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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

What’s the Point of Worship?

Worship is a big deal for Quakers. And it most definitely has been for our community here in DC. Between 2009 and 2013, I’d say that we spent upwards of 90% of our time and energy organizing worship meetings, spiritual retreats, and other events with a spiritual, contemplative focus. It would have been fair to describe us as a worship group.

Our focus has changed significantly in the past year. Rather than emphasizing Quaker meeting for worship, we’ve spent much more of our time getting together in small groups, having discussions, throwing parties, and reaching out in our neighborhood. We still worship, we still pray together, but I’m not sure that worship group would be the right label.

It’s a matter of priorities. For us, the most important order of business right now is to develop vibrant Christian community here in our neighborhood. Weekly worship meetings haven’t seemed like the most effective way to do that. Honestly, worship gatherings present a lot of barriers to the people we most want to be in relationship with. There are lots of folks who will go grab some tacos with us or come to a game night who just wouldn’t feel comfortable showing up at something labeled worship. At least, not yet.

So, instead of spending all our energy organizing worship activities, we’re trying to open up our lives in ways that speak to where our neighbors are actually at. Instead of expecting the world around us to come join us in our little Quaker dance, we’re exploring what it looks like to really incarnate the gospel into daily life in our city.

This isn’t to say that worship gatherings aren’t important. They’re deeply meaningful and necessary. But we’re discovering that the greatest gift we can offer as a fellowship is not a rockin’ worship service – it’s a genuine life in community, where we really come to know and support one another as friends.

Times of explicit worship and prayer are absolutely part of that mix, but it’s more like the beating heart of our shared practice together as a community, rather than the entire experience of what it means to be a friend of Jesus. We’re discovering that it’s helpful for real, human relationships to come first. We want to know one another as human beings, not just spiritual beings.

Lately, Friends of Jesus in DC have begun holding a monthly worship gatherings in addition to the activities of our local missional communities. We come together from across the whole city to celebrate the presence of Christ in our midst. We participate in a shared reorientation of our lives, pointing ourselves towards the living way of Jesus. We grow in a shared life of wholeness, joy, and overflowing love for the people around us.

Our purpose in these times of worship is not to convince anyone of anything. Instead, we are invited to become ourselves more deeply convinced of the meaning and power of our shared experience of God. We are baptized into the living Spirit of Jesus, discovering a communion that goes beyond our human comprehension – a power that vastly exceeds our finite human strength.

What is the role of worship in your life and in your community? Does worship complement and enliven your efforts to grow as a community? How does it energize and equip you to reach out and bless the world?

Related Posts:

Can Worship Be Taught?

Do We Really Need Church?

Do We Really Need “Church”?

When I was a kid, my family was part of what I would consider a fairly traditional Quaker church. We attended for a couple of hours every Sunday morning. On a typical Sunday, there would be about 200 of us in the sanctuary (that was our word for the room where we held worship). We participated in a service (that is what we called the morning’s liturgy), which consisted of prayers, hymns, instrumental music, a sermon, and – most crucially – a period of silent waiting worship during which time the Lord could speak through anybody.

If you had asked seven-year-old Micah, What is the church? I might have replied something like, The church is the place we go on Sunday mornings to worship God. If I had done a good job of learning my Sunday school lessons, I might have also said, The church is the people who gather on Sunday mornings to worship God. (The church as people, not buildings, is very important to Friends.)

Still, even if I had learned to distinguish between the church and the building, it hardly broke the connection between church and Sunday morning gathering. I could hardly have imagined what the church would be like if we were not able to gather together in large numbers. What would we be without our liturgy of song and silence; our Sunday school; our potlucks in the fellowship hall? Church without Sunday morning was unthinkable.

In recent years, I have been helping to develop a new Quaker community in Washington, DC. When we first started, I conceived of it basically in the same terms as my childhood faith community. For me, the church was the gathering of people – if not on Sunday morning, at least at a set, regular time. It was the gathering that was crucial, for it was here that worship happened. It was here that we were most likely to meet Jesus Christ together, alive and present in our midst.

Over the past several years, however, I have been exposed to a different way of thinking about the church altogether. The Quaker community taught me to think in terms of a people to be gathered by the risen Jesus, but my experience has consistently been one not of being gathered, but of being scattered, sent out into the world to make disciples to Jesus.

