Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ – Truth In Labeling

http://www.jorieken.nl/Marypages/JesusPrayer.jpgSo my friend Frank Viola writes this blog post titled ‘My Problem With Mental Filters,’ and before you know it I’ve written nearly a 1,000-word response before I find out the comments are closed. Alas. Fortunately (thanks to Firefox) my comment was not lost in comment-abyss, so now it’s transmorgifyin’ before thine very eyes into its very own blog-post-a-looza!

You should probably read Frank’s original post first. The upshot: “Mental Filters. They are frustrating. We all have them. Yet we’re unconscious of them.  It makes communication between Christians about spiritual things almost impossible.” Then Frank goes into how little folks understand him when he describes the kinds of ‘organic church’ gatherings that he helps cultivate & experience. So here’s my reply…

Quite true – we all have filters, and they can either help or hinder communication. In fact, I think a wise man once wrote an article called ‘Rethinking Our Theological Conversation Styles.’

That said, did Paul (a comment-er, not the Apostle raised up in some kinda seance or something – what, you think Frank has illicit consultation with dead?? Are you crazy??) really miss the point when he suggests that you, too, have filters? Sure, he pastors what looks like a big church & you’re advocating something quite different which you feel is better…but isn’t that the (your) point? Surely you’re not claiming to have ‘un-filtered’ yourself. Though I suppose you might be claiming, by grace & revelation, to be able to at least temporarily transcend human filtration when lifted into the glorious atmosphere of heaven-come-to-earth that is an organic church gathering.

If so, I’m with Joshua Tucker – please, blog (or podcast) what ‘sharing Christ’ might mean devoid of cliches. Now I know you blogging isn’t going to compare to a live, collective experience of the depths and riches of Christ coming out of many people’s mouths – you’re just the blog-meister here and that’s going to be inherently limited. But it might create, as you say, the hunger to move forward into a real, live experience. Otherwise these allusions without example are just gonna get caught in our filters!

This probably wont’ surprise you, but I take slight issue with something you framed at the beginning of this post. You said that when you tell someone about “the glorious, every member, open participatory, Christ-centered meeting that is under the headship of Jesus by the Holy Spirit,” that people think you’re talking about “…a Quaker meeting…a Plymouth Brethren styled gathering…[or]…old-school charismatic “body ministry” meetings in a home…But none of those kinds of meetings are anything like what I’m speaking about. None can compare…”

Do you think that anything like might be hyperbole? I’ve participated in some of these off-this-planet gatherings you speak of, and I’d say they’re something like the best of Quaker or charismatic body ministry meetings (I’ve been in both of these too) – though I’d probably agree with you that they’re nothing like, say, a megachurch service. :) But let’s give credit where credit is due: Don’t you think that Quakers, or the Brethren, or any number of other such reforming/purifying groups had ideals – and even experiences – like what you’re describing, at the very least in their early days? I don’t think you intend it, but what you’re saying could sound like “Never since the first century has such tangible Christ-centered glory be seen, but now we’re recovering it in our day…” http://www.temple.edu/history/UZ/urwin/images/QuakerMeeting_002.jpg

I think the attempt has been made before. And sometimes, successfully.

With that said (sheesh, I didn’t mean to write a feature-length response to your blog! Just goes to show how provocative you are, Frankie), I’m wondering if the “All riches of Christ, all the time” paradigm is sustainable. I don’t wonder this because it seems theoretically unsustainable, but because it’s been un-sustainable in my church’s direct experience. As you know, I was part of a fellowship for many years that had precisely this goal – “all Jesus, all the time.” If you dared bring up theological questions, your aunt Matilda, personal experiences with God, and the like, you were seen as interrupting the very rich flow of the infinite treasures of the Father’s eternal purpose revealed in the Son before time & space.

