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I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

I Want to Follow Jesus. Do I Need to Be Baptized?

When I was about twelve years old, I went through a phase when I was terribly afraid of hell. Like, wake-up-screaming scared of hell. Shouting-at-the-ceiling-because-God-won’t-answer afraid of damnation. My parents probably thought I was mentally ill, but that wasn’t quite right. I was living in a persistent state of spiritual terror.

Somewhere along the way (maybe at the church summer camps that tended to be run by the more fundamentalist-leaning folks in our denomination) I had come across the idea that my eternal soul was in peril. There was a deep, dark abyss of fiery torment waiting for me the moment I died, and there was nothing I could do to save myself. Nothing, except say a prayer inviting Jesus into my heart and asking God to forgive my sins.

So I did that. A lot. I can’t even remember how many times I invited Jesus into my heart. Asking God for forgiveness for my sins became a compulsive ritual, lifelessly recited several times a day, just in case I might die in the next few hours. My relationship with God was basically robotic. I just kept hitting save on my spiritual Word document, praying that when my physical computer crashed God would be able to recover the data.

I felt so empty, so distant from God. I was desperate to know that I was acceptable to him, and that I would not face unspeakable punishment when I died. I wanted the constant, gnawing anxiety to stop. Eventually, I became so desperate that I asked my mom to baptize me in a swimming pool.

This was a strange thing for me to ask of my mother, and perhaps even stranger that she agreed to it. You see, we were Quakers, and baptism is just not something that Friends do.

The Quaker church teaches that traditional Christian rituals, called sacraments by most groups, aren’t the true religion instituted by Jesus. You don’t have to eat bread and wine to commune with Jesus. You don’t have to get dunked in a river to experience spiritual conversion. Real faith comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ, not from masses, baptisms, and suppers.

Following this logic, Quakers normally eschew the mainstream Christian rituals. Our understanding of Scripture leads us to believe that these practices are not only unnecessary, but can actually be harmful if they are allowed to take the place of the substance of Christian faith. There’s good reason to believe this is true: How many people have been burned, hanged, drowned, and tortured because they baptized by dunking rather than sprinkling, or baptized adults rather than children? How many communities have been ripped apart by disagreements over how the Lord’s Supper should be performed, and whether the wafers and wine are really the body of Jesus, or just symbolically so?

Jesus didn’t come to establish a particular way of eating bread or washing ourselves. The church’s historic obsession with these rituals has caused more harm than good, often even serving as tools of oppression. As one of the most radical Christian groups of the already revolutionary 17th-century England, Quakers did away with the iconic ceremonies of the historic church.

My parents being Quaker pastors, I was well-aware of our tradition’s rejection of sacramental rites. At this point, though, I didn’t really care. I had had enough of the torment. If dunking me in the chlorine-filled swimming pool would make the pain stop, I was for it. If my pastor mom (a former Baptist, conveniently) could impart some grace to my life, I was ready to give it a go.

I came up out of that water expecting to feel something. Anything. Some kind of shift in my mental state. A feeling of deeper communion with God. Relief from the burden of sin and the fear of hell.

I waited for it. Pretty soon, I realized I’d be waiting a long time.

It would be years before I would finally experience the connection with God that I longed for. When it did come, it was not the result of any ritual or rote prayer. I would have to learn that the grace and power of God is not a magic trick to be controlled, but a relationship to be received.

Before that, I would pass through a period of deep despair. I renounced God and religion, certain that the faith of my upbringing had nothing to offer me but daily fear and spiritual burden.

When I did come back to faith, it was through direct, personal experience of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit led me back into the Quaker community (though, admittedly, a very different corner of it). Even after becoming a Quaker again, I still found Christian theology and language offensive and threatening. Fortunately, the Spirit kept working with me. I eventually discovered the real Jesus, first in the pages of the New Testament and later in my own direct experience of him as risen Lord.

I finally realized that I had become a Christian in early 2007, when I was able to say with integrity: Jesus is Lord. Since that time, I have been growing in my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. My deepening experience of his life has been both beautiful and painful, teaching me that relationship with God is not only about feeling the Spirit’s presence, but also involves significant periods of spiritual dryness and doubt.

