“I like ‘love first.’ I just don’t like the church.”
I was having a conversation with Cindy (name changed) and we had gotten around to the topic of the Sunday gatherings I had been trying to get more people from Kathleen Avenue to come to. After all, the gatherings were for their benefit, and the gatherings were held locally.
We had begun a Sunday gathering immediately following a North Atlanta Church of Christ summer mission trip. The North Atlanta church had been coming to Sarnia for 10 years, doing 2 week long summer mission trips, and sharing the “love first” message through their work, teaching, and branding. We had hoped to capitalize on their trip to build momentum for our gatherings as we worked to plant the Love First Church.
We initially met in the public park towards the Indian Road end of Kathleen Avenue. On Sundays, a few of us gathered to put up shade tents, set up our sound system, and hang our banner. Our gatherings were well attended in the beginning. But as summer gave way to fall, we had to consider moving indoors. And with that movement indoors, attendance at our Sunday gathering cratered.
Cindy stuck out to me as a person to talk to about this because she “reps” the idea of “love first” on Kathleen Avenue. She is in regular contact with members from the North Atlanta Church of Christ, who initially brought the “love first” message to Sarnia over the course of their 10 year summer mission trip project. She talks about her North Atlanta friends. She throws around “love first” in conversations. She even has the “love first” sticker on her mailbox.
So I was taken aback when she made that comment.
At first, I really struggled with it. I’ll admit, I was actually angry that someone could say that. How could someone identify with “love first” but have nothing to do with the church that teaches that message?
I have since learned, through many conversations and observations, that folks on Kathleen Avenue see “love first” as a value. They can separate the value from the organization that teaches that value, and hence, they don’t have any particular utility for, or allegiance to, the Love First Church. Folks on Kathleen would not express it this way, but they are doing theology as they relate “love first” to their lives. In some sense, the church is active in this work.
Pete Ward, in his excellent book that melds ecclesiological studies (“ecclesiology” is the academic study of the church) with ethnography (“ethnography” is an academic discipline that comes out of anthropology and studies the lived experience of people groups), Liquid Ecclesiology, writes about a “liquid church” versus a “solid church.” A solid church is defined by its meeting and what happens there. A liquid church focuses on the fluidity of the presence and activity of God in both church structures and social locations (pgs. 6-11).
If we operate out of a liquid ecclesiology, we can see that it is natural for Kathleen Avenue folks to identify with the “love first” value but not with the organized church. The activity and presence of God is located in the “sociality” (Liquid Ecclesiology, p. 6) of their intertwined lives, social networks, and neighbourhood problems. These relationships and interrelationships provide a fluidity where God is at work.
To be clear, I am not calling those relationships “church.” I am hinting, however, that there is something ecclesiological about them by virtue of the presence and activity of God being located in that sociality. “Church,” in a secular culture, might be a function more than a form.
I bring up secular culture because that is the milieu of the Canadian society. Canada is secularized. A secular society proceeds on the basis of natural and humanistic considerations, with a clear separation (and even suppression) of religious beliefs and activities from public life and institutions.
I’ve gotten technical for a bit, but it’s important to begin fleshing out the way the Canadian secular culture, and secularity in general, impacts our work here in Sarnia. A (not the) way forward includes equipping interested people in “grounding practices” that teach them how to locate the fluid presence of God in their relationships and in the broader culture around them. “Church” might function as something like a discernment group, where members share in common practices--both in their common meeting and away from it--that tie them together in looking for the fluid places where the Spirit of God goes and is.
Let’s circle back around to Cindy. What might it look like, and even mean, to teach her to pray? To pray with her? To meet with her and one other twice a week to ask simple questions like,
The key for mission work in secular culture is to help people gain “eyes to see” and “ears to hear” what God is up to around them.
I was raised in a heritage that often pitted itself against the world. We were encouraged not to hang out, or even make, friends at school, lest they poison us toward God. Church members bragged about only visiting other members’ homes for Halloween despite that meaning Halloween became a drive around the city rather than a neighbourhood walk. Persecution was believed to be occurring because public Christian prayer was not permitted in schools. Even my friends from other denominations were suspect because those churches were noted for not believing the “right” things (aka, what our church believed).
I wrestled with these views all through high school and college and even into my early years of ministry. All this while, I was reading the gospels and being captured by Jesus’ imaginative vision for a kingdom of nobodies. He healed people who were outcasts from society because of their disease, gained a reputation as a glutton and drunkard, and hung out with the dredges of society (tax collectors and sinners).
