God-Forsaken Places

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Several months ago now, Wade Hodges  shared the following passage on his blog from Alan Roxburgh. I have mixed feelings about it, and I was interested in hearing the reactions of others.

If we want to discern the emergent work of God, we’ve got to ask, Where are the most God-forsaken places today? Let me suggest to you, one of the most God-forsaken place for us, is the local congregation. Why? They don’t get it. They don’t understand any of this stuff. They are so steeped in a commercialized Gospel. They are so busy trying to make life work and trying to keep up and catch up, that they don’t get it. Here’s what I want to say to you. That is exactly the place where God’s future is going to emerge. Many of us who buy the emergence narrative want to give up on these places. That’s why with so many young leaders today, church planting is the thing. You know why church planting is really the thing? Because they don’t want to bother with that stuff. Because you can’t change it.

The Spirit of God is amongst the people of God. Which means God’s future is amongst God’s people. And I mean that literally, because here’s the next thing: The answer to the question: What is the emerging form of the church today in North America in this complex culture that we live in? – I want to say to you the answer is right there in the suburbs, inner cities and in all those dumb, stupid congregations that don’t get it.

That’s where it is. In the most God-forsaken places in our culture today. That’s where God’s future is present.

That is a radically alternative narrative because God’s future is not found in the new and the next. God’s future is not found in the great high priests of the church who say, “This is how you do it.” God’s future is found in the ordinary men and women who don’t know how to do it.

God’s future is not found in leaders who have the plan and the strategy, the top-down, “aren’t you lucky you’ve got me, I’ve got my M.Div., D.Min., I’ve got a wonderful plan for your life, let’s go.” It’s not where God’s future is found. God’s future is found in the very opposite of that.

God’s future is found in the temporality, materiality, locality, specificity, of particular people in particular places. In other words, there is no big answer out there that big people bring, even at these conferences. There is a confused people, and in the midst of those confused people, is God’s Spirit and God’s future, waiting to emerge.

Therefore, being a leader is not having an answer. Being a leader is being one who is shaped and formed in practices of cultivating environments that call forth that people and that future. And the way in which that future gets cultivated and formed, is by re-entering the memory of the story. But, the gift of our moments is that we have a chance of re-entering that story from below, and outside, and no longer from dominion and power and control.

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9 Responses to “God-Forsaken Places”

  1. Whitney Says:

    I can’t read it for all the use of “God’s future.” I can’t get past the use of a human temporal term in relation to God. Is the author really referring to our future with God? God exists outside of time and space, so his “future” is the same as his past and present, no? So, the point of the article is what?

    Sorry, Al, I really don’t get it. (Mind you, I do get the whole local congregation stuff vice new and bigger-better, and think it is good someone stated that.) But I do not get the “God’s future” part. Is this explained in some better detail somewhere in this book you’re reading? Because right now all I can really get is that the author believes God to exist in human terms, which then diminishes the whole “God” thing.

    Can you help me out?

  2. urbino Says:

    I’m aware of that whole ‘God works in a mysterious way’ thing, but pulling a useful rabbit out of the church hat would just be showing off.

  3. alsturgeon Says:

    Whitney: This wasn’t from a book I’m reading. This was just posted on Wade’s blog as it appears here. His point and the “God’s Future” thing deals with goals/dreams/objectives… where God is going to accomplish whatever it is God wants to accomplish. His point is that we shouldn’t abandon churches because they don’t get it – to put words in his mouth, God uses surprising people and places to accomplish his goals (lots of good Bible scrips for that), and he’s simply stating that God will – SURPRISE! – use churches for his future goals.

    Urbino: Speaking of showing off, your statement is simply masterful.

    To my mixed feelings:

    * On the positive side, I’ve climbed on board the author’s overall point – I’ve grabbed my oar and set to work in the places to which he refers.

    * But on the negative side, I don’t know where he gets such confidence that God will use churches (as we know them) for good, just because they’re unlikely vessels. Sure, God uses unlikely people/places/things, but not just because they are unlikely. God seemed comfortable ditching the Pharisaic system.

  4. Whitney Says:

    Thanks.

  5. urbino Says:

    I think you’ve identified the problem with the argument, Al. It’s an infinite regress, like standing between 2 mirrors. Ultimately, and paradoxically, it fetches up at: God will use nobody and do nothing.

    As to my earlier comment, I shouldn’t say churches are useless. They function pretty well as garden-variety, self-interested communities, which is no small thing: they do a quite respectable job at looking after their own, instilling values in their young, keeping tabs on their old, solemnizing major events in their members’ lives, etc. Some of them even do a good job of trying to help people outside their own walls.

    It’s when churches convince themselves that they’re something other than a garden-variety, self-interested community — something larger than that, better than that, more important than that, and therefore due greater respect or deference than other self-interested communities — that they run off the rails and make trouble for everybody, both inside and outside their walls.

