"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
June 15, 2009

Recursive Ecclesiology Or Repulsive Ecclesiology?

Neo-Baptist has fast become one of my favourite blogs for challenging and intelligent commentary on churchy stuff. In recent months the blog has rally found it’s voice in terms of humour, criticism and encouragement. Today’s post, on Learning To Love Generation F, really got me thinking. The point really isn’t about Facebook, per se, but […]

Neo-Baptist has fast become one of my favourite blogs for challenging and intelligent commentary on churchy stuff. In recent months the blog has rally found it’s voice in terms of humour, criticism and encouragement.

Today’s post, on Learning To Love Generation F, really got me thinking. The point really isn’t about Facebook, per se, but rather about how online “community” is challenging our assumptions about real world community.

For a long time I was a critic of what I saw of local (Baptist) church culture because it reflected and to a large extent aped, the corporate world. However, that’s something of a historical anecdote, but the corporate world today has, in many ways moved well beyond what we see in churches, with a lot of business leaders exhibiting a greater sense of the importance of relationships, self-reflection, education and critical thought.

I’m not saying that everybody’s working life is a haven of human flourishing, but many workplaces embody a culture of openness and collaboration that for sheer scope of freedom put our so called “free” churches to shame.

The 12 work-relevant characteristics of online life that are cited just highlight that. Consider, for example,

Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed.
Resources get attracted, not allocated.
Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it.
Intrinsic rewards matter most.

For a long time I was puzzled by the way some church leaders reacted to the web and social media. There was a rush to dismiss websites and then blogs and even the compliments handed out to online communities were backhanded. At first I thought it was simply because these media allowed alternative voices to be heard and present themselves as challenges to the status quo.

Now I wonder if these new media, present a more fundamental challenge not just to power structures within church life but to the core of some kinds of ecclesiology.

Increasingly I’ve come to wonder if churches are, to some extent, analogous to record labels and newspapers. The latter two business built their limited resources and high barriers to wealth; printing newspapers and promoting hit records is an expensive game. But, the craigslist, blogs, DAWs and MySpace have become deal-breakers – especially if you don’t lay awake at night dreaming of wealth and a home in the Caribbean. Both record labels and newspapers created wealth through the way a resource problem was answered and structured. You needed a label to get your music out, now you don’t. You needed a newspaper to create a PR buzz or post a classified, now you don’t.

This truly is a blessed time for those for whom doing is a reward in and of itself, regardless of the rewards. The way of doing for the “ordinary” person has changed, if they are really focussed first on the doing.

How does this relate to church? Forgive me for waxing economical, but to me church is a kind of resource problem (or collective action problem). We “do” church because there are things a Christian just can’t “do” by themselves. In a way, ecclesiological power was like the power of the record label or newspaper in time when access to theological education and resources was scarce and expensive. A lot of theological education is still built on that model today (Matt Stone has been blogging on this topic lately).

There was a time where possession of a Bachelor of Theology degree put your near the top of the educated within a western society. But, today it is usually very unlikely that a pastor would be anywhere near being the most educated person in their congregation in most churches. Moreover, the explosion of christian publishing means that theological resources are more available than at any time in the history of the church. And, it doesn’t stop there, the possibilities for mentoring, retreats and spiritual direction are no longer confined to clergy and their professional development.

Which brings us back to the online thing. The open, flat, collaborative, fluid dynamic that marks out online culture is a place that problematises a lot of the assumptions that feed the church as answer to scarce resources model. Put simply, we no longer need that kind of church or the denominational structures that were built to support it. If anything, that kind of church is becoming more an more repulsive to people of my generation and will be totally alien to digital natives.

That’s not to say that there are no more collective action and resource problems because there are. But, they have largely changed from problems of access to problems of choice. Or, to put it another way, the economics have shifted from a problem of scarcity to a problem of abundance.

We still need wisdom and to some extent leadership. But, there’s no question we need a different kind of church, different habits and to be blunt, different leaders.

Responses
Toni 13 years ago

I’ll bounce this off you in my own language and see if it lands somewhere, because I think it’s an aspect of what you’re talking about.

An issue with the traditional church structures in all this is that the guys who lead play the role, to a greater or lesser degree, of a priesthood still. They talk about ‘the way’ to God, they tell you what God is saying, how you should walk, how God is going to be for you in church and that God has put them in charge.