I am so grateful for the space that the Quaker community has given me to develop as a follower of Jesus. The rich and radical theology of the Quaker tradition has provided me with a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit, and the ability to name when I see Jesus alive and at work in the modern world.

As time has gone on, I have also felt myself drawn to other Christians, from different traditions. There is a radical stream of Christianity – found across denominations – that takes the Sermon on the Mount literally and experiences Jesus as alive and present to lead us. I’m inspired by Anabaptists, radical Catholics, charismatics, and rowdy believers of all kinds. I long for unity and collaboration with these other radical disciples. I want to be together with them, following the leading of the Holy Spirit and sharing the good news, just like in the New Testament church.

But my joy turns to sadness when I realize that my Quaker conviction about the sacraments may prevent me from entering into full fellowship with others in the radical church. It’s startling for me to realize that I actually can’t become a member of most non-Quaker congregations without being sprinkled or dunked with water. Even in relatively radical circles, where most ideas are up for debate, the necessity of certain rituals for group membership (if not salvation) is a core assumption.

I wish I could let this thing go. I really do. It seems silly to block ecumenical unity on the basis of arguments about water and bread and wine.

But it’s not silly. Sacraments don’t really matter. And that really matters.

It’s a question of whether my path to God and relationship with Jesus Christ are valid. It’s a question of whether I’m really a child of God, even if I didn’t do a certain ritual when I came to trust in Jesus as Lord. It’s a question of whether God’s power is greater than the human need for orderliness and rules to follow.

I am a baptized believer. I was baptized that night I stayed up late reading CS Lewis and was visited by the Holy Spirit. I was baptized on the campus of Lancaster University in England, when God called me into a life of service. I’ve been baptized in ecstasy, and I’ve been baptized through suffering. I’ve been baptized into the agony of God’s absence from my life, and into the joy of his presence. I’ve been baptized and re-baptized so many times, I’ve lost count.

I can’t throw all of that away for a false unity around water baptism. I can’t renounce my faith that God does whatever he wants to do, human rituals or no. I can’t forget that God saved me while I was still an unwashed sinner, and that no amount of outward washing can improve upon the inward work of Christ’s spirit in me.

In spite of the barriers that these convictions present to so many of my brothers and sisters, I still long for unity.

I accept you. I embrace the work that God is doing in your lives. Can you accept what God is doing in me?

Whether we have all passed through the same rituals is unimportant. What matters is the power of God at work in us. Clearly, God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the Anabaptist and the Quaker, the Baptist and the Catholic. Who are we to question the saving work of Christ in our midst? How much longer will we grieve the Holy Spirit with our human disputes?

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A Baptism of Humility

What is Real Faith? Actually Doing What You Believe

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity?

Is Capitalism Compatible with Christianity

When Jesus called the first disciples, he totally disrupted their economic lives. Simon and Andrew, James and John were working for their family business as they were raised to do. Their fathers were fisherman, just like their fathers’ fathers, stretching back beyond memory. Fishing was a way to make money, but it was also much more than that. The family business provided a sense of place, of meaning. It was a social order that allowed each member of the family to know exactly where they fit.

Only when we understand this can we begin to grasp the radical nature of Jesus’ invitation to his first followers and friends: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Jesus offered an entirely different economic and social order. His was an invitation without safety nets, justifications, or guarantees. The first disciples immediately abandoned their nets, their livelihood, the whole social order that gave them a place to stand. They left everything, even their own worldview, to follow Jesus.

Today, Jesus’ challenge is no less serious. He is inviting us into a life so radically different from our everyday assumptions that we have a hard time wrapping our heads around it. The path of discipleship to Jesus will not allow us to merely incorporate his teachings into our pre-existing social order. The good news of the reign of God – our mission, should we choose to accept it – yanks us out of our comfort zone no less than it did for the first followers of Jesus all those years ago by the Sea of Galilee.

Of course, most of us don’t fish for a living. And if we do, it’s probably not for the family business, passed down as a trade from generation to generation. We don’t live in the pre-modern economies of peasant farmers and blacksmiths, priests and imperial governors. Thank God.