Jesus, in both his person and his mission, was very different from what I had believed in my youth. Rather than being exclusive, Jesus was inclusive in fellowship.
His fellowship was rooted in hospitality, one of the core virtues of Christianity. If nothing else, Jesus was hospitable. We see, in his hospitality, a vision for equality and inclusion around hospitality.
Emily M. D. Scott has written a wonderful book, For All Who Hunger, which touches on these themes through her work as founding pastor of St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in Brooklyn. Her book is largely autobiographical, but, as the best autobiographies do, she teaches us as her experience mediates a theological reality to us.
The book details table fellowship as a, if not the, sign of the kingdom of God. Folks from all backgrounds come together to prepare the table, prepare and share a meal together, participate in a shared liturgy, and clean up together. The emphasis is not the particularities of the people gathering, but their shared practices and the eschatological notes that are being proclaimed through gathering and sharing.
Three things in particular stand out for me from her book.
First, the way of the early church was a way of table fellowship, not gathered, building-centric worship. Scott writes, “[i]n the first few centuries of Christianity, worship took place not in a sanctuary full of pews, but around a handful of tables in people’s homes” (8).
This is an obvious point to make in our time where the effect of Constantine has been well documented. What is less obvious is the way that we note the priority of the early Christians for house-based table fellowship while we make apologies for maintaining our status quo. I’m not suggesting that churches need to sell their buildings and go back to houses. However, in virtually all cases, we can do better. Imagine a network of small groups in an existing church transitioning from Bible study group to neighbourhood, meal-based fellowships where neighbours were invited and stories were shared. What might be different for this church as a result of changing their practices?
Second, Christians must embody practices, not just rehearse rituals. Scott recounts a story from her childhood where, after sharing communion together with her church, her family sat down for Sunday lunch. Outside, she noticed two children who appeared to her to be homeless and were hungry, but who were not invited in to share a meal (31).
Jesus, on multiple occasions, ate with people, miraculously fed large crowds, and taught that small deeds of kindness done to people were more important than large things done to be seen by others. While we may rightly draw inspiration and encouragement from our rituals, we must also be transformed by them so our religion becomes something that is alive, something is rooted in ritual but redeemed by action.
Third, repentance must be at the heart of our practice. Scott reminds us that Lent is a church season that occurs every year and reminds us to repent (169).
Repentance is like a heart-check for ourselves, a way to remind ourselves to walk in the way of Jesus. Jesus’ first teaching, in fact, was about repentance -- “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Repentance balances our activist-side with our contemplative-side. It keeps us grounded in Jesus, and reminded of the core values of hospitality and table.
Repentance also helps us work through our attitudes toward others that keep us from being hospitable and practicing table fellowship with them. It is the great equalizer, reminding us that Christ’s body, shared by us in the eucharist, is in fact an offering for all.
Practices are at the center of a Jesus-based spirituality. Hospitality, table fellowship, and repentance are all core to who we are becoming in Christ. If we will focus on loving our neighbours, being hospitable and sharing with those in need, and living in repentance, our communities also can grow to be Jesus-shaped.
[This article reviews For All Who Hunger, Emily M. D. Scott (Convergent, 2020).]
Imagine the life you know being completely upended. The things you found comfort in are gone. The symbols that were important to you are destroyed. Imagine further being forced to move -- not just neighbourhoods, but to a new land that is unfamiliar and entirely foreign.
This is a situation similar to what Israel experienced in the exile -- a period of time where most of the people were displaced from Israel proper into other lands occupied and controlled by other nations (most notably Assyria and Babylon).
The temple was destroyed. They had to leave their land. There was no king. All of these symbols, which for them represented promises from God about his faithfulness to them and his presence among them, were gone. And if the symbols were gone, perhaps that meant God himself was gone.
In exile, Israelite faith underwent a resurgence of sorts. The wisdom literature rose to prominence during this time. These books (the final-form Psalter, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job) asked questions and explored themes about finding God in the absence of the tradition, about the justice of God, and about faithfulness to God even if he didn’t appear to be faithful to them.
This is a good image for mission in a secular culture. Christian symbols no longer play like they once did. Church buildings are more likely to be perceived as cultural or heritage symbols than as places of hope and worship. Christianity is no longer the predominant voice, religion, or culture. Christians are, in many ways, wandering through a metaphorical wilderness in exile.
