Creating Sacred Space in the Ordinary


Reading through Church in the Present Tense was a refreshing collaboration of thinkers and doers who are wrestling with the questions of transitions and practice in our given modern context.  It attempts to give a “candid look at what’s emerging”.  For the purposes of our cohort, we paid particular attention to the two chapters written by our doctorate mentor, Dr. Jason Clark.  I value his thinking and writing in that I know it comes from deep theological reflection as well as a heart for mission in praxis.  His chief interest is what it means to be ekklesia, not just historically, but missionally in today’s emerging cultural contexts.  He proposes a kind of deep church:  “In deep church we would not simply repackage the past or become fashion victims of the emerging culture, but rather we would aspire to an understanding of church embedded in the past while also fully engaged in the present.” (50)

Dr. Clark roots his ecclesiology in simple but profound terms:  “Who we are is found in Jesus with others, the depths of which exceed anything we can do on our own.” (46)  Ekklesia is clearly centered in and around Christ and it is to be done within the context of a shared story together.  “The reality of the death and ressurrection of Jesus as the event that all of life should be ordered around, and our local community invited into.” (40)  Dr. Clark wrestles with the fact that the gnarly beast of consumerism in modern capitalistic markets seek to steal this story away from the gathered people and rather root them in a consumer narrative where it is about the individual and the constant pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of boredom that sets the tone.  “Consumer culture relates to beliefs as commodities to be used and marketed. . . . The machinery of advertising, consumer’s handmaiden, uses stolen symbols to promise experiences and ways of life, security and transformation to the congregation of consumer culture.” (40)  So how do we find a way forward?  He suggests we may need to look to our past:  “Instead of the quest for a new radical form of church, we might do well to understand the church in history, with all its flaws.” (48)

Dr. Clark suggests a powerful way to bring the kind of orientation around Christ that the Scriptures call us to is to find a resource already present in church tradition, namingly liturgy.  He says:  “We all are liturgical in that we all have formularies that organize our lives around certain beliefs and practices.” (77)  “Liturgy and ritual can form our lives around the reality of the universe that is the life of Jesus.”  (83)  What he is implying is that liturgy helps brings structure and form to our shared story together, the rituals are a welcomed infrastructure that helps us create sacred space in what would otherwise be ordinary.  In particular he has found that the church calendar helps give form to their communal year of worship together.  “One of the things we have found in my own community is the church calendar, a simple tool used in Christian communities throughout history that organizes the church year around the telling of the life of Jesus.” (80)   In our house church community we have found the same.  Being a small community we enjoy being in solidarity with the global Body of Christ and celebrating the church seasons within the network of all the churches in the world.  The calendar brings a monastic rythymn of work, life, prayer, communion and even times of solitude.  It makes our center church and the life of Christ, not the consumer calendar of shopping seasons, TV seasons, awards shows, vacation seasons and the gross perversion of historic Christian holy days.  We want to live ‘in Christ’ while we live in the tangible world and culture.  As I have often said, I am deeply comitted to ‘monking in the real world‘.

For many of us, the Eucharist (or Communion or Lord’s Supper) is central to our liturgical lives.  We seek to live in light of the church calendar, allowing it to serve as a reminder that we are called to become like Jesus and to order our whole lives after him.” (86)  In our community as well, communion is a centerpiece to just about all of our gatherings.  We practice communion everytime the people gather.  Since our space is very familiar, informal and living space, having the eucharistic elements present and central when the people come helps set the tone that though we laugh and enjoy each other, this gathering is about worship.  As well, we intentionally move from the common meal in the kitchen/dining area to the family room where communion will be partaken and other elements of worship.  It sets the space apart from the ordinary and jovial to sacred and reflective.  We recite the same communion liturgy each week, the sameness brings form to what is otherwise informal.  The partaking of communion is a natural flow from the common meal table, it extends our fellowship of worship of the Christ in our midst.  What was ordinary becomes sacred as we enter into the mystical union of the gathered community with the Christ in the elements.  Liturgy helps us be church, as opposed to a small group or bible study.  Our liturgical progression follows like this:  1) Common Meal  2) Responsive Call to Worship 3) Declaration of Faith  4) Psalm Reading  5) Worship Reflection  6) Communion Liturgy and partake  7) Scripture narrative reflection and discussion  8) Prayers for others  9) Benediction and Celtic Blessing.  We have taken much of our liturgy from Celtic Daily Prayer, a resource put out by Northumbria Christian Community on the north coast of England. 

