Renowned theologian and church futurist Len Sweet says it is “time to push the reset button on Christianity” and get back to the “original operating system.” In his newest book, So Beautiful: Divine Design for Life and Church, Sweet unpacks the implications of a “reset” for our lives and for the church. One of the ways he does this is by talking about MRI church (Missional, Relational, and Incarnational). Grace & Peace Magazine caught up with Len to ask a few questions about his book and about what he means by MRI church.
Grace & Peace Magazine: What motivated you to write So Beautiful and what did you feel was lacking in discussion about the missional church?
Len Sweet: Missional is a great word, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth. You can be missional for all sorts of bad reasons. There are good missions and bad missions. I mean, the devil’s got a mission. What’s missing is the substance. I was kind of nervous about the missional conversation going on without addressing the content issue.
So, I wrote So Beautiful to talk about what is the biblical operating system, or the divine design for life and the church, and how God intends for us to live and move and have our being. Then the revelation came, as I started to see a pattern over and over again in the Scriptures. It’s stated most classically in “go into all the world”—that’s the missional part; and “make disciples of Jesus Christ”—that’s the relational part; and bringing all cultures into this relationship—that’s the incarnational part.
Then I started to see it everywhere: in creeds, in Jesus’ description of himself. “I am the Way” is the missional. “I am the Truth” is the relational, and then “I am the life,” that’s the incarnational, living the incarnate life. I began to see it in the movements in church history where there’s been a spiritual wakening. This is a rediscovery of this original operating system, this living out of this divine design for life in the church. I wanted to tell the whole story and the whole truth, not just a part. That’s the story behind writing So Beautiful.
G&P: Let’s focus in the book on what you call the MRI church. What does it mean to be incarnational and how should that affect the way we look at ministry?
Sweet: The question for the church to ask is, “How is Christ perceived, made real, and lifted up in the various cultures in which we find ourselves?” It is important to understand that we’re talking about a world that increasingly is going in two directions at the same time: it’s becoming more global, and it’s becoming more local. As a result, the manifestations of Christ need to increasingly be more global and more local.
When you talk to most people of other religious traditions, they understand that Christians like to see a black Jesus, a yellow Jesus, a brown Jesus, and a white Jesus. Christians actually like the fact that Jesus becomes flesh in the culture in which he’s presented. We don’t have this common agreed-upon appearance in which Jesus incarnates himself. In other words, Christianity spreads as a seed, not as a potted plant. And the Christ that comes up in a particular culture may sound more African with drums or more Native American with drums, rattles, and strings—the music can be different. Our Christianity does not reside in one thing—it adjusts to culture. This is the incarnational principal Jesus gave us: While I don’t want you to be of the world, I want you to be in the world—it is not our option to flee the world. So, when I’m worshiping with Africans, I ought to hear some African sounds; I ought to sing some African hymns. That is how the gospel wants to be “enfleshed” in every culture.
G&P: What does it mean for the church to be relational?
Sweet: Sometimes the church can be in love with other things besides Jesus. One of the church’s biggest loves is leadership, which we’ve almost made into a fetish. I go to conferences, and I can hear the word “leader” mentioned 1,000 times, and I don’t hear the name of Jesus mentioned but a dozen. We’ve made the church about a lot of different things other than Christ. The Scriptures say clearly that if Jesus be lifted up, he will draw all people (John 12:32).
This is one of my things about the church: We develop boards, draw up this and that strategy, start programs, but the church has got to understand that all this is to lift Jesus up. He’s the draw, and we ought to be focused on how we can lift Jesus up so people can hear him, see him, smell him, taste him and touch him in our communities. That’s what it means to be relational.
We ought to be focused on how we can lift Jesus up so people can hear him, see him, smell him, taste him, and touch him in our communities.
G&P: Is this an opportune atmosphere for the MRI church to thrive?
Sweet: I think it is. The church of the future is going to be many sizes with many different expressions. Some churches will get bigger than we’ve ever imagined. We are now seeing the organic church, house church, and simple church movement. There is going to be a move away from what I call “parking lot churches” to “pedestrian churches.” By this, I mean churches that are anchored in the neighborhood that you can literally walk to. We are moving toward a pedestrian culture, where people want to walk to work, walk to the store, and walk to church, so I think there is an opportunity for small churches, especially neighborhood churches. But they got to get the connection part right. They have to understand what it means to really connect with God, with each other, and with strangers. That’s a big deal.
G&P: How do you create and nurture an MRI climate in the church when there can be resistance from those who want to protect or reinforce an existing church culture?
Sweet: For Nazarenes, this is really a key. One of the distinctive features of the Nazarene tribe is the preservation of the doctrine of holiness, but the real key is “What is the nature of Jesus’ understanding of holiness?” I come out of the Holiness tradition myself and one of my questions is, “How did we start off getting it right only to get this so wrong?”
I like the fact you named your magazine, “Grace and Peace.” But peace is not the absence of conflict or the absence of sin. It’s the presence of redemption and reconciliation. Do you hear that difference? When we talk about peace, it doesn’t mean there’s not going to be anymore conflict, there’s not going to be any struggle. No. The concept of “shalom,” of peace, is not the absence of something, but the presence of reconciliation, the presence of redemption, the presence of people finding themselves and being connected to God. It is the releasing and unleashing of the spiritual forces of redemption and healing. And it’s the same with holiness. The Pharisees had an understanding of holiness as separation from anything that was impure. There were purity laws and codes. If you were a leper, you didn’t get close to anybody. You wore a sign that said you were impure. If you were a good Jew, you didn’t get close to sinners, you separated from them. Jesus came on the scene and flipped it, totally flipped it. Jesus re-defined what it means to live a holy life. It is not being separate from people, but being in relationship with them and allowing the release of redemption, reconciliation, and holiness. Jesus didn’t just heal leprosy, he touched lepers. I mean, this is huge!