There is great contrast between these two visions. One calls for inviting, the other for going. One sees the church as a beacon, the other as a searchlight. One calls us to grow larger, the other to be broken down smaller. One is in the Temple, the other is from house to house.

Both of these visions are valid. We need the gathered community, and we need the scattered fellowships of sent ones who make disciples. We need large and small, intimacy and friendship, challenge and consolation. We need the kind of traditional congregations that I grew up in, the whole body together. But we also need scrappy little fellowships meeting from house to house and making disciples one by one.

In our mission to DC, we have no large congregation; no big worship or building. We just meet from house to house, reaching out in our personal networks and embracing the invitation to become more fully friends of Jesus. Is this enough? Is it possible to live into our mission as a community of disciples in the absence of a larger gathering of believers? Or is the Holy Spirit calling us to help gather this larger congregation that we presently lack?

What is your experience? Are you part of a traditional, Sunday-morning style congregation? Whether your attendance is 30 or 3,000, what are the benefits of being part of a larger local community? Are there disadvantages? What do you see as the right relationship between Sunday morning and the work week, the sanctuary and the street? How can we embrace Jesus’ invitation to go into all the world and make disciples, even as we gather together as congregations?

God’s Scattered People

One of the things that impresses me most about the Quaker community is the sense of connection that Friends have across geographical boundaries. With very few exceptions, I have found that if show up at a Quaker meeting on Sunday morning and introduce myself as a visiting Friend, there will be warm-hearted people who are ready to show me around their city and provide me hospitality in their homes. Quakers have a sense of belonging that goes beyond the local; I find family wherever I roam.

Yet, there is also a shadow side to this tight-knit community that transcends local connections. In my travels, I have experienced Quakers as being ravenous. We are often starving for support, connection, teaching, and pastoral care. Many of us feel inadequate for the task that God has called us to, and we don’t know where to turn for guidance. Lots of our communities, even the larger ones, feel isolated and unsupported.

In this context, a visitor can seem like a lifeline, an opportunity to make a connection with the larger body. For some communities, especially smaller ones, visiting Friends represent a chance to receive the nurture and encouragement that they do not necessarily experience otherwise. Simply by being present and sharing news, visitors open a window into the wider community of Friends; they provide a sense of access to the gifts of the larger body.

Life in diaspora is hard, living as we do in scattered pockets. We are presented with the challenge of being alternative communities in the midst of a dominant culture that does not reinforce – and often undermines – our desire to be friends and followers of Jesus Christ. We are tempted to turn inward, to seek refuge from the world, to become a cliquish subculture that promotes an ingrown sense of identity, even as we fail to reach out to others. We may even become proud of the fact that our neighbors and co-workers do not understand our faith!

Superficially, the choice to close ourselves off promises security and a sense of identity; but in the long run this path leads to ever increasing isolation, fear, and spiritual pride. Fortunately, there is an alternative to this seige mentality. Rather than walling ourselves off, what if we threw open the gates? Rather than waiting for visiting Quakers to nurture us, what if we looked to our friends, neighbors, co-workers? What gifts are already present in them to build up the body of Christ?

What would our communities be like if we welcomed every visitor with the same degree of joy and hospitality that we welcome visiting ministers? What would happen if we sought out the gifts, insight and enthusiasm of the people we are most connected to, whether they currently belong to our meeting or not? How might we be changed by seeking partnership with our neighbors, inviting them to walk together with us in discipleship to Jesus?

In many ways, this kind of life-giving engagement with our local communities is more challenging than the aching isolation that so many Friends meetings experience. The trials of diaspora are many, but they do not require the same level of work, self-examination, and flexibility that we must embrace if we are to become salt and light in our neighborhoods, homes, and workplaces. Making the kingdom of God visible in our world will be a challenge, but one that is preferable to the numbed yearning and isolation that so many of our communities are experiencing today.

Have we hit rock bottom yet? Are we convinced that the hard struggle to bear fruit is more life-giving than the easy slide into despair? Are we as Friends willing to be broken open, to be a seed that dies so that we can yield a harvest many times what anyone would expect? Are we ready to embrace our scattered and feeble condition as an opportunity for Christ’s power to shine through?

