This morning I was talking with Scott Emery, a friend in America with whom I have recently been having some great conversations on Skype for an hour every other week.
One of the things we talked about this morning was an observable shift, several small bands of missional pioneers we are aware of who have recently taken or are seriously exploring the decision to be folded into larger and more structurally established church communities.
Up to this point, I don’t think we’ve seen this happen in quite this way. Some have struck out and fallen back, taken a shot at a different way of being church and couldn’t make it work; but that is, I think, something different.
Alan Hirsch, drawing on the anthropological work of Victor Turner, has written on liminality – between spaces - and communitas - the close bond that forms between a group of people when they venture beyond the stable circle of community into such spaces. Many groups exploring missional discipleship have stepped outside of church as they have known it, and indeed this has been a necessary step. And yet the purpose of liminality and communitas is found in a return to the stable community, in such a way that the life of that community is perpetuated rather than slowly dying. The boys Turner observed did not disappear over the horizon abandoning their village, but returned to the village from their adventures as men.
What I would suggest we are seeing is a returning. And what is encouraging is the evidence that this is not an arrival with an ulterior motive to change churches, but an invited and welcome development.
Jesus spoke of yeast that is worked through dough. I would suggest that these little bands are yeast – but they lack dough. And that the churches they are being folded into are dough, in need of yeast.
(If we fear that the larger group is yeast that will somehow contaminate our dough - ‘the yeast of the Pharisees’ - perhaps we have misunderstood our purpose, struck out merely in line with the schismatic individualism of Protestantism/Modernism; or perhaps, and more positively, it indicates that it is not yet time for us to return.)
Or to offer another image, as I shared our conversation with my wife afterwards, Jo made a connection with Jesus taking his disciples across the lake in their boat. The time in the boat is deeply significant, but they are heading for a shore where there are other people. Perhaps we mistake the shore we are heading to for a wholly different way of organising ourselves, rather than an opportunity to re-enter community in ways that bring transformation?
I would contend that this observable shift represents not failure – evidence that another fad is passing, as people grow beyond the ego of youth and return home – but the coming-of-age of these particular communities. Others, in their turn, will step out into the unknown. The next season for those returning is to step up to the task of blessing, bringing hope to those who are older and a future to those who are younger...