City Church : A Reflection and Exploration

Not long ago a local pastor asked for my thoughts on the “city church” concept. I confess I have virtually no experience of such a phenomena! But his question got me thinking and seeking, and I’ve continued to mull it over in my mind.

My friend specifically referenced Watchman Nee, probably the “father” of the idea in the last century. I like some of Nee’s work, but his views are sometimes too authoritarian and too narrow. Nee, like all of us, wrote in a particular time and place and his views are constricted by his own context and training. As I read Nee’s work I felt he needed a broader Scriptural perspective, particularly the need to integrate a solid kingdom theology. Jesus, after all, did not come preaching the church, but rather “the kingdom of God.”

One contemporary author I read was Doug Perry at Fellowship of the Martyrs. Doug sent me an article which moves from the Trinity to the tripartite view of humanity, and from there to an ecclesiology. I’m uncomfortable with that progression. While the metaphor of body, soul and spirit is useful, the theological connection is too random for me, and difficult to anchor in Scripture. I believe that any theological thinking on “city church” is going to have to be anchored like ecclesiology.. in Christology or the doctrine of the Trinity.

It will also have to be anchored in covenant, which is a relational reality (where it is not relational it becomes contractual and oppressive). This means in turn a solid grounding in deep ecclesiology and solid kingdom theology. Maybe a study of Bonhoeffer, and the work of his contemporaries like Eberhard Arnold would help. (Interesting that it was Bonhoeffer whom Richard Foster selected as his example for the Holiness tradition in his history of spirituality titled Streams in the Desert).

I believe city church would be a very, very challenging process because of our tendencies to work in our own small vineyards and want them to be everything and all to us. Until we become truly missional we aren’t likely to be truly catholic. It won’t be easy to move beyond territorialism or denominationalism, two "isms" that like all ideologies are more convenient than biblical. But I also think we need to work toward this expression because it would help us recover a deep ecclesiology: an expression that is beyond “I am of Paul” and “I am of Apollos” and that honors the diversity of God's gifts. This in turn would help us witness to the faith which truly does break down walls and has “united us in one new man.”

Another challenge will be to embrace a sacramental imagination. In the west we have tended to two extremes: a mysticism divorced from a biblical materialism, or a materialism divorced from a biblical spirit. As a result we have emphasized the church as visible over invisible, or invisible and universal over local and visible. The distinctions have been too clean. We have to come to know that what is visible is often not church, and what is hidden (leaven) or small (mustard seed) or weak (foolishness) often is God's good and sacramental work. A sacramental perspective helps us leave room for mystery and gift. Again, a sound kingdom theology is needed: an awareness that the kingdom is both here and yet to come, a new reality is at work since the resurrection -- a new age has dawned, but will not yet fully arrive until we see Jesus. And the kingdom is not built by our efforts (that verb is NEVER used in relation to the kingdom of God in the New Testament).

This means -- are you ready for it? -- the willingness to recognize that even the church is fallen. We won’t reach perfection, in theology or in practice, until Jesus returns. Unless we keep this chastened perspective, we are likely to end up in a new triumphalism not unlike some of the restorationist movement. We'll have a lot of striving and a lot of burnout, and we'll be forever schizophrenic in trying to explain suffering and why healing is not universal. IN other words, we will have a theology of the Spirit but neglect a theology of the Cross.

The greatest challenge, experientially.. will be to rework our practice around leadership and authority. Otherwise, the city church idea will be oppressive rather than empowering and freeing. It’s fruit will be more religion and not a deep work of the Spirit. We'll think that we can organize it into being. More on this later.

Where do we start? Rodney Clapp in the closing chapter of “A Peculiar People” has some wisdom to offer. I’ll share his thoughts tomorrow.

Part II

The vision of a “city church” is enticing, and perhaps more now than ever. Denominational walls are falling. The existence of a cooperative multi-denominational seminary like the one I am attending in Langley indicates change and a new way of seeing the world. (The structure and governance have their own challenges and limitations, but that’s another story).

Aside from some kind of new bureaucracy, how would a city church come to exist? Let’s face it, it will never be a helpful or biblical expression if we have to start worrying about who is in control. Jesus had some good words for his disciples when they were asking who would sit at his right hand. Our recent preoccupation for leadership has been driven at least partly by such secular motives.