The wisdom literature is both instructive and formative in this context. In this article, while initiating a broader engagement with the wisdom literature, I want to narrow in on Proverbs 1. It is well known that the Proverbs 1-9 is an introduction to the book, quite different in form than the rest of the book. Many of these chapters contain monologues from a “father” figure, or Lady Wisdom herself, admonitioning listeners to perceive, understand, and follow the way of wisdom set within.
Wisdom has but one path. When religious symbols and markers are gone, where our religion is no longer commonly accepted as authoritative, where do we go? We walk in the way of the fear of the Lord. Rather than a religion that is built around symbols and cultural assimilation of those symbols, we focus on a way of life that is built upon and around the wisdom of the Lord and the fear of him -- and fools despise these things.
The way of God becomes translated through wisdom from a predominant way of “rule” over others to a way of living within the culture as an underdog, of sorts, with a distinct and alternative way of life. We are exiles, and wisdom is our way.
Last year, I became impatient. The church plant was progressing much more slowly than I wanted it to. As a “type A,” I planned for, and expected, results. Of course, the coronavirus crisis in Ontario, which came with a lockdown and multiple levels of restrictions, complicated things. But we were able to have a really good and successful summer. I expected to capitalize on that summer work and build into something greater.
Imagine my frustration as I saw summer slipping into fall and then into early winter with less and less to show for things.
I had time on my hands because there wasn’t really anything else to do as December came around. It was too cold to meet outside, restaurants were largely closed to the public, and it was obvious we were heading towards another lockdown.
So I did what I should have done from the beginning -- I turned to God. I doubled down on reflective Bible reading and listening prayer. And those exercises reminded me to trust God. Rather, God showed me the value and simplicity of listening to him, of waiting upon him for direction and answers.
It reminded me of the experience of the Israelites as they wandered the wilderness. (The secular culture of Canada can feel like quite a wilderness!) They became hungry and thirsty and complained to God. They became impatient. But the lesson for me was this -- God always provided for them.
In Exodus 16, there is a story about hunger. The people were hungry. They complained to God. They didn’t trust that he would provide as they needed. But God did provide. Through Moses, he gathered the people and instructed them that he would provide for them -- daily, even!
These daily provisions, however, would come with a caveat -- they were to gather enough manna for each day, and for each day only. If they gathered too much (i.e., to hoard, perhaps because they didn’t trust that God would provide daily), the manna spoiled overnight. And it didn’t matter how much they gathered, because each one ended up gathering all that they needed (16:18).
What a wonderful thing -- God providing sustenance in the wilderness where it didn’t naturally occur.
I began to see this as a word for me. If I would trust God, and seek him each day, he would provide everything I needed for that day (i.e., my daily bread; Matthew 6:11). But if I raced ahead of God, accumulating plans and gathering ideas without seeking him, those plans would “spoil” and become useless.
And then I noticed that God provided one additional measure for the Israelites. Although they were only to gather manna one day at a time, God made a provision for them so they could worship him. They could gather twice as much as they needed ahead of the Sabbath so that they would not have to gather on the Sabbath and could leave the day for God. If they gathered too much on any other day, it spoiled, but if they gathered twice as much before the Sabbath, it kept, so they could keep the day for God.
I believe this story provides an image and a metaphor for mission work in the secular wilderness. We must proceed with daily trust in God, letting him provide what we need as we need it, without “spoiling” ourselves by rushing ahead with our plans. We must also take care to make provision for ourselves to hold God distinctly before us in ways that honour a worshipful relationship with him.
I have been working as a church planter, and a western missionary, for the last year and a half in a small Canadian border city in Ontario called Sarnia. Canada is deemed a “post-Christian” nation and is largely secularized. Church planting in this context requires more than just launching a new church, locating space to gather and worship, and building out good programs.
The shift from pastoral, brick-and-mortar ministry to missionary work has been a challenge for me, with many ups and downs over the past year and a half. I was struck with insight, however, while recently reflecting on the beginning of Ezekiel’s ministry (chapters 1-3). Ezekiel, although a prophet, functions in many ways like a missionary.
I would encourage any new or prospective church planter or missionary, especially in a western context, to think through these points and ask themselves the following questions.
