I have a confession to make. đź™‚ I find these cool long subtitles like “A Vision for Church That Is Always Organic/Networked/Decentralized/Bottom-Up/Communal/Flexible/Always Evolving” quite sexy …
With that off my chest, I think it’s time to share some of the books which have caught my attention the past year. Now, craze right now perhaps is on another book Pagan Christianity, which I managed to scan through somewhat (and might throw in a couple of comments once I get through a few others first), there’s these lingering thoughts from Kester Brewin’s book which I must enter some conversation with before I’m distracted with other urgent matters.
“I think I have read the book probably 20 times and I will soon retire the book as soon as Signs of Emergence comes out in North America for no other reason to give it’s battered binding a must needed break. If I had a list of the ten most important books for the emerging church and for the church in general, I think this one would definitely be on it.”
Okay, Let me pick out what I recall which made me say “Fantastic” in a British accent in my imagination, and see what happens from there. My goal is to finish the book before Chinese New Year celebrations in February since Kester was cool enough to quote a Chinese Philosopher Chuang Tzu in his UK edition, which I thought was refreshing:
“The fish-trap exists because of the fis.
One you’ve got the fish, the trap can be forgotten.
Words exist because of meaning.
Once you’ve got the meaning, the words can be forgotten.”
Of course, there are some unforgettable words when I started the US Edition book.
“If Christianity is to remain ‘vital’, then it is, in the truest sense, ‘vital’ that we understand change: for an organism to show signs of life, it must show it can respond to its environment and for the church to retain a vibrancy in its faith, it must ‘adapt and survive’.” (p. 19)
I’m wearing a couple of hats when I’m reading the above. One hat is when I’m plugged into the denominational structures and decision making systems, and observing how a young denomination like ours the Lutheran Church in Malaysia and Singapore (LCMS) is adapting and surviving in the fast changing Malaysian context under the wave of globalisation and Islamisation as well as 101 internal alignment issues.
It’s true there are signs of death and desert like symptoms, here and there. And it’s disheartening to hea stories where we as individual congregations of God’s people are missing the point in terms of church life. But then, there have been signs of life when decisions made have actually facilitated and opened up possibilities for long-term health. One of the joys at the turn of the year serving as the Education chairman is to see baby steps made to “adapt and survive” in terms of theological education, and the process of ministerial/pastoral formation for theological and ordination candidates. I know the language is hierarchical, but trust me in Malaysia and much of Asia very often it’s unclear systems that land us up in trouble.
Of course, the hat closer to my heart and where I am is as the pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church (BLC). The experience the last 7 years have been very much at the ground level. Scary at times, stumbling often, struggling always, surprised more than once! Even as I step into my 8th year as the “re-founding” pastor of BLC, and look ahead of 2008 … it hasn’t changed … there are still so many changes ahead … and the norm is responding to these changes more than preserving some self-constructed status quo. The earlier I left that illusion behind, the saner I became (hopefully!) No grandeur success to boast about, but in some strange way I’m seeing gradually the significance of the lessons I have learnt along the way.
“The death of the church, and the accompanying death of the historic Christian culture, can be avoided if we are prepared to do some serious thinking and soul searching.” (p. 20)
Now in Malaysia, there is no historic Christian culture … but there are little deaths of Christian mishmash-ed “Rojak” sub-cultures influenced by Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic waves as well as a good dose of prosperity gospel perhaps mixed with baptized management flavors for some.
It’s painful to do soul searching. And that’s where we struggle to move forward. There are conversations which reflect serious thinking scattered somewhere – usually not at the pop level. But the soul searching seems to be the lacking part. Not just for us church leaders, but also church leavers alike. All are guilty at some level. All are prone to adventures in missing the point – the point which leads us forward than backward.
“To blame the demise of the church on personal holiness is a dangerous and wrong position. I believe that rather than focusing on changing our individual lives, we need to change our corporate practice.” (p.21)
This needs to be said. Because those of us in leadership need to take responsibility of the environments in which we are seeking to cultivate. Speaking as an individual though, while I don’t want to be beaten on the head all the time that is all my fault that the church is dying … I do want to take responsibility where I am not contributing to the life and nourishment of the church – in whatever form. I was struck in a conversation with a Roman Catholic new friend while on a journey to Seremban how in many ways we Protestants have often a too idealized notion of the church, we miss how to live and work in the concrete realities of the church right before our eyes. I did not see that in her. She was able to embrace the church’s inadequate practices, re-examine personal responsibilities and work towards changing both. That food has kept me thinking till now.
”… the transformation of the church will be about empowering people to face fundamental questions of their local existence, engaging with all its complexity and emerging as a renewed organism that is faithful to the truth and disinterested in power.
… Answers that do not acknowledge the full reality and complexity of our situation are essentially futile. We need to be in love with the ancient wisdom of simplicity, yet not allow ourselves to become simplistic; to be prepared to journey with an ’emergent Christ’ – a Christ who entered our world and evolved a new faith from the ground up.” (p. 24-25)
Simplistic answers drives me nuts. Over complex analysis can be draining and distracting. And in between these two poles, we are trying to carve some ways to encounter Christ, embrace him and explore new frontiers with Jesus will see not just the transformation of the church but more so the transformation of society for the good of all. This is a big picture kind of approach which doesn’t want to ignore grass-root developments. It requires focus, and perseverance. It needs maturity and community.
When I hear voices calling out this is the ONLY way, rather than this is one way contributing to our common journey, the simplistic frequencies are caught in the antenna. When I hear voices needing to demonize another in order to justify their own existence, I try to be sympathetic but lean on caution. These voices tell me more about the ones speaking, then the ONE who is trying to speak to us. But sometimes, there are voices which will help us flourish together … I hear God’s still small whisper there.
“The emerging church is a label that is being stuck on anything outside the ‘norms’ of the church as most people know it; whereas the Emergent Church is specifically about the principles of the science of emergence to church growth.” (p. 35)
Fascinating … but interesting twist for the wider conversation.
“Before the church can change, before I can change, before things change — before change, we must wait.” (p. 45)
This is actually very profound in the context and light of the whole chapter on Advent in the book. But this is where I see many of us fail and get off track again. Because of our own impatience, and the need to see quick change. No long lasting change happens. We lose steam too fast. We first are unwilling to wait and even enter a time of looking at ourselves in the midst of … doing what Kester talks about here:
“The only way to consider whether our structures are serving us is to stop and reflect on them. To dismantle them: take them apart piece by piece. Expose them in the air. Lay them on the ground and let everyone walk around them and take a good look at them without the pressures of meetings and deadlines and agendas. This is the beginning of empowerment: we must allow people space and time to return to the deep simplicity of things, and spend time mulling over the fundamentals, the nuts and bolts that interlock to make our complex lives.”
The word that crops up when I was reading again this talk about “dismantling structures” (at least at a conceptual level), “Spirituality” and maybe a follow up word of “Maturity”. That’s the only way this process doesn’t become destructive for our souls. Because I find the temptation of pride and superiority a real one. The spirituality of “waiting” (expectantly) under girds this soul searching moment. Structural revision requires a return to a Spiritual motivation again and again … for me that keeps me from a road which can lead to poison, and tilts me onwards towards that which is full of promise. A much needed Eschatological invasion to the present? đź™‚
Wow .. I’m actually surprised I have rambled so much … very raw and unrefined as usual. But that’s the nature of blogging about a book right? Looks like I’ll do another post later.