1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!" NRSV
I have always loved this passage. Over time it just gets richer and richer.
Isaiah is busy in the temple when he encounters God. The NRSV Bible translates Isaiah’s response to this happening as “Woe is me! I am lost.” Other versions say “I am undone.” I had a professor once who had us envision the transporter beam from Star Trek (especially the visual effects from the original series.) He claimed the connotation of the Hebrew was “I am being dis-integrated.” God hadn’t said or done anything. Just his presence was enough to disintegrate Isaiah. Any illusions Isaiah may have had about his own character, and that of his community, were obliterated. He was dis-illusioned. His guilt and shame were made fully apparent.
Then the seraph, an agent of God, is sent to touch a live coal to Isaiah’s lips and he is freed from his guilt and sin. I find this imagery particularly powerful. The most fundamental building block of culture is language. Language shapes our very conceptions and deceptions about ourselves and our communities. The symbol of purging sin by touching the lips is intriguing as the mouth is the part of the body associated with language. Isaiah has unclean “lips” and has been shaped by a community of people with unclean “lips.”
Isaiah is now able to be in God’s presence. By God’s action, Isaiah has been reintegrated into relationship with God. Being in community, he hears God’s voice asking for a messenger. In response to his transformation, Isaiah offers himself. Notice he does not say “Here I am,” as in designating his location. He said “Here am I,” as in proffering a gift.
As the body of Christ, it seems to be that God has entered our presence. When we deeply encounter God we are disillusioned with ourselves and our community. Our false identities, individual and corporate, are disintegrated. I don’t believe this is a one shot thing but an ongoing dynamic of disintegration and reintegration. We are brought into community by God, through Christ, and experience God’s character. We become reintegrated into his character and desire God’s mission. We offer ourselves for that mission as the body of Christ. God in the temple with Isaiah, I suspect, is similar to the expectations God has for the body of Christ in the world, even as God is constantly at work disintegrating false identities in us to make us one in him.
I am at an Emergent conference outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico as I write this post. Since much of the conference is about having conversations and I know very few of the people here, I am occupied with meeting people and starting relationships.
The conversations always begin the same. “Hi, I’m Mike.” Then comes the exchange about where we are from and what church we attend. Having established a frame of reference, we get to the heart of the matter. First, we establish ecclesiological status. “Are you a pastor?” (i.e., clergy or laity) If you are a pastor, then the interrogation begins about the size of your church, what denomination, urban/rural/suburban, is it liturgical, etc. If you are not a pastor, the big question becomes “What do you do?”
These questions are critical because in our culture you are defined by what you do. Our identity is grounded in action. (This is almost pathologically true of the male population of our culture.) For the person out of work, the person working at a job below their educational capabilities and experience, or a newly retired person, few questions can strike at the heart more than “What do you do?” If I don’t “do,” I cease to exist in the eyes of our culture. The foundation of my identity begins to disintegrate. Each asking of the question is one more assault on my self-image.
A few months ago I was studying suicide rates by five year age categories over the last fifty years (some people golf, some people do gardening, me…well…) There have been considerable changes in patterns over the years. Teenage suicide went way up but has been decreasing significantly for some time. Rates for older folks declined steadily over the time span. But one persistent trend you see over time is the higher rate of suicide for men who are in the 55-65 age range compared to other men in most other age ranges. Facing retirement means the end of “action” and therefore identity. Loosing that identity is a fate worse than death …literally… as indicated by the choices of some. The number of men who die or suffer debilitating illnesses shortly after retiring also points to the “stresses” of loosing identity.
Many women experience similar stresses in their lives. Whether by nature or nurture, women seem to be more relationally oriented. The devastating loss of identity can occur not only with employment but when children leave the home and the family structure of twenty or more years dissolves. The bottom line is that, for many, when demand for our role or activity ceases to exist, we cease to exist as well. Our identity becomes dis-integrated.
Not every culture defines their identity in this way. Ancient Middle Easterners received their identity based on kinship. “Joseph, the son Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham.” Later in the Bible we read about X, the son of Y, of the tribe of Z. What you did was incidental compared to your community affiliation. Community was the integration point for identity.
I have been writing in recent posts about common theme: What happens to the church when we are oriented to a false vision of who we are. What happens to us as a community is not much different from what happens to us individuals. As individuals, we all have a model of we are. The model may not always be consciously constructed, but it exists nonetheless. When people reflect confirmation of our internal model back to us, the model is reinforced and we become more assured that we know who we are. The reinforcement of the model establishes our identity. When people reflect back to us that we are less than the model we have of ourselves, depending on the relationship we experience anger, disdain, or our feelings may be hurt. However, if we do something that violates our model of ourselves, or if something happens that exposes falsehood in our model, we experience shame and humiliation. We will often go to great lengths to hide the incongruities, even from ourselves.
