I’ve been away from the blog for awhile because I’ve been working diligently on what I hope will be a book on Acts and ministry. I’m finding I have lots of material, but am struggling with “voice.” I want the book to be for the kinds of people that I imagine as readers of my blog. So, I thought I’d put a sample here, an intrduction to my reflections on Acts 1, to see if I can get an indication that I’m hitting what I’m aiming for. Feedback is welcome.
Acts depicts the rise of the early church as a theological achievement. That is, the church arose from the experience and testimony that God has shown Jesus of Nazareth to be both Messiah and Lord by raising him from the dead. Put another way, the church in Acts is not the result of the organizational genius of the apostles or the predictable outcome of a strategic plan complete with five year goals and measurable outcomes. Rather, the church is the community swept into the wildly unpredictable experience of trusting that the risen and living Jesus is present to them through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This fundamental theological reality shows that the church belongs to a different kind of reign under a different kind of power than the one offered by Caesar, or any subsequent empire. Strategic plans, after all, benefit those who can manage outcomes, who hold social power and make policy. A kingdom, however, consisting of the poor, the common, and the lowly makes its way in the world only by the surprising and disruptive activity of the Holy Spirit. And this is the story of Acts. The movement of the first Christians from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth comes through unlikely characters and surprising circumstances. All of this happens in spite of the best efforts of “rulers,” both Jewish and Gentile, to suppress what is happening. It is a story that is only explainable by the movement of the Spirit of the risen Lord.
It is open to question whether or not congregations in North America are explainable by the same theological achievement. Those Christians living in the American stories of progress and exceptionalism, have been hardwired to think of the world as something that bends to their efforts, as something manageable and manipulable. I fear that in this very way, the spirit of this age has conditioned the way congregations and their leaders have thought about ministry. As a former full-time congregational minister for over seventeen years, I confess to having been given over to the strategic. My energies and imagination in ministry were dominated by thoughts of “what would work” to extend the institutional health of the congregation that paid me to do this very thing. In spite of my theological training and commitments, which I took very seriously, in practice I was consumed more with strategic plans and congregational organization than discerning and being drawn into the life of the Holy Spirit. I had friends in ministry who took their theological commitments less seriously, opting instead for “leadership,” defined as stating a vision, setting goals and managing outcomes. Whether I or they, this is what we believed and this is what we practiced.
There are many telling us that the church in North America is being moved more to the cultural margins. Our experience confirms their observations. We no longer build churches across from city hall, signaling our influence in the public life of our towns and cities. Instead, we cater to the private needs of inidivdual religious consumers in the suburbs. We can no longer assume that our neighbors are Presbyterians, or Catholics, or Baptists, or Methodists. They are just as likely to be Muslim, Budhist, or “nones.” Perhaps most telling is that our congregations’ battle for the hearts, minds, and attendance of our own members, often results in a loss when pitted against a youth sports culture that no longer considers Sunday mornings to be sacrosanct. The end result of this marginalization is that the world bends less to our efforts and we are less in a position to set policy and make rules that would allow us to shape the world according to our purposes. I often get knowing glances from congregational leaders when I suggest that thay are doing everything they know to do, better than they’ve ever done it before, but with diminishing impact. In light of this, perhaps Luke’s story of the church in Acts offers us a fresh alternative, a chance to once again live as the power-filled powerless in the free bounty of the Holy Spirit.
I am totally hooked. I want this view. I need this view. I’m so tired of the strategies, ministries, leadership, and even values perspective on what church is supposed to be. I’m ready for a view that says intimacy is everything. That is, all (or any) action or impulses emerge from an intimate and surrendered relationship with God. In that state, anything can happen.
Looking forward to your book. I think you are on the right track; this reliance on the Holy Spirit’s leading is the missing ingredient in most of our congregations. (spelling error: fourth line from bottom, thay/they – sorry, former language arts teacher!)
Not sure if this is the kind of feed back you are looking for but I do feel eager to respond. I have not been attending a “church body” for over a year now. But I’ve been involved in many spirit led projects or situations. So I very much like this focus on what you said in your last sentence. I continue to stand in awe of God’s work that I’ve been capable of being part of by not being consumed with being part of a “church body.” It is so freeing to follow spirit led moments and opportunities. The way I can best describe these experiences are that they are spirit led and community driven. Without the spirit taking lead, the community would not pull together and the outcome would not leave me standing amazed at what God just orchestrated. I DO have a church, but it’s not an organized structure. I do look forward to being part of an organized structure some day but right now I’m enjoying seeking spirit led opportunities outside the boundaries of a single “church body” and experiencing the multiple talents within these communities that are brought together by the spirit. And I’m learning so much through people of all kinds and I find it to be just incredibly beautiful. The way I see it is that I’m not seeking the religion of Christianity, but I’m seeking the spirituality of Christ…and this, the spirituality of Christ, I believe comes in so many forms, but polices or rules or structure can blind us in seeing the spirituality of Christ. (I could go on).
Mark, I love the sound of what you’re trying to do with this book! It is so counter- cultural I wonder about the response, but love that you’re putting it out there. American church members still seem to want to “measure” growth, unfortunately. Can’t wait to read what you come up with! God Bless
Mark, I am great reader of your blogs. You asked for feedback, so I want to be faithful to that end. I find the approach fresh. You brought up “voice” and that this book is for your readers. I want to stress that I and many others have reading vocabularies that are not university level. I have more of a grade ten to grade twelve level reading comprehension. If you want a voice for all, please keep the paragraphs and thoughts to a lesser reading level. I love your work!
Thanks, Andrew. I’ll do my best.
I love the ideas that you have expressed about your upcoming book. The church my family and I attend now is strategic to an extreme, and very successful, by many standards of measurement. It is also makes me the most uncomfortable of any church I have even attended. My previous experience at Matthew House in Durango was at the other end of the spectrum. We had few if any plans for the future or for worship each Sunday. One reason I loved it was that there was space, in worship, for lots of people to express and describe what God was up to from their vantage point. We were not really good delivering slick worship experiences, but we did have high levels of participation from people who came to worship with both awe and doubt. I watched people find God in the midst of all this and through this come to trust him. At our current church a lot of people have faith in their highly skilled pastor and the churches highly skilled staff. There is little awe and not room for doubt. I still think about going back into ministry, nearly every day. I am in so deep with the two printing companies that I own and our two kids (Chamonix 2 and Brooks 3) that I have little time, except with they go to bed at night before I pass out. Maybe someday, some how it will happen. I have absolutely no idea about how to plan a comeback. I look forward to more of your blogs and books, they are quite refreshing.