But we do live within a vast, largely unquestioned economic order that defines our lives no less than the family trades and economic ties that were so critical for the early Christians. We live within a new world order, one so pervasive and powerful that most of the time we don’t even notice it. It’s just reality.

Today, we lead our lives embedded in the economic and social order of global capitalism. Just as the power of Rome and its imperial economy was a virtually unquestionable reality in the ancient world, the modern dominance of the neo-liberal global economy is reality for virtually every living person on earth today. Love it or hate it, it’s just how life is.

Or is it? What if there is a power greater than Wall Street, consumer capitalism, and the violent apparatus required to sustain it?

Christians can argue until the cows come home about how to define capitalism, and whether it is a boon or a menace. That’s a conversation worth having, but it doesn’t strike to the heart of the matter. Jesus’ ministry wasn’t focused on forming a debating society. He built a movement, a family.

He’s still inviting us into this new social order today. The family of God is in our midst, and it challenges all of our assumptions about what is valuable, who should be honored, and how we must live. Jesus continues to stand on the seashore, calling us to drop our nets and follow him.

What does this calling look like for us, in concrete terms? Are we being called out of jobs? Social ties? Our entire conception of who and what has value? What does it look like to repent (that is, to change our entire way of living in the world) in the context of a global capitalism that threatens to make our precious planet rapidly uninhabitable? What tangled nets are we being called to drop, and what is the way, the community, the family that will replace them?

The time has passed for a merely religious approach to these questions. It’s not enough to change in our hearts, when our lives remain so thoroughly entrenched in the assumptions and economy of global empire. What is needed now is a hard-minded call to re-examine everything, to change our whole lives in pursuit of the truly abundant existence that Jesus promises.

But first things first: Let’s leave our nets and follow him.

Related Posts:

The Gods of the Market

Why Jesus is Anti-Capitalist

Let the Big Trees Fall

Have you ever wondered where forests come from? If you’ve ever taken a hike in a wooded area, it’s probably struck you what a diverse environment the forest is. There are all sorts animals, birds, plants large and small. A wondrous diversity of creatures co-exist in apparent balance and harmony.

But how did forests come into existence in the first place?

Scientists have studied the process of ecosystem formation and have extensive theories about how all sorts of environments come into being. There seems to be an orderly process of development that has some common characteristics no matter what kind of environment we’re talking about. Given the right conditions, ecosystems tend to develop greater complexity and variety over time.

For example: Let’s say that a glacier has just receded, leaving exposed a terrain of totally bare rock. There are very few forms of life that can survive in such an environment, but there are a few – maybe some kind of moss or algae. These “pioneer species” start growing on the bare rock. And that might be all there is for a while. But as these hardy little organisms grow and die, they begin to build up a layer of organic matter. Dirt.

Eventually, there’s enough dirt that some grasses can take root. Once the grass has lived and died a few million times, perhaps there will be enough soil for shrubs, and other, larger plants. If enough time passes and the conditions are right for it, there will eventually be soil that is rich and thick enough to support even the largest trees – not to mention a variety of insects, rodents, and larger animals.

OK, are you still with me? I don’t normally give science lessons – mostly because I’m not a trained scientist – but I have a purpose in telling this story of ecosystem development. The emergence of ecosystems provides an excellent model for how we can understand the growth of human systems – culture, government, and technology.

I even think it can provide some insight into how the church functions. What is the church, after all, but an interrelated web of relationships, held together by a common commitment to walking in the way of Jesus?

The Christian ecosystem has been around for a long time, so it’s gotten pretty complex and robust. The apostles and martyrs acted like moss and algae, dying again and again in order to make space for a community of greater depth and complexity. Through centuries of struggle, patient endurance, and courage, we’ve developed into an old-growth forest with towering, ancient trees.

This maturity has advantages. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the church produced a wealth of colleges and seminaries, charitable organizations and missionary societies, and all sorts of movements for social change, such as the abolition of slavery. The sheer size and complexity of the Christian community has given us power to profoundly impact our society.

Yet, there’s a shadow side to ecosystems that reach late-stage maturity. All those big trees cast a lot of shade. In particularly dense areas, the forest floor might be dimmed to twilight even in the middle of the day. When the largest trees become predominant, they have the tendency to destroy the conditions where earlier, smaller forms of life have flourished. All those grasses and shrubs that helped to pave the way for the great cedars have their growth stunted by the penumbra of the wooded canopy.

