There was a two week period where I attended two conferences that were quite different but at the same time similar, and influenced by a very challenging author and what I was preaching about at the time.
The first conference was the National Assembly of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. That was followed by the Deepening Community conference hosted by the Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement. While I was doing all this I had also been continuing to preach through Ephesians chapter four and was processing two books by Danny Silk (Culture of Honor and Keep Your Love on) which have been challenging and inspiring.
These diverse experiences and inputs somehow wove together, and a picture is emerged that had me feeling both excited and daunted.
We have called the Ephesians 4 sermon series “Radically Different”, both because the vision that the Apostle Paul had for the church was that it would be radically different to the world, and also because the once-a-week service that most of us call church is also Radically different from what Paul had in mind.
Being at the Alliance Assembly was fascinating. It was my first time in a denominational meeting like that. I’m not sure the founder, A.B. Simpson would have loved the political process required to make decisions. There was a lot of angst from some people about whether, in allowing women to be senior pastors, the denomination was walking away from the bible being the authority that governed our corporate life.
The President, David Hearn, led well. You could tell that he was trying to fan the flames of a movement within the construct of the institution. My heart rose as he proclaimed that the Deeper life in Christ, together with a clear sense of mission, produces revolution.
Mark Buchanan was the keynote speaker, and some of the things he shared resonated deeply:
“The first thing to go, if it’s not consistently urged from the pulpit, is MISSION!”
What I believe Jesus is calling the church to is acts of radical servanthood
Unless you rest in God you will never risk for God.
I also took in a workshop on the missional church, led by author and academic, Lee Beach, who said something important:
Hospitality is a radical act. Its a counter-cultural act. We as a church need to do hospitality better.
With the experience of the Assembly fresh in my mind, and after preaching on the Sunday, I went to the Deepening Community conference.
In many ways this conference was wrestling with the dilemma that Lee Beach raised.
The highlight for me personally was hearing 84 year old John McKnight share his heart.
Initially he spent time talking about the core challenge of Community of development as helping strangers become neighbours. He spent a bit of time talking about the dangers of labelling people based on their weaknesses.
I resonated deeply when in a strong voice that belied his years, McKnight declared:
“Give someone a label and they instantly become a stranger”
“Powerful communities are those where there are no strangers”.
McKnight has been an elder statesman in the field of Community Development, and his book “The Abundant Community” outlined the basis of a paradigm called “Asset Based Community Development” (or A.B.C.D. for short).
One of the core ideas that I first heard McKnight outline a couple of years ago was that there is a fundamental different between institutions and associations. McKnight defines institutions as structured organizations where one person can control many people. He believes associations are groups of equals cooperating for a purpose.
Core to his thinking is the idea that institutions don’t care, people do. Again he declared to the conference this time, what he believed to be the major challenge of our normal approach to care:
We’ve bought into the lie that somehow an institution is a care instrument.
I find his definitions challenging, particularly in light of the tendency of churches to move from associations towards institutions. McKnight put a table together to define the difference:
|How Governed||Power by consent||Controlled environment|
|How Decisions Made||Choice of members||Involuntary; powered by $|
|Who Designed||Designed for and by each other||Designed for production|
|Who Decides What To Do||Members||Needs a client or customer|
|Who Runs||Citizen volunteers||Service/not a servant|
|Who Are Beneficiaries||Citizen members||Consumer/client|
|What drives||Capacity of members||Drive to meet needs|
|Amount of Control||Very little, I would not want to fly an airplane built by this||Tight hierarchical control|
As he gets towards the end of his life, it is clear that McKnight is caring less about what people think of him, an he is unapologetic in naming what is unambiguously a counter-cultural message.
For the first time I heard him unpack what he saw as the signs of a healthy community. He believes that a healthy community is:
- Personal. People are irreplaceable.
- Small. Everybody knows everybody.
- Has time. In contrast, the average household has tv on for 7 1/2 hours a day
- A place where people are seen not by their label but by their gifts.
- A place that knows how to live with fallibility. It has ways of mourning. It is only in acceptance of fallibility that our possibility can emerge.
- A place where Mystery is respected. It’s ok not to have all the answers.
As I heard McKnight share, I couldn’t help but hear the profound theological implications of all he was saying. The vision he was painting was a vision of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked so often about.
One of the challenges facing Community Development professionals, though, is that despite the fact they can name clearly how things should be, they continue to face a dilemma.
Paul Born, the founder of Tamarack, shared personally and emotionally about his experience in the Ukraine. He spoke in almost a bewildered and quizzical voice about his experience with post communist countries. As he pointed out communism was based on very similar ideals to those outlined by McKnight, but in all cases the system failed. Having the right ideas didn’t fix the problem.
The difference between the idealism of A.B. Simpson and John McKnight and the realities that ultimately emerge, is, in short, people. We don’t want to be defined by our weaknesses, but those weaknesses do exist.
That is where the books from Danny Silk come in. In talking about creating a culture of honour, that is based on the best of what we are, but takes into account the worst of what we are, Silk points to a different way forward. He outlines a different kind of politics and a community where McKnight’s dream can be reality.
As it turns out, Silk’s work, which is squarely based on the story the New Testament, points to a different kind of community, the kind of community that is outlined by Ephesians 4.
As you can see, all these experiences have got me thinking. I love the heart I saw at the Alliance Assembly, the vision I saw at Tamarack, the challenge I get from Ephesians 4 and the potential pathway I see in Silk’s work.
I hope that, as you hear me processing all this, you can read between the lines and catch a glimpse of what it is that I am glimpsing.
I’m looking forward to the ongoing wrestle.