The church we have just moved from would talk about what God was saying to you, how are you going to work out your salvation, how do you think he’s asking you to walk and how the body can have the mind of christ without being interested in people’s opinions.

Western (and many other) societies have undergone a renaissanence of individual thinking in the last 100 years. Sure, there are many sheep that cannot see above what they’re told to think by the media, but people have gone from being told what to do to finding out for themselves. I could see the church needing to undergo a transformation too, as it changes from teaching people to be dependent to teaching them how to become a priesthood of believers. From having to come to their ‘shepherds’ to be fed to finding out where their larger shepherd has food for them.

It seems likely the emergent church phase partly reflects that desire to break free from the old priesthood, but wthout a firm idea of what they really needed. It will be interesting to see if leadership within the western church can come to grips with the idea that born-again Christians are (generally) capable of Godly, independant spiritual thinking, given the opportunity and training.

Mike Mahoney 13 years ago

Yes, individual thinking and seeking out your own resources are on the rise, but there are still plenty of people in brick-and-mortar churches who are waiting to be told what to do, even among youth.

I find a lot of danger in this progression, even as I embrace online technology and what it can do. First and foremost, Christianity is not meant to be “self-study.” We are called to make disciples, and to follow the models of Jesus, Peter and Paul, this means investing our lives in others. This is hard to do by the simple expediaent of writing a blog post on online article.

One downside of so much information being available today is that a lot of it is garbage. Anyone can put up a blog post, write a Wikipedia article, or contribute to an online magazine. And now that person is an expert! One advantage of traditional education is that the institution (hopefully) vets the reference material and texts.

All that said, I agree with the points you highlighted above. The new paradigm is this: information becomes more valuable the more you give it away. (What are all those intellectual property lawyers going to do?) What is needed, however, is to disciple people to be critical thinkers, so that they can parse all the incoming information and “rightly divide” the meat from the gristle.

I find in a lot of discussions with sudents from traditional seminaries that this skill is lacking. (That’s unfair… many university students suffer from the same problem.) They can quote from a variety of scholars, but have no understanding of what the Word of God is saying to THEM.

Matt Huggins 13 years ago

You need to state what you perceive as the resource problem for the Church more clearly. A number of your assumptions don’t seem to map very well to orthodox ecclesiology and/or to reality. Christian worship and fellowship are inherently collective actions for which there is no individual substitute.

Is there a “resource problem” analysis for the family?

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Toni – you’ve hit three points I really agree with! First, we haven’t really moved past the priestly model. What makes this worse is when ministers talk about “their” vision for the church as if churches are, of essence, rudderless without such a visionary leader.

This brings up the issue of who actually bothers to turn up to church these days. We no longer live, in most countries, in a situation where people come to church because they feel a compulsion (social or political). Sure, some people come because of the pain in their lives and they really need help and guidance to get on their feet. But, for a lot, perhaps the greater majority, church is choice. To put it bluntly, church leaders do frequently approach their congregants as if they are a bit stupid and rather lazy, when in fact they have already shown motivation by bothering to turn up and are perhaps cautious, because experience has burnt them in the past.

What has always inspired me about the emergent folks is their desire to rethink this and at the core I think they have got a lot of things right. Perhaps we agree here, but, I thin kthe missing ingredient is a sense of what it means to be an adult. What I see and hear seems to me like a better model for youth and young adults ministry. What I want to see is a better model for oldies like me, with jobs and families and elderly parents and scattered friends…

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Mike – I wasn’t tying to suggest that we substitute online for “real world,” but rather than we think about how online might change our understand and expectations for what can happen in the “real.” It’s about the “how” of learning.

You’ve said that Christianity is not “self-study,” which is something I can only partly agree with. The way I read Paul, there is a path from dependency, through nourishing to adulthood. In this final stage there is quite a bit of self-direction and responsibility. We shouldn’t become islands or Randians, sure, but we learn to think, feel and critique for ourselves.

Which is something I think we agree upon – the need for critical thinking. In one generation we’ve gone from a scarcity of opinion and commentary to a super-abundance. I still hear sermons that are written as if only the minister has access to a concordance, when perhaps they should be explaining how best to use online resources that anyone can find in a few seconds…

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Matt – I’m worried if my writing deviates from reality, but less so if it deviates from orthodoxy. This is an idea I’ve been toying with for a while (http:/?p=665)

I agree that worship is a collective issue – personal spirituality and worship are not the same thing. Missions, in the traditional sense are also a collective issue. Alms, or philanthropy is another example. In part these are things we can’t do alone, either because their nature demands our collective involvement, or because the problem cannot be effectively tackled by one person, but needs groups.