Prophetic movements within the church have always been critical of the hubris of the big trees – the largest church institutions, often directly connected with systems of political, economic, and cultural power. Radical movements like the Franciscans, Anabaptists, Quakers, and Pentecostals punch a hole through the canopy to let some light shine in. These movements reclaim some space for the tiny, the simple, the unadorned creatures of the forest floor.

We live in a time today when many of the ancient trees of the Christian forest are teetering. Denominations are breaking apart. Established ways of doing things are coming into question. Parachurch organizations struggle to articulate their mission and purpose in a rapidly changing world. For many in the church, this is a profoundly scary time. It is a time of diminishment in many ways – of the Christian community’s social standing, prestige, and directive influence over our culture.

For those of us in the prophetic stream, however, this is a moment to rejoice. After centuries of punching holes in the canopy to let the light shine in, it seems that the great trees may fall down altogether. This is a new day, the first opportunity for uncut brightness in centuries. As the trees of the Christendom church begin to tremble and collapse, we are on the verge of a new era of crabgrass Christianity.

Much of the Christian world is in mourning over the state of the trees; we fret over the downgraded status and political influence of the Western church. But what would happen if, instead of looking up with fearful eyes to the trembling canopy, we directed our gaze to the grassroots that are suddenly being flooded with light for the first time in God knows how long? What are the new opportunities that await us in this new day of sunlight?

Related Posts:

Burn Down the Meeting House

A Burning Fire

Do I have to Wait for Heaven?

For early Quakers, heaven wasn’t a far-off kingdom floating in the clouds. It wasn’t a distant time and place, standing in stark contrast to present-day, historical reality. When Quakers said that Christ is here to teach us himself, this was just a new way of saying, repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near to you.

The genius of the Quaker movement was that they understood that all of these holy words that Christians like to throw around aren’t what is truly essential. The institutional church of their day was saying all the right words but failing to connect with the heart of the gospel. They were mouthing the words of Scripture to justify all sorts of human agendas – but their hearts were still far from God. Their lives did not bear the marks of Christ’s transformation, self-giving love, and humility.

For the early Quaker movement, the Day of the Lord, is today. Jesus’ triumphant return is not a theoretical possibility to be hoped for in the future; it’s a present reality that can either be embraced or resisted. The early Quakers experienced Jesus as literally alive, present, and teaching them directly. Standing in the power of this relationship, they were given courage to go out and radically impact the world around them.

Today, most Quakers – and many Christians of all denominations, in fact – would intellectually agree with the statement that Jesus Christ is present, able to teach us directly through his indwelling presence in our hearts. Yet, for the most part, we don’t really live as if this indwelling power has the ability to fundamentally transform us in the present tense.

In a lot of Christian circles – including Quaker ones – I often hear the phrase, now but not yet. This is the idea that, although the kingdom is present, and we can experience a foretaste of it in our lives, we’ll have to wait until some unspecified future time – probably after we’re dead – to participate in the full transformation that we are called to in Christ.

This popular meantime theology makes a whole lot of sense. After all, how many holy people do you personally know? Our world is fundamentally fallen and broken, and this life will always be characterized by a personal and collective struggle with sin and death. The gospel gives us hope for a future, but in the present all we can do is seek to lead slightly less alienated lives, to mitigate the effects of sin.

Meantime theology is a thoughtful, rational, sensible theory that jives with what we observe in the world around us. And it runs totally counter to the radical, apocalyptic, fire-breathing witness of the early church and the later Quaker movement.

A meantime ideology might make us feel better about our failure to address the brokenness of our own lives and the systematic injustice and oppression that we see in our culture. We don’t have to feel personally responsible for the way things are going; there’s nothing we can really do about it. Christ will return and take care of this mess eventually. But for now, our role is to keep telling the story of Jesus and try not to sin too much.

The tragedy of this world view is that it misses Christ’s return in the present tense. The Day of the Lord is happening right now! There is no time but this present time. The kingdom of God has come near to us, and each one of us has a choice whether we want to participate in this new reality.