Sociologist Peter Berger introduced the term “plausibility structures” to the world decades ago. His language was picked up by people like Leslie Newbigin and N. T. Wright. This concept says that we need a constant feedback loop telling us how we are doing. If we are in communities that reflect affirmation of our models of ourselves, then we will strongly tend to persist in those models. If we are in communities that reflect disapproval of our models, over time, our models will come into conformity with the reality reflected to us by the community. Communities give out social rewards for those that affirm the community’s perception of reality and penalize those that do not. So we are both shaped by our communities and we give shape to them by the reflections we give back.
What some theologians have come to realize is that the Church is called to be a counter-cultural plausibility structure for the world. The existence of the Church serves both as a critique of the “eternal present” of this passing age and a window into the existence of the age that is dawning. Since Adam, Eve, and the apple, the human project has been to find a basis on which to integrate an identity apart from God. (Witness Cain building Enoch or the construction of the temple at Babel.) The presence of the Church dis-integrates human integrations of identity both at the corporate and individual level. It dis-illusions us from illusionary models. By the power of Pentecost, the Church integrates us in to a community where we are daughters and sons of a loving God, and sisters and brothers to Christ. The integration point for our identities is the triune God living in community with humanity.
John 17:14-23 (Jesus praying)
14 I have given them [disciples] your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. 20 I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (NRSV) (Emphasis mine.)
What business are we in? I believe we are in the identity business. We are about the business of rooting our identity in the triune God and the community God has called into being. We are participants with God in community, in the dis-integration and dis-illusionment of the world (including ourselves) so that all may become reintegrated as children of a loving God, and as sisters and brothers to Jesus Christ. Exactly what this looks like will change from culture to culture and age to age but structure and action must always flow from mission. Our identity is always in God, through Christ, empowered by the spirit, but the forms our counter-cultural plausibility structures take will always be contextual.
What will be true in every age and place is anticipation of that day when we all truly will be one and it shall be proclaimed "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever."
As any good sociologist will tell you, there are always unintended consequences to any social “advancement.” At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, people took their carpets out of the house in the spring and in the fall and beat the them clean. Various techniques were used though the rest of the to sprinkle substances on the carpets to keep away a musty smell and preserve a fragrant household aroma. Not long after the wide spread use of electricity came about, the “labor saving” vacuum cleaner was invented. Of course this lead to more carpeting, wall-to-wall carpeting, and higher standards of carpet cleanliness. If you clean at least once a week you soon realize you are probably spending more time cleaning carpets than people were before the invention of the vacuum cleaner. Technology has a way of biting back.
Possibly one of the most detrimental developments for the Church in America has to been the improvement in building codes and firefighting techniques. Most churches before the last century were simple meeting halls. Fires were not uncommon in American towns and church buildings frequently perished. No matter. The congregation found a new place to meet or built another building. A strong attachment to buildings was likely to be a major disappointment.
Now buildings last for generations. The can be utterly unsuited for contemporary needs, situated in inconvenient locations, and be voracious in the consumption of electricity and fuel for climate control. The upkeep of the building can have a crippling effect on the congregation’s resources. Conducting worship out of sanctuary owned by another church, or renting a meeting hall, is often economically preferable to the dogged determination to stay in a building. Why the resistance to move?
The Early Church had no buildings that we know of for the first 300 years of its existence. Some of the earliest churches may have met in synagogues but most met in households. There were no “sacred structures” to preserve or special rules for how to behave when we are in “God’s house.” In fact, God tried the whole “God’s House” thing with Israelites. It didn’t work out. He had the house demolished. Twice!
The gospel of John (2:19) records Jesus’ claim that if the temple be torn down, he will raise it again in three days. This was taken later as a prophecy about his resurrection. But why would Jesus refer to himself as a temple. The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:19-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. NRSV
Then in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, Corinthians Paul wrote:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. NRSV
Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:4-5:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. NRSV
There are no more temples, sacred buildings, or “Houses of God!” There is only a living temple of which we each are living stones, and Jesus is the cornerstone. Where ever we are is holy because God, living in us, is holy. God’s intention is that his living temple expand until it encompasses the whole earth. In my estimation, to speak of church buildings as sacred, or as houses of God, borders on idolatry. A building is inconsequential to being a church. The church existed without buildings in the beginning and Christians all around the world to without today. Am I saying that we should not have church buildings. Not at all. Building a building as a place to have corporate worship is a strategy. It is a means to an end. But we must ask to what end?