You want to live a holy life? This is how far the incarnation came: Jesus got on down on his knees and washed his disciples’ feet. Now, you can’t wash anybody’s feet without getting your own hands dirty and wet. Jesus got his hands dirty. The question is, “Can Christians get their hands dirty?” I think one of the questions at the judgment is going to be, “Show me your hands; you have clean hands?” If you got clean hands, you’ve never been in touch with impurity. This is how Jesus totally redefined holiness. I have no idea what happened to us to turn us into basically where Jesus found the Pharisees. You don’t separate from the world; you separate for the world as a force for grace and truth.
G&P: How varied is God’s beautiful design for churches?
Sweet: The lynch pin is whether Christ is being lifted up or not. A lot of worship is about having an experience. An experience for experience’s sake is Baalism. It’s “baalistic” when you summon up the spirits, and everybody has a great experience. No, you should come away from worship saying, “Do we have a great God or what? Is God great? Is Jesus incredible? Is anything more beautiful than Christ?” Not, “Oh, wasn’t that a great experience?” It all comes back to Christ. Is Christ being lifted up? Is Christ being manifested?
Now, it is important to remember that Jesus was never about homogeneity. He was always about harmony, not monotone. The question to ask is, “What does it mean for us to harmonize beautifully together?” It’s not about singing the same notes, the same words, or the same beat. Sometimes we may not even be on the same page, but we’re still singing the same love song to Jesus. The Holy Spirit’s function is to bring Christ alive in the church, but we have to remember the church is not a one-note chant—it’s a harmony of sounds—it’s an orchestra. Some have coined a new word, “monodoxy”— as opposed to orthodoxy. Monodoxy means there’s only one way to be a Christian, and it’s my way. In the incarnational principal, there are many right ways to be a follower of Jesus.
G&P: Beauty is an interesting way to think about goodness, godliness. What got you there?
Sweet: This is actually in our own heritage, the Christian tradition. Our ancestors came up with this, which is one of the greatest achievements of the medieval church. How do you know Christ is being manifest? Aquinas took this from Aristotle and developed it into a Christian format, and he had a test. They’re called the three transcendentals of being, which are beauty, truth, and goodness. The trancendentals explain how you know Christ is being manifest, how you know this is really Jesus and not something else.
The cross is beautiful for the Christian, but it wouldn't be beautiful for the world.
Aquinas then developed the idea of the correspondence of the transcendentals: Where you find one, you have to find all three. This is a Christian understanding of beauty, which is different from the world’s understanding of beauty. It’s not a Hollywood beauty; it’s a Calvary beauty, it’s a Golgotha beauty. The cross is beautiful for the Christian, but it wouldn’t be beautiful for the world. But it’s beautiful because it’s good, and it’s true; so that the whole, the presence of each of these qualities, is there. So, you have a very different understanding of beauty coming from Christians than you do from the culture. Christ is being manifest when you find beauty, truth, and goodness present. But all three have to be there.
G&P: Are there places where the church should be naming beauty where it’s not?
Sweet: Well, I think annual pastoral reports ought to be precisely this. Your annual report shouldn’t be about statistics as much as providing your stories of beauty, truth, and goodness being manifested in your community. And give it to me in image form. I want to see a video of how you beautified your community, how you “truthed” your community, and how you provided goodness in your community. Give me the stories of goodness, beauty, and truth in this community. For me, that’s the ideal annual report.
G&P: How do we keep beauty in front of us?
Sweet: I’ll bet many Nazarenes know the old gospel song, “Let the Beauty of Jesus Be Seen in Me.” That’s it! We’re trying to have all sorts of other things be seen in us, like, let my “leadership skills” be seen in me, but it’s just about letting the beauty of Jesus be seen in us. For me, that says it all.
G&P: Sometimes the church struggles with allowing innovation. How do we allow our churches to become more missional, relational, and incarnational without getting in the way?
Sweet: I think every church needs to invest in research and development. If this is suppressed, you hinder the people that are really at the cutting edges trying to figure out what in the world is going on out there, and how do we deal with it. Doing this forfeits your future. It’s over. I may not agree with some of the stuff going on, but that’s not the issue.
Every church ought to have research and development on how we can be more creative in our own community and stay ahead of the curve. When everything is moving, the only way you hit a moving target is to get ahead of it. This is a culture where nothing is stationery any more. There’s no status quo. Everything is moving. We’re not living in a carpe diem (“Seize the day”) world, but a “carpe mañana” (“Seize tomorrow”) world. In that kind of world, research and development is all the more important.
So, we have to give people room for innovation and not be quick to throw up the heretical flag. The question to ask is, “How do we live out of the past, but not live in the past? That’s a real, real distinction for me. You live out of your past, but once you start living in your past, it’s over. Sometimes, the best way to be faithful to our past is by evolving into other beautiful ways of expression that manifest Christ.