With a teeny bit of hindsight, I can see two main difficulties with such an approach:

1.) I don’t think we can run with all pistons firing, all the time. Our ‘car’ will flood. Even Paul’s magnificent letters come down to earth and address real people with real problems and a diversity of experiences. Now I totally agree with you, so much of the Church today focuses exclusively on the pieces of the New Testament that focus on behavior and ignore the evocative poetry of a cosmos existing by, through, and within God’s loving embrace via Christ – it’s a real shame. But the minority movements that attempt to correct this by completely inverting the focus do a disservice to the Body. Because…

2.) Not only is it impossible to always be in ‘self-less proclamation mode’ about the glories of Christ, it isn’t actually Christ-like. That is to say, it isn’t particularly loving to encourage members to squelch their spiritual questions or practical needs, nor does it do justice to Christ’s Incarnation, Emmanuel: God. With us. Perhaps Christianity today on a whole is narcissistically focused on the “With us” part of the equation, turning the Gospel into self-help. But attempting to focus on “God” to the exclusion of “With us” does violence to the revelation Jesus brings – that God’s Kingdom has come very, very near, and no detail of our lives is left out.

Please don’t misunderstand me, dear readers-other-than-Frank: Frank has something on his heart that really is substantially different than what many of you have experienced. By all means, you should get a copy of From Eternity to Here in a couple of weeks – it unveils a panoramic portrait of this uber-rich big-picture heartbeat of God that animates Frank’s life & vocation. I’ve spent the last decade of my life pursuing a collective pursuit of God with friends of God meeting in living rooms across the country, because we’ve been captured by just this vision. And it’s real – it’s not a sham. But! Precisely because of my similar passion, I want truth-in-labeling. I’m wary of this vision being over-sold and under-delivered. The next expression of church I end up in will probably be a good deal more…modest, and will emphasize her continuities with the rest of the beautiful, messed-up Christian family more than her discontinuities.

Okay, I’ve said enough here. Overcoming filters, experiencing more of our birthright in Christ – great conversation-starter, Frank!

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23 Responses to “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ – Truth In Labeling”


  1. 1 jason February 21, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Granted I’ve never lived in a church officially recognized by some of these workers (sounds like a filter to me) so I can’t say that I know both sides b/c someone will always think, “no you don’t.” However, I’ve sat in their meetings all around the western hemisphere. I’ve been in meetings where a group of 10 sold out, praying, fasting, and Guyon-reading holy fools muttered the mysteries of Christ. You know what? It is so close (if not the same thing) as prophecy that once I experienced it I said, “Wow this is inspired speaking. It’s simple from Him and about Him”. It changed my life. My experience of this reframed my heart and redefined the center of all ecstatic experience. However, this was in combination with the Father’s Blessing/Love, the ministry of John G Lake, and prophetic immersion with a real deal prophet. I found and continue to find the depths of Christ in all of this.

    What Frank praises is an ideal that I’ve never seen sustained for any length of time (Mike you do a wonderful job talking about that so I’m done on this point). It’s an ideal that within “organic church” many talk about like Charismatics talk about the Jesus Movement, Toronto, Lakeland, or Azusa. My point? It’s all sales pitch, with little delivery. Of course if the heights of our meetings never match those fabled years elsewhere, we must be too institutionalized to touch the Lord. And if we want to minister to each other (HUGE in Paul’s world) we are missing the riches of Christ.

    The greater problem here is that this type of thinking is dismissive to other Christians. Where there is still room for debate and pondering on concepts like what Mike and I have been rolling over elsewhere on this blog; it is supremely dangerous to dismiss every other christian experience in light of your thing. It’s as equally as destructive as those of us tongue talkers who know and enjoy the pleasures of uttering mysteries with our spirits (admit it Mike it can be quite lovely) who dismiss those in the body as “not real christians” b/c they don’t join in.

    I dislike anything that paints zealous believers as second-rate.

    The human mind, separate from the unction of the Spirit, functions on schemas and filters. It’s how we learn. We decode and re encode into preexisting models.

    I feel like what so much ‘church life’ thinking lacks is in fact GOD. It neglects God’s knowledge of how we work. God knows us. He made us. This is something that the postmodern movement gets it right, with some extremes – God is in touch w/ our humanity. He has given us power to overcome human limitation but it’s yet in our weakness that He is strong.