There is a wonderful line from the movie the Pirates of the Caribbean. Captain Jack Sparrow is stranded on an island with Elizabeth and he talks of what he will do with his ship the Black Pearl once he recaptures it. He tells Elizabeth “That’s what a ship is you know. It's not just a keel, and a hull, and a deck, and sails. That’s what a ship needs. No… What a ship is…what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom!” Well a church is not a sanctuary, an educational wing, a fellowship hall, and a spacious parking lot. Those are all things a church needs (maybe!) What a church is…what our congregation is… is....?
Friday I used the idea of “corporation” to refelect on the nature of the Church. I think the corporation mentality is more common among larger congregations. Members see themselves as “shareholders” of the church and the Church exists to serve them. I don’t think many congregations explicitly think in terms of being a corporation, but there are many who are inclined to see the pastor as an employee of “the owners,” even in small congregations.
When I have had the opportunity to do consulting with congregations I have often asked the leadership “What kind of church are you? How would you describe your congregation?” Except for a couple of occasions, the answer has always been… shall we say it unison… “We are a warm friendly family.” (Even as they are on the brink of dissolution because no one will join them.) On a few occasions I have asked a follow up question, “If you are a family, who are the parents?” More than once the response has been “the pastor.” I have been in settings where I have asked the question and the answer was “God is the father of us all.” But the idea that the pastor is a parent, and the congregation the family, is disturbingly common. Even for those who intellectually can give the right answer I sense something much different at the emotional level. Pastor as parent is probably only slightly more common than the perception by some controllers in congregations that they are the parents and everyone else including the pastor are the children.
Congregation as family is a common and frequently encouraged metaphor, especially in smaller churches. Plastered all over our church bulletins, and even in some church names, is the word “family.” So is the family metaphor a helpful metaphor for our context? God refers to us as children. The New Testament writers frequently referred to each other as brothers and sisters. Paul writes of the “household of God.” The idea of adoption is one of the most powerful in the Bible. What could be wrong with the metaphor of family? If we are not sensitive to cultural context, plenty!
Family metaphors work in our context only if our present understanding of family closely approximates that of the Greco-Roman era. Therein lays the problem. There are at least two significant differences. How we define who is family and the purpose family serves.
If you are a Westerner like I am, you likely include your parents, siblings, spouse and children as part of your family. Beyond that, you likely include both your father’s and mother’s siblings (uncles and aunts) and their children (cousins). If you attend family reunions you will likely meet 2nd Cousins, great aunts and uncles, and so on. While more distantly related, these folks are still part of your kinship group. I will call this the American Kinship Group (AKG).
The AKG is dissimilar to the family framework of the Greco-Roman world. Families in the Greco-Roman world were structured according to a Patrilineal Kinship Group (PKG) model. In this scheme, only the male linkages are relevant. I am related to my parents, siblings, spouse, and children. However, my mother’s parents, her siblings, and their children are of little consequence. My father’s siblings and his brothers’ children are my family, as are the families of my brothers.
When a woman marries in this system her ultimate loyalty is to her father and brothers, not her husband’s family. The marriage serves more as an economic and political bridge between families, enabling men to perpetuate the all important family line. Producing children, especially male heirs, is the wife’s central purpose. While a wife’s status does not depend on producing heirs in our culture, it was paramount in the PKG culture of New Testament times.
The head of the Greco-Roman household, the paterfamilias, essentially had life and death control over the members of his household (although the wife in Roman culture had some minimal rights.) While sons were very important to fathers as the ones who would give the father immortality by carrying on the family line, emotionally close relationships with fathers were not the expectation. Son’s revered their fathers and the father ruled over his children until he died.
Joseph Hellerman, in his book The Ancient Church as Family, shows that in both the AKG and the PKG, marriage is intended to provide offspring and sexual fulfillment. However, while marriage is to provide emotional support in the AKG, siblings provided emotional support in the PKG. This is absolutely essential to understanding the metaphors of family in the Bible. Siblings were the primary relationship of emotional support and caring.
If we want to tell deeply disturbing stories in our culture, we tell of spousal betrayal. The frenzy around the Scott and Laci Peterson case is a prime example. For the Romans, the most disturbing event they could imagine was two brothers at odds with each other. The great mythic story of Rome’s founding includes Romulus killing his twin brother Remus, a deeply disturbing act to Roman sensibilities. Siblings relationships were the primary relationships.
