A Challenge of Church Planting
A couple weeks ago I was having a conversation with Richard Beck about this blog post that he wrote where he suggests that Paul, while church planting throughout the Gentile world, was undertaking an experiment to see if the Gospel could take root in a non-Jewish (specifically, non-Torah) community. One of Paul’s challenges was to demonstrate to the Jewish Christian communities that these Gentiles could actually live lives reflective of Kingdom values without having to go back living under the Law, which Paul kept insisting was no longer relevant to the human/Divine experience because of Jesus’ life/death/resurrection. This is why when you read some of Paul’s letters they have this jarring disjointedness at times. The first half of the letter is all about how salvation is by faith alone, and then the second half of the letter zeroes in on moral living. The old faith vs works dichotomy.
What Richard proposes is this:
While Paul’s moral directives have a Jewish and conservative bent (in relation to the surrounding pagan culture) it remains a fact that the moral flourishing observed in Paul’s churches was not Jewish or conservative, at least by orthodox Jewish standards. Paul was doing something risky and experimental, cultivating a new form of moral flourishing with a group of people considered to be morally and sexually depraved. True, Paul was morally demanding of these communities, but this was necessary to create the moral distinctiveness his gospel needed to legitimate itself before Christian Jewish skeptics.
Paul was planting churches in cultures and communities that were vastly different from the Jewish ones back home and so part of his challenge was to creatively imagine how the Gospel of Jesus Christ could take root and be transformative in these new, non-Jewish communities.
So, anyway, I was talking to Richard about all this and I asked him, “when are you going to write Part II? These are great ideas, but right now I am planting a church and it seems sometimes a bit Paul-ish, in that we can’t just take old models of faith communities and drop them on this unique community. So how do we develop these new visions of moral flourishing?”
In other words, Sojourn Grace Collective is a unique animal in many ways. We are a radically inclusive church that celebrates people from all walks of life, and yet are still rooted in Jesus and oriented around God’s Kingdom. We are a “guitar and drums church that is open and affirming.” As a progressive Christian church we have the motto, “Uniquely Christian, but not Exclusively,” which sounds awesome but can be clunky sometimes to actually live in to.
So I resonate with the experiment that Richard imagines Paul was undertaking. To cultivate a new (different) form of moral flourishing. (sidenote: I wouldn’t draw the parallels too closely. Like Richard pointed out, Paul was interfacing with an established culture of morally and sexually depraved people, hence his need for a new vision of human flourishing. That’s not exactly what I’m talking about. But the principle remains, I think.)
What was Richard’s response to me?
“Well,” he said, “I guess Part II is up to you to write. I’m the guy coming up with the theories and the concepts, but you’re actually the one on the ground level doing this stuff.”
He’s got a good point.
So one of the things I’d like to do on my blog is post from our experiences and experiments in planting Sojourn Grace Collective.
I’ll group these posts under the title of “Progressive Churching.”
These could be stories from the front lines. They could be reflections on how the experiment is going so far. I’ll talk about some of the values we are building in to our culture and why. Some posts will unpack theology, others will focus in on ecclesiology.
My hope is threefold:
- Document our journey. 10 years from now our church will likely look pretty different than it does now. I really want to make sure we have documentation of our story.
- Encourage and resource other church leaders. Now, I have no pretense that my wife and I are anything special. Hundreds of people plant churches every year. There’s no way we are some magical exception. I won’t pretend to have any answers or formulas. However, there is value in hearing other people share their stories. So if anyone out there is attempting to build a Progressive Christian Church, maybe we can encourage one another.
- Continue Paul’s experiment. To quote from Richard again, “Paul was curating, nurturing, shaping and cultivating communities to bring into existence a new and innovative form of moral flourishing where pagans (ed note: all of us!) could become shaped into the image of Jesus.” Writing these blogs regularly will help me organize and work through the experiment.
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