Tag Archives: authentic community

“If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring”

The following article was published on the Serving China Prayer Blog.  Though it was originally written to help foreigners more effectively pray for and serve the Body of Christ in China, it is really full of many lessons that we can learn from them as well.  Enjoy!

A House Church Pastor’s Perspective

By Brother Dong

EDITORS’ NOTE: This month we are so glad to present you with a letter written first-hand by a leading Chinese house church pastor himself! “Brother Dong” is a premiere Christian leader on a nationwide scale, involved in a very wide spectrum of Christian work across many provinces. Recently, he spoke to us by phone, giving us his insights on what we as a foreign servant ministry in China should focus on in the months and years ahead. It was so profoundly valuable that we asked him to put it in writing, which he agreed to do and then let us share with you also.

When Brother Dong first shared with by phone, his framework was how we could better pray for the church in China. Later, when he wrote the article, the same comments focused on how to best serve the church in China. Finally, when we read the article ourselves, we couldn’t help but notice how much we here in the West could learn from the church in China. It is our prayer that this excellent article will aid you both in better interceding for our brothers and sisters in China, as well as inspiring all of us to learn and apply lessons from the church in China to our communities of faith at home.

God’s work in China in the past fifty years has surprised many–Christians and non-Christians alike. Restricted circumstances and non-existent religious structure have birthed a homegrown movement, which does not easily fit into any traditional model. Maybe now for the first time Christianity has taken root in China. For the church to flourish within and without China, it is important for the Body of Christ to engage church in China in a holistic way.

First, help her stick to the essentials that sustain and grow a Christian or a church. There is a continual need for Bibles, and literature on spiritual life, preaching, and teaching, gospel tracts, world mission history and missionary biographies. Particularly in the current circumstances, these types of literature can reach many people at many places.

Second, help her return to the basics of Christian faith. The simplicity of Christian faith is the vitality of God’s church. The essence of Christ’s gospel needs no more than a mouth and a breath to spread. As the educational level improves in Chinese society, there is a temptation to develop elaborate theologies and practices, which are not only incomprehensible to many Christians and cause divisions, but also divert and waste the energy that should have been utilized to expand God’s Kingdom.

Third, encourage her to pick up the zeal and vision for world missions. The Chinese rural house church will be an important model for the future of world missions because 1) it is homegrown, which is non-threatening to local community and culture; 2) its strategies and methods are indigenous, mostly free of Western denominational influence, and so are flexible and adaptable; 3) its operation, without the burden of church building and clergy, is least resources-dependent, which in turn enables her to focus the resources for outreach; 4) it remains communal and relational, which is the nature of many societies/cultures in Asia and Africa; 5) it is of the lower class, which comprises of the majority of world population. This will potentially result in a shift in Christian missions and social development from “the strong reaching out the weak” to “peer help”.

Fourth, interact with the urban church productively. This requires Western believers to be especially wise, using caution in this effort. The urban church has experienced significant growth in the last fifteen years. It tends to be strong in education, affluence, skills, and resources, thus often self-sufficient. The strong background of leaders and limited exposure often result in isolation of churches. Intellectual ability often hinders urban churches from coming together because disagreement on certain doctrine or practice. Advanced training offers the urban church competence in managing efficiently, which could lead to some mega-churches. This may not be a good thing. There is a Chinese saying, which says: “If only one flower stands out, it is not truly spring.” In the same way, efficiency of one entity may not mean effectiveness of the whole Body of Christ. To gain recognition, urban church tends to institutionalize through legal/structural effort and purchase of property, which is resource-draining. The consequences may be unexpected: when the Spirit is there, everybody cares for one another; but when the Body of Christ becomes institutionalized, each person becomes just one of many which often results in insensitivity and indifference. It is our hope that urban church would not fall into Western denominational structures and theologies.