1. Ezekiel’s ministry began with a vision of the glory of God (ch 1).
It was striking to me how strong Ezekiel’s vision was. It was not simply a line at the beginning of the book that Ezekiel received a vision. The vision was laid out with specificity and clarity. It was so strong that Ezekiel bowed down to worship and yielded to God.
I’m sorry to say that my missionary work began with my vision for what I wanted to do. Over the past year, God has slowly eroded that and brought me back to his vision for neighbourhood-based micro-churches that enter deeply into and redeem the neighbourhoods in which the micro-churches dwell.
Does your ministry originate with a vision of God’s glory over a people? Or are you working to implement your own vision derived from a recent book you’ve read? What can you do to align yourself with God’s vision?
2. He was then sent by God to speak to rebellious people to declare God’s words (ch 2).
It was only after Ezekiel saw the vision and yielded to God that ministry became possible. It was at this moment that God sent Ezekiel to the mission field. He was sent to speak God’s words to rebellious people.
We can get excited about our vision and the notion of working to bring rebellious people back to God. But where is our confirmation of being sent? How do we know the people to whom God is sending us?
What is your sense of how God has called you to mission and to whom? Is it connected to the vision he has given you?
3. Ezekiel had to eat God’s word and let them sink deep into his own heart first before speaking to the people (ch 3).
I came to my location with a plan and I was ready to execute that plan. I had lessons to teach, words to say, and programs to involve people in. I missed this crucial step that God made Ezekiel go through. I am now convinced from my own failure that failure to deeply perceive God’s words for oneself is a critical mistake that must be corrected before one can find any kind of faithful success in mission.
God told Ezekiel to take the scroll of his words and eat them, and they were sweet to the taste. God’s words are encouraging and helpful and give us guidance not just for our own discipleship but also for how we engage in mission. Later, God told Ezekiel (3:10-11) to let the words sink down deeply into him first before he spoke to the people.
What are your plans to reach the people God is sending you to? Have you deeply reflected on his words for yourself first?
4. Ezekiel’s first act of ministry was to simply sit with the people for seven days (3:15).
I’m intrigued that Ezekiel’s first act of ministry was to simply sit with the people in their grief for one week. In church planting, we can deceive ourselves into believing that we have all the answers, that we have the programs that will change peoples’ lives, and that we have what everyone else needs.
Yet, contextual ministry takes time to develop. In post- or pre-Christian locations, the missionary must take the time necessary to learn the values and beliefs of the indigenous people. In first sitting with the people, Ezekiel came to know their grief and pain.
Are you willing to be among and with the people God has sent you to? Can you simply sit with people without an agenda in order to learn about them, their values and beliefs, and their lives?
5. Obedience to God’s words (not belief in God’s words) is where we see genuine response to God (3:16-21).
God’s word to Ezekiel was to teach obedience to God’s words to the rebellious people. They were rebellious because they had disobeyed God. In ministry, we often mistake belief in God’s words for obedience to God’s words. We believe that God said he will punish those who are disobedient, but we don’t believe those words apply to us.
We must be willing to measure ourselves according to God’s word and to be obedient to him in all things. Then, when we teach a message of obedience to God’s word, our actions line up with our words and reinforce the message.
Are you obedient to God in everything? Have you mistaken belief in God’s words for obedience to his words? What evidence exists in your life for a nonbeliever to see your obedience to God’s words?
6. God confirmed Ezekiel’s sending by showing him his glory (3:22-23).
After God had given all these instructions to Ezekiel, he instructed him to go to the plain. When Ezekiel went, God’s glory was there, and Ezekiel once again fell face down in worship.
Church planting and missionary work is hard enough when done with God’s presence. It is impossible apart from that. We must cultivate habits of the worship of God and live with a continual awareness of the presence of God with us, helping us to what he has sent us to do.
Are you living in a continual awareness of the presence of God? What are the habits of worship that you are cultivating?
At the risk of oversimplifying this excellent section in Ezekiel, I believe we can adopt these six points as principles or a pattern that will enable us to be faithful to God’s call. Beginning and ending in worship, we must follow God’s vision and be sent by him, know his word deeply before teaching it to others, be willing to simply be with people, and teach others to obey God’s words in all things while building hearts that worship God at all times.
(If you are a church planter, missionary or pastor and struggling with any of the things I wrote about here, message me and let's connect. I love to help folks like you learn how to better engage with the mission of God.)
[Also published at LinkedIn.]