In 2005 I read Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution and fell in love with the idea of intentional community. Five intentional communities later, I know now that living in community is tough stuff. In fact, Shane says it himself: “The simple way is not the easy way. No one ever promised us that community or Christian discipleship would be easy… This love is not sentimental but heart wrenching, the most difficult and the most beautiful thing in the world.”
I must have skimmed over that part…
It’s easy to look past the difficulties of a thing when it serves a noble purpose. Simple living, racial reconciliation, radical hospitality— these are compelling and redemptive causes. But like Shane says, they are simultaneously the most difficult and beautiful things in the world.
As an intern with an emergent congregation, I am discovering that we are having to face many of these same harsh realities as we live out our calling to be an alternative community of Christ followers. Much like new monasticism, the emergent church seeks to exchange our apathetic, consumer-driven tendencies for an embodied spirituality. In application, this has meant a couple of things for us:
First, we don’t own a building. Our church meets at a coffeehouse/music venue, where we rent space for a few hours every Sunday morning. Sometimes we decide to forgo our rented space altogether and meet up at someones house, or at a park, or at a nearby church made up of unhoused persons. Having this kind of economic flexibility allows us to focus on relationships.
At the same time, owning a building would be really convenient. Last year, during the season of Epiphany, I showed up for one of our creative worship experiences to find a giant monkey head sitting on the stage. In a moment of confusion, I wondered whether I had missed a planning discussion about the liturgical significance of giant monkey heads during Epiphany. My curiosity was not altogether misplaced; after all, I have heard plenty of stories about my church employing strange worship elements in the past. As it turns out, the giant monkey head was set up for a children’s performer, who had accidentally been given our time slot. Being a pretty chill church, we quickly made other arrangements.
I wish I could say this was the last time we ever had a problem gaining access to our rented space. But unfortunately, there continues to be plenty of times when we are locked out, or miscommunications disrupt / completely derail our plans.
Second, we have a flat ecclesiology. There are no ordained clergy persons serving in our church. The planning and execution of everything we do is collaborative. Our finances are completely transparent and sustained by the generosity of the people in our community. We value our flat structure because it invites participation and (in theory) makes sure everyone’s voice is heard.
On the other hand, sustaining good energy and momentum is demanding when everyone works full time. Work, school, kids, distance — they impinge upon the consistency a full-time paid professional could provide. Every so often our energy wanes significantly and a few people bear the brunt of holding things together.
Third, we practice epistemic humility. Our church was started over ten years ago by a group of people who began asking critical questions about their faith. Not surprisingly, expressing uncertainty, doubt, and even disbelief was not well received by their conservative evangelical faith community. So, they decided to create a church that would emphasize belonging over believing; a place where people who have been burned by the church could ask questions and be in relationship with people who openly disagree with them. As a result, today our community is made up of Christians, atheists, agnostics, inter-religious folks, and whatever you call someone who brings a Strong’s Concordance with them every week.
While meeting people where they are is always a virtue, it makes articulating a clear vision and mission nearly impossible. What happened at our church was that new people (who’d never experienced church-hurt) began outnumbering the people who left evangelicalism disenchanted, and frankly, bitter. These new members felt the old ones were holding the church back from moving forward in a positive direction. Tired of discussing who and what they were against, they wanted to figure out who they could be. Working together to create a new identity would turn out to be a painful — though ultimately redemptive— experiment in humility.
To paraphrase Shane, our commitment to creating this particular kind of community is at once beautiful and the most difficult thing in the world.
There is something within the human psyche that wants to idealize new movements. I often hear statements from people involved in mainline denominations, statements like:
“Worship should be more participatory.”
“Institutional loyalty is a thing of the past.”
“The early church was a flat church.”
In other words, descriptions of the emergent church. You’d think an “Emerging Voices” blogger would celebrate this seeming shift in the ecclesial conversation. The problem is that I hear these comments from people wedded to institutions; people who want to coopt parts of the movement without making any of the necessary sacrifices that would entail.
As we continue to have faithful conversations about what the future of the church will be, let’s not make idols out of our ideals. As long as our faith communities are made up of imperfect individuals, whose values and principles far outweigh their commitment to actualize them, the church will be an imperfect place. The emerging movement isn’t trying to fix institutions, it’s trying to do something new altogether. In spite of our imperfections, we believe the God who wastes nothing will make us into something beautiful.