The metaphor of calling each other “brother” and “sister” in the early Christian communities becomes all the richer when we appreciate the context. It means so much more than our use of the same words. It was the most intimate of all relationships to the Greco-Roman hearers of the biblical metaphors. If the only image had been the one of God as a “father” or paterfamilias, we would only have had reverence for God. But Jesus came as one who is “closer than a brother,” tells of adoption, and shows that we are made co-heirs with Christ. This casts a whole new light on the New Testament metaphors and the character of the triune God. It also means that allegiance has been transferred to God, the paterfamilias, as we are now brothers and sisters in Christ.
So we can see that the structure of the family has important implications for our understanding, but there is one more important difference. The paterfamilias' household was not just a residence. It was a business. The members of the household were employed in the family business. The household might include the paterfamilias' sons and their families, slaves and their families, as well as bond servants and free laborers. Economically, the household was not just a unit of consumption; it was a unit of production. Any use of the “household” metaphor would of necessity include this assumption of productivity.
It is estimated that in 1885, in the United States, families produced more than 80% of what they consumed. They resembled most families in most places in time throughout history in this regard. By 1915, just thirty years later, families purchased more than 80% of what they consumed. The Industrial Revolution has transformed families almost exclusively into economic units of consumption. Families have become places of emotional support, recreation, and childrearing. They are our retreat from the economic environment, not the core of it. They exist to serve our personal needs. They family that engages in economic activity as a family in our culture is now seen as a novelty or the product of immigrants from other cultures.
When we superimpose our Twenty-First Century American Kinship Group model of family on the biblical metaphors of the New Testament, we wreak havoc on the concept. The biblical model is of “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ, participating in the “family business” under God the paterfamilias’ loving (in God’s case) direction. Because we have superimposed our contemporary family systems on the construct, our relationships lack the devotion and vitality of the New Testament model and the church becomes a place of “spiritual consumption,” existing to meet our emotional needs, with paid professionals to be surrogate fathers and mothers who will take care of us. Add to this the dysfunctional state of the family in our culture and we end up with many dysfunctional expectations in the church based on the family metaphor. In my estimation, fewer things have done more to cripple the church in our culture than this misappropriation of the family metaphor.
I ended my post about corporations by asking, “What business are we in?” Paul says we are the household of God. I have just written that the biblical model is of “brothers” and “sisters” in Christ participating in the family business under God the paterfamilias’ loving (in God’s case) direction. So once again I ask, “What business are we in?
To the degree that we are a group of people organized for a mission, the Church is a business. Every successful business that stays successful does so by repeatedly asking a question. What business are we in?
The story of Railroads in the United States is a frequently used example of how not to address the question. Railroads appeared on the American scene in the early Nineteenth Century. It is hard to overestimate their impact on American culture over nearly a century of unabated growth. The Railroads ability to move people, goods, and information over vast distances in relatively short timeframes both expanded and better connected the nation. Entire cities appeared in response to railroads and vast fortunes were made.
The railroads even changed our perception of time. Until the 1880s each town kept time by setting a town clock to show noon at the high point of the sun. For every fifteen minutes east or west you went, you either lost or gained a minute. Since people throughout history had been unable to travel no more than about 25 miles in a day, differences of a minute or two between towns was not a big deal. As railways expanded it became possible to travel hundreds of miles in a day making stops at several locations along the way. Train schedules had complex time conversion tables because each location had its own local time. It was a logistical nightmare. The solution was the creation of the four time zones in the United States. Four time zones replaced thousands of “local” times. Some people fought this change up to the 1920s. Some even argued that it was sinful as it violated God’s intent for the sun to rule the day as taught in the Bible.
Railroads had been successful because they had created an alternative for moving people, goods, and information faster than most people dare dream in the past. As time went by, the telegraph, telephone, and radio began to decrease the railroad’s importance for communication. Automobiles and trucks came into their own in the early Twentieth Century. Airplanes soon followed. By World War II, it was apparent that the nature of transportation was about to change radically. Railroad companies came to see cars, trucks, and planes as competition.
The interstate highway system began in the 1950s and trucking began to expand rapidly for transporting goods. Increasingly, people used cars and airlines for travel. Still the railroads operated as competitors to these alternatives. The Railroad giants finally sank into bankruptcy by the 1970s as other means of transportation siphoned off their customers. Despite government assistance they have never fully recovered. Why? They misunderstood what business they were in.
