More about fuzzy edges

14 Jun

A friend, who has recently begun a new job working in a university context, wrote to me about the idea of the church with fuzzy edges.
Here are some of her comments:

"In my new job, I have been asked much about my association with the church.
People automatically feel anxious about it.  I feel that much more than
actually wanting to know about my church background or my operating faith
framework, the real question behind their questions is, "In what way will
your idea of the church exclude me?"  So far, that question has been behind
at least three of my five staff member’s questions of my church affiliation."

She went on to remark that to people who are ‘outside’ the church, it all looks very divided, and divisive: "so do the Baptists hate gay people?" or worse, "so Baptists don’t really like any of the other churches, huh?"

There are a lot of important things here, to comment upon. I hope others will engage with this too.

First, to say something about my own experience of ‘exclusion’, as a card-carrying Baptist:
    One of the biggest problems Baptists have is our persistent habit of defining our identity through what we are against, what we oppose, and therefore implicitly whom we exclude.
The very idea of doctrinal formulation has almost always been in order to outline who is ‘out’.
We have it in a really bad dose.
Recently I have been involved with a small group in a ministry team, trying to re-write  the content pages for a Baptist website.
There was one on ‘Baptist beliefs’. A draft I saw last week, in most ways really excellent, had this character: in almost all the ten or so paragraphs, each one began with a statement of what we don’t agree with, then went on to something we do affirm.
    The classic is our position on baptism: almost all Baptists can tell you what we don’t agree with (sprinkling infants). But why we do what we do, and what it means—well, our people mostly have no idea.

Another basic issue has to do with our preoccupation with constitutions, as if this defines the church.
The church is a spiritual community—a community of the Spirit. You wouldn’t have thought so. Most churches are defined by their rule books. I have many times raised the idea of having a church without a constitution. The fear this idea evokes is palpable.
It is hard to trust the Spirit. But if not that, what do we have? A rule book?
The idea of the church as a community of faith, that is people trying to live together in faith, attending to God’s Word and to what the Spirit is calling them to be and do: this is the church. It ought to be enough.

Then we come to what is called the ‘form’ of the church. My conviction is that in this era we are finally moving away from the village church model, only 300 years after most people moved from villages.
People no longer live near the church, walk past it every day, pop in on the way to work or the way home (Morning Prayer, Evensong …) — and in reality of course we only ‘gather’ as church once a week, if that, for an hour or so.
Yet we persist with the idea that this gathering creates ‘church’. We try to crank it up, week by week, to ‘create’ community.

Somehow, an utterly new paradigm has to emerge: and this means it will take more than a year, or a decade, or a life-time even … to replace a model that has lasted for 15 centuries or so.
There will be lots of experimentation, and much of it will fail. Many will lose any sense of ‘church’, I suspect.
But the Spirit will persist.
It will be interesting to see what happens—if we have the courage to let it happen.

The church with fuzzy edges is not just about who is in and who is out. In the end it is about being the church: and that ultimately is about whether we define and determine this to which we belong, or do we join with the One who is already community, and is always and everywhere evoking new community.

So the next big thing to think about is: How do we discern what God is doing, and join with that?
What do you reckon?

3 thoughts on “More about fuzzy edges

  1. In response to your post, Frank, I offer this John Howard Yoder quote. It says what I think better than I could say it myself. We used it with inspiral when we discussed what it means to be the church.
    “There are thus about the community of disciples those sociological traits most characteristic of those who set about to change society: a visible structured fellowship, a sober decision guaranteeing that the costs of commitment to the fellowship have been consciously accepted, and a clearly defined life style distinct from that of the crowd. This life style is different, not because of arbitrary rules separating the believer’s behaviour from that of “normal people,” but because of the exceptionally normal quality of humanness to which the community is committed. The distinctness is not a cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (“secular”) involvement in the life of the world. It thereby constitutes an unavoidable challenge to the powers that be and the beginning of a new set of social alternatives.”
    This is a great description of that fuzzy-edgedness you talked about – that there are edges to the group of believers is important and maybe obvious, but the point Yoder makes is that the separation is not cultic or ritual-oriented, but in the very nature of the way followers of Jesus exist in the world – their “exception quality of humannness”. Indeed, the separation is defined by engagement – a “nonconformed quality of (“secular”) involvement in the world”. As such they literally embody the kingdom of God – a new set of social alternatives. In my experience, there are many people who would not be found in a church building on a Sunday morning who live this out, and many who would be found there that do not.

  2. Excellent quotation, Simon.
    I reckon it would be interesting to try to discuss your statement: ‘that there are edges to the group of believers is important’.
    What edges, and why is it important?
    My hunch is that what edges there need to be may vary, from group to group and context to context; maybe this is the source of the problem. Maybe what these edges need to be is itself contextual. That there need to be edges is a continuity between contexts, but what precisely they are may be determined by missional and other local group dynamics.
    So for example it might be appropriate in some contexts that (say) the group cannot include followers of another faith, but in a different context this is precisely the right thing to do.
    ‘What would Jesus do?’ is a test that can be helpfully applied, with imagination, and critical and responsible freedom—or it can be a slavish formula for someone’s reading of the past, mediated through their particular values tradition. I am sure Yoder intended the former. Sometimes, however, groups which hope to be what he describes can still become dogmatic and centrist.

  3. I don’t think the edges need to be intentionally exclusionary, but they are there whether you want them or not. I guess that’s what I mean by important – if there’s no difference between the transformed-in-Christ and others, what are we calling them into or even towards? I think that’s what I mean by boundary or edge, and that is why it’s important – because it defines who we are, and in doing so, defines those who are not. But again, that edge is fuzzy, as it’s not always clear where it begins and ends.

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