BorderlandBorderland Churches
Author: Gary Nelson
Publisher: Chalice Press, 2008
166 Pages

In seven chapters and seven appendices Gary Nelson offers a Canadian take on what it means to live in the borderlands. Or, more precisely, he challenges us to embrace the borderlands where we live. These really are two different things, because like our American brothers to the south, we have largely failed to live in the communities where we dwell. The borderlands are a place where faith and unfaith intersect, and a place decidedly outside the comfort zone of Christendom structures.

Gary is the General Secretary for Canadian Baptist Ministries. He brings a wealth of experience to this task, and the book straddles an academic and practical line with ease. While Gary works at a theological task, his emphasis is on practice and to that end he stories this journey very well. Moreover, he is passionate about his purpose, and the stories he tells help us to envision a new kind of church and a new level of engagement in our communities in Canada.

The book is comprised of seven chapters, as follows:

1. Learning to Sing the Song
2. Crossing Over
3. Recovering our Roots
4. Landscapes and Tool Kits
5. Herding Cats
6. Missioning the Church
7. Mapping the Journey

The generous number of appendices are indicators that Gary hopes this book will become something of a handbook, enabling existing congregations to engage and embed in their neighborhoods.

This first post will really only be an introduction. To that end I want to share a personal impression, gained after completing the book and then exchanging a couple of emails with this brother.

I have opportunity to meet Canadian church leaders from time to time. I have met leaders who are tired and coasting; I have met leaders who are cynical. The older a leader, the more likely he has something to protect. And as Gary makes abundantly clear in Borderland Churches, being on mission is never a safe task.

What strikes me about many senior Canadian leaders is that they are not willing to play it safe. I find that deeply encouraging. And even more than that.. inspiring. Because I want to be a person who is unafraid to risk. My wife and I have not placed our own needs first as we have lived this journey; but if we felt we were alone in this choice, it would be far more difficult. For that reason I am grateful to those who are sold out – they inspire and challenge me to stay the course. In these times when many churches and many leaders are service providers, but not stake-holders, tourists but not pilgrims and sojourners, we need those who truly show us Jesus – surrendered to the will of the Father, living for the vision of a city they have not seen and praying “Your kingdom come.. on earth as it is in heaven..”
The Book

On pages one to ten Gary offers an introduction. He sets his work clearly in the Canadian context, and then offers some reflections on the task at hand.  Gary begins by noting the paradox that in Canada spiritual interest is growing at the same time as churches are dwindling. The tension this induces for religious leaders causes many to look for the “magic key,” a key which does not exist. But the hope and desire for that key has led us on a journey — from seminar to seminar, and book to book, and in particular attempting to import American models which were touted as the path to success or “the next great thing.” We often failed to do the needed work — theological and cultural-exegetical — or to engage in a listening posture in the places we live because we hoped we could simply adopt a working model from somewhere else. And now.. we are reaping what we sowed.

At the same time, however, many churches and leaders have seen the writing on the wall. At one level or another there is a growing response to the movement of the Spirit, calling us to engage in the borderlands instead of remaining safely encamped around the boundaries. This brings us to the first challenge (p 9): “It will be impossible to lead others to places of effective missionary engagement if we, as leaders, are uncomfortable in the borderlands. Borderland living for the church requires catalyst leaders who are more than pastoral caregivers or great visionaries. They live what they teach… merely developing authority [and then] telling others what they should do will not be enough to mobilize.” Gary offers some examples, and then we move into chapter 1: “Learning to Sing the Song.” Psalm 137 is the paradigm.

The movement Gary is describing is also documented by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay in The Tangible Kingdom. On pages 103-110 they draw the structural diagram of a typical business model for the last century.. leaders on top, and those implementing the vision and following the commands from above in the wide body below – a triangle. But the missional paradigm requires that we turn the triangle on its side.. with leaders out front learning and risking, and the entire body mobilized in their neighborhoods, work places, and tribes.

“We aren’t in Kansas anymore.” Ripped out of the familiar world, Israel had to learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign place. Out of a deep sense of dislocation, the faithful of Israel must seek the face of the Lord. The temptation is to dwell in the past, in the “glory days” when there were predictable rhythms, adequate funds, respect in the wider community. When we lose these things we feel frustrated, often angry, sometimes desperate. Instead of pulling together and looking to the future we fight with each other about what change means and how to recover a sense of stability.

Gary quotes John Kotter of the Harvard School of Business: the greatest hindrance to needed change is lack of a sense of urgency (18). Kotter studied organizations which were struggling and found that complacency was entrenched. No one was asking if there was a better way. In fact, to his surprise, measurements of effectiveness were often adjusted to meet the downward spiral. Negative feedback was often ignored and the status quo was celebrated.

The most important element for healthy change in any organization is a sense of urgency.A deep and unsettling questioning of reality always precedes congregational renewal. Yet the paradox is that leaders ultimately only have control over themselves. So our greatest task is to engage in mission, question our familiar frameworks, and be transformed. As Margaret Wheatley writes,

Whenever we’re trying to change a deeply structured belief system, everything in life is called into question-our relationships with loved ones, children, and colleagues; our relationships with authority and major institutions. One group of senior leaders, reflecting on the changes they’ve gone through, commented that the higher you are in the organization, the more change is required of you personally. Those who have led their organizations into new ways of organizing often say that the most important change was what occurred in themselves. Nothing would have changed in their organizations if they hadn’t changed.. “  Margaret Wheatley in “Goodbye Command and Control,” in Leader to Leader, 1997.

I appreciated that Gary closes this chapter with a challenge to theological reflection as well as courage to resist the calls to “go back to Egypt.” We want the story to be about us.. our comfort, our welfare. But this isn’t the story that God is writing — it is much, much larger. A consumer focused ministry is not about the Gospel, but about a distorted western reading shaped by the Enlightenment and a market culture. Gary quotes Eddie Gibbs in Leadership Next, and then we move to chapter two..

Part II

2 Comments on Borderland Churches

  1. brad says:

    Thanks for this post Len, I just order a copy.

  2. […] To walk through the first chapter, go HERE. […]