  6. Capt. Midknight Says:

    JU said:
    “It’s when churches convince themselves that they’re something other than a garden-variety, self-interested community — something larger than that, better than that, more important than that, and therefore due greater respect or deference than other self-interested communities — that they run off the rails and make trouble for everybody, both inside and outside their walls.”

    Are you referring to the fact that most “churches,” as opposed to secular “self interested communities” incorporate a belief in a life after this one and promote, or even in some case try to enforce, behavior they believe prepares or qualifies their member for such a life? Is this belief what “runs them off the rails?”
    BTW, I neglected to thank you for a comment a few post ago about the nature of the Catholic Church’s teaching. You explained that they believe that God’s grace is available only through the Church in the form of the sacraments – that any idea of individual access to God outside the established Church structure is rejected. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that explained any simpler or better. I had some fuzzy notions about it before, but now I think a may actually get it. I assume that is one of the major differences between them and most Protestant churches.

    My daughter married a fine young man from an Italian Catholic family, so understand more about the Catholic Church has become a little more personal in the last few years.

  7. urbino Says:

    Is this belief what “runs them off the rails?”

    Not exactly. Enforcing community standards is an essential part of any community. What I was referring to was churches’ belief that they’re plugged directly into Truth in some way, which makes them more important than everybody else, more right than everybody else (not just by a matter of degree, but categorically). Put differently, I might say churches’ problem is believing their own press.

    It makes the members arrogant and the institutions difficult (sometimes impossible) for society to reach any kind of accommodation with.

    A heaping dose of humility — of recognizing the reality that they’re really not much different from every other community — would do them a world of good.

    I assume that is one of the major differences between them and most Protestant churches.

    Yup. The key difference, in fact. That single shift individualized and privatized Protestant Christianity. Everything else follows from that. (Since you’re a history buff, you might find Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity an interesting take on the American ramifications of this shift.)

  8. Capt. Midknight Says:

    JU said:
    “What I was referring to was churches’ belief that they’re plugged directly into Truth in some way, which makes them more important than everybody else, more right than everybody else (not just by a matter of degree, but categorically). Put differently, I might say churches’ problem is believing their own press.”
    “A heaping dose of humility – of recognizing the reality that they’re really not much different from every other community – would do them a world of good.”

    That “heaping dose of humility” you mention could certainly benefit us all – individuals and organizations alike. No argument here. It’s difficult, though, for me to imagine a “church” that wasn’t based on some “Truth” which they believed was crucially important to the welfare of souls in this life and the next. Take the whole spectrum of “churches,” from Catholic through all the varieties of Protestant, and they all believe one or two basic “Truths.” From there, of course, they branch out in many directions, but it seems to me that the belief in some “Truth” – and the belief that it is important that their “Truth”be promulgated – is basic to being a “church.” Otherwise, they would just be a sort of “Jesus Club” alongside the Lions and Rotary.

    When it comes to “Truths” though, some obviously have more support in evidence than others, and some “churches” handle and promote their “Truths” more responsibly and lovingly and humanely than others. Whether they, in your opinion, feel and act more right “categorically” or not, the belief in a “Truth” and its direct relation to the fate of the souls of its members and others in a life beyond this one has to make them different “categorically” than other secular “self interested communities.” That, in fact, seems to have been Paul’s view of the “church” he was a part of in the early 1st century. As I understand it, Paul’s “church” was really just a term for the individual believers, either assembled in a certain location or in general, but he does make clear that the “church” as he understood it, and it’s beliefs, only made sense if it’s “Truth” pointed toward a life after this one (1 Cor 15:9).

    It sounds like you feel that the “problem churches” are the ones that actually believe what they are teaching. If they didn’t, what would be the point?

    BTW I’ll look for Hatch’s book. I imagine it deals with how the American experience with democracy carried over into it’s view of religion.

  9. urbino Says:

    It sounds like you feel that the “problem churches” are the ones that actually believe what they are teaching.

    Not quite, but sort of. There are several problems. There’s the gap between what churches teach and what Jesus’ taught. There’s the gap between what churches believe and what they do. And there’s the gap between what churches believe about themselves and the actual facts. My remarks referred to the last. Which is to say: the problem churches are the ones who believe they actually are what they believe the Church to be.

    You said:

    Otherwise, they would just be a sort of “Jesus Club” alongside the Lions and Rotary.

    Which is, in fact, what they are. (On their best days. The rest of the time they’re more of an “Us Club.”) Whatever the theological theory that churches believe about themselves may be, their behavior is that of a garden-variety, self-interested voluntary association. The theological theory, however, gives them an added level of self-righteous arrogance that often makes them difficult for anyone else to get along with or for society to accommodate.

    That’s what I was referring to when I said we’d all be better off if churches would recognize what they actually are — that is, what their behavior here and now makes them in the here and now, not what their theology says they are (or are supposed to be) on some grander scale of existence.

    Buddhists and Freemasons believe they have some Truth that people need to hear. Somehow they manage to live that out without being so . . . difficult.

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