In terms of families, I do believe that spiritual education for children is a resource problem. A family can take care of it’s own, but we can do a lot better if we pool our talent, experience and resources.

As for fellowship – I’m not sure I know what that really means anymore. I have some idea of what it might supposedly be about. But, in my experience, it’s often a social space that is not quite friendship, or hospitality, or support or encouragement. I know I’m cynical on this point, but in recent years I found myself too many times hearing someone describe the great fellowship of a church while I wonder “if it’s so great then why I have been coming here for a while and no-one knows my name.”

Gordon 13 years ago

Firstly Fernando, when I get some NeoBaptist coffee mugs and fridge magnets and WWNT (what would neobaptist think) bracelets done, you are getting the first ones, as thanks for your kind comments about my scurrilous blog.

You said:
“The open, flat, collaborative, fluid dynamic that marks out online culture is a place that problematises a lot of the assumptions that feed the church as answer to scarce resources model. Put simply, we no longer need that kind of church or the denominational structures that were built to support it. If anything, that kind of church is becoming more an more repulsive to people of my generation and will be totally alien to digital natives.”

My contention is that a typical denominational church can change to meet the challenges of how Gen F operate and collaborate. I do believe that you can transform a typical suburban church into a fluid, dynamic, flat, collaborative place.

People in our community value places and spaces very much. Just down the road from me is a Council owned sports complex dotted with impressive and not so impressive club hq’s for everything from gymnastics (very impressive), dog training club (not so impressive), footy (ok), hockey (not good), etc. These are all community run sports clubs, mainly for children, some for adults. The members have raised funds through endless sausage sizzles, grant applications, etc. They have finally got a building which can serve as a club house, meeting place, change room, etc. The more successful clubs now have a fully fledged club with restaurant facilities, etc.

This proves the value to people of places where they can meet, facilities and utilities that can serve their need to gather and indulge in whatever takes their interest, be it throwing frisbee for Fido or watching little Betty on the balance beam.
Our church building is a community resource. How we structure ourselves and how we respond to the hallmarks of modern collaborative communities is the big issue.

I currently stand at the threshold of a choice between continuing on in pastoral ministry trying to complete the morph into a missional church or going missional myself and becoming a church planter. I firmly believe it is possible to have a missional makeover, especially when you have done the groundwork for 8 years or so. If we can do it, we’ll be around a lot longer than a lot of emerging expressions, still winning souls and discipling them.

In fact the ONLY reason I am considering staying on is that I believe that a missional makeover is possible. I will naturally seek to continue a culture transition that reflects the more flat, collaborative way of allowing people to buy in and contribute towards the whole, rather than following ‘my vision’.

In my recent review interview I was asked to outline a 5 year vision. Part of my answer was that for me to do that would threaten to limit what we expect God to do, because I can only speak from my vantage point. I am happy to provide vision but I would prefer it was a collective outcome and not a crystal ball exercise from me.

Toni 13 years ago

Gordon – I’m now part of a church that is strongly missional. People come through the front door in reasonable numbers, but they also rapidly find the backdoor too. Missional church is not the answer. This has been recognised, but the leaders are primarily missionally focussed, and haven’t yet realised how important body ministry is.

What people need is a church that is family, but one which is open and reaching out rather than ringfenced against intruders. I would challenge you to create something more than just a tube, and more than just a baptist church too.

Gordon 13 years ago

Toni – I agree with you. The transformation sought in our church is not to lose our capacity to incoporate and care for people but rather to add a missing dimension.
By the standards of other more conservative Baptist churches we may well be considered not to be a Baptist church – we are a ‘thing’:)

Toni 13 years ago

Good man!

I too used to be part of a baptist church in name.

roy donkin 13 years ago

Fernando,
you consistently raise some good questions. Yes… we need a new church… and we certainly need new leaders, especially at the top.
Is there still a role/need for seminary educated leaders in local churches? I think so. While theological education is certainly available now to anyone with a computer and the time to do the reading, my experience is that education (like church) happens best in the context of a critical community. Anyone can read theological/biblical/etc. text books, but that is not the same as struggling with the implications of the presented ideas in a community of other strugglers. Unfortunately, real life often precludes that kind of experience in a local church, bu it is still necessary for someone to engage in it for the health of the local church.

