reflection on Christian language; what it has become and how it may limit
our church effectiveness – inspired by ‘The Country of the Blind’ by HG
Introduction: a realization
I first realized the language I use is a hindrance 10 years ago when I went back to Scotland for my 21st with family. After being away for my teen years we spent hours catching up and it was all good until I saw that saying ‘I go to church’ was picked up differently to the way I understood it’s meaning.
To me, ‘I go to church’ means: “I am active in a local church, partnering with Para-church organizations all-the-while engaging the call of God on my life to be relational and developing refreshing ‘non-cringey’ events and helping in a missional project’
To my non-churched family, ‘I go to church’ means: ‘I am better than you in the way that I religiously attend church, regardless of how I may live in the week’
Since that trip I have become increasingly aware of how the church has different dimensions to its language and that this may be fundamental to our in-effectiveness. Being an active part of CommonGround church, a missional church in Melbourne, Australia [www.ourcommonground.org.au] and recently moving to Darwin only to join an Assemblies of God church which is changing its values to be more ‘missional’ has shown me that its not about the buildings, titles, styles of worship [and I have led many experimental worship sessions!] or leadership structures: it seems our fundamental error lies in the language we use.
Identify: Country of the Blind
In a CS Lewis discussion about 'The Language of Religion' he ends off by referring to the book by Wells called 'The Country of the Blind' and it struck me that this applies to the discussion on what church has become through Christendom by such authors as Hirsch and Frost, and Kim Hammond. The essential thought here being that over generations we developed new justifiable standards in the church even though it is vastly different to the original existence of the church.
This story is about the encounter of a seeing-eye traveler who stumbles upon a village of blind people who are unaware of their handicap. Blindness developed gradually through many centuries. At some transitional stage a few citizens still had sight but after a few generations all the people are blind. The blind are normal and up-to-date. They use the same words their ancestors had used [light, colour names, terms like ‘I see’] but no longer know their concrete meaning or application.
They still speak of light, meaning an abstract thought. If a person with sight tries to describe what he sees in the sky or around them the blind majority insist that they understand the feeling the sighted one expresses in metaphor. There is no way to explain the facts to them. The blind ridicule the sighted one – the one person who can see is ridiculed for describing a sunset the way he sees it because they ‘know’ what it ‘looks’ like.
Truth: Blind living
My edit of the story contains sections in bold to show the parts that are clues to how this is a parable on the church; most of these are followed by a paragraph in red which are my own thoughts fleshing out how this applies to the church.
Please read this as purely opinion and not an academic paper – I hope it opens conversation around the cause and effect of what we have become.
Future: Open Source
The Emerging church is a response to current church being an unfamiliar reflection of the first church; it is not seeking to undo and move away from church but rather restore and release the church community to what God calls us to do, by faith in our giftings where He calls us to be. What currently seems to be different about Emerging churches is the physical expression of this call.
To quote Vaux from altworship.org: "Much of the mainstream church has labelled what we do 'alternative.' But we have no interest in being viewed as mainstream by an organisation that is itself so marginal. We are concerned with presenting our faith in a way that our culture would see as mainstream. We believe that this is in continuity with the way of Christ."
This response may appear to come in the form of Churches who meet in proxy spaces [Hirsch and Frost in describing Café churches etc], with alt worship, meditation, reflection, new media, exhibitions, postmodern debate, basements, lounges, network churches or sub-cultural gatherings with no walls; however they choose to meet, it is clear the church is already addressing the problem of what we understand we are doing with our time in community with this commission.
This isn’t based on a book or a ‘move of the Spirit’ – no, this is more like the biblical model of Gods voice to Israel through Ezekial, to be restored back to the original design of relating with Him and honouring Him by living in His purposes for our lives in our places of life.
But the question about Emerging churches lies in this: when the styles have changed in a decade will we still be doing this? When worship styles, church fashions, blogs and jargon change, the challenge to still live out God’s call to participation in His mission in the world, the Ministry of Reconciliation, regardless of cafes, church fashion or language. The challenge applies to all churches; denominational, apostolic, emerging etc to be missional.
Interface: New Old Face of Emerging Church
So I believe the local denominational church faces the same challenge as the Emerging churches. I believe there can be a change. As I work through turning to missional with this AOG I realize it begins with some basics, that its not about places of meeting or expressions of worship; I believe the turning of the denominational church centers around its language.
If the denominational church maintains its titles, its leadership structure and weekly schedule why should it be seen as incapable of being missional? On what basis can anyone in an Emerging church model criticize the local church model? In Melbourne I tired of people in Emerging churches grumbling about denominations – something I was really guilty of - but have become aware of how religious that can be, thus contradicting the whole process. Surely we should define ourselves by knowing and responding to God’s call on our lives rather than defining ourselves by what we are not! [w.dekock@commonground]
From changing from a café-based church to a denominational church I have learnt the valuable lesson of what defines us as missional: if there is one person with aspirations to ‘be in a ministry’ who doesn’t get ‘appointed’ to leadership in it and reacts badly then what are they valuing? The question that frees us in our view of missional church with the walls of a denomination is this: Can you celebrate someone else being released into their calling? If you can’t then it highlights your own insecurities in your own understanding of God’s call on your life and how you live in it. The same could be said of how someone like that may view success of a ministry!
Surely if we believe that being missional is a lifelong process of seeing people discover and know the call of God on their life – and ultimately to be released into it; the result is a church full of people living in fullness as they live in their ‘mission’. Our cities will be full of Christians embodying the good news on the footy fields, in boardrooms, supermarkets, schools, workshops and within churches.
This raises the question of language again: does calling a church missional make it truly missional? Calling oneself ‘missional’ as a way to justify building up only the projects within a church isn’t biblical. To avoid this we need a clear move away from our experience of the Pastor and elders hearing from God and we work within the missional boundaries/projects they ‘release’ for us. Instead, missional work is surely defined by the fact that its success cannot be predetermined but rather is gauged by the internal transition of church member who move into their individual callings – Romans 12 could then be read ‘as each member has a calling and lives in it so the body’s calling is defined’. [d.johnson@hopecity]
So, if we expect our current lives to result in living in the fullness of that which He has prepared in advance to do [Eph 2:10], is this limited by titles or structure? Alternatively, is it freed up by changing our Gathering times or rooms? No, it applies to us all – Denominational and Emerging, regardless of our labels.
Our church in Darwin is turning, not by appointments, conferences or alternative expressions of worship. The rudder turning this established model of church is our language: When we speak of worship, missions, releasing etc it is with the sole aim of seeing people discover and live in the call of God on their lives.
The elders in my Darwin church are adopting a new language, instead using words to coerce a culture of creating teams around them to build church vision they are creating the space for people to be trained and released into expressing their own response to God’s call on their lives in their week. It is celebrated when someone is appointed as worship pastor because they are someone with a call on their lives to be pastoral in that area and they are released to do it; and that this is equated with those finding the call of God in their weeks and becoming more effective in the classrooms, families and various workplaces.
So when we say ‘worship’ or ‘missional’ we mean the same as the artistic café communities of CommonGround, East, Café Church and others in Melbourne. It is my prayer that our language becomes a turning point for how people see the church; that walls come down by our terms and not our aesthetics. It is my prayer that pastors/lead elders/apostolic leaders/visionaries become increasingly more aware of God’s voice through people in their churches responding to God’s calling on their life, even if it means working in their giftings outside of the church. It is my prayer that churches can restore the meanings in their language to the singular original meanings as found in scripture – so when outsiders hear any church speak of ‘worship’, ‘ministry’, missions’ etc they hear and see the same understandings/definitions of them lived out.
Email your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org