On Easter weekend, 1999, film lovers first encountered The Matrix. The stop-action photography, the bleak dual- world, post-apocalyptic future, the martial arts moves all combined to produce a huge hit. But it wasn’t just what was happening on the visual surface that captivated audiences, it was the complexity of the movie and the interweave of multiple levels of metaphor and story that invited us in. Larry Wachowski told Time, “We wrote the story for ourselves.. Every studio we showed it to thought no one would understand it.”
I’ve had a number of conversations in recent weeks around complexity and the need to reach for simplicity. The focus has ranged from governance structures to the Trinity. In general the feeling among pastors is this: “let’s get on with the work, and spend less time discussing details. Do we have to get bogged down in complexity when the gospel is so simple?” Like the Hollywood moguls, we have convinced ourselves that in this complex, multi-layered world everyone wants.. and needs.. simplicity.
The question has also cropped up in relation to teaching in the gatherings. The general feeling is “keep it simple” .. we have short attention spans in the blogging/ MySpace/ Twitter age. Besides, there isn’t much theological sophistication out there and we have immediate and practical concerns (see “get on with the work” above).
If this question actually comes from a theological frame then it might be framed in terms of narrative theology versus propositional. So, most of the Bible, and half of the New Testament, is just stories. So let’s not get overly theological, overly complex.
I can fairly say I am sympathetic to all this. I’m well along in years of study of the gospel and culture, leadership and spirituality, yet I am still learning. So I know there is no “arriving” in this sense. And all the study has had limited impact on my own life. The greater impact has come through friendship and love. I recognize the need for moving slowly and being sensitive to the capacities of our community members, and for integration of the pastoral and apostolic tasks. I embrace the wisdom of James Houston in this:
“When we are looking for help from the right kind of people, teachers are not enough. We forget that the nurturing and caring relationship is inherent in effective teaching. Wisdom, after all, is more than data processing. Activism that is devoted to a cause can also be a poor substitute for relationships, because it is too busy to cultivate friendship. The Greek philosophers were wiser when they stated that “thought is not meaningful without action; and action is not meaningful without friendship.” James Houston, The Mentored Life
Yet to divorce friendship and love from the dimensions of truth and practice and a community gathered around the word would also be an error. We are to love God with all that we are: mind, body and spirit. Truth has relational, covenantal and propositional components. To leave any of these out is to distort God’s intention for us (the ecclesiology of Acts 2).
But I wonder if the greatest factors in are not twofold: fragmentation, and information overload – both related to the pace at which we live. Fragmentation results from our pursuing multiple goods in multiple communities, not really sure where we belong (to whom?) and to what we are called. Few of us have a “community of virtue” to which we can point and say, “this is my people” and “there is the gospel enfleshed.” So we live with this lack of focus and clarity, and with weak or unexpressed covenants. That in turn promotes endless debate about what we believe and how we should live.
So we have debate and opposing solutions. And in those debates one thing we do not lack is information. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone can reference some experience or expert or body of knowledge to make their argument as to what we should believe, how we should hold those beliefs, and their implications for practice. Frankly, it is all overwhelming. The “solution” advanced is to simplify.
The push for simplicity is then amplified by cultural forces that push us away from the hard work of wrestling through issues together. The fragmentation of our faith culture is overwhelming. What confidence can we have that there is some rallying point more than “just Jesus?” And the constraints on our time and energy are already overwhelming. So we prefer the sound-byte. He with the best-sound byte (and perhaps the most charisma) wins. (And this really raises a much larger issue: if authority is no longer related to a text and an interpretive community then how is it anchored? Some communities revert to charisma, a very dangerous place to end up)..
Our context is that we are shaped to prefer the sound-byte by our western media: the sound-and video-bytes of interpretive news on CNN; the text-bytes on our cell phones; the limitations of Twitter; not least of all the intense need we have to solve problems and move on. However much we decry it, we all want the quick fix. We damage the texture of our relationships and the texture of the gospel when we resort to the quick fix. (Paul Virilio – “the dominant form violence takes in modernity is speed.” And Noam Chomsky offers a revealing perspective in this YouTube short on “concision“).
Look, I’m not unique or uncompromised in this. One of the complaints I have heard too often from my wife over the years is this: “you like short cuts.” I have paid the price for taking short cuts numerous times, most often in my building projects. I have learned the hard way that a short cut taken today saves time – but in two years it will come back to bite me.