At the same time, I am still deeply impressed by the praxis model in the Base Church movement of liberation theology: action – theological reflection in community – action, where theology is not something that happens in the academy but rather is done by the gathered community in the context of real life. My experiences of church that have been most meaningful have been reflective of that kind of model.

and thanks for the pointer to neo-baptist

Tripp Hudgins 13 years ago

Thanks for all of these thoughts. The post and the comments have been very helpful in articulating some of the same things to my congregation. We are “transforming” now, becoming something we can barely put words on. It’s an incredible challenge to say the least. Ministry to the body coupled with a *very* flat hierarchy is a tricky thing. Who is responsible? Where does the buck stop? Many Baptist models of leadership suggest that would be the pastor. But it is increasingly clear to me that we no longer have need for the pastor to function in that role. Such leadership is shared in every other aspect of US culture. The church still seems to assume that one person will simply provide.

So, what then of leadership? And why have the building on the corner? We must gather at some point. Jesus assumed we would (whenever you gather) though he seems unspecific as to how or when. Paul encountered an organic cultural expression of gathering and all its beauty and challenges. How and where (Why?) do we gather now? Is worship enough of a reason for people anymore? Should it be?

Toni 13 years ago

Are you OK Fern – you’re a bit quiet right now?

Laura 13 years ago

Fernando,

You’ve touched on something I’ve struggled with as I’ve pondered ecclesiology: when we say “ecclesiology” what SHOULD we mean? After many readings, lectures, and conversations, it seems what we often DO mean is structure, polity, or the like–I just don’t find that emphasis in Scripture.

Why do I mention this? I think our narrow understanding of the doctrine of the church–as referring to temporal expressions, rather than eternal identity–hampers our being church in the manner God intends. I wonder, if we worked at gaining a clearer understanding of essential ecclesiology, would our churches be more accurate reflections of Christ’s Body?

I’m just beginning to think through what this might look like and I’ve much more ground to cover. Thanks for adding to the mix.

Toni 13 years ago

Laura, I think it is essential that we see ourselves as part of the church-eternal and not Baptists, Roman Catholics etc. This is un-natural with denominational structures that feed the instinctive partisan attitude present in worldly thinking. That does not mean to say it is impossible, but instead that churches, both as individuals and as collective organisms, need to renew their thinking by the Spirit.

Laura 13 years ago

Toni,

Such renewal of thinking will require intentional effort and trust, for those churches that do not focus on denominational distinctives, rarely focus on Scripture and Spirit. As you say, “it is essential that we see ourselves as part of the church-eternal.” Now, integrating this focus into the teaching of our churches is another matter–especially in congregations with a heavy focus on denominational distinctives.

At the church where I am a member, we’ve started a quarterly theology academy that centers on Scripture rather than dogma; attendance has been small, but regular. We need to do more, but it’s all step by step.

Toni 13 years ago

Hi Laura.

“for those churches that do not focus on denominational distinctives, rarely focus on Scripture and Spirit.”

Im not sure if you mean what that appears to say. I’d suggest that those churches which focus on scripture and Spirit are much less likely to focus on denominational distinctives – at least until they get their noses rubbed in them. Not that I would want a return to ‘lowest common denominator ecumenicalism’ but that as people draw nearer to God they tend to respect each other more and are willing to work with others not from the same church background.

In the nearest town we have seen the churches increasingly working together over the last few years. It’s not *perfect* but a lot of the barriers and hedges have shrink or disappeared. This has happened from the top down, with the leaders of almost all (except southern baptists and strict brethren) the local churches, including RC, meeting together regularly. It has not made a substantial difference to individuals churches meeting styles AFAIK, but it has built a strong sense of community among the ‘ordinary’ people.

I appreciate this might be more difficult to imagine happening in the US, where there is a much strong partisan spirit and church often = business.

It’s great that you have that theology academy – I really believe knowing the truth will set people free, and wish more people would study the scriptures asking God what He meant. Is there a way you could encourage renewed thinking for the less academically oriented? Maybe getting involved in a practical way with people from other denominations in a practical fashion that blesses their community?

p.s. I meant ‘church-universal’ in the post above – a moment of brain failure for me.

Laura 13 years ago

Toni,

I apologize for my lack of clarity. I in no way meant to suggest that denominationally focused churches were more Scripturally focused. Rather, in too many cases, there is little difference between denominational and non-denominational: in the US at least, both focus too much on earthly things and too little on God’s things, for, as you said, “there is a much strong partisan spirit and church often = business.” This was my point as well–however poorly worded.