When we banish the kingdom of God to an unspecified future time, we flee from the living beauty and power of Christ. We choose to dwell in the darkness just a little longer, because we can’t quite imagine what it would be like to live as children of the day.

The word of the kingdom is good news. The gospel is not a promise that we can escape the fires of hell by accepting certain doctrines and minding our Ps and Qs while we wait for Jesus to come back. The gospel is an invitation to walk into the flames willingly, to experience the cleansing fire of the light of Christ, and to accompany others in this process of transformation.

The kingdom is an organic reality, alive and in our midst whenever we turn to follow Jesus. The Holy Spirit is present with us, not merely to comfort us in our sin, but to show us where our darkness lies so that we may be liberated from it once and for all. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.

Is this the kind of gospel that you’ve been waiting for? Do you want to experience the life and power of the early church for yourself? Do you want to know the transformation that Jesus brings, not just as a religious theory for the by-and-by, but as a lived reality in the present time? This is the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do not fear, only believe.

Related Posts:

The White-Hot Gospel

Gathered As In A Net

How to Survive the Church-pocalypse

How to Survive the Church-pocalypse

Institutional Christianity is trembling, teetering, falling. And that’s a good thing. Crisis and opportunity tend to go hand in hand, and those who embrace this crisis have the chance to make an enormous impact. Freed from the weight of bureaucratic religion and static tradition, a new kind of life can emerge.

Now is the time to carry out bold experiments in Christian discipleship.  We’re living in a very interesting moment, an in-between space where the shell of the old order has not yet completely crumbled, and the little seedlings of the new are just barely peeking up from beneath the soil. It’s an exciting time to be alive.

It’s a scary moment, too. No one wants to die, and none of us wants to see the tradition and community that has been so life-giving for us go up in the next forest fire. We’d rather keep throwing water on dead wood than face the chaos and uncertainty that would come with that conflagration.

But what if we welcomed the flames? Instead of trying to save the forest as we have known it, what if we opened ourselves to the possibilities that come from newly cleared horizons?

How would our lives change if we came to see ourselves as the instigators of something new? Rather than the exhausting rearguard action that many of us are now engaged in, what if we stopped trying to prop up the old order? Some of our cherished organizations we would need to lay down. Many of our congregations would need to be radically re-organized. Cherished habits and assumptions would be shaken up. Sounds terrifying. Sounds like fun!

We all look back to the white-hot movements that shook the world. Whether it’s the early Quakers, the Reformers, or the early Church – we are inspired by the boldness of these now-mythical bands of saints who risked everything for their faith. One thing that all of them have in common is that those who experienced them were convinced that the Spirit should triumph over the Letter.

All truly apostolic movements are marked by holy mischief. When we’re living in the power of Jesus, we can’t help getting into trouble. The first Christians abandoned both the pagan and Jewish customs that were getting between them and a more living experience of God. The early Quakers were beaten, imprisoned, and killed for actively challenging the powers that be.

Holy rebels in every age have sown the seeds of new life, joyfully subverting the status quo. We break up the hardened ground of ossified tradition and decadent authority. We risk our lives, our fortunes, our very identities to be faithful to the new thing that Christ is doing in our midst. Knowing that the way of Jesus comes with persecutions, we embrace the life of discipleship as a path to expressing the love we receive in him.

This is an invitation. You and I can be part of this new thing that God is doing. We can participate in a movement that will shape the face of the world for generations to come. We can choose to side with the new life that is brewing, down at the grassroots. In the face of misunderstanding and resistance, even hostility and fear, we can become children of light.

What does this look like for you? What are the signs of new life that are sprouting in your neighborhood, your city? What opportunities are there for you in this time of uncertainty and transition? How might you need to change in order to be faithful to this new movement that is emerging in the shadow of the present order? What in you needs to die so that Christ can live?

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News Flash: Christians Don’t Have All the Answers

Love Matters

What if Christianity was dangerous?

What if being a Christian really cost something? What would the First World church look like if living our faith meant losing friends, family, property, livelihood, reputation? How many of us would sign up for that kind of journey? What if being a Christian was dangerous?

It would be nothing like what we see in most churches today. Christianity has long been the conformist, respectable religion of Western society. It was the safe choice. The get-ahead choice. The don’t-get-burned-at-the-stake choice. Far more dangerous to question the official religion than to play along.

