Saturday, December 24, 2005

Subversive Can Openers

Jesus was a subversive. I don’t mean any disrespect with this comment; I simply want to put Jesus back into his historical and theological context within Israel’s prophetic history. As a subversive, he knew that one of the best ways in which to teach controversial things was to ask subversive questions, often to the frustration of his critics.

I believe there is a place in the twenty-first century church in the West for subversive questions (not to mention the gadflies who raise such questions). I remember coming across one such question while I read Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrick/Strand, 2004). It was a combination of an "Aha" and a "Hmm" moment for me. The question goes like this: “Is a can opener a can opener if it can’t open cans?”, (p. 193). Let’s think about this question in two different contexts. The first context is the average kitchen. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with can openers, whether manual or electronic, inexpensive or expensive. After a very short time (and sometimes fresh from the store) the can opener malfunctions and can't open cans. For whatever reason, it cannot accomplish the function for which it was designed. If a can opener cannot open cans then it isn’t a can opener. Instead, it becomes a paperweight that merely looks like a can opener.

That question may not seem subversive, but let's consider the second context in which to consider the question, only with a slight modification to the question itself. “Is the church still a church if it doesn’t function like a church anymore?” I recognize that with the question phrased this way the reader may become a bit defensive and reply, “Well, of course my church is still a church. It functions as one. We have fine buildings, programs, worship services, music, and members. It’s still functioning as a church.” If this is your line of thinking, let's reconsider whether that really is a biblical and historical function of a church.

A review of the story of the early church found in Acts, as well as a historical analysis of the first three centuries of the church reveals that it was not an institution. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the early church flourished and grew exponentially throughout the ancient world prior to Constantine and Christendom, from a few hundred believers to several million, growing at a rate of forty percent per decade according to some sociological analysis by Rodney Stark. The early church had no buildings, no paid clergy, no programs (not even for families and children!), and no agreed upon canon of Scripture, and yet it flourished because it was a dynamic people movement focused on Jesus and the Spirit, with the missio Dei at the heart of its identity and function. We could provide other examples of this as well throughout church history, with the underground Christian movement in China or the phenomenal church growth in the Southern hemisphere providing other illustrations.

If the purpose of the early church was to function not as an institution, but instead as a dynamic, missional, Jesus-people movement, we have to ask ourselves how this compares to how we “do church” in America and the West. How closely do we resemble the forms and purposes of the early church, or rather do we resemble institutional and business forms of organization? Have we transformed the culture, or has the culture transformed us, and so much so that now we take our present forms of church for the way things have always been and should always be?

Back to our subversive questions that we began with: Is a can opener that can no longer open cans still a can opener? Can churches that no longer function as churches still be considered churches even if they look like what we’ve become accustomed to associating with churches? These questions aren't threatening so long as we're talking about kitchen devices, but they are unsettling when applied to the church. Perhaps Jesus needs to be as subversive of the status quo in our churches as he is beyond its doors.


John Umland said...

It might be the structure is part of the problem, instead of bringing people to church we could bring church to them, and bring Jesus to them. Have you heard of house church? i've been looking at it at my blog.

Ron Henzel said...

"The early church had no buildings, no paid clergy, no programs (not even for families and children!), and no agreed upon canon of Scripture..." An interesting series of statements, to say the least. I think you're asking some important questions here, but I've always interpreted 1 Timothy 5:17-18 as indicating that the early church had paid elders. And as Kenneth Scott Latourette wrote, "As early as the beginning of the second century a differentiation between clergy and laity began to be seen..." "A History of Christianity," Volume 1: to A.D. 1500, (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1975), 183. And I've always seen 1 Timothy 5:3-16 as a description of a church program for the support of widows. As for the issue of the canon of Scripture in the 1st century church, I recommend consulting "Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity," by John Barton of Oxford (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) before anachronistically reading later canonical concepts into the frist three centuries of church history and then drawing rash conclusions about how the church of those years treated what we now call the canon. Much work still needs to be done in the area of the early church's view of the canon. But non of this negates the essential value of the question I hear you asking: is something (an informal network of people, an institution with regular meetings, or whatever) a church simply because it calls itself a church, even though it doesn't function in any way similar to the way the early church did? But then, to where should we turn for an authoritative description of the early church, and which of their diverse writings should we view as normative for us today? It also seems to me that you're using the word "institution" more in the sense of "institutionalism," i.e., "emphasis on organization (as in religion) at the expense of other factors" ("Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary," [Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1977], 599), the "other factors" being what really matters, whereas calling the church an "institution" simply implies that it was established (instituted), or that it has some sort of organizational structure, both of which I find impossible to avoid in reality. Unless you indicate otherwise I'll assume you're writing about what I refer to as institutionalism, in which case you have my wholehearted agreement that it is as far from the intentions of Christ and his apostles as you can get. When it takes root in any church, its spiritual vitality immediately begins to die.

John W. Morehead said...

JPU, thanks for stopping by the blog. I think the problem for the church in the West goes beyond organizational structure. A church can be attractional in a Christendom style and the organizational structure be in the form of a house church. Then again, a church can be missional and exist in house church form. The key for health and vitality in the post-Christendom era is to return to our roots in the form of a missional identity. The appropriate structure then flows from this.

Ron, thanks for stopping by as well. By "institution" I do refer to institutionalism. I think a good case can be made for the church not having formal worship buildings, a clear clergy-laity distinction, and an agreed upon canon of Scripture in possession and agreed upon by all prior to the third century. The point I'm trying to make is that the early church did not have the elements we assume must be in place in order for church to exist and thrive. We need to move beyond institutionalism in its various forms of Christendom culture and return to a missional identity and function. The forms of the church as missional will be diverse, and will aid the missional function, but must stop short of institutionalism, whether in modernist or postmodernist contexts.

Anonymous said...

Good Evening John,

Before you take me too seriously. if you know can openers, you know that even with a broken can opener you are still left with a half way decent bottle opener!

I love to read about the "modern church", the "early church", so on and so forth. As I have read your postings and the prescribed literature (Celtic Evangleism and Shaping of Things to Come), which I have yet to complete by admission. I am faced with more questions. I feel I have caught the vision, but feel lacking in tools to move forward. Even as we persue further studies of what was vs. what is, how can we also ask ourselves what is required to change? What do 3000 white evangelicals in the middle of suburbia do to better reach its community in this "post-modern era" utilizing the missiology philosophy?

Faced with the possibility that we could affect a change in perspecitive, I am seeking the roadmap that shows where there is from here. My quest has lead me to more questions than answers. I have explored many of your useful links as well with not much help? As I explore through various media and literature this paradigm perscribed for te modern church, I am eager to turn to the final page for the answers. Are ther no Cliff Notes?

I was sharing some of my newfound ministry perspecitves with an old friend curently in seminary. His criticism of the emerging church movement was that it presented far more question than answers.

I always enjoy the read. Could you please point us in a direction with more statements, outlines, models, etc?