Alan Roxburgh describes established patterns, habits, and values that operate in the background of every church, standing in the way of renewal. We must, he says, be less preoccupied with the church and more attentive to the Spirit out ahead of us.
If God is calling us to a new journey, such as dwelling with our neighborhoods, how do we turn from our focus only on the church?
Everyone who has ever set out on a journey with God knows several things are bound to happen. First, the new journey is exciting and energizing. Second, as Israel discovered once it crossed the Red Sea, the established habits, patterns, and values quickly resurface as we journey in untested territory. I call them “defaults,” and they are powerful and go deep. Defaults operate in the background of every system, unseen but determining our actions. Let’s look at some of the underlying defaults that leaders need to see clearly before setting out.
The Spirit continues to invite us onto a different journey. We have to take our preoccupation off the church and turn to see the Spirit out ahead of us.
1. God is not really acting among us.
Talk about God as the active, primary agent in our neighborhoods is disorienting. Many people do not know what to do with it because it is not a recognized part of their experience. This roadblock must be recognized in order to be patient with people and recognize that it will take time to enter into this way of seeing. In the practices of listening, dwelling, and discerning, people are being gently invited into a space where together they discover and affirm this new reality. God is active. God is present.
2. We cannot experience God through Scripture.
The practice of Dwelling in the Word is based on the conviction that as God’s people sit before Scripture — not just listening — they are in a place where the Spirit speaks to them. In my experience, few congregations actively assume that God speaks to us in unique, specific ways through Scripture. There is little experience of Scripture as a location where we encounter God. This powerful default tends to blot out the openness to encounter with God.
3. We don’t have enough people to take this risk; we won’t survive.
The fear of scarcity runs deep. It is exacerbated by the notion that congregations of older people will not survive. One of the ways to counteract this default is to invite several congregations to join this journey together. Luke 10 says the disciples went in pairs. For today’s churches, going in pairs might mean joining up with other congregations to work on these practices. There will be plenty of stories to share, and plenty of opportunities to see that God really is at work among us.
4. We have to get our house in order first.
This response comes out of the fear and anxiety of loss. That does not make it any less palpable and real. That is why you should start slow and start small. Set up little demonstration plots of these practices while letting others tend the work of keeping “the house in order.” The excitement and energy of people telling stories about hearing God in fresh ways and being with the Spirit in the neighborhood will gradually turn the anxieties into hope and show others the risks may be worth it.
5. We did not come to church to change the world.
People have many reasons for belonging to congregations; changing the world isn’t even in the Top 10. Most of us are in church because deep down, we are just plain hungry for God, and the bread and wine feed and sustain us like nothing else. We come for a long list of reasons, and they ought not be spurned or devalued. Yet another part of the journey with God calls: the journey into the neighborhood.
6. What’s wrong with meeting needs and helping people?
Another default is to see their neighborhoods as places where they can do things for people. The notion of dwelling with the neighbor, of being with rather than doing for, feels uncomfortable and less than compassionate. It is disorienting because people feel they are in control and can manage a project if they are doing something for people. The idea of being with leaves people feeling vulnerable.
7. The clergy should take care of this.
Congregations have been socialized to follow the initiatives of their clergy, looking to them for direction. This is why initiatives last about as long as the particular clergy person’s tenure, then gradually die off. The challenge is to create a congregational culture where innovation isn’t driven by or dependent on clergy. Without shared passion, the journey into the neighborhood in the way of Jesus will be little more than one more episodic program the latest pastor introduced.
8. We’re a caring family; isn’t that enough?
Listen how people describe their churches, and you will hear words like “family,” “caring,” and “loving.” This is not the primary language of our theology about the church. “Family” is a powerful image. Families are kin. Communities like this offer much in terms of stability, predictability, and care for one’s own. But the Spirit invites us to do something that few families or affinity groups would choose: to cross group boundaries and enter the lives of the others who are different and have their own our stories, practices, and traditions.
A Different Journey
The Spirit continues to invite us onto a different journey. God is acting amongst us, and it has everything to do with the healing of the world. We have to take our preoccupation off the church and turn to see the Spirit out ahead of us.
This article is adapted from Alan Roxburgh’s book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time (Morehouse, 2015) and used by permission. It is available from Amazon and Cokesbury.
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