Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The church always reforming

As some regular readers have observed, I have not written much about theology, missiology, ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology, hermeneutics, or any of those other topics of interest to people of faith despite my vested interest in those subjects. Those who have made this observation have expressed interest that I increase my output in these subjects, but I have been reticent to do so for myriad reasons. I have a few posts here and there in my history about communion or worship, but that's about it; even those posts tend to focus more on broader theological (God) or ecclesiological (church) issues rather than being specific to a particular expression of Christian faith, which is both by intention and by circumstance.

I have spent almost my entire teaching career (almost 8 years now) in small independent Christian schools, and I have been forced to be very conscious about the content and the context of what I state in any and all of those areas. I had a lot more freedom afforded me within the walls of our church in Victoria (The Forge) because I was known there, though I still felt the need to be careful that I was not writing anything that would cause an issue within that community, especially as I was on leadership and staff for five years. In addition, I was so busy living out all of those "-ologies" in my regular life that I often felt that I either did not need to write about them or did not have the inclination to do so because they already took up a lot of my time in practice rather than reflection.

I think it's time to break that silence and reverse that trend.

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda

"Ecclesia Semper Reformanda" is a phrase taken from John Calvin that means "the church always reforming". I was introduced to it a decade ago by a good friend with a similar quandary to the one I found myself in at that point (and unfortunately still do): reconciling our love of Jesus and the church with the various issues that we found ourselves encountering with the entity known as "Evangelicalism". His idea was to bring like minds together to dialogue with the main proviso that it could not be hostile or confrontational. Our goal was restorative, rather than divisive, and anyone who came into our midst had to understand and respect that fact; everyone had to admit this as their intent, and it ended up that we had twenty-somethings from several different churches and campus ministries represented in our community.

Over the course of the year, our group, which included about ten core people and maybe another dozen who came once or  twice along our journey, met every Thursday night and spent our time working out the great problems of the Evangelical church - worship, Catholicism, the Rapture, communion, homosexuality, sola Scriptura, whatever else arose out of our weekly lives. Too bad the church didn't get the memo. We "disbanded" at the end of the school year mainly because we felt that that particular part of our journey had been satisfied at that point, but we knew that this was more of a life philosophy than a one-time study group. Most of us have remained in contact, and several ESR alumni are among my most dear confidantes today; as an interesting note, most of the core members returned to church, though I am perhaps the only one to stay firmly within the bounds of the Evangelical branch. Almost a decade later, we are still a support network for one another - a fact for which I am incredibly grateful in this season of church life.

Life since ESR

I have been on an interesting journey both personally and theologically in the decade since ESR. At the time we were meeting, I was not sure whether I could return to the church. I was affiliated very loosely with a church at that point, and I left that church as part of my resolution after that year of meeting together with ESR. The church was going one direction, I was going another, and I recognized that I was not going to be able to change it (nor was I called to). I still had my ESR community, strong Christian mentors and friends, and a community on campus, but I needed some time away from church. It took about a year and a half and a re-engagement to my former-and-then-current-fiancée to get me back into church (it was a requirement of the resumption of our relationship). I started going to church again and I have not looked back.

In the seven years since, I have had experiences and opportunities I would not have imagined having by this point in my life. I have served as treasurer and moderator of a church. I have rewritten bylaws and core values. I have directed a summer camp program. I have mentored and pastored others through difficult situations and had them return the favour. I have ventured into the prophetic side, including training at Bethel. I have learned what it means to be missional, relational, and incarnational, and I am learning what it means to be open to my emotions. I have continually re-examined, revisited, and revised my previous assumptions of who Jesus is and how he works, and my faith is more nuanced, more malleable, and more vulnerable than I think it ever has been. The six years I lived away from my home culture proved invaluable to helping shape me in almost every aspect of my faith - which is why it has been very difficult to return to the prairies.

