC groups, however, remain as the hub of gospel love and transparent relationships.

A Nashville-based pastor who endorses this approach said two things recently that have remained in my thoughts:

1. I’ve never seen a person who feels “too” forgiven.

2. We must get up each day and approach life as if we’ve never heard the simple forgiving message of the Gospel.

I’ve recently joined a missional community group and a church that believes in these things, and many people have asked me what it’s like. My consistent response is this:

“It feels like I’m breathing fresh air for the first time.”

There’s an interesting history in the church steeple we see on so many of our buildings. Originating in the middle ages, some say the steeple was contrived to point heavenward to God and his kingdome. Others might argue the steeple is just one of many pagan symbols the church has adopted over time. http://www.ehow.com/about_5052101_origin-church-steeples.html Maybe we should think about inverting the steeple with God pointing downward to his people in His abounding mercy, grace and love.

Just maybe, God wants us to focus specifically on where we are at a given point in time, and work upward to the “bigger stuff” from there.

When it comes to church, I have a lot to Un-Learn.

RELATED LINKS:

“On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church” http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_12?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=on+the+verge+a+journey+into+the+apostolic+future+of+the+church&sprefix=on+the+verge%2Cstripbooks%2C123

Why the “Leadership Movement” is Leaving Your Church Leaderless: http://www.vergenetwork.org/2012/05/29/why-the-leadership-movement-is-leaving-your-church-leaderless/

Alan Hirsch (author of On the Verge): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Hirsch

“The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church” http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_2_18?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=the+forgotten+ways+reactivating+the+missional+church&sprefix=the+forgotten+ways%2Cstripbooks%2C490

Verge Network: http://www.vergenetwork.org/

Verge Network on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/VergeNetwork

Fellowship Bible Church – Jonesboro – Home Page: http://fellowshipjonesboro.com/

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