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Church Re-ImaginedThe Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith
By Doug Pagitt
ZondervanCopyright © 2005 Doug Pagitt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA NEW APPROACH FOR A NEW AGE
Welcome to Solomon's Porch. It is truly an honor to invite you into a week in the life of our community. We hope you will be our guest and find friends and kindred spirits with whom you can journey in the pursuit of life in harmony with God.
Let me make a few clarifications from the beginning. The intention of this book is not to tell you how you can have an effective church in the 21st century. I'm not laying out a how-to guide for reaching "target audiences." I won't even try to convince you that you'd be better off having a church with the practices, intentions, and values of Solomon's Porch. My desire in writing this book is to provide a descriptive glimpse at the efforts of our emerging community on the chance that you will find our story useful as you seek dreams of your own.
This book is more about our community's honest longings and efforts than our accomplishments and results. It is a collection of the hopes and aspirations of a people trying. Our efforts to arrange our lives around communal spiritual formation are, at times, awkward and pathetic. Yet at other times, they are wonderfully forward-leaning and pull us toward God in ways we never anticipated. They are nearly always sincere attempts toward sustainable Christian spiritual formation, utilizing practices that extend beyond the education model of Christian discipleship.
Maybe, like me, you're wondering why I'd write a book when so much of this is in the experimental stage. I've spent many hours struggling with the idea of "selling" what I think of as a vision for Christian community that is God's to give, not mine. What's pulled me through is my belief that there are wonderful people-pastors, teachers, lay leaders, new Christians, lifelong Christians-who are not interested in a model program or approach to spirituality, but are searching the stories of others to find permission to pursue their own deeply held, unspoken intuitions about how faith and church could be. In some ways this book is an act of poetry; it is an attempt to put words around our experiences and desires to allow others to step inside.
In an ideal world this would be a two-way conversation. We would be mutually inspired by sharing our stories, visiting each other's faith communities, eating in each other's homes, and discovering the details of each other's lives. In reality, of course, we have few options beyond visiting Web sites, reading books, and meeting one another at the occasional "New Church Trends" conference. But I hope that this book will inspire you to seek face-to-face conversations with other searchers as you seek ways to make your own dreams of faith become reality.
A NEW APPROACH FOR A NEW AGE
This book will bring you into our community and our life. You will meet our people through journal entries, hear stories from each day of the week, and be invited behind the scenes to see how we are trying to live. First, though, let me explain what lies behind much of the design and practices of our community. In some ways this book is not about the 21st century-it is about the 1880s and the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution.
Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, innovations in travel, communication, and science have changed the way we define community and live in it. Incredible advances in medicine have made life possible where once there was only death. These shifts have changed the way we think about what it means to share our lives with others and how we measure the value of life. We have revolutionized how we live and nearly all that we believe, know, and understand-but much of the thinking and practices of Christianity have stubbornly stayed the same.
It seems to me that our post-industrial times require us to ask new questions-questions that people 100 years ago would have never thought of asking. Could it be that our answers will move us to re-imagine the way of Christianity in our world? Perhaps we as Christians today are not only to consider what it means to be a 21st century church, but also-and perhaps more importantly-what it means to have a 21st century faith. The answers to all these questions will have an impact on how our faith communities are structured, what we do in those communities, and the practices we utilize for spiritual formation. They influence how we experience community in daily life, how we relate to others, our faith and beyond, and even how we understand the gospel itself.
Perhaps most importantly for our conversation in this book, these changes call us to rethink the value of the education model in spiritual formation. The heartbeat of our efforts within Solomon's Porch is to pursue a way of life in harmony with God created from means extending far beyond what educational formation can provide. I do not intend to spend time discussing the failings of the education model, but rather to lean into the future with descriptions of our practices-some tried and true, and some experimental.
One notion we are seeking to re-imagine is the whole concept of spiritual formation-how people become Christian and live in faith. In the 19th century it was believed that the most effective way to deepen a person's spiritual life was to increase her knowledge about God. People behaved-and still behave-as though the spiritual part of a person is a separate component that can be worked on and developed in isolation from the rest of the person. This approach has been refined with great fervor over the last 100 years and in some ways has just recently hit its stride.