Fifth, build dialogue and partnership between urban and rural churches. Because of societal and cultural differences, China exists in two very different worlds: the rural and the urban. Despite rapid urbanization in recent years, the influx to cities is mainly of rural outlook. The feelings of inferiority among the rural versus those of privilege among the urban often hinder interaction between the two worlds. This bears similar impact on the churches as well. They need to be pushed into dialogue and partnership to utilize their respective gifts. Rural churches typically are strong in dedication, human power, time, and contextual adaptability, while urban churches possess finance, knowledge, and advanced skills. Doing projects together may offer a good venue to develop dialogue and grow partnership.

Sixth, network churches from different background and areas. Because of the current circumstances, churches, big or small, often operate within their own circles. It would be beneficial for them to cross the boundaries which they have placed between themselves so that they can catch a big picture of God’s work and His call upon the Chinese church. This is usually not easy for nationals to initiate. Foreign believers are a good third party to initiate and sustain this kind of interaction. Only through this effort can real growth and expansion happen. Then many small and solid churches will bloom all over China, rather than a few big ones in a few centers.

Seventh, help her grow in the understanding of social witness and cross-cultural outreach. The one-sided economic development in the past thirty years has left out many in society. Most of the marginalized live among or are from the rural area. Christians have won approval through their upright living in their community, but they need to actively enter the society to reach out to the needy. Churches need to open their eyes to see the needs of orphans, HIV/AIDS, prostitutes, and the poor. Another area is cross-cultural: many churches have little experience or understanding of other cultures in China’s predominately Han Chinese society. As a result many Chinese missionaries are not effective in their work among ethnic minority groups. There is a need to understand cross-cultural issues and their practical implementation in order to include those people groups in fulfilling the Great Commission. Chinese churches are rich in resources, which can be effectively used for reaching out people outside of China, such as North Korean refugees and people-groups in Southeast Asia.

Finally, rekindle dedication to and sacrifice for Christ. As China develops economically, comfort, security, and stability begin to set in. Programs and strategies become increasingly sophisticated. There is a need to return to simplicity and rekindle the spirit of dedication and sacrifice. That is the most sustainable strategy in bringing the whole world to Christ!

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Thanks to you Truth Tellers!

A few weeks ago I was discussing with my mother what I appreciated about the teaching style of a pastor friend of mine, which led to a discussion of how two people can say basically the same thing, but with one it’s just words, but the other there is life because there is depth behind the words.  To this my mother asked, pondering, “What do you think it is that causes that depth?”

I like my parents, because they both really make me think.

After considering for a moment, I replied, “I think it is suffering.  Not that the whole world doesn’t suffer, but some people allow the suffering to touch them and transform them.”

Another time recently, a friend wrote me an email to encourage me about something I was going through.  The words deeply encouraged me.  Why?  The brother wrote me from the experience of his own dark nights, and long and weary fight.  The words were so beautiful in their truth that I encouraged him to consider writing a book one day.

Or, I could also tell of the friend I spent a week with recently.  She is an absolute beautiful lady, a precious gem, but her life has taken her down a road that is currently causing her deep pain.  Her pain took me back to experiences I had nearly 20 years ago.  We spent the week together in both uproarious laughter and heart-wrenching tears.  Was this friend’s suffering a burden to me?  No.  It is an honor and a privilege to be allowed to enter another’s suffering.  To me such a place is like the Holy of Holies.  My life is richer for knowing such a woman.

These and other experiences have reminded me lately of a favorite passage in Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest.  This passage articulates both my own struggle to express truth, and my appreciation of many of you out there who express truth to me.  Sharing Oswald Chamber’s words below is my way of thanking you and encouraging you – some of you are fellow bloggers or writers, some are friends, some are leaders, some are just simple folk who don’t think of themselves as leaders but are.  Thank you for struggling to express to me and others the truth God has given you. My life is richer because of it.  I hope you know who you are!

