Wednesday, May 02, 2001

an interesting essay i copied from a church vitality website:

"Writing in Harper's magazine, Fenton Johnson reflects on
North America's search for vessels to shape their spiritual hunger. He
describes the "comfortable mediocrity" of congregations which feed on a
diet of religious consumables that never touch the heart of their longings.
The very congregations that pastors and denominational leaders strive so
hard to shape become barriers to encountering God in transformative

In light of Mr. Johnson's insight, it's no wonder that a
palpable dissatisfaction characterizes North American mainstream
Christianity. The impulse toward mystery and the desire to encounter the
sacred are stirrings that churches seem unable to satisfy. People hunger
for ways to resist the ubiquitous dominance of money, power, and sex as
signs of a fulfilled life, aware at some level that, in reality, they leave
our souls empty. So instead we search for a connection with something
that can't be bought, packaged, or marketed as a product. We want a way
of restoring-or discovering-order and values larger than the consumer
market or self-actualization.

This desire for genuine and meaningful connection
shapes the hunger of the people coming into our churches. But how do
we feed it? Christian leaders are bereft of a way. People do not need more
programs or propositions about the nature of the world. They need a new
way of life, the way of community defined in God's Word.

But welcoming people into a way of life requires
leadership that is radically different from simple competence in managing
programs, caring for people's needs, or preaching sermons. Such skills
are not unimportant, but they alone will not form a community that is
an institutionalized contradiction to the wearing, tearing, fragmenting
living that exists at the dawn of the twenty-first century. When we
manage our congregational systems through care processes and programs
designed for various age-and-stage points, we only lay a religious
covering over fragmented lives. Leaders are needed who call people into a
way of life. The comfortable mediocrity of congregational life and
pastoral leadership cannot address the unarticulated stirring in the soul of
North America.

Something else is required, and it must be both local and
institutionalized. Missional communities must be people living a certain
way of life in a particular place. Such missional communities will
require something more than the voluntary associations which currently
characterize congregational life, associations which only deepen the sense
that Christian life is an individualized spiritual experience supported by
local churches. What is required is the refounding of Christian life in
North America, the metamorphosis of congregational identity. Fenton
Johnson continues: "Life is like water: it takes the shape of the vessels
into which it is poured; remove the vessel and it's lost. What we are
seeking are vessels into which to pour the chaos of life, what we are
seeking are models of discipline." The vessels formed by the shaping of
middle-class, suburban life in North America since the middle of the
century are increasingly incapable of shaping the emergent forms of
social life that Christian identity must take in the decades ahead.

What vessels point to this reforming of Christian
identity? Monastic Christianity offers hints of what contradictory living
might become, but specific details will not be in our purview for some
time to come because ours is a period of gestation. We are seeing the
unraveling of one world, but not yet the emergence of what might be
woven from its threads. We are reaching for images, stretching
tentatively toward an unformed future that lies ahead. Nevertheless, some
general outlines of this gestation can be described, and we know that the
church now requires leaders who will commit their passions and lifelong
habits to developing and living into those contours.

Now the idea of monastic communities may be
misleading. We are not calling for a Christian identity removed from life
hidden in cloisters. We are instead reaching toward a form of secular
orders in which a Christian identity, as a distinct and contradictory
option, is lived out within this culture, not apart from it. The church can
only be a sign of hope if it once again offers an alternative way of living
that is in sharp contrast to society at large. This kind of identity can only
be shaped by commitments and practices that will result in an alternative
way of life in neighborhoods and cities.

In a society that extols the power of personal choice and
perpetual open-endedness, for instance, churches would become like
orders that voluntarily place limits on choice due to its conviction that
meaning and purpose greater than the accumulation of goods and the
actualization of self prevail in this world. People would be invited to
participate in a local order that witnesses to the alternative way of Christ
through lives shaped by common practices and commitments.

Critical to the formation of this witness are leaders who
can form such communities, and we have arrived at the point where this
leadership is essential. If the church in North America is to have a
meaningful role in the 21st century it will be discovered through the
missional engagement of local church communities. This discovery will
require a journey of faith on an untraveled road, with a horizon obscured
by clouds. If we are to start strong in this new century, leaders must
break from the familiar motions of the past and step onto this road."
A test before beginning...could this be a useful adjunct to newsletter, bulletin, & e-mail? We shall see...