The toxic combination of religious symbols and state power has fundamentally warped the witness of the Christian faith. It’s fair to wonder whether the radical, joyful roots of the faith could ever be recovered. Yet, throughout history, we witness movements that rise up and profoundly challenge the false gods of Empire. Like weeds pushing their way through the cracks in the concrete, the seeds of the Kingdom rise up even in the midst of overwhelming falsehood and violence.

Breaking concrete takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to mouth pretty words about glory and a far-off heaven. It’s a lot harder to live a life transformed by the power of God. It’s no big deal to participate in religious rituals – whether sermons and lectures, communions and baptisms, or presidential inaugurations and Veteran’s Day celebrations. Being a person of faith doesn’t have to cost anything. Bending a knee to the official ideology always pays tidy dividends.

Such public religiosity has little to do with the living way of Jesus. Despite all we’ve heard about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the life of discipleship will not be limited to personal piety. For those of us who have been called to follow Jesus, we discover a profoundly risky path. Friends of Jesus can no longer go along with the status quo. Despite the trembling terror of it, we have been called to speak truth to power. To reveal the strength of God in our weakness. If necessary, to have our own bodies thrown upon the gears of oppression.

This is the heart of the gospel. For us who have experienced the radical presence of Jesus Christ, we can no longer be conformed to the assumptions of the culture around us. Even if that culture claims to be Christian.

It’s no accident the early followers of Jesus were called blasphemers by Jewish traditionalists, and atheists by the Roman Empire. Authentic Christianity challenges the civil religion of the ruling authorities. It reveals the moral emptiness of the false piety of empty rituals and go-along-to-get-along religion. The way of Jesus is profoundly prophetic – so much so, that we may be mistaken for heretics and insurrectionists. This is par for the course.

But what do you say? Are you ready for a faith that has nothing to do with providing easy answers? Are you ready for a Jesus who, rather than propping up the assumptions and authorities of our culture, is here to knock the mighty off their thrones, to lift up the weak and poor?

Do you have the courage to embrace this dangerous Christianity, to walk in the prophetic way of Jesus? What are you prepared to lose?

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Why Conflict Is Good for Us

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Gathered As In A Net

The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net, and his heavenly power at one time drew many hundreds to land. […] And from that day forward, our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love… Francis Howgill (1618-1669)

When Jesus called his first disciples, he recruited some of them from among the fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee. He asked a few of these fishermen to follow him, promising to change their vocation forever. Rather than inheriting the family fishing business, they would become fishers of people.

When I first heard the story of Jesus calling the fishermen, I assumed that ancient Palestinian people fished in the same way that I do. I imagined these men sitting on their boats all day, with poles and string, hooks and lures in hand, catching individual fish and tossing them into a bucket. When I first heard the story where Jesus invites Simon and Andrew to fish for people, it sounded like a leisurely day of sport fishing.

I now realize that the first disciples weren’t fishing as a hobby. They didn’t spend their days with poles and hooks, capturing individual fish. Instead, they used wide nets in an attempt to draw large numbers of fish out of the depths. Simon and Andrew were not out catching fish one by one; they sought to bring many hundreds into their boats with one pull of the net.

The early Quaker movement described the work of the Holy Spirit as this kind of dragnet. They experienced being gathered together as in a net, united in God’s power as a people of God. Just as Jesus had called his disciples into an organic community that became the early church, Friends in the 1650s found themselves being gathered by the resurrected Jesus in their midst.

Having had this experience, these first Quakers also became fishers of people. They went into all the world, gathering seekers into communities where they could experience the unity and power of the Holy Spirit – the fullness of life in the body of Christ.

Living as we do in a society that is so focused on individual experience and transformation, how do we make sense of the biblical model of salvation in community? How would our lives be different if we lived as an organic whole – the body of Christ – rather than as individual believers with our fishing poles?

What implications would this way of living as a gathered people have on the way we reach out to the world with the love of the gospel? How might we participate in ministry that looks more like a drag net than fly fishing? What would it mean for us to be able to say that our hearts were knit unto the Lord and one unto another in true and fervent love?