APPROVED UNTO GOD (Source: My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers – December 15 entry)

“Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” – 2 Timothy 2:15

If you cannot express yourself on any subject, struggle until you can. If you do not, someone will be the poorer all the days of his life. Struggle to re-express some truth of God to yourself, and God will use that expression to someone else. Go through the winepress of God where the grapes are crushed. You must struggle to get expression experimentally, then there will come a time when that expression will become the very wine of strengthening to someone else; but if you say lazily – “I am not going to struggle to express this thing for myself, I will borrow what I say,” the expression will not only be of no use to you, but of no use to anyone. Try to state to yourself what you feel implicitly to be God’s truth, and you give God a chance to pass it on to someone else through you.

Always make a practice of provoking your own mind to think out what it accepts easily. Our position is not ours until we make it ours by suffering. The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.

I LOVED this…

Okay, one of my favorite bloggers has outdone himself.  Great little article.  “Why I Don’t Like Church Names” —  Check it out!

The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace

This book is not the latest and greatest.  It was published in the eighties, by the late M. Scott Peck, the author of the more widely known book The Road Less Traveled.  M. Scott Peck has gotten a mixed reviews from the Christian community. Some have accused him of faulty theology, while others have acclaimed his work as revolutionary.

For my part, I never read The Road Less Traveled, so I can not address any criticisms (or praises) of his theology and/or ideas in that book.  I can only comment on The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, which I recently finished reading.  I will say my approach in reading this book was not to read Peck as a Christian psychiatrist per se, but as a psychiatrist with extensive experience in individual and group psychology, who also has an interest in how these topics relate to Christianity and Christian issues. His value as an author is not as one who examines Christian theology from a rigorous perspective (I look to other authors for that), but instead as one who approaches the topics of community and spirituality from a rigorous psychological perspective.

My interest in this particular book was sparked through a desire to understand more about the psychology of community.  In other words, what are the psychological factors that create a sense of community in a group of people?  With a movement in evangelical Christianity and the emergent church toward simpler church structures, are there lessons about community psychology that might be useful in the search for authentic Christian community?

The book is written in three parts. Part I focuses on the sociology and psychology of community. Part II is entitled “The Bridge” where Peck attempts to make a bridge between the principles presented in Part I and those presented in Part III. In Part III Peck discusses how the principles of community could be used in international diplomacy. For me the first section of the book needs to be reviewed as a separate entity from Parts II and III.

Part I: The Foundation
Part I was a fascinating read, with multiple implications for building Christian community.  The most useful aspect of this book was Mr. Peck’s basic framework of community as presented in Part I.  He described 4 stages of community.

  1. Pseudocommity – This phase is what I started calling the “I’m Okay You’re Okay” stage (I don’t think Peck used this description himself, but that was the most descriptive for me).  Like it’s name “pseudocommunity” implies, it’s that stage where everyone in the “community” is basically faking it.  We pretend to get along, and try to make community by being “extremely pleasant with one another and avoiding all disagreement”.
  2. Chaos – in this stage the pseudocommunity falls apart and conflicts arise.  In this stage, people start to get real about what’s really going on, but the first reaction is often for other members to feel the need to heal/convert/fix those bringing up issues, so that they can get back to “normal”.  This need to “fix” of course backfires since as Peck puts it “underlying the attempts to heal and convert is not so much the motive of love as the motive to make everything normal — and the motive to win, as members fight over whose norm might prevail.”  As this continues those who are the “victims” of the healers and converters begin to strike back and try to “heal the healers and convert the converters.”
  3. Emptiness – Peck describes emptiness as the only path to true community.  It is also the one that most aspiring communities do their best to avoid.  Typically rather than enter the stage of emptiness, group members will attempt to move the group into greater organization to combat the Chaos.  While organizing does bring an end to the Chaos, it does not result in community.  Emptiness is a time when group members empty themselves of all barriers to communication.  The barriers are things like: Expectations, Preconceptions, Ideology, Theology, Solutions, the Need to heal/convert/fix/solve, and the need to control.  In saying this he is not saying that that we stop believing what we believe, but that we lay it aside long enough to “get inside the others skin” (to use term my friends at Fusion tend to use in their training programs), and to understand the other.  The reason this stage is typically avoided is that it is incredibly frightening.  I believe scripturally it is the stage of being “crucified with Christ”, of dying to one’s self and one’s own agenda.
  4. Community – Peck says: “When death has been completed, open and empty, the group enters community.”  In this stage group members are able to be vulnerable, and to share without other members trying to heal, convert, fix the other.  Paradoxically, it is in this stage that healing and conversion starts to happen.  One caveat, once community is reached it is not a given that it will remain.  Most groups trying to live as a community will go through these stages multiple times in their life cycle.  As an aside, I see a parallel of these stages with the stages of grief – pseudocommunity relates to the denial stage, Chaos to the anger and bargaining stage, emptiness to the grief stage, and community to the acceptance stage.