Our efforts are built upon the assumption that we are able to imagine and create something of greater beauty and usefulness if we move away from speaking of spiritual life in dualistic tones, as if the spiritual part of a person is a separate component that can be worked on and developed in isolation from the rest of the person. We are working with a view of spiritual formation in which we forget about working on a part of a person's life and instead work with people as if there is no distinction between the spiritual, emotional, physical, social, professional, and private aspects of life. We hope the result of this vision of human formation will be a move toward a place where we focus on the holistic formation of people who are in harmony with God in all arenas of life, and who seek to live in the way of Jesus in every relationship, every situation, every moment.
BUT THEN AGAIN, MAYBE THINGS ARE JUST FINE
There could certainly be an argument made that Christianity is doing fine and that we are not in need of this radical re-imagining. It is possible that the way forward centers on the church improving its current approach of education-based spiritual formation. Perhaps all we need is better curriculum and better training for our pastors and teachers. Perhaps we need to make a clearer call for the basics of the faith and be sure that people are well-grounded in their beliefs. Perhaps the church is actually positioned quite well in the post-industrial world, and with some fresh models of teaching and learning, will do just fine.
Perhaps, but I think not, or at least not for us. We join with the many people, professional and lay, who have suggested in writings, conversations, prayers, and pleadings that the Christian Church has not lived up to its potential or calling in the post-industrialized world, but that it could. Maybe there is something to the critique that the church is marginalized in the world to such a degree that the marks of a "successful" church have been reduced to tangible evidence such as size, market share, political influence, healthy budgets, and the creation of model citizens living the American Dream. This marginalization is not due to the Church's poor use of marketing techniques or lack of effort in discipleship. Rather, I've become convinced that our misguided belief that life change can come through proper knowledge acquired through education has failed to produce the kind of radical commitment to life in harmony with God in the way of Jesus that we are called to. When the realities of life crash into our knowledge of God, faith is often the prime casualty. Doesn't the role of communities of faith need to include more than making converts and educating people in right belief? Doesn't it need to also make possible corporate and personal lives lived in harmony with God? I am not suggesting that churches have not sought this holistic approach to faith in other times, but I do believe that the knowledge-based spiritual formation of the 20th century has so reduced the call of Jesus to right belief that many become confused about why mere profession of belief does not bring about life change.
A HOLISTIC APPROACH TO COMMUNITY SPIRITUAL FORMATION
In some ways it's a bit odd for a church still in its toddler years to discuss its efforts in spiritual formation. This is particularly true for Solomon's Porch because we are very much in the midst of experimenting with the ideas of this book. My intention here is not to create a plan for others to follow, but to invite people into a needed conversation that will continue for decades. To be honest, the legitimacy of what we're doing at Solomon's Porch will be best judged in 15 to 20 years. In some ways it's easy for people who have chosen our community to live out these desires in the short run at this particular stage in their lives. The question that haunts me is not, "Do people like our church?" but "Is there any real formation happening?" Two decades from now, will our efforts at human formation show a contribution to the lives we have led for the past 20 years? Will they have helped us live as blessings to the world, or will we simply be living the kind of self-absorbed "personal" Christian lives that are so common today?
This is the kind of issue that those who buy in to the educational model of spiritual formation may not need to struggle with. The educational approach provides assurances of effectiveness through tests, catechisms, and statements of faith, which measure whether people have been "properly" formed. When we move beyond belief-based faith to life-lived, holistic faith, the only true test is lives lived over time.