    In sum, Mike you already covered all this so I’ll just say

    YEAH WHAT MIKE SAID

    Sorry Frank, this is the same old hate with new lingo. Most the people I know who have pursued your thinking chased ghosts of former glory and were told they weren’t good enough when promises failed to come through.

  2. 2 jason February 21, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    “None of those meetings can touch the hem of that garment.”

    I know Frank believes this but it’s dead wrong and to my estimation a slam on everyone but churches he works with.

  3. 3 zoecarnate February 21, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Hi Jason,

    I guess I can agree with a lot of what you say but not how you say it – have you had your coffee this morning? :)

    When I think of “Christian hate” I think of Fred Phelps, not Frankie V. Like you & like me, Frank’s just callin’ it as he sees it – I think it’s always good to model the graciousness we wish we see in others. Maybe I’m mis-reading you – are you saying that the Good News as articulated by Watchman Nee, Sparks, Kaung, etc., is somehow a message of hate? If so I still don’t follow.

    And Frank isn’t slamming everyone who gathers outside of his direct influence. I know for a fact that he’s friends with folks from many different streams of the Christian family, and wishes them the best. I’m guessing that what he ultimately wishes to see is a cross-pollination of the best of each stream (wow, that’s a mixed metaphor). The question I put to Frank – and to all of us – is if we can remain in fellowship with those who, at the end of the day, see what we have to offer (however they filter it) and still say “no thanks.” This has to do with interfaith as well as interchurch relations methinks. How will we get along?

    I resonate with what you’re saying that friends & followers of Jesus have much more in common with each other than not, and not dismissing those who find joy & sustenance in other modes of worship/theology/lifestyle/etc… We need to find ways of speaking about our distinctives and convictions without setting ourselves above others. And I suppose I’m starting to dislike anything that paints even un-zealous believers as second rate. After spending 20 years with zealous Pentecostals and Messianic Jews and house churchers, I think I just wanna spend a decade chilling with some stone-cold Episcopalians!

    Just kidding. I like zealous Episcopalians.

  4. 4 Bill February 21, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    There’s that word again. ;) Sustainability is over-rated. To be more specific, it is – at the very least – relative. What was the Tabernacle? How long did the church in Jerusalem last? Corporately, divine life seems to camp out. “And he would have gone on. But they asked him to stay.” Of course, as long as possible would be most delightful, but would you rather have a much smaller fraction of Life and yet have it forever?

    Maybe that whole question is a false choice. I’ve always believed a church should have lots of different kinds of meetings. There’s good cause for maintaining purity in a meeting that’s of the “three hours of glory and majesty” variety. And there’s good cause for having different kinds of meetings where we pray for Aunt Matilda, too. Should each occur weekly? Should everyone attend both? We make so many assumptions…

    People talk about this as if there’s one “The Meeting” that has to fulfil all needs and be one-size-fits-all. Why? Maybe it’s because we all suffer from a shortage of practical resources. Since time and energy are limited, relative sustainability (as well as potential proliferation of multiple meeting times) depends on the resources of any particular group. Naturally.

    But here’s another point where the “sustainability” critique needs modification. The maximum, burn-out level of continous input for a church of fifteen would be a far healthier modest amount of energy input for a church of 50 or 100. To stay healthy, a group of a dozen might expect that things like the three hour glory meetings should naturally happen less often. All things in moderation. Amen?

    Now, getting back to the Frank’s post, and speaking of “glory and majesty” – the Italian Rapscallion might find less impervious filters if he spoke to people with fewer vague, theological and/or abstract adjectives. I’m just guessing. His extensive illustration of the activity at such meetings proved to be much more effective communication, didn’t it?

    And Mike, regarding your admirable eccumenical sentiments – yes, surely the Quakers and Brethern had aspects in their meetings like you speak of. You’d like to compliment and interact with them. Apparently, Frank is trying to distinguish himself from them. I personally don’t know any of them, so I’ll stay out of that one. The point is about “filters” and communication.

