Would you like to hear some “good news”? God has had it with cawki (“church as we know it”).1 But God is not so much dechurching Christianity as re Christianizing the church. If the “news” that cawki is finished sounds to you more like bad news than good news, then it is time to clear your cookies and start looking again at the history of Christianity, which was really never a cawki religion to begin with. At best, Jesus gave us “the form of a religion without religion,” or alternatively, an “irreligious religion”2 or an “antireligion.”3 Jesus didn’t do establishment church.
Alan Hirsch mantras this formula: “Christianity minus Christ equals Religion.”4 Hirsch has been inspired by Jacques Ellul, who argues that by taking Jesus out of the equation, you end up with a religion. Jesus is antireligion, Ellul, says.5 The whole religious system is undone by Jesus’ ministry. The kingdom of God breaks free of religion with Jesus, and humans seem to be especially creative at finding a variety of ways to take Jesus out of the equation.
Today's church crisis stems from one thing: Jesus Deficit Disorder.
The crisis of the church today has little to do with dwindling numbers, aging congregations, outdated facilities, financial crises, and lace by day/leather by night priests. Today’s church crisis stems from one thing: Jesus Deficit Disorder. The church’s narrative is biblically, theologically, and spiritually bankrupt. The church has been busy telling stories other than God’s story, dreaming other dreams than God’s dream as revealed by Jesus.
God is now baring the Jesus Dream with means only at the divine disposal. Jesus, the Divine Being (Son of God) who became the Human Being (Son of Man), came to reveal the “secret of life” and to end our cluelessness (at best) and carelessness (at worst) about God’s design for how we humans should live our lives.
Jesus also came to show us how to join God’s mission in the world. In his words, “I can do only what I see and hear the Father doing,”6 and in joining his Father’s mission in the world, Jesus showed us how to be an instrumentum conjunctum cum Deo, an “instrument shaped to the contours of the hand of God” to use the words that came to Saint Ignatius Loyola in a dream.7 I admit to a deep ambivalence about this Ignatian metaphor, especially when it comes to policy and politics in which the instrument can quickly take the form of a whip to beat God’s will into people. But, when properly understood, out lives and our communities can be instruments “shaped to the hand of God.” If God’s hand is MRI shaped—mission shaped, relation shaped, incarnation shaped—then Jesus’ followers are shapesmiths of the Spirit.
These are the best of times to be the church. These are the worst of times to be a church.8
--Best selling author Reggie McNeal
The passion for evangelism is nothing other than a passion for reading the signs of what God is up to, connecting the God dots, signing up, and then laying down our lives on God’s dotted lines. The French Jesuit Jean Danielou, writing on the theology of mission in the 1950s, said that fruitful missionary efforts “stopped thinking of bringing Christ to India…but rather started thinking about finding Christ already there.”9
When Saint Augustine gave Communion in North Africa in the fifth century he would say, “Receive what you are.” You already are the body of Christ. Augustine didn’t say, “Receive what you may become,” because God has already begun a great thing in you and is already active in your life.
On the cross Jesus does away with all the rule keeping, debt collecting, point scoring, merit awarding rigmarole of religious systems that try to control God and limit heaven to people like us.10
--Bishop of Reading Stephen Cottrell
Because truth is revealed in our imago Dei relationship with missio Dei, in evangelism we are deepening our understanding of God and slaking our thirst for God’s truth. Authentic evangelism is lifting up the veil of what God is up to and manifesting the image of God in the world we are in. We weren’t so much created imago Dei as created to become imago Dei. We become imago Dei by participating in missio Dei. All beauty has its meaning in the beauty of Christ.
Some see God’s fingerprint in the megachurch, others in the microchurch, others in the house church. Some see it in Emergent, others in emerging, others in Revolution, still others in Acts 29 or “organic church” or “missional Church” or “vintage church.” We’ve been Pullingerized, Wimberized, Hybelized, Neighbourized, Warrenized in our pursuit of what God is “up to.”
But there is something that cuts through all these evidences of the Spirit at work in our day. Are we “up to” what God’s “up to”?
The discovery of the “secret of life” is birthing forth in every arena of existence. I am convinced that God, for whatever reason, has now chosen to secrete this secret from every pore of our planet. In fact, the divine design for life is what emerges blinking from the tear gas of postmodernist rhetoric and deconstructionist rant. For the last thirty years, deconstruction has waged war against affirmation, and the positives have been losing to the negatives. Even shipbreakers have been making more than shipbuilders, as shipbreakers in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been dismantling the world’s obsolete fishing vessels and navies, then rerolling and reworking the steel, selling the parts for enormous profits. Frankly, we need the pain and panic of the negative because the truth wasn’t sinking in.
But the battle is now to the positive. It is time for the church as Salvation Navy to build ships and bridges rather than break them. Now is the time for life after deconstruction. Now is the time to enter a new era of exploration—one driven by an old discovery made new: Life was made to be missional, relational, incarnational.
You will not find references in this book (So Beautiful) to “the spiritual life.” The whole language of “the spiritual life” is part of our problem. There is no spiritual life. There is only life. One life where the spiritual is not separate but the whole.
LEN SWEET is the E. Stanley Jones professor of evangelism at Drew University and the author of So Beautiful: Divine Design for Life and the Church
1. I first heard this phrase from Wolfgang Simpson as we celebrated together Reformation Sunday 2008 in Wittenberg, Germany.
2. Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2008), 122, 162.
3. For Christianity as an “antireligion,” see Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 141.
4. For more, see Alan Hirsch’s blog, “Paul Would be Appalled,” 7 December 2007, in The Forgotten Ways: The Missionary Musings of Alan Hirsch www.theforgottenways.org/blog/2007/12/07/paul-would-be-appalled/comment-page-2 (accessed 13 March 2008). See also Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006).
5. For more, see Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, 11-13, 17-18, 141. For the philosophical argument that Christianity is not a religion, see Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal.
6. John 5:19
7. Or as it is expressed in the Constitutions : “being human instruments intimately united with God.” See Saint Ignatius of Loyola, The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, trans. George E. Ganss (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1970), 22, 322.
8. Reggie McNeal, conversation with the author, 2008 Orcas Advance.
9. David Burrell, quoted in Rupert Shortt, God’s Advocates (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 134.
10. Stephen Cottrell, Do Nothing to Change Your Life (London, Church House Publishing, 2007), 36.