The following is an excerpt from “An Emerging Dictionary for the Gospel and Culture” (Wipf & Stock, Resource Publications, 2010).
In Inhabiting the Church, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove relates a story from John Alexander, for many years the pastor of the Church of the Sojourners in Washington, DC.
Suppose a white person went to Arizona for a weekend and came back saying he’d become an Apache. He still talked the same, he still lived in the same place, he still related to nature the same way, he still talked to everyone he saw, and he didn’t spend much time with Apaches. The only change you could see was that he wore buckskin Sunday mornings and went around telling people he’d become an Apache. What would you think? I’d think it was odd. I’d suspect he hadn’t joined the Apache tribe in any meaningful sense.
We don’t usually think of conversion as joining a tribe. Jonathan notes that there is little evidence that American Christians actually believe that the gospel offers us a new culture — a new identity in the multi-cultural sea.
The point is that culture is not learned or adopted in a weekend. It takes commitment to a people and a place — it takes time, focus, and life energy to become a Christ follower. Saint Benedict realized this, and it was part of his genius. Saint Benedict created a rhythm or rule of life around three vows: stability, conversion, and obedience. And then he created an apprenticeship called a novitiate. He understood that people could not simply decide to follow his rule. They would have to practice living it with others before they could understand what they were really choosing. They would have to indwell something larger than themselves, and learn new habits.
The three vows—conversion, stability, and obedience — are both anachronistic and appealing. They respond to the greatest solvents of our faith – the solvent of individualism is addressed by obedience and conversion, the solvent of formalism and Gnosticism is addressed by conversion and stability, and the solvent of fragmentation is addressed by stability and obedience. Saint Benedict’s influence is everywhere, however transparent, and the meaning of discipleship, especially in terms of concrete practices, is explored by a variety of tribes throughout the emergent and missional cultures.
There is a little more to the actual entry in my book of 2010, but I wanted to follow up with further thoughts on conversion. In the church of the last generation in the West, we made conversion into a point-action rather than a process, a decision rather than a journey. In that simple move (undergirded by a host of complex and interwoven forces) we nearly destroyed the viability of discipleship.
Conversion means a continual turning, an always beginning-again, an always changing. Ouch. Did you catch that last one? Are we always willing to let go, move on, leave familiar territory, change? Sadly, most churches are defined by their unwillingness to change. When a friend in the UK sent me their vision statement last month, I was stunned to see that one of the five points was “CHANGE.” Stunning. Counter-cultural. Gospel true.
Of course, we make the conversion process, this always beginning-again pilgrimage, nearly impossible as soon as we extract people from the field of life into the monotonous and predictable shelter of barn life (church). When I ran across this post by the big “B” today, I had to agree with Brian, we still have much to learn from our indigenous friends. Brian quotes Leanne Simpson from Common Dreams:
“Extraction and assimilation go together. Colonialism and capitalism are based on extracting and assimilating. My land is seen as a resource. My relatives in the plant and animal worlds are seen as resources. My culture and knowledge is a resource. My body is a resource and my children are a resource because they are the potential to grow, maintain, and uphold the extraction-assimilation system. The act of extraction removes all of the relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually, extracting is stealing — it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment. That’s always been a part of colonialism and conquest. Colonialism has always extracted the indigenous — extraction of indigenous knowledge, indigenous women, indigenous peoples.”
So, yes, we have extracted and assimilated all kinds of people into evangelicalism, or into our own little kingdom monopoly. But the correlate of that assimilation has not been kingdom growth: it has been something else — making clones, creating people in our image rather than in God’s image. His image, spun out in world complexity, is endlessly diverse and creative. The victory of Christ on the cross reconciles us “in one body” to God. The ultimate symbol, and practice, of that reconciliation is the Eucharist. As Philip Sheldrake points out, reconciliation does not homogenize people or environments, “but creates space for the diversity of human voices to participate… a space of reconciliation invites all who inhabit it to make space for ‘the other.’” Spaces for the Sacred, 2001. 168.
The question before God’s people is not “will we be or not be a community?” but rather, “what kind of community will we be?”
Related, Dan White Jr reflects on community.