Make A Connection

Believe it or not, I’m not a naturally outgoing person. All things being equal, I like to stick to a few really intense, one-on-one relationships. A social butterfly I am not.

Despite my natural handicaps, however, God has called me to help develop Christian community here in Washington, DC. This work forces me to get out of my shell, meet new people, and interact in ways that aren’t necessarily comfortable to me.

I read once that human beings are a lot like LEGOS: Just like those little plastic building blocks, every person has only a certain number of connectors. Some of us have more connectors, others fewer, but each of us has a limit to how many people we can be in authentic, active relationship with.

Think about it. How many people are you friends with on Facebook? Now, how many of those have you had a real, in-person conversation with in the last month? The last week? If you’re anything like me, the first number is rather large, but the second number is surprisingly small. We can have a lot of contacts, but we can only sustain so many active friendships.

This presents something of a dilemma for us as followers of Jesus. On the one hand, we are called to share God’s love with everyone. Jesus calls us to go into all the world sharing the good news and forming communities. On the other hand, there are only so many active relationships that we can maintain. Practically speaking, we just can’t be in community with everyone.

So how do we make choices about where we devote our limited relational energy? Are we careful to ensure that our primary relationships are healthy ones that glorify God? Though it’s nice to have relationships where we can feel comfortable, how do we avoid surrounding ourselves with people who look and think just like me? What would it be like to regard each one of our relationships as an opportunity to live as the body of Christ?

Is Jesus Too Exclusive?

I‘m definitely a child of my post-modern generation: I tend to recognize multiple valid perspectives on any question; I experience truth as dynamic, changing in its expression depending on context; and I am suspicious of black-and-white, either/or thinking. Yet, I also follow a man who makes some pretty black-and-white truth claims. I have faith in a God who acts in history to uphold a particular truth, a vision of social justice and personal holiness that has clear definition and is anything but relative. Despite my post-modern inclination to embrace nuance, paradox and gray areas, Jesus presents me with a yes or no decision: Will I follow him, or not?

The choice to answer “yes” is a direct challenge to the status quo. All of a sudden, I find that I can’t go along anymore with my culture’s competing truth claims. There so many things claiming to be the answer, from soda pop and luxury automobiles to political regimes and philosophical movements, but now I find myself in relationship to the one who truly is the real thing. Jesus has become not merely one option for my personal growth, nor just a great teacher whose wisdom I can mix and match with other teachers and paths. Instead, I am put in the uncomfortable position of following him as my Lord and my God.

By relating to Jesus as what Paul Tillich would call ultimate concern, I shine a spotlight on the inadequacy of all other, less-than-ultimate concerns. Family, country, community, wealth, peace and progress, all these things are good and necessary for our well-being, but they fall short of ultimacy. In Jesus, I discover that it’s not enough to be happy, healthy and wealthy if I’m not following the ultimate truth.

Rod White, founder of the Circle of Hope community in Philadelphia, recently wrote an excellent post about how much Jesus’ “exclusivity” challenges our wider culture. The very act of claiming sole fidelity to Jesus is deeply offensive to a perspective that says each of us has our own subjective reality, and that the only real truth is to be found in our personal experiences and relationships. Acknowledging Jesus as Lord blows open that whole worldview. It is an act that says, “there is someone far more beautiful, powerful and important than any of us can comprehend, and we must change our lives to follow him!” For a culture that prizes the individual’s freedom to define their own meaning, this is a slap in the face.

Despite how offensive and exclusive Jesus may seem to many, following him is ultimately the most inclusive, loving thing we can do. Rod White expresses this beautifully in his post, where he explains that our culture’s way of creating belonging is through shared affinity – for example, the kind of music we listen to, games we play, work we do, or pets we own. Our culture seeks to create unity through subcultures centered on shared consumption, rather than shared purpose.

These various subcultures – including many religious groups, I might add! – are an extremely exclusive way of forming community. They depend upon a group of people gathered around shared traits or interests. They gather around who we are and what we do rather than who God is and what God is doing.