Jesus, the Kingdom Project and APEST
But maybe there is something in this intuitive call for simplicity. Maybe the pieces we are missing have already been given to us, just neglected and forgotten. The implications of missing pieces are spelled out by NT Wright in his most recent book, Justification. He offers that when the puzzle has too many pieces and we are overwhelmed by complexity our tendency is to put half the pieces back in the box. But this actually only compounds the problem.
And in part, this explains the cultural captivity of the church in modernity. We became pragmatists. Lacking a framework for understanding the interaction of the gospel and culture, we embraced what worked, measured success itself by secular standards, and did not know that we sacrificed theological integrity and biblical faithfulness. We lost the ability to engage our culture, because the complexity required to remain biblically faithful while engaging culture is substantial.
All this begs the question: What are the pieces we are missing? If we could recover memory and faithful forming practices, what would we look like?
The answers are there in our collective memories as the people of God. We need to recover ancient practices, and we need to recover biblical functions.
In the New Testament Paul likens the ecclesial project to a great building composed of living stones, with the apostles and prophets forming the foundation.
Talk to any builder about the most important part of the project and they will immediately identify the foundations. Get the foundation right, and everything else will flow smoothly. Build something weak, or out of square, and oh my goodness – you will have a night mare. The good builder knows the use of a level and a plumb-line. There are places a builder can compromise without damaging the integrity of a structure – that place is not the foundation.
Prophets and apostles lay foundations. These are men and women who know how to use a level and a plumb-line. Prophets and apostles are also two of the most marginalized (read: missing) gift mixes in the church in modernity. Is it any wonder that the foundations are crumbling?
“Our problem today: the space for imagination to expand and take shape is inversely proportional to the speed at which we live. Driven hard and fast, we lack the time to allow alternate worlds and possibilities to form, careening past small turnings and exits, bound to follow the obvious straight paths of the present arrangement. Yet if we stop and wait, and close our eyes to the ‘buy now, take me now’ images, we will begin to remember, new worlds will form and new exits will become apparent. Before change.. comes waiting..” (Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination, 56-57)
If we slow down, refuse to embrace the quick fix, perhaps, “We will begin to remember..” To re-member.. to reconnect life to life, to reconnect to our roots and the days when we existed as a movement more than an institution. It’s that dynamic, or the apostolic genius (Hirsch) that we need to recover.
APEST is the acronym for the five leadership types. Eph.4 must remain a crucial text for reformatting missional communities, and I find myself increasingly wondering about ASP, or even AP (no, not “armor-piercing” tho hmm. that’s not a bad analogy). Missional orders like TOM nest two crucial leadership types in their organization: apostle and shepherd (maybe it’s time to use this good biblical word since our “pastor” labels are catch-alls that have become nearly meaningless but generally denote an office in a hierarchy and not a gift).
So, let’s call this S-A (or affirm A-S-P: apostle-shepherd-prophet). This leadership plurality, even where it may retain some elements of hierarchy, it is a vast improvement over sola pastora and it incorporates a rhythm in ecclesial structures. The most fundamental ecclesial rhythm, and absolutely necessary to the health of the body, is the inward and outward movement. Inward.. for cleansing and nurture.. outward.. to do the work of mission. The Holy Spirit empowers both movements, and a weakness in either is a weakness in the whole. I believe that where we can empower this movement at the center of ecclesial life we will empower a similar rhythm at a variety of levels: that is, we will have less difficulty empowering the diversity of gifts and building healthy missional communities.
In modernity and under the aegis of Christendom we did marginalize apostles and prophets, those innovative and questioning people. The adaptive challenges we face necessitate our rediscovery and empowerment of these critical gifts. Often poetic types, especially the prophetic ones, in combination they will give us the Situational Awareness (S-A) we need in a rapidly changing context, that in turn will root engagement. Community will root mission (love is attractive) and mission will generate new communities. And all this must be rooted in disciplines in order to be sustainable.
But more than merely sustainable, we want fruitfulness, and this only grows out of a living relationship with Christ and the sending Spirit. Missional communities will thrive around a shared rule: prayer, study, hospitality.. disciplines that help us maintain a life free for the kingdom.