I fully agree that “those churches which focus on scripture and Spirit are much less likely to focus on denominational distinctives.”

As to your mis-type–“church-eternal”–I like it! (It may be more accurate 🙂

Fernando Gros 13 years ago

Sorry for replying to everyone in one post…

Gordon – Yes, I believe a missional makeover is possible. In fact, I think I saw that happening in the last church I worked with in Sydney and my experience in London left me still believing it was possible. However, I came from a training background that was ideologically opposed to the idea and met quite a bit of hostility when suggesting it. I read on your blog that attitudes may be changing, which would be a great thing. But, there’s a legacy there, of the either/or, missional/or/attractional mindset. The problem was probably never the cultural reality on the ground, but the experiences, ideologies and outlooks of leaders and trainers in the church organisations.

Toni – I’m speaking from personal experience here, but the churches that most talked about being family have been the one’s I’ve felt least connected to. The two churches that I’ve felt the strongest sense of “belonging” to (and the ones where I’ve been most mission-minded) almost never used that language.

Roy – What do you see as the mission for theological colleges and seminaries. I came out of a system where the college was set up and funded by the denomination to train pastors, but no-one really took responsibility (logistically and financially) for the education of the laity. I agree with you that theological education and formation happens best (or at least differently in a good way) in a dedicated learning community. But, we shouldn’t conceive of such communities as being only constituted for the training of “pastors.”

I think this is point really should be considered in the light of how modular and seasonal many people’s careers are becoming. Some colleges offer bolt on courses for younger students doing youth ministry, but what about more for the mid career exec on gardening leave, or the mother transitioning from parenting back to full time work, or the person changing careers but not going into full time ministry, or the early retiree (or late retiree)?

Tripp – Great questions (and I like your blog as well!). The hierarchy thing is a big challenge. I just think we are not good at admitting how deep our need to control really goes. I tried to setup loose structures of interdependence, but honestly, even then I was fighting an urge to control, to establish my “vision.” Going back to Gordon’s comment, I recall hearing one passionate argument against missional makeovers and in favour of targeted missional church plants and it felt to me that the main reason was the minister’s fear of having his “vision” diluted. Control at work again.

Laura – I struggle with the word ecclesiology as well. I do agree that when we talk about church there should be some connection to an idea and a greater historical narrative.

But, and this is a big but, I also think our structures ARE our theology and a lot of bad stuff (bad, manipulative, oppressive stuff) happens when we deny that. If our idea is hospitality, but our reality is cold indifference, what does that mean? It’s too easy a cop-out to say it’s the idea that counts and the reality can be sublimated (or worse, ignored).

My view is that there’s a direct line from pure and ideological theology to abuse. The only way to break that is to make our theology sociological and cultural. So I start from where we are. That doesn’t deny the other, more abstract sense of ecclesiology, but it locates it (hopefully) in a proper place, as a hope and goal.

Laura 13 years ago

Fernando

“I also think our structures ARE our theology and a lot of bad stuff (bad, manipulative, oppressive stuff) happens when we deny that.”

I agree, but I would add that there are two ends to the theology spectrum: what our theology actually is (as exhibited in our structures, for example) and what God has revealed in his Word (which we have spent hundreds of years unpacking together in the discipline of theology, in its various forms: ordinary life through theological academy). We need to think on both ends, intentionally uncovering what we actually believe (however uncomfortable that may be) and transforming our minds with God’s truth.

“My view is that there’s a direct line from pure and ideological theology to abuse. The only way to break that is to make our theology sociological and cultural. So I start from where we are. That doesn’t deny the other, more abstract sense of ecclesiology, but it locates it (hopefully) in a proper place, as a hope and goal.”

True theology, in my opinion, is not the “pure and ideological” stuff captured in books and lectures, but the stuff of ordinary life. If what we say we believe does not show up in ordinary life, then we don’t actually believe it–at least not at the deepest level. Our deep beliefs, in all their mixed-ness, will leak out of our individual and communal lives: we can’t help it. Gaining a more accurate understanding of ecclesiology involves seeing who we actually and and who God is calling and forming us to be. The abstract must never be left as abstract, even if we must treat it so for periods of intellectual study. Ecclesiology is most fully itself when it is embodied in a community that increasingly reflects Jesus.

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