SPIRITUAL FORMATION THROUGH COMMUNITY
There is a call embedded in Christianity that moves us to life together. This idea of holistic spiritual formation is nothing new. In fact, it has a long and prominent history within the Christian church. Throughout history, becoming a follower of Jesus has often meant being brought into a community of people who eat together, live together, share their possessions and their lives. We will introduce you to our efforts at being a community of people who not only meet on Sundays, but who become deeply connected to one another. I truly believe that community is where real spiritual formation happens. Most people come to faith not by an isolated effort but through living day by day with people of faith such as their families or friends. People may not fully understand the beliefs involved, but they learn what the Christian life looks like as they see people to whom they are deeply connected living out the disciplines of prayer, worship, and service. Nearly every Christian I know grew into the faith long before they knew a whole lot about it. Even for those who first heard the things of Christianity through an isolated presentation of some sort, this was only the start of a life, not the summation of the life. They were just beginning to understand what this was all about. Isn't this what so many of us still experience-a living of our faith before and beyond our understanding of it?
In many ways, becoming Christian is much like learning our native language; we pick it up when we are immersed in it. I would guess that nearly all of us spoke and communicated long before we started our formal education. What we then learned in school was not the beginning of language use, but the refining of it. In educational settings, the theory of language acquisition through immersion is by far the most successful means of learning. So it is with Christian faith. Rather than seeing Christianity as belief we acquire in a completed form, we ought to enter into it with the understanding that we are at the beginning of a lifelong process of discovery and change. Ours is a faith that is lived, from beginning to end.
Community as a means of spiritual formation serves to immerse people in the Christian way of living so that they learn how to be Christian in a life-long process of discovery and change. Christian community can and should be context for evangelism and discipleship, a place where faith is professed and lived.
The word community has become the buzzword of the day. Part of the problem with buzzwords is that their overuse can leave them with virtually no meaning at all. In our current vocabulary, community can mean everything and nothing at the same time. It can mean people who live on the same street, or people of a similar ethnic background, or people who think the same way about issues. As we of Solomon's Porch understand the term, Christian community has four functional elements: Local, Global, Historical, and Futurical.
By local community, we mean the people with whom we live in physical proximity. It includes the people we live near, work with, drive past, and stand next to in line. It includes those we choose to recognize and those we do not. I find it's often the case that people use the word community to refer to those who are most like them. But the story of God from Abraham to Jesus calls us to a deeper understanding of "our neighbor" that embraces those who are not like us at all-and those with whom we worship week by week.
Oddly, many Christians find that their fellow congregants play no more crucial a role in their daily lives than the people they walk past in the grocery store. They share a common experience from time to time and receive services from the same organization, but little else. The people of Solomon's Porch seek to make community mean something in our Christian context, so we look for ways to make our community of faith a place where we become involved in one another's lives in intimate, meaningful, transformative ways.
This kind of intimacy requires us to move beyond mere accountability. Accountability is built on the notion that a person will do her own work as she seeks to live a Christian life while others do what they can to keep her on track. This may seem like the best our local community can offer us, but we are striving for more. We feel called to vulnerability. We are seeking to move into relationships where we don't merely ask others to hold us to living in the way of Jesus, but where we invite them to participate in our efforts to do so. We are trying to open our lives up in such a way that others do not simply keep us on track, but become actual agents of redemption and change.
We also understand ourselves as part of a global community. We are required to live our local expressions of Christianity in harmony with those around the world. The beliefs and practices of our Western church must never override or negate the equally valid and righteous expressions of faith lived by Christians around the world. It's essential that we recognize our own cultural version of Christianity and make ourselves open to the work of God's hand in the global community of faith.
Christian community also includes those who have come and gone before us-our historical community. Just as with local and global communities, there are elements of our historical community that we may well find difficult to stomach, such as the excesses of the Crusades or the Salem witch trials. Though we are not called to live the faith of the past, and we need to be people of faith of our day, our current and future vision for the church cannot be formed without a sense of the visions of the past. It is through our historical community that we are reminded, guided, taught, and led in the ways of God. We are compelled to enter into the context of those who have served, loved, and believed before us. Therefore we must always ground ourselves in the history and traditions of the Christian community that have come before us. There is one body of Christ through all time, and we are part of that body in our particular place and time. If we separate ourselves from the work of our body in previous times, we do so to our limitation and peril.
Excerpted from Church Re-Imagined by Doug Pagitt Copyright © 2005 by Doug Pagitt.
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