The executives of these companies believed themselves to be in the railroad business. They were wrong. They were in the transportation business. What had made the railroads successful was that they offered a far superior means of transportation. The context changed. New technologies and new demands emerged. Railroads were a means to a benefit, not the benefit itself. The right move would have been to expand and integrate into the trucking and airlines industries making transportation of goods and people even more beneficial for consumers. Railroad executives failed to realize that their customers were not buying railroad tickets or freight space. They were buying transportation. The railroad executives mistook a means for an end.
Business types well tell you if you are going to succeed you better know your customer and what benefit they are purchasing, because production of those benefits is the business you had better be in. Once you figure that out, you “simply” have to outperform your competitors by delivering that benefit better than any of the others.
Railroads also gave rise to one other feature of our present existence: corporations. While the basic idea of corporations has existed for a few centuries, railroads elevated them to a place of preeminence in America. Historically, most business enterprises could be financed by one or few individuals. Railroads and similar massive enterprises created a need to amass enormous amounts of capital through equity and debt financing. A new way of doing business was needed. The corporation was the answer in that it created a “fictitious person” in the eyes of the law. This fiction allowed investors to easily amass capital and individuals could lose only what they had invested.
Prior to the Industrial Age, what enterprise can you think of that had a mission involving vast amounts of people and resources, and viewed itself operating as one body? Try the Church. “Corporation” has as its root word from Latin “corpus,” meaning body. Curiously, most corporations are learning that the more they function as an organic body the more effective they become, while denominations continue to function more like the mechanistic corporations of a century ago, even insisting that their organizational culture is divinely ordained.
So let’s ask the questions of the church “body” the question the railroad “bodies” should have asked themselves all along. What business are we in? Who is our customer? How will we measure our effectiveness?
For the for-profit business, the last question is quite easy: Financial performance. The better we provide the customers with benefits they seek, the greater our profit will be. When the customer is satisfied, the owners of the body (corporation) get a good return on their investment.
This becomes a little fuzzier for non-profit businesses. The for-profit business offers a product and receives payment from the beneficiaries of the product. In many not-for-profit businesses (not all), the revenue comes from people who are not recipients of the organization’s “product.” The truly defining feature of a not-for-profit business is its ownership. Ownership resides with members or with a board who are prohibited from receiving distributions of any profits (thus the name.) How do we measure success in such a setting? Number of people served? Growth in membership? Improvement in some social indicator? The endless temptation is to perpetuate an activity, rather than achieve an outcome. In essence, perpetuation of the activity becomes the outcome.
Churches usually see themselves as some form of a not-for-profit corporation. Many see themselves as a membership club. The members are the owners who make contributions to ensure the delivery of services to the membership community. They hire an executive director (pastor) to oversee the day-to-day delivery of services. They may do some civic functions and “evangelism” (membership recruitment), but the members are essentially both the owners and the primary customers. They may participate in an elaborate hierarchy above their congregational corporation but the fundamentals are the same.
Other churches see themselves as owners of the corporation but look primarily to people outside the church as the customers. A professional service provider (pastor) is hired to help the membership reach outsiders and bring them into the body (evangelism.) The focus of activity becomes meeting the perceived needs of outsiders.
I have a suspicion that both of these frameworks misunderstand the business we are in. So let me get a little controversial here.
First, Jesus is Lord of the Church. Therefore, the Church is a corporation (a corpus or body) owned by God. We are not the owners of congregations.
Second, God is also the customer for the church, not us or those outside the Church.
Third, and maybe most importantly, we are more akin to a for-profit corporation then a not-for-profit corporation. God the owner has made an “investment” in the corporation and is expecting a return. The corporation must produce a benefit that God the customer finds beneficial or there won’t be a return. This is similar to the first scenario above except instead of us being the owner/customer, God is.
What do you think? What did Jesus say about the talents left on deposit with stewards who did not earn a return? What did Jesus say about the tree that does not yield fruit? Am I overreaching?
Finally, if God is the owner/customer, what business are we in? How do we measure the results? I have some thoughts on this but I would love to hear what others think.
Many people have described the Christian walk as a journey. One of the more widely read magazines in Evangelical circles is Sojourners. I can’t count the number of times I have heard or seen “sojourn” or “journey” in the title of songs and poems written by Christians, in Church and organizational names, and in a host of other places. We seem to have a sense that we are on some type of journey. As I have studied the Bible over the years I have become aware of another theme as well. Let me illustrate it with a few quick references.