Jesus does things differently. He draws us into community with people that we would not have chosen ourselves. Rather than coming together primarily out of shared hobbies, life experience or social/class backgrounds, Jesus calls people who are profoundly different. These folks might not even like each other; yet, in Jesus, they discover an irresistible love that unites them.

I’ve seen this play out many times: God draws together a bunch of misfits, folks who no reasonable person would have picked out, but who our unreasonable God designed to cohere in his Spirit. This is the kind of community I want to be a part of: a community that stretches me to love folks I don’t like, to grow beyond the normal bounds of human affinity.

No doubt, many will misunderstand this kind of community. They will perceive it as exclusive to build a spiritual family around such a narrow idea as that of following Jesus, and only Jesus. They may even assume that, because they have not chosen to follow Jesus, they are unwelcome in such a fellowship. While we can’t control the reaction of others, I do hope to be part of a community so radiant with Christ’s inclusive love that even those who are skeptical of our faith will be drawn to us. When we are dwelling in the Spirit, others may perceive that we want to be friends with them – not because we like them, and not because they say the right words or believe the right things, but because Jesus already loves them and accepts them. And as his friends, so do we.

News Flash: Christians Don’t Have All the Answers

This week, the leadership team of Friends of Jesus DC began an eight-week process with the Tangible Kingdom Primer, a resource that helps small groups reorient around being sent to our local communities, modeling what it means to be a follower of Jesus, adopting a posture of humility and openness to folks who don’t share our core convictions. The Tangible Kingdom is basically about getting out of our churchy mindsets and to begin thinking more like disciples. In a world where religion is usually about rules and purity codes, we’re seeking to learn how to be more like Jesus and his early followers, who regularly upset the respectable church folk through acts of love, justice and mercy that didn’t fit into the standard lists of dos and don’ts.

In this first week of the TK Primer, we are delving into what it means to be missional. Missional is a fairly new, rather trendy church word that comes from the Latin, missio – which means, to be sent. The idea is that, rather than sitting comfortably in church buildings and patting ourselves on the back for how good and saved we Christians are, followers of Jesus should be actively developing relationships with those who are not Christians. Rather than seeing Christianity as a fortress, the missional movement conceives of life with God as being a constant sending into new, unfamiliar, and often uncomfortable places. Being missional means getting out of our safe spaces and comfortable mindsets and allowing ourselves to be in genuine relationship with the world around us.

Being missional demands that we embrace the fact that Christians get a lot of stuff wrong, and non-Christians have a lot to teach us. It means getting off our high horse and allowing our lives to be changed by the wisdom we find in others, especially those who haven’t made a decision to follow Jesus. It means respecting the culture and worldview of those around us, and that we really seek to know others rather than just cramming our Christian worldview down their throats. Being missional involves releasing all of the cultural shoulds that come with our faith and allowing the Spirit to lead us into a gospel that is contextualized to the culture and worldview of those to whom we are sent.

It’s a tough concept for many of us to wrap our heads around: Jesus is the Way, but there are many ways to walk with him. Jesus is the Truth, yet there are many ways to understand him. Jesus is the Life, but his presence changes each of us uniquely, in ways that can’t be reduced to a cookie-cutter theology. Just because we’re trying to follow Jesus doesn’t make us more spiritually advanced than those who haven’t made that decision yet. We can’t judge how the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of others. At most, we can invite others to walk with us and help us learn more fully what it means to be a friend of Jesus.

Even this act of inviting, though, is tricky. It’s generally not the first step in developing a relationship with another person! We’re learning that we really need to take the time to grow in friendship and honor the unique experience of each person we meet. It doesn’t make much sense to talk to others about Jesus unless they’ve had the chance to see his love reflected in our lives.

The good news about the missional mindset is that none of us need to have all the answers to start practicing it. In fact, recognizing our own weakness and limitations is the first step towards relating to others as Jesus relates to us: With gentleness and humility.

This is challenging. We all like to think we understand the world and have most of the answers. It can be hard to admit how often we feel lost and struggle with doubt. We are seeking to give our lives over to Jesus, but we’re still very limited, fallible human beings. How can we walk with Jesus without needing to be right all the time? What does it look like to lead lives so filled by God’s love that people want to know what’s going on? What would it mean for us to trust the Holy Spirit to do the convincing, rather than putting that burden on ourselves?