At this point I want to share a series of images. The images came to a brother by the name of Dave Bodine who was overseeing a prophetic network in Washington. Dave visited in my home in 2001, and while here we spent a short time praying together. As we prayed Dave saw a series of vignettes in the streets of Kelowna.

The first picture Dave saw was a bomb blast, like watching the black and white film of the first atomic test in Alamagordo, New Mexico in 1944. He saw houses and buildings flattened, and in particular he noticed the church buildings fall. Then he saw a gentle rain, and he saw the water rising in the streets of Kelowna, cleansing and renewing the city. Dave took these pictures to mean renewal and the breaking down of walls of division, walls that protect us from one another, from God, and from engaging in transforming ways in our communities.

So what would form the foundation of a broader local ekklesial expression? In my first post I referred to a covenant - a relational expression that has definite boundaries, commitments and responsibilities - yet it is not a contract. I referred to Clapp’s book “A Peculiar People” as offering some direction.

Clapp begins in a particular place. His work resonates with a distinct theme (not unlike the opening of 2001 A Space Odyssey). I’ll sum it up with two quotes, the first from Newbigin and the second from his work:

“It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community. He committed the entire work of salvation to that community. It was not that a community gathered round an idea, so that the idea was primary and the community secondary. It was that a community called together by the deliberate choice of the Lord Himself, and re-created in Him, gradually sought - and is seeking - to make explicit who He is and what He has done. The actual community is primary; the understanding of what it is comes second.” (The Household of God, 20.)

“Reclaiming Christianity as culture enables us to move from decontextualized propositions to traditioned, storied, inhabitable truths; from absolute certainty to humble confidence; from austere mathematical purity to the rich if less predictable world of relational trust; from control of the data to respect of the other in all its created variety; from individualist knowing to communal knowing and being known; and from once-for-all rational justification to the ongoing pilgrimage of testimony.” (Clapp, 186)

Chapter 12 offers his own take on where we must start. In his words: we begin where we are. Clapp means this in more than the general sense. He means, we can only begin where we are, in our particular soil, in the network of relationships which exist. There will be no “one size fits all” programmatic way forward. It won’t be easy, simple, or quick, or even painless. It won’t be broadly understood or accepted. We are not acultural, we probably don’t have all the skills we need, and we are not particularly adept at change.

On the plus side, beginning where we are means that we understand that the Holy Spirit has set us in this place, and that He is an endless resource of wisdom, power, and love. We already know some things about His desire for us and His broader purposes. We know these things because we are where we are and who we are: His redeemed friends, set in this time and in this place. However imperfectly, we are His people, seeking to live out the truth here today.

Clapp argues that Christianity is neither a philosophy nor a worldview, but a culture. But if “the way” is about a particular shared way of life, then the obstacles we face in moving toward a particular expression are also particular and cultural. Our contexts in the west are vibrant with a distinct ethos: a particular political and economic way of seeing and being. We come with our own histories, and experiences. We come with our theologies and perspectives, our hopes and our fears. Worldviews are insinuating, often transparent, always pervasive. In biblical terms worldviews represent not just neutral ideas, but also principalities and powers - vast and captivating. Clapp maintains that there are four components to the pervading western ethos that he describes as mass-techno-liberal-capitalism.

It is mass in that it is build and operated on a large, highly centralizes basis. This includes communications media, transportation, financial and energy systems.

It is techno in that it is technologically complicated and intensive. Our entire society is dependent on technology for communication, transportation, energy etc. More than this, our tools act back on us to shape ethos (intensely examined in the work of Jacques Ellul). Our culture is shaped by professionalization and mechanization, and in particular by marketing communications.

The predominant system is liberal in the classical sense: it focuses not on collective interests but on the individual, interpreted as maximizer of self-interest. Whatever good or goal one lives for is assumed to be private rather than public.

Finally, the economic system is capitalistic. Capitalism is intended to regulate the activities of self-interested, liberal individuals by placing them in competition in a free market. Today markets themselves are massive, technology driven and centralized. The most salient characteristic of this system is its pervasiveness; therefore its values are also pervasive. The implication: “Professionalized, specialized, federalized and capitalized, the modern world system simply cannot register the wisdom inherent in any indigenous culture.”

What does all this have to do with a broader local ekklesial expression, “city church?” How does our very secular and post-Christendom context contribute to a rethinking of post-denominational expression? I’m out of time, so that will have wait for a third post…

Go to Part II

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• © 2005-2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in September, 2007