(If I understood him right) Alan suggested that the church parallels are:
- the visible practices - services/activities/programmes - of a given church;
- the theology that supports them (and sometimes changing 'surface' practices necessitate developments in that theology - upgrading the Operating System; and sometimes changes in the theology allow the development of new practices);
- the fundamental question of what is church?
Anyway, I got thinking about these levels. I already had the language of the Operating System for the beneath the surface level. Our Operating System is the LifeShapes principles of discipleship; we describe it as that - principles that can support any number of programmes; and, indeed, that top-level isn't of very much importance (relative to the deeper layers) from where we are coming from. What I hadn't thought about in these terms before was the beneath-the-beneath level; the Machine Language; your answer to the fundamental question what is church?
And this morning it came to me. I'd answer that question like this: church is an alternative construction of community; a counter-cultural re-imagination of what community is. And - counter-cultural to late-Modern society, where the extended family has been quite comprehensively dismantled, and the nuclear family increasingly dismantled too, we have observed that the collective pattern of most of human history points to our being made to experience community in several (pictorially concentric) sizes of group: family, clan, tribe, etc. And so our reconstruction of community must reflect these different sizes of group, with the different strengths and weaknesses - the different purposes - of each.
This particular Machine Language addresses one of the 'big' questions we've seen out here (though not necessarily to anyone's satisfaction!): the incarnational church v attractional church debate. I'd dare to argue (heresy at a Forge setting?!) that attractional is not the problem per se. Yes, biblically, God's people are sent to the nations (incarnational); but God also promises to bring the nations to them (attractional)...We're wired with certain needs that can only be met in an attractional context - witness the hundreds of thousands who head to a football ground or out-of-town mall every weekend. The problem with inherited mode church is (at least) two-fold: that it has only operated attractionally; and that it has tried to do so in group-sizes that are designed to be incarnational instead. Church structured as different sizes of community - incarnational families and extended families, and attractional festivals or celebrations - enables a dynamic movement - a rhythm, an ebb and flow, a heartbeat. Is there a danger that the atractional element has such a strong gravitational pull for cultural Christians / equal and opposite repelant force for cultural post-Christians? Possibly. But I'm not convinced that it has to be that way...or that one-size incarnational communities are ultimately any healthier than one-size attractional ones.
Now that might just stir a few pots round here. But in an environment of vigorous debate between people who genuinely love each other, I think friendships will (more than) survive in tact.