The Web has had been a-buzz with some conversation about my native church milieu, ‘organic’ church – aka house church or simple church. Folks meeting in homes, rather decentralized, certainly de-clericalized. Senior Christianity Today editor Mark Galli wishes organic churchers well, but is concerned that we might burn out on our lofty ideals.
What I worry about is the coming crash of organic church. And after that, I worry about the energetic men and women at the forefront of the movement. Will they become embittered and abandon the church, and maybe their God?
Some folks think this is over-dramatic – including Neil Cole, who responded to Galli’s editorial here. (Update: Frank Viola has responded too.) But others, like my friend Neil Carter, were writing about the death of idealism in organic church before they even read Galli’s piece. Carter finds himself looking at organic church on the outside after 10 years as an insider: Far from breathing the rarified air of ‘changing the world’ (as Cole suggests organic churches do) or ‘revolutionizing the history and practice of the church’ (as the house church stream Carter & I share proclaims as one of its goals), Carter is now churching with that most ubiquitous (and some would say, boring) of tribes: Southern Baptists. Reflecting on this, Carter writes:
It’s funny how you can age ten years in the space of just one, while at other times you can go ten years and hardly age a year. It’s a variable process, it turns out. It’s all about what you learn — what you experience in the space of a year. Having said that, I feel I’ve aged more years than I know how to count just in the last 12 months.
Specifically, he recounts a major compromise with his ideals in allowing some professional pastor dude baptize his youngest daughter – even though he baptized his first two daughters himself as part of his former house church community, in a swimming pool. He quotes a coupla Michael Caine flicks – “Obsession is a young man’s game” and “Idealism is youth’s final luxury.” Neil’s only about five years older than me, but he’s musing, as Blink-182 did a decade ago, “I guess this is growing up.”
Or is it?
Do-it-yourself New Testament scholar Bill Heroman – whom I also shared a living room with, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – thinks the organic church movement is full of crap – in a good way. “The challenge,” he says, “is sustainability.”
Human systems last a long time mainly by suppressing the human element that challenges established traditions, but that same human element also provides authenticity and vitality. Thus, the best way to survive for a long time is to be nearly dead. Nature, naturally, sustains itself quite differently. The work God needs to do within a local body of believers will always be messy, but Institutional Christendom keeps peons & yokels from participating precisely because they make messes. The shift is: who says messes are bad? Antiseptic works well for hospitals and elementary schools, but not in gardens or forests. After all, crap makes good fertilizer, and God is a gardener.
God is a gardener, and we – our individual lives, collective lives, our history and our institutions – are compost. Just like the Holy Spirit, Sarayu, in The Shack: She is unoffended by our messiness and our chaos. Indeed, it is beautiful to her.
So thanks, Bill, for stealing my metaphor.
Even so – I understand and respect my friends like Neil Carter, who find themselves outside of these more ‘ideal-laden’ patterns of doing and being church – whether by necessity or shifting sensibilities. It’s an internal tug-of-war, sometimes. Even though I’m far more interested in liturgical and traditional elements (from the ‘compost’ of our history) than I once was, I’m as opposed to clericalism as I’ve ever been. Even so, I’m not at all opposed to leadership – even strong leadership – as some in the organic stream are. Leadership is, it helps, and not everyone is gifted at it. That said, any leadership modeling itself remotely on that of Jesus or even Paul will be continuously giving power away – “You feed them!” “Try this!” and not seeking its own self-preservation. Because while we’re not all ‘leaders,’ we are all priests.
What does this look like, practically? These days I’m drawing inspiration from the 70-year-old Church of the Saviour cluster of churches in the D.C. area (read Inward Journey, Outward Journey by Elizabeth O’ Connor! Do it now!), as well as the 30-year-old St. Gregory of Nyssa congregation in San Francisco (do yourself a favor and pre-order Sara Miles’ new book Jesus Freak: Feeding/Healing/Raising the Dead). While these fellowships are older than the current ‘organic’ church nomenclature’s popular use – and they certainly have the trappings of Galli’s ‘smells and bells’ in significant ways – to me they embody composted communities; not experiments in puritan house-cleaning, but groups who are full-of-crap and they know it. It’s from this rich, loamy soil that they can sprout the Spirit’s life afresh in each generation.