    How many shades of “blue” are there? It may not matter which shade of blue we both see. Blue is blue. And we’re ALL growing closer to Him. Thus, like sustainability, our experience of “glory and majesty” is also relative. That can’t possibly aid our communication about it. But perhaps, from God’s pov, that might be a good thing.

    One last point. It almost sounds like you’re suggesting, between the lines, that Frank’s post had a hint of exclusivity in it. Since Frank is very outspoken against giving off such an air, he must not have meant those things the way they sounded. Maybe Barna can come add a Q&A section, to clarify. ;)

    Love ya, Frankie. :)
    Thanks for the post, Mike.

  5. 5 Bill February 21, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    PS: It’s 11:30 AM. Fix your blog’s clock. ;)

  6. 6 Andrew February 21, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Mike, you’ve got to get Frank to read After Virtue and Who’s Justice, Which Rationality by MacIntyre… it would be eye opening for sure.

  7. 7 Andrew February 21, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Also, after having read all these comments, I’m compelled to offer two bits of my opinion.

    First, having been raised in “institutional Christianity” for all of my life and having never experienced the “organic church” meetings Frank is talking about, I am having an especially difficult time grasping how such a meet as he describes wouldn’t bore me to death. One of the ways I experience faith and belief most profoundly is through those “filters” of theology, tradition, contextualization and conversation. I experience Christ more fully in serving others, praying for/with others, and conversing with others than I ever would in a meeting where people prattle on for hours about Jesus. I honestly don’t know if I’d make it through such a meeting.

    What’s odd, however, is that I share many of Frank’s concerns regarding “every-member functioning.” But given my “filters” it’s difficult for me to imagine that most people – because of their various filters – are capable of comprehending the sorts of experiences Frank mentions in his post. From a theological standpoint, it sounds like disaster. But, hey, I’m a zealous presbyterymethoanabaptist – what do I know?

    Peace,
    A.T.

  8. 8 zoecarnate February 21, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    Hey Andrew, you raise a great point – thanks for being honest. But think of the highest points of Catholic/Orthodox/Episcopal liturgy – or the most eloquent passages of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Now imagine that you could experience what these folks are talking about, not only by rote – but by first-hand apprehension? That’s the preoccupation of most every contemplative and mystic, and that’s the vision that animates Frank’s desire – and many in the ‘stream’ of house church that I’ve called home.

    Does this perspective have its problems? Sure. But at its best, having gatherings like that are anything but boring – would the worship of the 24 elders and living creatures in Revelation exclaiming “Holy, holy holy” be boring?? (OK maybe… :) ) When they’re filled with people who have somewhat original ways of expressing such captivation with Christ’s riches, they’re not boring. One could say they’re ‘worship’ at its loftiest. And these gatherings of believers are what fuels one’s life of outpoured service to all God’s creatures. Again, ideally.

    For me, I need a good mix of adoration, conversation, and action. I need to be in those rarefied atmospheres from time to time. And I need to be in discussion-oriented atmospheres where I can air both my theological musings and deep-life hurts, questions, etc… And finally, I need to put the overflowing love & ideas into action, connecting with ‘the least of these’ and finding Jesus there. So I admit, I want it all, and I also want it modest/sustainable…God help me!

  9. 9 Bill February 21, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    So I admit, I want it all, and I also want it modest/sustainable…God help me!

    Amen! God help us all…

  10. 10 Gunnar February 21, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Mike, first off, thanks for throwing this out there. For all who have written, there has been some fantastic thoughts and things out there, giving me tons to ponder!
    Wanted to address a few folks specifically!
    Andrew, I loved your honest, candid thoughts. Particularly on how you cannot imagine such a meeting boring you to death! It made me laugh, and, I honestly don’t mean this in any sort of mean way, but I hold the opposite view of I have a hard time imagining myself going back to a more institutional place and not being bored to death.
    As a former youth pastor, be at EVERY meeting and side meeting sort of guy, I have been a part of some great meetings that I did enjoy myself at…don’t get me wrong. But even in those meetings, now, I can clearly recall the richest, most memorable ones for me, where when folks in the body I hadn’t heard from too much had something incredible. Even if you are not part of an ‘organic church’ now, one little thing you can do is simply have some friends over and experiment: have everyone come willing to share what God is doing in their live. My strong inclination is that if it is done in truth, it will be anything but boring.

