Planting Ecclesiology as a way of life

Immediately apparent when commencing to plant ministries in Italy is that all people use the word church, but rarely anyone uses it biblically. The very idea of church here is something ‘private, cold, judgmental, obligatory, an event, passive, traditional, cultural, heavy, & Roman’. Therefore, we have a great crisis when it comes to the understanding of what actually constitutes a church.

Embedding Believersplanting ecclesiology

This is one of our major concerns, in that, if we enter a city and open a traditional church structure, it will be viewed through the cultural lens and automatically disregarded. Similar to the seasonal circus that comes to town, people in the general culture will ask, “What’s that?” And others will naturally respond, “Oh, I think that’s one of those foreign churches, evangelista or something…” Instantly, a perceived level of distance and safety is established.

However, if there are people who they know and have had experience with, the conversation might go a bit differently,

“Who are those people?” they might ask.
“Oh, that is the group that Daniele is a part of… you know Daniele, the mechanic that helps a lot of people with their cars over on Viale Venezia… His wife teaches some language classes and they run activities in the park with the kids.”
“Ya, that’s right — a classmate I went to school with works for him. It’s a bit surprising they opened a business in this crisis!”

We are not seeking to plant more institutions in post-catholic Europe, but rather, we emphasize planting people who are energized, holy, and evidentially part of the New City and the Christ culture. If the people of our Italian cities will find a refuge in Jesus, then, it will most likely come from people who have lived in their city with them through all of its positives, negatives, ups, and downs. These embedded believers do familiar-looking things, but they do them with an entirely different set of motives and attitudes.

“Church Work”

Embedded believers approach their lives and cities in an integral and theological way. Like an under-current that courses through their actions, they show gracious respect to local authorities but they reject that their sustenance comes from the state as their sovereign provider. Embedded believers are not getting all they can but giving all they can. In a suffocating economic market, demonstrating that you are not “on the take” but “living to serve” speaks loudly into people’s lives.

Furthermore, embedded believers are not demanding jobs, instead, they are developing them in the full realization that the “Earth is the Lord’s and all of its fullness.” With health, creativity, holy determination, persevering faith, and youth (life is said to begin at 40 in Italia) – their mission is pan-vocational because their theology is integral to all of life; impacting every aspect.

The Reformers of the 1500’s (especially Luther & Calvin) rediscovered this in their theology of work. One of their main emphasis was on the subject of consecration. They moved the emphasis off of the job or the talent and rested it upon the worker’s devotion to God. You could be a joyful, contented farmer or a deceptive, adulterous religious leader. The issue was not whether one was called as a religious leader versus called to farm. Rather, it was what kind of farmer or religious leader you actually were that made all the difference. To this day in Italia, the mindset lingers that work is unholyIt is a necessary evil and not a gift from God. Work should be avoided or oppressive and therefore, cheating others is rampant. Yet on the other hand, a person is more holy or powerful by the garments he wears or the buildings he enters. Life is divided into two categories: what to show (pride) and what to hide (pleasure).

“Home Work”

It is at this point where a marginalized, periphery church begins to touch the fabric of the city when she helps holy farmers, devoted teachers, and Christocentric entrepreneurs. Not only does the church assist these believers to establish their livelihoods, but she is also training them to grow up into the city through opening their homes for ministry as a regular rhythm of life. It is their gospel character on display throughout the city that makes them a community of light.

Embedded believers are not hidden behind their jobs where people cannot determine if they are truly kind or just trying to earn money through quality customer service. Their home is a refuge for seekers to come and find peace, and in turn, embedded believers are seekers who reach out to their cities in peace. I believe this balance of a ministering home coupled with a ministering business is critical to planting churches. It is a salty model because it does not stay confined to four walls of a comfortable structure. Integral home-life and work-life stimulate missional-life.

If you have read this far in the article, I am voicing some of our developing ministry philosophy as we face a church and market crisis here in southern Europe. I am not saying that this is a formula, but rather, an approach to life and work as missional theologians.