While Mr. Peck uses primarily modern day examples of these stages, I couldn’t help but observing myself that the early church went through exactly these stages.  The stage of pseudocommunity was exemplified by the time where Jesus was with his disciples.  Unaware of their own lack of true community, Peter makes his famous “I’ll-never-deny-you” line, James & John are asking to sit on his right and left, and everyone generally assuming that soon Jesus is going to have victory over the Romans and everyone is going to live-happily-ever-after.

Next comes, Chaos with Jesus death.  Every one is scattered.  Peter curses, denying Christ.  While Peter gets a lot of press for this, he was simply a picture of the state of the “church”: in the moment of Jesus’ trial, crucifixion and burial, they came to terms with how little true community they really had.

Third, starting with the resurrection, and continuing until near the day of Pentecost, the fledgling church experienced the Emptiness stage.  All that their previous assumptions about what Jesus was going to do and how were now being looked at afresh.  They were then prepared for the final stage of True Community, which was exemplified in the days following Pentecost.

As I read the first Part of The Different Drum, the main thought I walked away with was how Peck’s framework could be extremely powerful if applied to Christian communities of faith as they seek to develop authentic community together.

Part II and III: The Bridge and the Solution

In parts II and III Peck begins to build an argument for models of community making to be used to run a more effective government, especially as concerns international relations.  At this point, a little lesson in contemporary history is helpful for younger readers who may not remember or have really studied the period in which the book was written.  The book was published in 1987 at the height of the Cold War and the arms race, which was a huge military buildup especially between the U.S. and the Soviet Union who were the two top world powers at the time.  It was only with the breakup of the Soviet Union that the U.S. became the world’s top super-power.  It was in this context that Peck wrote the book.

His basic premise in this section of the book is that in order to deal with issues such as the arms race, government should use community-making principles as a core part of international diplomacy.  Even though the arms race is no longer happening as it was then, I still found there were things from this section that could be gleaned.  There were places also that my basic theology differed sharply from Peck’s, but since my main aim in reading his book was to examine the psychology of community rather than the theology of community, this didn’t really bother me.

Besides some of the theology, my own perspective also veered sharply from Peck’s in some other areas as well – philosophically I suppose.  I think I tend to be much more politically pessimistic than Peck was.  A core belief I hold, formed both from my theology and my philosophical outlook, is that political solutions are like band-aids on deeper more fundamental societal problems.  As such, I tend to see our societal ills from a spiritual perspective rather than a political one.  I also tend to believe that grassroots movements are the forces that most effectively change society rather than governments.  Not that good government does not play a role, it’s just a matter of emphasis.  In general in this section, I found Peck’s outlook more optimistic than I tend to be, despite his very convincing arguments that the solutions he offered were feasible.

Still, I think the second two sections are well worth reading.  For those who have an interest in diplomacy or in cross-cultural communication for other purposes such as humanitarian work (this second option being more my speed), I believe the principles Peck puts forth are invaluable.  What is building authentic community but learning to truly see and love the other, and breaking down barriers to communication.  There is indeed a link between community making and peace, and so while I might disagree with Peck on the feasibility of some of his specific applications, his point is still well-taken.