  11. 11 brotherjohnny February 21, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    The grey blocks are out of alignment.

  12. 12 Gunnar February 21, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Mike, also, I want to know your take on you wrestling with any mental filters with the ROM?

  13. 13 Heather W February 21, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    Oh my word Mike, you troublemaker, I am going to have a LOT to say on this thread because right now I find myself hardly able to think in coherent paragraphs about all the things that this thread stirs up in me..argh! It will stir and stir and stir, and I’ll probably be exploding all over your page tonight after it’s stirred a while… !!!

    But the one thing I can say, is that the housechurch movement (or whatever we want to LABEL it) is definitely in its infancy. Still. Because it has definitely hit the nail on the head when it comes to deconstructing the institutional church, but, it doesn’t deliver when it proposes to create “the answer” in reply. Frank and Tony and all the rest of us (that would mean “me” too) in this movement, I think, only really see through the glass darkly of what we think we have to offer others on this.

    Filters? Oh yes. It’s not wrong to have a filter. That’s what this whole thing is about, after all,isn’t it? Shaping one another’s filters so that we can all see through the glass clearly. If you wear the green filter, you stop seeing all the green details. If you wear the blue filter, you stop seeing all the blue details. I got my HC filter on, oh yes, but I’m mixing it up with an emergent filter and then I threw a missional filter on and then a house of prayer filter and hopefully, if I can find all the colors of His rainbow, I’ll be seeing clearly. Right? Oh have mercy…

  14. 14 Bill February 22, 2009 at 1:15 am

    Why oh why didn’t I wear the blue filter? ;)

  15. 15 jason February 22, 2009 at 4:07 am

    Mike,

    If someone is going to passionately and defiintively say that they know better I will respond in like manner.

    Organic Church has over promised and under delivered. Period.

    How’s that?

    The world painted here has never and will never exsist in reality. It’s a pipe dream and that’s why it can’t be sustained. What’s amazing to me is that people fall back on the NT to justify failure but ignore it ni regards to the lengthy practical/spiritual gifts portions.

    So we’re only touching His depths if we are imploding every 5-10 years? Bunk.

  16. 16 jason February 22, 2009 at 4:11 am

    The scripture calls for zeal mike.

    I know what comes in the package of “organic church”. It sounds wonderful. It’s all the same.

  17. 17 Bill February 22, 2009 at 5:48 am

    Hey, Jason. Over-promising kind of ensures under-delivering, doesn’t it? I haven’t talked to you in years, so I’m not sure where your ‘bunk’ feelings are coming from. However, I do continue to passionately hold out hope for experimental church life.

    According to some estimates, new businesses die 80 to 90 percent of the time. That’s because starting something is much, much harder than sustaining something others have started. I can tell you authoritatively that during my seven years in Lithia we suffered (among other things) from a lack of ever building up ‘critical mass’. One time we got up to 25 people, for a month or two. Most years, we floated between 12 and 20. That makes ‘pioneering’ even harder. Believe me.

    You’re right to believe in under promising and over delivering, and I admit I haven’t always lived up to that model in the past. With that, I thank you for another good reminder. Mike said it too – we need better “Truth in Advertising”. But not lower aims.

  18. 18 Heather W February 22, 2009 at 7:50 am

    Well, to be fair, the organic church isn’t the only entity around here that under-delivers. Every single group I have visited in my area seems to be stuck on proclaiming that they will be the hub of the next amazing move of God or revival or revolution or whatever in the area. And very little ever seems to happen.
    We so do like to make much of ourselves, don’t we?
    That’s what I do like about the emerging church, you know? Instead of proclaiming themselves to be “it” they basically proclaim themselves to be confused and searching …at least, most of the time. It’s hard to have a lot of bullsh*t around the emergent /emerging/haha dare you to put a label on us/ church, because their primary practice is taste-testing bullsh*t and determining if it is going to make good fertilizer or not.