  • Have you experienced Life-work in this way? 
  • As you read this, would you have any helpful suggestions or comments?
  • How do you think an approach like this would impact where you live?
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Evangelism in Scary Territory

conversationalist - not so muchWe have some middle-eastern brothers in our church. Listening to their stories and thinking about evangelizing where they are from is not stuff for the faint of heart. Recently, we’ve listened to eye-popping stories of evangelism with some dear friends and readers of this blog in Naples with mafia problems, in the UK with human trafficking & severe domestic abuse, and also in the Scotland projects (schemes) of Edinburgh with crime, laziness, and addiction — all scary. Listening to some of the same brothers pronounce Italian words — even scarier.

For most believers, however, it’s not the thought of having to move to any of the aforementioned places, but rather, the scariest territory to share the Good News is simply next door, down the street, at the park, and in the workplace.

So, we often assuage our fears and bottle-up the Bible’s wonderful truth into safe houses (aka. church buildings). But there’s an inherent problem we encounter, our safe-houses are only safe to us. Take a think about the following quote and see if it doesn’t ring true:

Church is where Christians feel safe and comfortable. Church is where non-Christians feel embarrassed and awkward. We offer people the gospel, but on our terms and on our turf. [Porterbrook Learning, FY-P1, Evangelism, Unit 3]

Small groups can become and often are safe, Bible clubs; huddles of the foto-copied.
What fear keeps us from being the neighbor that everybody wants to have? What fear keeps us from learning how to cook a different kind of food just to honor and kindly surprise the foreigners around our cities? What fear keeps us from humbly telling people how it was Jesus who has transformed our lives?

But can we reduce it to fear alone? My initial opinion is that fear does play a significant role (fear of man, rejection, awkwardness, disbelief etc.). However, I would also go a bit farther for Western believers and add what we have experienced in post-catholic, secular Italy. We are not in a Christian majority, people don’t generally know what we’re talking about, and we are terribly slow to realize that fact that we just say “God” and move on while wondering how come they don’t get it? One of the missing elements, therefore, is developing a whole new way to converse with “auto-contented” secularists that shows how the Story we live by has so radically transformed our lives that it’s worth sharing with others.

And that is both the rub and the fear, isn’t it?

Numerous “Christians” cannot talk about heart-rending transformation and life-supporting community because there just hasn’t been much of any to share. As Jesus put it, He who has been forgiven much, loves much. And in the very moment we get to the heart of that truth is when the Gospel isn’t scary at all.

Missional Messiness

In a couple of our recent training sessions, we have been discussing the subject of missional hospitality. And, commonly, we hit the deep and scandalous topic of how clean should your house be when hosting other people?  On the surface, this does not seem like a problem until we start reflecting more on our motivations both for and against a cleaner casa.

Some Good Questions

welcome to our formerly clean houseHere are some of the questions we asked, and I might add that they are good conversation developers:

  1. How much cleaning is enough in our cultural context for people to feel at home and not be distracted? (for example, northern Italians are fastidiously clean by nature. Sometimes, this is greatly appreciated, and at other times, one can feel quite awkward.)
  2. How much cleaning is necessary to be tidy and yet not cross the line of presenting an artificial, sterilized, and even hypocritical version of ourselves?
  3. How much cleaning reflects a performance-to-impress attitude where we simply become Martha in our own home and miss all of the good worship of Jesus? Is genuine hospitality a dinner party or something much more familiar?
  4. How should we respond when the little humans (children-unleashed) make a mess or break something in our homes?
  5. Do other people know where you keep your utensils, serving items, and tools? And do they have access to them?

A Key Principle

Don’t allow grace and mission to be hindered over a standard of sanitation. Martha couldn’t choose ‘the better meal’ because she was hindered in her hospitality. And a Pharisee was revealed as a fool because he failed to clean his “house” properly; his mission was himself, not grace. Luke 11:37-41

In the ministry here (Serenissima), our Gospel communities are called LifeTeams. And because we are seeking to share more and more life together, a LifeTeam is all about making a missional mess. Often, Christian community is simply a mess-on-mission. Somehow when the mess comes, however, the graciousness of God is mysteriously revealed and people can rest their souls and feel more at home than in their own houses. And that’s the beginning of missional hospitality; the use of our homes as temples to God and not to ourselves.