For many years we did not follow any kind of liturgical flow, but the past few years of folding it in has really changed the tone and nature of our worship space, we find ourselves anchored in its depth and connection to a rich Christian history.  Dr. Clark reflects the same:  “Reciting together the Apostle’s Creed can function as an anchor in the storm of conflicting beliefs that swirl around and within me.  I am regularly moved by the experience of reading a liturgical prayer or confession where the voices of individuals, including my own, take on the univocal voice of a community.  In a world where we are used to hearing the sound of our own voice out loud or within an internal commentary, liturgy enables us to locate our voice in the midst of others, to find ourselves in the identity of others.” (81)  In this way, I think liturgy is a powerful antidote to the problems of consumerism and individualism.  We are not present to entertain one another, we are not seeking the avoidance of boredom, we are seeking the unification of our hearts around the risen Christ present with us gathered in the Spirit.  As well, liturgy is not about the pastor and his/her voice, it is about the voice of all the people.  I love having my teenage daughters present and listening to their voices amongst mine, this is family life together being ekklesia to one another and the world outside our doors.  I believe that the very rectitation of these words is where even those who have not yet experienced the Kingdom of God can find a kind of ‘prevenient grace’, as Wesley put it, where they find their hearts being wooed by the One who created them.  

Our church is called Ordinary Community Church.  From our onset, we were interested in finding Christ together in the midst of the mundane and ordinary.  Liturgy has been a way forward for us as we get in touch with a rich part of an ecclesial past.  “The overwhelming amount of time in the church calendar given over to the ordinary is a reminder that most of life is about being faithful in the mundane of everyday life.” (82)  This is the very place where we want to practice ‘monking in the real world’. 

Should Evangelicals Stay or should they Go?

Reading the intellectual property of a fine English gentleman somehow causes my mind to travel back to one of my favorite British punk themes from the 1980’s.  The Clash somehow speaks to our present day western Evangelical milieu.  How should Evangelicals relate to consumer culture, should we stay or should we go? 

This week’s reading for our DMin GML cohort has us digging into the working dissertation for Dr. Jason Clark.  Dr. Clark is a reflective practitioner in every sense of the term.  His thinking and writing digs deep into the rigors of theology, history, cultural studies and epistemological nuances.  His approach of attacking the great Evangelical questions of our time with this kind of breadth is indicative of his ongoing classical educational pursuits.  On the flip side of his academic research is his missional praxis.  With the heart of a pastor/church planter, his concern is people and the culture they live in.  He called us to be organic intellectuals where our churches were centered around mission.  This is the flavor he brings to his dissertation writing.

Dr. Clark wrestles with the barriers that keep his people from living a shared story and identity in the Kingdom of God together, most notably the modern giant known as consumerism.  I can still hear his haunting question to us during our first gathering together in Oxford:  “Jesus, is your Gospel big enough to defeat consumerism?”  This is surely my own question in my place of missional praxis.  It is hard to separate modern day Evangelicalism from the phenomenal rise of capitalistic markets.  It is hard to distinguish if it was the Protestant work ethic that created the capitalistic boom or if it was the capitalist boom that propelled Protestant Evangelicalism.  They seemed to be boats tightly linked together traveling down the same raging river and in the same direction.  Thomas Taylor remarked that “evangelical religion spread best where trade was growing.” (3)  Fast forward a couple hundred years and Dan Kimball states that the modern Protestant Evangelical Church has become about the “dispensing of religious good and services to Christian consumers.” (4)  As ekklesia, what is our relationship to be within the modern capitalist markets:  isolation or accomodation?  Do we run in or run away?  Do we enter or do we exit?  Should we stay or should we go?

