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).