Monday, October 24, 2005

Beneath, And Beneath Beneath

The other day Hirschy (happy birthday today, mate!) borrowed from computing to describe church. When I use my computer, I'm playing with various programmes that enable me to do various things. From my desktop, I can access Internet Explorer; Microsoft Office Word, Outlook, Powerpoint; skype...But beneath these there is the Operating System (in my case, Windows XP Professional; I am informed that XP stands for eXtra Problems) that enables the programmes to run. And beneath the Operating System there is the Machine Language. All three need to be compatible for the computer to work: for example, when you try to run programmes that your Operating System isn't adequate to support, they run very slowly, or frequently crash, or won't work at all.

(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.


  1. HI Andrew
    Started talking about some of this tuff on our community blog.
    You can find the link at my other page.
    Dinner SOON!!

  2. I happen to agree with you Andrew. I don't see it as an Attractional vs. Incarnational thing, where one is right and the other is wrong.

    I think looking at scripture we see Jesus operate both ways - eg feeding the 5000 (plus women and kids) - sounds attractional to me.

    I guess what Jesus did with those people was where the modern attractional ministries diverge. Jesus scattered them, rather telling them to have good self esteem and plugging them into programmes.

    Attractional has dominated the ecclesiological landscape for some time and we've all seen plenty of unhealthy examples of it, hence a desire to counterbalance with a return to a missional, incarnational approach. We need it, no doubt.

    But I think you're dead right when you say we need healthy communities first and foremost, rather than a mutual exclusive approach to one or the other.

    My 5c.

    ps - how you feeling? getting over that cold?

  3. Hey Dowsetts,
    This is interesting and v helpful. You made me realise that our physical PC situation is mirroring our spiritual right now... Our 4 year old destop and its operating system (Windows ME) with its limited memory cannot run all the things we want to run i.e it cannot keep up as we want to with all the new stuff that we want to download, buy and play with, so we're having to think about getting a new computer which can cope. We're not really sure whether to upgrade our existing desktop computer with more memory, new operating system etc or just to ditch it completly and get a shiny new laptop with all the spangly clever things that we'd like already there. The desktop works ok for some things but certainly not for others, and sometimes it takes 4 times switching it on just to be able to get it operational without it crashing before it loads everything!

    Feels like that's what we're doing with church right now too - we've been thinking about whether the way to go is to attempt to change the current thing from the inside and 'upgrade' it so it can cope and make progress in the current spiritual and cultural climate, or do we abandon ship and just start something new that doesn't have any kind of inherited problems, no wear and tear marks, no dust and jam in the keyboard making things sticky etc. Of course the thing with any computer (and church?) is that within a few years it'll be out of date and slow compared to what's new, so even when you have the new it needs to change to keep up. Some churches don't do this which is why 'the church' is often seen as old-fashioned and out of touch.

    I know that I'd rather start something new (and buy a laptop), but could it be that God is calling us to rather stay within the institution with all the limitations and challenges that might bring?

    Sounds like you guys are having lots of time to think/learn/process etc. We're off for half term this week and having a little time to do the same. It's amazing what comes to the surface when you stop being busy for a while.

    p.s. we've got kirsty living with us for a few weeks until she moves in with the Fardons so she's back in Hillsborough again!

    love Helen

  4. do we need one computer that can do everything, that can run all the different programmes at a time, or do we need to network computers together, so that different people can use them to do different things....

  5. Anonymous6:17 pm

    I think the analogy should run more like:
    The machine language is Gods Word - what he says 'church' is.
    The operating system is the various actual churches doctrine and organisational processes that are meant to deliver on his word
    The Applications are the various church activities that happen - as organised and supported by those processes.
    Problems occur (as they have with Microsoft) when the organisational processes and doctrines become so top heavy that they are no longer supported by the Word underneath them. The whole thing collapses in a crash!

  6. Phil - I'm all for networking the computers, but there has to be a certain compatability for the network to be of benefit - or even operate at all...

    Rosaleen - I'm not sure what you mean. I assume that there are people in pretty much every Christian tradition who are faithfully trying to follow Jesus, prompted by the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father...and if "what God says about the church" was as obvious as I think you suggest, I'd expect to see a greater convergence of understanding. (Of course, some communities actually believe that their understanding is the only true one and that everyone elses is heretical.)

    I'm also not sure what you mean by God's Word. As I see it, the Word of God is Jesus (John 1), and the Bible is a sign that points to God's Word. But some traditions see the Bible itself as being God's Word. I find that problematic - it tends to result in a binarian theology (Father, Son, and Holy Bible) as opposed to a trinitarian theology (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

    Analogies don't exist for their own sake. I'm just not sure how your version of the analogy actually helps add to our understanding/practice...