    Of course, the joy of humility only lasts so long, because then you notice that there are some folks who really ARE having a little revolution because they are willing to go out there and actually touch people (yes, kuddos to the ordinary radical crowd…finally, something that almost actually WORKS in real life – at least, to some extent…) But then, after you’ve touched someone, do we pile them into a room full of pew-gazers, or a living room full of navel-gazers? Oh who knows….

    Ok, wow, Bill, why DIDN’T we take the blue filter, indeed? :) You made me smile, for real :)

  19. 19 zoecarnate February 22, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    As always, a lively and far-ranging conversation. I want to reiterate that when I critique the one-sided application of “We all have filters,” I’m not trying to paint Frank, specifically, with any kind of broad brush. I know that Frank’s ministry reaches far & wide – recent interviews on his blog with David Fitch & reviews of Alan Hirsch’s work are recent examples that bear this out. I think that Frank’s a uniter, not a divider. While I’ll always be more cautious in my use of language than Frank, that might be more a testament to my ‘pomo’ disposition than anything. I think that churches Frank is working with do, indeed, experience gatherings of the sort he’s describing, and I agree with him that Christ-followers of every stripe have much to learn from the ‘organic church’ movement. My point, then as now, is that we all have filters, and we all have much to learn from each other. And I think Frankie V agrees.

  20. 20 jason. February 22, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Mike,

    I’d mostly agree w/ the above statement. That’s why I found the original post so ugly. It does’t really keep in step w/ the values Frank lives and teaches. Perhaps that’s my own interpretation of it.

  21. 21 Martin Kelley February 27, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    If Frank felt so confident in Christ, he wouldn’t need to be putting everyone else down (who’s the one with filters?) I’m a Friends (Quaker) because I’ve experienced workshop moments (however rare) where everyone knew Christ was in the room leading us–the real deal. But I know enough about Jesus to know He visited us not because we had the right brand name or the perfect worship style but because he loved us like he loves all of us. I trust that people in other denominations have that same direct experience. It’s not the name we give it, it’s the openness we come to it with.

    All the “house church” theorizing, emergent slang and hottest new book is only worthwhile if it helps gather a few people together in a room ready to listen for God. Because when He’s there, none of this matters. Jesus talked about coming together with the wisdom of children and he wasn’t speaking in any kind of metaphor. He didn’t even have any cool factor. I like Heather’s observation that:

    very single group I have visited in my area seems to be stuck on proclaiming that they will be the hub of the next amazing move of God or revival or revolution or whatever in the area. And very little ever seems to happen.

    I don’t think anything interesting does happen until people settle for being a small cog in some remote outpost. I worked in a denominational body for eight years and my experience there was that that the bigger the plan, the more of a waste of time and money it was. I still see people trying to get a BIG new website going or a BIG important conference happening or something else and wonder if this is really what we’re all being called to? Because if it isn’t then maybe we don’t have to be jealous of the simple fact that Jesus loves us all.

  22. 22 Anj February 28, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Martin Kelley – That Friend speaks my mind.

  23. 23 zoecarnate February 28, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for stopping in! I completely agree with your insight – God is present with us because of his grace, and not because of our performance – period. The tricky part is (and I think this is why we have denominations in the first place), we all feel like different atmospheres are more hospitable for God, or for our apprehension of the Divine. When I re-read Frank’s post, I don’t think he was trying to put down Quakers or Brethren per se; he apparently had some conversations with a few specific people about the types of gatherings he’s participated in. They thought they knew what he was talking about (a “this” is “that” linguistic move), but he felt like they didn’t. In light of Frank’s other work, I don’t think he’s being sectarian – only saying that different atmospheres are indeed different. Nonetheless, your words about avoiding superiority and not acting out of insecurity are quite timely.


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