Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Copying from the Master

I wrote a few days ago about the DNA of the church. If the church is the 'body of Christ' as the Bible says then it might be worth thinking about the DNA of that body, with the idea that each part should have the same basic instruction code which governs how it functions. Neil Cole, in his book 'Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens', describes this code using a neat little acronym:

Divine truth
Nurturing relationships
Apostolic mission

So what about some practical implications of this DNA idea? Well, the point about DNA is that it gives every cell a set of instructions to follow. Likewise with the church, the body of Christ; we have a core set of instructions and all is well if we follow them. But we can easily lose sight of the instructions and just end up copying how those immediately before us did things – as Neil Cole says:
[A] photocopy of a previous copy loses some definition in the image. Another generation of photocopying becomes even more corrupted. Every succeeding generation of photocopying passes on the flaws of all the previous generations. Eventually, the image is indistinguishable, and the original meaning is lost.
A common argument against doing church in a simple, organic way is that all sorts of chaos can result from the lack of top-down control or oversight. Cole again:
Loose expansion without controls may seem to lack substance and quality, making every succeeding generation worse, but this is true only if we copy each other. The solution to multiple photocopies is to copy from the master rather than other copies. So too, we must copy directly from our Master.
You can think of this in terms of churches, so each church finds its own way of carrying out the apostolic mission of bringing the good news of Christ, within the context of nurturing relationships and divine truth. A church shouldn't just do things the way its parent church or its denomination does things.

We can also apply the idea to individual people, Neil Cole believes. If you're a Christian, think back to when you first committed yourself to Christ or got involved in a church. Did you get told something like this?
You are just a baby. You're vulnerable and weak, and there's so much you don't know yet. There is a mean and wicked enemy who wants to destroy you. You need some good teaching and help, so don't worry about anything but learning right now. Go to church, make friends with Christians, and after you've grown we'll talk about getting baptized and serving. For now, just soak up as much as you can.
What this produces, Cole says, is 'helpless consumers, stuck in their nests' who have their 'mouths wide open every Sunday waiting to be fed'. We teach new believers to be reliant on other people (like pastors and youth leaders), not on the Master, Jesus Christ.

I wrote roughly a year ago about how I strongly believe that 'our rhythms of church can (unintentionally) encourage us to let our spiritual life drift between meetings'. Well, the over-protection of new Christians is just another facet of this; the way we do church in the western worlds seems, much of the time, to produce immature Christians who struggle to sustain their own walk with Jesus.

Maybe we could learn from the Mormons. Many Mormons spend a year or more on mission (often abroad), with young men being strongly encouraged to serve in this way. According to the Wikipedia article, roughly 30% of all 19-year-old Mormon men went on mission with the figure rising to 80-90% if the family is active in the church (figures from 2007). Neil Cole's thoughts on this are very interesting:
Perhaps the best reason for sending young people on a yearlong, door-knocking mission is less about making more Mormons than it is about making better ones. Facing the onslaught of questions, challenges, and debates, these young Mormons solidify their commitment – on the frontline with bullets flying overhead. The internal commitment made in this highly impressionable year sticks with them for the rest of their lives.
Cole's conclusion is that we are 'guilty of protecting new believers from depending on God'. If new Christians get actively involved in the work of the Kingdom right away, then 'we would see how quickly they are forced to pray, trust in God, listen to the Holy Spirit, and find answers'. I wonder what difference this might make in the lives of new Jesus-followers, binding them closely to the Master, the Head of the body, and teaching them to be reliant on Him – not on other people.

So if you're friends with any new Christians, how about urging them to get stuck in with telling their loved ones about Jesus, praying for people, and all that good stuff of the Kingdom. Don't shelter them until they've 'learnt the basics' and 'found their feet in the church'. What do you think?

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