So, how clean should our house be when hosting other people? As clean as necessary for Jesus to be seen. And that could mean letting the little humans be loved as little humans, as well as re-humbling ourselves in the whole idea of putting on a production when someone comes through our front door. For some (and we have experienced this too), it might mean a bit more effort to recognize the missional context of people with which they are working. With a nip of hyperbolic language here, leaving an un-emptied, cat-litter box in the middle of the room where you are sharing Christ — honestly — might be a distraction to some. It’s just an observation, but I don’t think I’m out of my sand-box on this one.

A Nip of Newbigin: The Local Congregation

Lnewbigin

In this second part on evangelism in a secular culture, Lesslie Newbigin shares that it is not enough to try to impart evangelistic information to society, but rather, there needs to be a local and visible demonstration of the impact this Good-News-knowledge has had on real people. Therefore, the family of God becomes the best apologetic of the true story. 

The clue to evangelism in a secular society must be the local congregation. There are many other things of which one could speak — mass evangelism of the Billy Graham type, Christian literature, radio and television, study and training courses, and so on. These are auxiliary. Many of them can be very valuable. But they are auxiliary to the primary center of evangelism, which is the local congregation. The congregation should live by the true story and center their life in the continual remembering and relating of the true story, in meditating on it and expounding it in its relation to contemporary events so that contemporary events are truly understood, and in sharing in the sacrament by which we are incorporated into the dying and rising of Jesus so that we are at the very heart of the true story. The congregation that does this becomes the place where the new reality is present with its heart in the praise and adoration of God and in the sharing of the love of God among the members and in the wider society. And here, of course, an immense amount depends upon the leadership given through preaching, pastoral encouragement, and public action by those called to ministry in the congregations.

~ Lesslie Newbigin: a Reader, p. 234-235

I liked that part about the congregation becoming the place where the new reality is present with its heart in the praise and adoration of God and in the sharing of the love of God…

We need to emphasize that present, new reality. While contextualization is important, one of  the most compelling things about our gatherings (larger and smaller) is how serious and committed we are as a people to the true story. Rather, the focus is often on our “technique of doing church.”

The Gospel shared is the Gospel lived. So, to share that story in a radically attractive way (evangelism) will require us to ask, “How are we–together interpreting our world and responding to it by the truth of the Gospel?” 

When people begin to encounter other people who are walking by the Gospel, they might see forms of church that are familiar to them but they will be drawn to the story because they see others who have authentically entered it and are taking it seriously.

—–

Part one of this 5-part evangelism series can be found here: Living by the Other Story

Here below is a link to a very good article on communicating the Gospel in considerate and contemporary ways. It runs parallel with what I’ve shared above.

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Gospel-centered Church Part 2

Pastor_keller_in_berlin_3
Below are the 7 points of being a Gospel-centered church that Pastor Keller gave the other day in Berlin. These points help us “center-in” on the Gospel like I wrote about in the last post.

  1. Gospel Renewal — utilize the power of the Gospel to change character; not psychological selfishness to try to get people to have things “go well” in their lives. The two moralistic motivators are pride and fear. Often, these two are the ones we appeal to by default in our teaching. However, the Gospel both humbles us out of our pride and then affirms us out of our fear. The Gospel changes everything in our approach and response to life. 

     

  2. Contextualization — If you over-adapt to a culture or, on the other hand, say that everything is bad in a culture, then you’re not reading the culture well enough to bring the Gospel to bear on it.
    Over-adaptation is an insecurity that desires people to like us.
    No-adaptation is a prideful superiority.
    The Gospel brings poise and helps us with the balance of humility and boldness

  3. City positive — it’s not starry-eyed about cities but understands the hard difficulties within them. It’s not comfortable but understands that Jesus made himself uncomfortable for all of us. So, the Gospel will draw you toward cities, not repel you from them. If you can’t stand the city, the Gospel hasn’t gotten ahold of you in some area.

  4. Cultural engagement — see how cultures work; to hollow-out the culture from within — neither triumphalistic nor withdrawn.

  5. Missional Bearing — The community expects the presence of non-Christians experiencing the Body. Therefore, how things are presented and talked about will be done with a sensitivity to mission and an anticipation of members of the city involved who may not yet understand or agree with the Faith.

  6. Holistic — evangelism and mercy together; sharing the good news while living the good news. This would be the sum total of word and deed ministry. They both help you go more deeply into the other when practiced. 

  7. Movement oriented — Humility to work with others for the benefit of the city — not just trying to “increase the tribe”