Saturday, February 9, 2008

Language REALLY Matters

Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens
by Neil Cole

Beware of Amazon recommendations. You know how you order something and several books pop up and say "You may also like these . . . " I am a sucker for that, and usually the matches are pretty good. Not so in this case. This is an almost total miss for me. I love the title and the premise - taking the church out to people, not expecting people to come to the church. I'm all for it, and seeking ways to incorporate that idea into the faith community which I serve. However, Cole and I are just coming from way different planets theologically. His language is very patriarchal, and his biblical interpretation is much more literalistic than mine. I realized this about three pages into the book, but decided to stick it out because a) I have this odd compulsion to finish what I start, but only when it comes to reading. I have been working on the same cross-stitch Noah's ark for 12 years (very sporadically). Will probably never finish it, or not until I retire and/or my kids are in college and b) I thought/hoped that I could learn something useful even from someone who was not where I am in many ways. I trust that Neil Cole and I both love God and love the church and love people, and that there likely are things we can learn from one another. So, I finished the book.

I did learn a few things, but the language and theological assumptions were VERY hard for me to get past. Cole also is coming from a very different perspective on what constitutes a church. I think we Presbyterians could streamline things for sure, and we no doubt are too attached to our buildings and bureaucracy. On the other hand, it is hard for me to picture how church works with no structure - no set meeting time, no central location, very little liturgical fervor, etc. Neil Cole's scheme is to keep the churches really small - about 10-15 people, and keep spinning off "daughter churches." I love the intimacy of the idea, but it seems the groups shift a lot - some people move on to start new churches, while others join up with another group. I do not know how such a system keeps track of its people, but maybe it does not need to. If this is working for however many people, I guess it is one way for church to thrive, although it is not my cup of tea.

One thing on which Neil Cole and I certainly agree - we believe in the importance of relationships in the life of discipleship. I liked this sentence from Organic Church: "The gospel flies best on the wings of relationship." I love the ecclesiastical and spiritual intimacy of the church, and the person-to-person contact is definitely one of my favorite aspects of leadership in the church. It is also true that relationship is what makes the love of God a reality in people's lives. It does not mean much to a lonely person to hear that Jesus loves them if they do not feel that love from people who claim to follow Jesus. So, yes, relationship is key.

Again, though, Neil Cole and I diverge. I looked hard within myself to figure out what it is about his approach that bothered me. It finally dawned on me - Cole is all about "winning people for Christ" and "saving the lost souls." There are many lost and searching souls out there, but (IMHO) not everyone who is not a Christian is "lost" and needs to be "saved." There has to be more than one way up this mountain - I don't know how it all shakes out in the end, but I trust God to work it out. So, if I am reading Cole's approach right, we develop relationship with people in hopes that they will be converted to Christianity because of what we teach them. Even though I do not question the good intentions behind this approach, it feels manipulative to me - like we are not meeting the person on his/her own terms, with and openness to what we might learn from each other. Even with all good intentions, to approach people in this way is (again, my opinion) not to develop authentic, mutual relationship but to push an agenda. There is a part of me that finds that very offensive.

My hope is that we develop and live into relationship with people and that the Good News of God's love shown to us in Christ flows from us in all of our interactions with new and interesting and hurting people who cross our paths. In some cases, this is going to lead to the person wanting to know more about Jesus and what he means to those of us who are trying to follow him. I think back on adult baptisms that I have performed and they have all been meaningful, because they were a result of this type of relationship. In some cases, though, the person either is part of another faith tradition or for whatever other reason is not open to making a commitment to Christ or Christianity at that point. But we can still be balm for their wounds and represent the love of God to them. I believe that that relationship has not been a waste of time, that both parties are the richer for it, and somehow God's intention for reconciliation within humanity is being realized.

Oh well, if nothing else, Cole's book has caused me to clarify my own thoughts on evangelism and the meaning of that term in our culture now. He also has reaffirmed my belief in the power of prayer, and for that I am grateful.

Reverent Reader


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