The Bible opens with the creation story. God created Adam and Eve, and told them to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Their descendants were to be on a journey until the mission was accomplished. Adam and Eve sinned and their son Cain went into full rebellion. Rather then being fruitful and multiplying, he chose to kill and destroy. Rather than fill the earth, he chose to dig in and create his own world. He called both his first son and the city he built “Enoch,” meaning “to initiate.” Cain was announcing the establishment of life apart from God. Genesis tells us that he settled in the land of Nod. Nod literally means “wandering.” So Cain settled in the land of wandering. Was ever a truer word written about the human condition?
After God destroyed humanity with a flood, he told Noah to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. What is the first story we encounter after the account of Noah? The people of Babel build a city and start constructing a tower to the heavens declaring that “We will make a name for ourselves.” While this relates to achieving renown, it also refers to the ancient belief that the act of naming was an exercise of authority over the person or thing named. The people of Babel were intent on overthrowing God’s authority by naming themselves. Rather than disperse and fill the earth, they sent down roots and united in rebellion against God.
With Abraham and the beginning of Israel, there are increasingly clear indications that God created his chosen people to be beacon to the rest of the world of God’s love, justice, and provision. Through Israel, God would call all people to him and redeem the nations. Instead, the Israelites took their chosen status as an indication of privilege. They became content with the home God provided and they became indifferent to God’s objective of redemption. They ended up loosing not only God's favor, but their home, as God dispersed them throughout the world.
When Jesus came, he sent the Church on a mission to reach Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. After his resurrection, the “Reverse Babel” of Pentecost came, where everyone understood everyone else and became united in their mission through Christ. It took divine intervention with people like Peter to see beyond their own communities but the Church began to spread for several generations. Then a man named Constantine offered the church a “home.”
Over the centuries there have been pockets of Christians who have boldly taken the grace of God outside their homes but for more than 1,500 years the church became entangled in the project of building Enoch, Babel, Jerusalem, and Rome. The sojourners, charged with Christ’s mission of going into the world and bringing every realm under his loving Lordship, opted to build homes rather than stay on the road.
Jesus calls transformers into a journey to transform every realm. He sends us out into the world to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth with his presence. Some of Jesus’ most powerful metaphors concerning mission deal with the dispersion of substances so that the mission might be realized. Salt to preserve food and add taste. Yeast to leaven bread. Seeds to grow crops. The mission of the Church is to disperse and bring every realm under the loving Lordship of Christ. Realm does not just mean geographic regions. It also means social institutions and varied human relationships. Jesus' strategy is the dispersion of his people into every realm so that each realm and person may be transformed into extensions of God’s love and justice.
Transformers of the realms require dogged determination, passion, courage, and commitment, to name just a few traits. They must develop specialized knowledge and skills to address their realms of ministry. The leaders know that they can not fight the battles for the ministers under their charge. They are there to equip and aid in the transformation of the transformers, even as the transformers seek the transformation of others. Such a mission has no place for “laity.” The leaders can not be with their dispersed ministers out on the road, engaged in the journey. The leader can’t possibly have the expertise in every realm to which the ministers have been called. These ministers must mature and become effective leaders in their own right in the realm where God has sent them.
Instead, like Cain, like the folks at Babel, and like the Israelites, we have opted to build homes and put down roots. God wiped out the rebellious descendants of Cain, he dispersed the people of Babel, and he dispersed the Israelites. What do you suppose God has in mind for the “homes” we call congregations and denominations, used to avoid being on the journey?
I have been writing about clergy and laity. Where the mission is simply to maintain a home, a clergy/laity dichotomy may cut it (even if it isn’t biblical.) The clergy is the professional head of household for a family full of dependents. However, in the context of transforming realms, the clergy/laity mindset is deadly to the mission. Each disciple has to become a competent minister dispersed into the realm to which they are called. The trivialization of the dispersed ministers and the obsession with “house” work is a direct result of the dichotomy. I think as people begin to understand the mission established by Christ, the “laity” concept becomes plainly transparent for the destructive force it is. Problem is, many of us are quite content in Babel and would just as soon not here about mission.
It seems to me that the first thing we need to do is find those among us who are restless in Babel. Then we need to talk to them about three things: mission, mission, and mission. After that, we should begin talking to them about mission. We follow this with some conversation about mission. Not everyone is going to leave Babel, but as rumors of the mission of a lifetime circulate, and others witness others on the road, maybe we will see an exodus from Babel into world transforming mission.