Dr. Clark lays out what seems to be the present two Evangelical paradigms in terms of its relationship to the modern capitalistic markets.  One way is to despise the culture we find ourselves in and seek isolation, whilst the opposing way is “extreme accomodation” (12) where one finds its center and identity in the consumer culture as opposed to being unfettered from it.  It is in the midst of this proposed dichotomy where Dr. Clark asks a very big question:  Might there be a middle way for Evangelicalism?  Within his dissertation abstract, he asks:  “Can we then reimagine theologically an Evangelicalism that is more robust within its institutional habitation of capitalism?  Does Evangelicalsm intramurally have the resources for a reparative response to the pathologies of social relationships of late capitalist market societies?”  Implicating that not only could Evangelicalism seek a ‘tertium quid‘, but that within it’s history and ethos, Evangelicalism has the resources it needs within itself to find that middle way.  “It is suggested that Evangelicalism within this possibility, can be comprehended as a ‘double movement’, both symbiotic to capitalism and modern market societies and at the same time a counter movement to them.” 

What could be the different way, the middle way?  Dr. Clark suggests a symbiotic relationship with capitalist society and as well a movement and a critique against.  The difference is your center and identity.  Our identity is in a Kingdom that has come and Kingdom that is coming.  Our faith is built and anchored in the mysteries of and tensions of dichotomies.  Jesus as both God and man, Yahweh as a Holy Trinity, blessing enemies, beauty in suffering, grace and law, these are all a part of our Scriptural identity as a people.  Dr. Clark seeks a way that is neither isolationist nor accomodating, but a church that embraces the culture it finds itself in without being fettered to its trappings, therefore remaining free. 

In the modern western Evangelical context, the Emerging Church seeks to be a critique of modernity and its trappings to today’s capitalits markets.  However, can they ever truly be free from the system and constructs they live in?  Whilst the Mega Church appears to be working so within the grain of the capitalist milieu that it is criticized for having lost its ekklesia center.  Could they not also just simply be working within their missional context with a savy understanding of communication processes so that the message they so deeply are committed to reaches the hearts of their adherents?  Do they have to be opposing viewpoints?  Dr. Clark states:  “Emerging Church and Mega Church are not enemies:   they are two sides of the same thing.” (29)  To that I say a hearty ‘Amen’.  The reality is we need each other, it will be together, around the same table that we collaborate on the biggest questions of our day under the power of the Cross.  If we want to be missional, then we need a way forward and through, not a way out or a way in. 

Should we stay or should we go?  We should do both, whilst understanding that our narrative center is a Kingdom that has come and a Kingdom that is coming. 


‘Happy Hour’ Church

Is this what Dominic Erdozain was fearing when he wrote:  “The Problem of Pleasure:  Sport, Recreation and the Crisis of Victorian Religion.”?

Have we become so relevant in our technique, so polished in our market share, so savy in our attractional model that we have left our center, our identity of being a ‘set apart’ people?  Where is the line?  At what point are we an industruous production and at what point are we ekklesia?  “British and American evangelicalism is now increasingly seen as modern religion par excellence, enabling it to fuse so effectively (and controversially) with the structures and sentiments of industrial society.” (53)

In an attractional model of church, the glaring question is “If we don’t entertain, will they come?”.  Our measureables are in counting the coming, the giving and the structures.  These are the ABC’s of modern industrial church, Attendance, Building and Cash.  This sounds crass but this is also the tension.  Would we be stewards at all, would we be faithful to proclamation, would our feet not be beautiful if we did not do everything within our power to bring good news to the people?

Erdozain points out that in church history, we have tended towards polar opposites in our grappling with the problem of pleasure.  The Holiness movement attacked the surface vices with an unparalleled zeal.  Cards, drink, dancing, practices of sensuality, gaming and hanging out with those who do.  With fervor they celebrated and amplified a new aesceticism believing that the avoidance of these practices would lead us towards a rennovation of our hearts and the mortification of our sinful nature and impulses.  The avoidance of these practices, particulary in the teaching of John Wesley, would be an indication of an inward working out of salvation.  Wesley noted to be a part of the Methodist society requires “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and be saved from their sins. . . wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits” (avoidance of vices in holiness).  (68)

The Methodist response under Wesley was to raise the stakes.  If the people he was so determined to reach with the Good News were responsive to pleasureable impulses, he would replace them with sanctifying versions.  This marks somewhat the beginning of the Christian subculture industry we see today in the evangelical west.  Religion would become recreation.