The Culture Shock of Saskatchewan

Seven months ago, I moved back to Saskatchewan, the middle of the Canadian Bible belt. At one point, the province was known for having the most bible colleges per capita of anywhere in the world; whether that fact is true or not still, it remains indicative of the culture here. I remember reading an essay in high school that called Saskatchewan "the Mississippi of the North", and it's not too far off both in terms of the systemic racism and the style of belief present here. Everything about life - including theology, ecclesiology, and missiology - is regarded as simpler on the prairies, and that can be a challenge for those of us who not only dwell in but who embrace the complexities contained therein. When I was younger and a direct product, the answers were much simpler: eliminate the complexity by embracing an extreme; the extreme I chose was much more fundamentalist. I pursued my beliefs with an unabashed zeal and fervor, though I always attempted to be relational in the midst of it. I (mostly) succeeded in my endeavours, and I (hope I actually) managed not to alienate too many people along the way.

By the time I was in my early twenties, I began to realize that not everything was so clear-cut, and many of those issues that I had chosen to simplify were actually interwoven as a tapestry of theological and interpersonal complexity. I do not want to undercut or manipulate the gospel here - after all, Jesus did pare it down to "love God and love people", but I have come to realize that the richness of the fulfillment of understanding who Jesus is has so much more depth and richness than that simplicity allows it to have. Jesus is a paradox: simple yet complex; plain-spoken yet highly figurative; an easy yoke, yet a difficult road. Over the past decade (and a bit), my faith has continued to grow and change, and occasionally it comes to a point at which theory manifests itself as action, as it did a few weekends ago.

The incident

There is a small church we attended about a half-dozen times over the past few months. (I'm deliberately not naming the church, as it could have been one of any number of churches here, and it is a good church in the traditionally Evangelical sense.) It's conservative but friendly, and I have really connected with the pastor, who understands and demonstrates what it means to be missional - to focus on Christ's call for the church within a community rather than as an outside force or program-driven or seeker-sensitive or emerging or whatever other buzzwords have been tossed around over the past three decades. The pastor was away one Sunday, so a member of the congregation was speaking. The first time he spoke against the Catholic Church in his sermon, I ignored it; I didn't want to let it slide, but I figured that it wouldn't be useful for me to interrupt. The second time, I spoke up and interrupted him. Publicly. During his sermon. (For those who may not be familiar with Evangelical churches, that's a big deal. Like a big deal.)The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them, and my sense of social justice and righteous anger burst out of me like a fire hose. We had a brief unresolved argument after church, and as a result, I had a mess to clean up that has theological, ethical, and relational implications.

The best analogy I could come up with is that what I did was like sneaking into the pastor's house when he was out, pooping behind his couch, and leaving it there for him to find afterward. I do recognize that what I did was inappropriate in the context, and that there are far better ways to deal with situations like this that arise. I sought counsel from others about how to move forward with this, and I was even able to call upon my own experience in church leadership as to how to proceed. The bottom line is that I was out of line as a guest in that community and that I needed to be reconciled with this community relationally, so I apologized the following Sunday. I will still, of course, have to address the theological and ecclesiological implications of the content and context of what was said, but the first step was to restore relationship in humility and vulnerability as much as I was able to given the limited relationship I have with that community.

Where to go (to church) from here?

It has not been easy to find a church, and incidents like this have not necessarily made it any easier on myself in the process. The main reason we stayed where we were in Victoria for six years was because of our community at The Forge (church), and although I understand that I will not be able to duplicate that experience, my time there has shown me what I feel is really important in church. Unfortunately, it's a long list: relational, missional, incarnational, interpersonal, creative, improvisational, intergenerational, collaborative, counter-cultural, cross-cultural, ecumenical, intuitive, intentional, and interdependent - to start. It has been hard to know what I should be really harsh about and what I can let slide, what points are deal-breakers and which are negotiable. I have not been on a journey like this with church since that year with ESR, and it's not an easy place to be - especially without a home church.

But just like that year of ESR, I am privileged to have a strong community and support not only at the Forge but spread out across many churches and denominations. I am privileged to know people who know me, my character, and my heart, but who also know Christ and the church. I have an unusually strong group of people surrounding me who can speak into my life and who can fill that gap while I'm working through these big issues, and I am very grateful for that community. I do believe that there is a church out there for me; it's just likely that it's not quite ready for me, and I'm not quite ready for it. I guess the work of the church is never done, after all...


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