â€¢ Disciplines of prayer and contemplation
â€¢ Disciplines of celebration and recreation
â€¢ Disciplines of learning and study
â€¢ Practice of hospitality and sharing resources
â€¢ Practice of mission, usually engaging the poor
â€¢ Pursuit of justice and peace, earthkeeping
The question of authority in missional orders always comes up. After all, the most basic structure of vows, as in the Benedictines, involves conversion, stability and obedience. Do we always need an Abbot, or can ASP work? Can we truly be a leadership community?
I suspect that the synergistic energy is possible where there is mutuality and maturity. This may be less common for young communities, or for established communities that have worked in a traditional frame (sola pastora or hierarchy in general generates passivity). An order that exists as a dispersed missional order can be very functional with mutual submission rooted in triads. And the Abbot type is not meant to be a director or dictator so much as a spiritual guide.
Leadership Under a Changing Sky
Within the five traditional types there are certain combinations that appear new, uniquely suited to times requiring innovation and adaptation: the poet, the synergist, and the boundary-crosser. These types are primarily a blend of prophetic and apostolic, though the boundary-crosser may add a strong element of pastor and evangelist. Let’s consider these new types.
The poet is especially oriented to helping us recover missional imagination. The synergist is like an abbot figure. The boundary crosser is a prophetic networker with pastor-at-large overtones. Alan Roxburgh describes the poet and the synergist in The Sky is Falling.
The poet, like Adam, helps us make sense of our experience. The word in the prologue of John tells how Jesus “became flesh and lived among us.” (166) In a similar way, the poet shapes words so that what was hidden and invisible becomes known. Poets remove the veil and give language to what people are experiencing. This is only possible when the poet him/herself lives within the traditions and narratives of the people – “living reflexively in the traditions.” The poet listens to the rhythms and meanings occurring beneath the surface.” But the poet also has a prophetic bent: “poets immerse themselves in the multiple stories running beneath the surface of the culture.. feel the power of these stories and critique their claims and pretensions on the basis of the memory and tradition of the community.”
The leadership of poets, however, is not expressed in a modern manner. Poets “are not so much advice-givers as image and metaphor framers. What churches need are not more entrepreneurial leaders with wonderful plans for their congregation’s life, but poets with the imagination and gifting to cultivate environments within which people might again understand how their traditional narratives apply to them today.”
Finally, Roxburgh notes that, “poets make available a future that does not exist as yet; they are eschatologically oriented. From this environment, a missional imagination emerges.” (167)
Without missional imagination, faith communities become stuck moving in circles. The purpose of formation, however, is to enable us to widen our embrace, to move outward and make known the grace of God to all creation. The congregation that exhibits the fullness of Christ inevitably proclaims and performs the gospel, both declares and demonstrates. In the new world that is dawning, we will need gardeners of all types.. and we will need poets, pastors, apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers who are embedded in the community, empowering all God’s people to do the work of ministry. If these leadership functions are often transparent or invisible, like yeast hidden in dough, powerfully influencing change by birthing a new world, all the better.
The synergist is an old role we need again, both to counter the fragmentation of modernity and to help us bridge the complexity we face at every level. Roxburgh writes, “Leadership groups must develop and work together across tribal lines as communities. To describe what this means we need to look at the final leadership category [Lawrence] Miller develops – the synergist – and use this descriptor for the recovery of an ancient leadership role – the Abbot/Abbess- a leader with the capacity to unify diverse and divergent leadership styles around a common sense of missional vision for a specific community.” (155)
Back to the Future (Again)
If we are honest, I think most of us would take the blue pill.
Every week I meet another believer who has exited the church-on-the-corner vowing not to return. The reasons, as Alan Jamieson demonstrated in his study, vary widely. But those leaving are rarely naive; in fact, thoughtful and reflective types seem to dominate the leavers.
Could it be that in our push for simplicity we have simply demonstrated that we are out of touch with reality? Could it be that we intuitively sense that the answers are more complex than we make them out to be? While we all acknowledge the limits of human ability to grasp the truth, we seem overtly aware that easy answers and quick fixes have not provided solutions or moved us forward as God’s faithful community in this world, a sign, servant and foretaste of the kingdom.
The pressure for simplicity and for action that drives leaders to pragmatism and quick fixes is no easier to avoid during times of crisis. But the voices we marginalized when we compromised the gospel for what appeared to work are the voices that are now pushing us back to the text, at the same time digging in cultural texts, stripping away the accretions of pragmatism, trying to reconnect the dots, to re-member who we are, and to look beyond the simplicity that has become unsatisfying and unconvincing.
“I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Ro. 12:1,2