In summary, the book is well worth the read, and gives much food for thought as we seek to build more authentic Christian community.

Organic

I grew up in the counter-culture – hippies, communal houses, civil rights marches, anti-war demonstrations, and yes organic gardening.  When I was about 5 or 6, our family moved to a big farm in the country to seek intentional community, and to get back-to-nature.  (All these years later, I still love the song “Woodstock” by Crosby Stills Nash and Young with the words “got to get ourselves back to the garden” — I think they were on to something there, humanity is still longing for the Garden, a place of connectedness with God and the rest of creation, not that CSNY’s interpretation of what that looked like or how to get there was on target.)  We had a huge organic garden behind our house, and I have fond memories of walking through the fields to collect praying mantis egg cases to put in our garden.  If you do not know, a praying mantis is an insect that eats other insects, and if you put them in your garden they will eat the insects that might eat your vegetables.  We also ordered lady bugs in the mail, which also eat other bugs (as you might guess from this memoir, I was an atypical girl — I loved bugs and frogs and the like).  Our dogs dealt with the deer and rabbits.  So, it is with these memories that I think about the term “organic church” or “organic community”.

What does this mean practically?  It means that the idea of “organic community” has to do with letting things grow naturally the way God intended.  It means finding His way of dealing with problems that arise, instead of inventing some man-made rule or organizational structure.  We are finding all the time that the man-made chemicals which we have used to “protect” our crops from pests actually are not so good for us (wow!  what a surprise that stuff that’s made to poison bugs could also hurt us!)  In the same way, our worldly ways of dealing with things like church discipline, harmful teaching, etc can actually also slowly poison us, and can in the end become as bad or worse than what we were seeking to protect ourselves from in the first place.  Or perhaps we are seeking to preserve something, much like many fruit & vegetable genetic hybrids seek to extend shelf-life.  However, like those hybrids, we can end up with a tasteless copy of what we were trying to preserve.

So, how do we do this thing called “organic church”?  I believe we must begin by challenging our assumptions.  We can not do things simply because “we’ve always done them that way”.  That does not mean that we have to throw something out simply because it’s traditional.  Some traditions are good.  They can provide us with a sense of stability and continuity, and actually can help foster a sense of community.  However, when traditions no longer express the heart of God, we need to examine them carefully, and modify them or discard them to more clearly express our message.  This is what I believe Jesus was referring to when He said to the Pharisees that they “nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matt 15:6)  It wasn’t tradition that was the problem.  The problem was making the tradition more important than the word of God – i.e. the message of God – which was to express justice, mercy and compassion to the downcast of the world (which, if we correctly understand the condition of the world, is the entire world).

Unfortunately, such “nullifying traditions” are typically so much a part of our culture that we are no longer aware of them.  Thus, in order to challenge our own assumptions we must approach with humble hearts and a desire for change, and we must ask the Lord to reveal to us the things we can not see.  I also believe it is vitally important that we continually ask this of ourselves, not simply point to those outside ourselves.  For instance, it can become very easy to focus on the speck in the “institutional” church’s eye, and neglect the plank in our own eye.  All of us are susceptible to developing “pet traditions” that make us very comfortable, but do not accurately reflect the heart of God.  As the psalmist said “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12).

In Search of True Christian Community

I am in search of the Church. Not as we know it, but as it was meant to be. For the past twenty plus years, I’ve been involved with many gatherings of people each named church, but for some time have felt an increasing dissatisfaction with what exists of church life.

I am wanting a place where I can be, and let my doing truly flow out of my being. I am wanting a place of free exchange of ideas, and where people dare to think outside the box. I am wanting a place where I have deep spiritual friendships, where we speak into each other’s lives, but do so in love and humility of spirit, each realizing the other is also responsible before God to follow Him in good conscience.

I haven’t found this place. But I’m finding glimmers of it. I’m still searching.