“The result was a permanent battle with the traditional customs and pastimes of the British people which, despite claims to the contrary, started to dominate both the theology and mentality of the evangelical movement.  Secular pleasure seemed to be at the heart of all that the evangelicals opposed, and increasingly it defined them.”  (68)

“Methodists declared holy war on drink, hurling, wrestling, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and folk superstitions, but replaced them with revivals, Love Feasts, watch-nights, hymn sinigng, providential interventions and colourful local versions of the cosmic drama bewteen god and the devil.”  (69)

The philsophical, pastoral and theological question then becomes:  Is the ‘impulse’ for pleasure the sin, or is it the external ‘practice’ of the pleasure? 

Is our bond with sin an unholy physical endorphin rush and if the endorphin rush can be replaced with a sensory worship experience then we are rightly Christian?  Or is the need for the endorphin rush the root cause of our sinful nature?  If the need is the root problem, then if our churches are designed to attract based on pleasureable principles, are we in fact enablers of the sinful nature as opposed to setting captives free?  These are the ecclesiological questions I find myself asking, in our effort to address sin, do we in fact create palaces in practice that fester the bacteria to grow, though unintentioned?  Do our churches lead us to freedom in Christ or do they offer safe places for cultural and carnal bondage?

“What is remarkable about the ecclesiastical history of the period is how far churches themselves followed the pattern – emerging as multi-pronged leisure providers . . . The result was a religion of safety rather than salvation:  secularisation by stealth.”  (231)

“The church has gone into the amusement business largely.  The discovery has been made that the church, in order to hold its young people to its altars, must provide for the natural craving for amusements.”  (233)

“The church was now largely agreed ‘that part of her mission is to provide entertainment for the people with a view to winning them into her ranks’ and ‘the human nature that lies in every heart has risen to the bait’.”  (242)

To be fair, I have been in and around American mega-churches for the past 20 years and have paid attention to the charismatic surgence of revivals such as the Toronto Blessing, Brownsville Revival and the International House of Prayer in Kansas City.  I have witnessed spiritual fruit with my own eyes from the people involved and the outpouring of the Spirit in those communities and their ripple effects around the world.  I celebrate the increased mission but I also discern caution in terms of the worship of the sensory experience to have to “feel” God and somewhat get “high” on him, as if he wasn’t omnipotent or omnipresent if not emotionally felt.  My friends within the mega-church phenomenon are sincere, immensely talented, thoughtful, Kingdom-minded leaders.  They too struggle with the realization that the theater experience of church creates a consumer relationship of the exchange of entertaining goods and services and how challenging it is for the people to abandon the cultural values for a life of freedom in Christ.  They fear they may have created a monster, a people who want a ‘happy hour’ church that they have become accustomed to and comfortable in, as opposed to a gospel of the cross.  They cast a large net to catch the people, but pulling them in the boat has been a puzzling ecclesiastical and organizational problem.

In the name of mission, perhaps an echoing of the Apostle Paul “becoming all things to all men” is applicable here.  If we understand marketing better, if we understand human nature, if we understand corporate techniques for attraction, should we not use them?  I suppose the answer goes back to our center, our identity.  Are we a spiritual people or are we an industrial organization?   

“Historians praise the late-Victorian churches for rolling their sleeves up and demonstrating their ‘relevance’ and practicality; the reality is that a religion is in dangerous territory when its professed ideals can be achieved without recourse to the supernatual.”  (272)

“R.W. Dale meant something similar in 1880 when he alluded to the danger of cultivating ‘religious sentiment of a kind which makes God unnecessary.”  (274)

If we remove Yahweh from the people, what kind of people are we?  Perhaps a better question is, whose people are we?

I long for and am called to leading and proclaiming ekklesia as a people who are called to die to ourselves, not seek out our daily pleasures as our gospel center.  The cross announces a Kingdom that has come and a Kingdom that is coming, it is not for our personal amusement, but for the salvation of the world.  Without God, such things are not possible.

“The renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism, which has only in common with the cold and uncompromising allegiance to the Sermon on the Mount.  It is high time men and women banded together to do this.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer