Complicity, Confession, and Forgiveness Within the (Missional) Church

Complicity

The past 10+ years my wife and I have been involved in (what is typically called) “church planting.” Our efforts have taken place in differing settings, differing states, and approached with differing methodologies. The work we have engaged in has been called a host of names and adjectives ranging from “rebel” and “liberal” and “heretic” to “missionary” and “organic” and “lovely.” These names weren’t only labeled upon the work, but were assigned to me and, at times, my friends as well.

They all came from other Christians.

Working on the periphery of the traditional – some may say, institutional – church circle has been an interesting time. The view from the margins has allowed me to see the above remarks come from both ends of the theological spectrum. Interestingly enough, it has also come from within and among the ecclesiatic margin(s) as some of us see others within our tribe as not _______ enough or not _______ enough.

And, in full disclosure, the above names and adjectives have also come from my mouth and heart and directed towards others. Reciprocity has definitely been given.

Within all of this I have noticed a frightening trend: Many times we are not aware of our complicity within the problems we are addressing. Unlike the generation before us, we have not separated ourselves from the world because of their “unbearable sinfulness.” No, the missional movement has become one where we have entered into the world as ones sent. What I have seen, however, is how in our sentness, we have now set our eyes upon a new enemy: our brothers and sisters within the Church.

  • We leave this community because of the anger problems of some people. Yet it is our anger at them that drives us away.
  • This community doesn’t hold deeply enough to pacifism. Yet in my conversations with others I do violence to them through my verbal attacks.
  • I want to work to eradicate human trafficking. Yet my addiction to pornography, an industry responsible for sex slavery, and sleeping with my girlfriend isn’t a problem.

In short: we point out the brokenness in others, yet are hesitant, blind to, or belligerently unwilling to expose and deal with our own. As a result, we respond gracelessly towards perceived gracelessness and so perpetuate the very thing we originally saw as a problem.

Wendell Berry brings this to our attention in the following excerpt on the green movement:

This [ecological] redemptive movement is not yet seen clearly enough, even by the people in it, as a common effort for the common good is perfectly understandable. Undoubtedly it began in the only way it could have begun. Its many organizations have necessarily defined themselves by the singular problems they have addressed:

‘The river is being polluted. Save the river. Stop pollution. No to the polluters.’

‘We are losing our architectural inheritance. Save the inner city. Stop the demolition. No to the wreckers.’

This is clear enough. If we are sympathetic, the only possible objection is that it is incomplete; it does not go far enough. The effort is not only defined by the problem but is limited by it. An effort that is defined only or mainly by a problem is negative necessarily. And under the rhetoric of Save and Stop and No there lies an odd and embarrassing fact. Who is polluting the river? Well, among others, we are, we members of Save the River, who flush our toilets and use the latest toxic products only a little less thoughtlessly than everybody else. Who is wrecking the inner city? We are, of course, we members of Save the Inner City, who drive our cars and shop at the malls and the chain stores only a little less thoughtlessly than everybody else. It doesn’t make any difference that we mostly don’t have an alternative to doing as we do; we still share the guilt. In a centralized, specialized, commercialized, mechanized society such as ours, we all are necessarily, and in considerable measure, helping to cause the problems we are helping to deplore and trying to solve. – Wendell Berry, “The Purpose of a Coherent Community” in The Way of Ignorance, p 74-75. (emphasis added)

This is true not only in the particular movements mentioned by Berry, but from within the Church – the people-movement started by Jesus to give human beings their lives back. The problem, therefore, doesn’t merely manifest itself as pollution or urban decay, but is a problem at the core of each us: sin.

For many, “sin” is not a word denoting any form of experiential bliss. This is mainly due to a bludgeoning over the head or shame-ridden guilt for not living up to an often limiting list of what holiness looks like. As a result, it is a word eradicated from the vernacular of many people. However, it is a reality needing to be addressed. A simple definition I have employed is sin is the wielding of our power over others to their detriment and our (assumed) gain. We see its effects in every facet of our life, not only our individual lives, but in our corporate ones as well.

Again, in short, we are all broken people. All of us.

As James K.A. Smith states,

We confess not only personal or private sins and transgressions; the moment of confession owns up to our complicity with all sorts of evil that disorders the world and corrupts creation. In short, we humans confess our failure to heed the call to be human, to be God’s image bearers to and for the world. As a result, sin is not only personal and individual (a violation of a relationship); it also becomes inscribed into the cultural institutions of our human making (a refusal of our commission to be God’s vice-regents). – James K.A. Smith, “Practicing (for) the Kingdom” in Desiring the Kingdom p. 178. (emphasis added)

Again, I have noticed a tendency within the missional conversation to be the ones proclaiming the power plays of the “non-missional” while turning a blind eye to our own. And, as implied above, it is not merely an individual thing, but one that tends to mutate and grow as individuals form communities where demonizing can more easily occur. What happens is a furthering of divisiveness where tethering should be found.

Confession

Part of the underlying problem is our propensity for the excarnational. We would rather confess our sins in individual prayer than with and to our brothers and sisters. Not that this type of prayer isn’t necessary, but when it is the main manner in which we commune with God – and thus our primary spiritual mode: individually – it can give us an imagination of the spiritual life that is anemic.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains,

In confession the break-through to community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown.

In confession a man breaks through to certainty. Why is it that it is often easier for us to confess our sins to God than to a brother? God is holy and sinless, He is a just judge of evil and the enemy of all disobedience. But a brother is sinful as we are. He knows from his own experience the dark night of secret sin. Why should we not find it easier to to go to a brother than to the holy God? But if we do, we must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with our confession to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not a real forgiveness? Self-forgiveness can never lead to a break with sin; this can be accomplished only by the judging and pardoning Word of God itself.

God gives us this certainty through our brother…As the open confession of my sins to a brother insures me against self-deception, so, too, the assurance of forgiveness becomes fully certain to me only when it is spoken by a brother in the name of God. Mutual, brotherly confession is given to us by God in order that we may be sure of divine forgiveness.

It is not the experience of life but experience of the Cross that makes one a worthy of hearer of confessions…The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God’s forgiveness. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Confession and Communion” in Life Together, p. 112-119. (emphasis added)

We often don’t realize our complicity due to our lack of confession. As Bonhoeffer beautifully articulates, it is this confession of the hidden that brings us into community with others. The exposing of limits and weaknesses links us together as we give credence to our need for each other; we can’t do this alone, we weren’t meant to do this alone.

Confession is the acknowledgment of both our reliance upon and wrongful usage of power. If it is our selfish wielding of power (sin) that isolates, it is our confession which initiates the binding process. In doing so, we bring to light our power-centric identities so more cruciform ones based on our mutual weakness can begin to emerge. It is from here that we begin to see our interdependence.

When we don’t confess to real people in real time, we don’t allow for community. This isolation doesn’t occur solely on the level of the individual person, but on the level of community as well. Communities think they are not complicit within particular problems and make enemies of others in their finger pointing. I’ve seen it over and over: Church ______ doesn’t live life with ________ Church because of x,y, and z. So, instead of engaging in Christ-centered mission within the same neighborhood, they engage in church-centered politics. We exchange kingdom life for church politics.

And the world scoffs.

So, what would happen if we took communal confession seriously? What would happen if our Sunday gatherings incorporated confessional prayers that then overflowed into our weekly dealings with each other? What would happen if a Jesus-community confessed their angst and ire towards their fellow Jesus-community across the street because they struggle to see them as something other than competition? Could we begin to see mutual mission for the sake of our neighborhoods?

Forgiveness

The forgiveness we offer has to match the grace given in the making of our confessions. In other words, we don’t offer a shallow forgiveness that keeps us isolated. Rather, the grace extended to us by others in their confessions needs to be reciprocated in our pardon.

Again, James K.A. Smith:

Here again, in confession and assurance of pardon, we meet a moment where Christian worship runs counter to the formation of secular liturgies that either tend to nullify talk of guilt and responsibility or tend to point out failures without extending assurance of pardon. On the one hand, Oprah-fied secular liturgies tend to foster an illusory self-confidence (‘Believe in yourself!’) that refuses to recognize failure, guilt, or transgression, castigating such things as ‘negative energy’ that compromises self-esteem. The we-can-do-it confidence of these liturgies of self-affirmation offers assurance without confession. On the other hand, many of the secular liturgies of marketing play off of our deep knowledge of our faults and failures, but transform them into phenomena that yield shame but not guilt. In response, they promise not forgiveness or pardon, but opportunities to correct the problem via various goods and services. In this sense, they seem to require a confession but make no promise of pardon or promise. – James K.A. Smith, “Practicing (for) the Kingdom” in Desiring the Kingdom p. 178-181. (emphasis added)

If there is to be any dealing with the mutual complicity we share in, we must confess our brokenness, and then offer forgiveness as we move towards a mutual tethering. If confession is the acknowledgment of our power-wielding, forgiveness is the disarming of this power. It is the paradoxical weakness we present to each other for our mutual re-formation. It is the extension of grace and love towards the other that is the essence of community. If our power-wielding gives birth to isolation, forgiveness gives birth to community; if our sin leads to death (isolation), forgiveness leads to life (community). Through each other we tangibly receive the grace of God and begin to realize that forgiveness is not solely between us and God, but is a “horizontal” reality found between us.

And for the missional church this must be at the forefront of our theology and praxis. It does us no good to be described as missional – extending the love of God towards others – if we do not consider our fellow brothers and sisters worthy of this extension.

There is no step-family in the kingdom of God. We are one family.

Jesus once told Peter he should forgive his brother 70 x 7 times. In order for this to happen, we have to be living life with each other, bumping into each other, upsetting each other, and yet mutually submitting to each other in the way of Jesus. Humility needs to lead the way as we learn to live in community with each other, with other fellow Jesus-communities, and the world. Recognition of our complicity leads to confession which leads to forgiveness which leads to community.

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Reinhold Niebuhr on Entertainment Driven Churches…in 1927

There has been ample evidence demonstrating the steady decline of the Western church as we continue to push into a post-Christendom society. Many factors have been qualified and quantified as many individuals, organizations, and churches have sought to revitalize the existing Church by calling into question its current ideas and their resulting practices.

One such critique has been the ever-increasing entertainment quality of the today’s church. Surely, this has emerged from both the individualism and consumerism so rampant in the Western church today. Rather than the church being a community living as a family centered on Jesus in all areas, there are many examples of practices that point to the need for distracting entertainment as the unifying factor. Questions like, “Does the preacher give vibrant messages?”, “Is the music contemporary?”, “Is there a chance I’ll win a new car if I show up on Easter?” point to the reality of needing to consume things which will keep my attention above all else, particularly the Spirit.

Here is an extended quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that caught my attention as I was skimming through his book Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Keep in mind this was written in 1927.

I wonder why it is that so many of the churches which go in for vaudeville programs and the hip-hip-hooray type of religious services should belong to the Methodist and Baptist denominations. The vulgarities of the stunt preacher are hardly compatible with either the robust spiritual vitality or the puritan traditions of the more evangelistic churches. Perhaps the phenomenon of which I speak is due merely to the size of the two denominations. They may have more showmen simply because they are big enough to have more leaders of all varieties. Certainly no church surpasses the Methodist in the number of men who posses real social passion and imagination. Nor are the old emotionally warm and naively orthodox preachers wanting in either church.

Nevertheless there is a growing tendency toward stunt services in both denominations. Perhaps it represents the strategy of denominational and congregational organisms which are too much alive to accept the fate of innocuous desuetude, which has befallen some other churches. Finding the masses, which they once attracted by genuine religious emotion, less inclined to seek satisfaction in religion, they maintain themselves by offering such goods in entertainment and social life as the people seem to desire.

When the naive enthusiasms of those generations, among whom religion is an emotional experience and not a social tradition, begin to cool, the churches which serve the new generations must either express religious feeling through devotion to moral and aesthetic values or they must substitute a baser emotionalism for the most religious feeling. Perhaps the prevalence of cheap theatricality among the churches of our great democracy is a sign of the fact that the masses in America have lost the capacity for unreflective and exuberant religious feeling before they could acquire the kind of religion which is closely integrated with the values of culture and art.

There is something pathetic about the effort of the churches to capture these spiritually vacuous multitudes by resort to any device which may intrigue their vagrant fancies. But it may not represent a total loss. The entertainment they offer may be vulgar, but it is not vicious, and without them the people might find satisfaction in something even cheaper.

Tired of KLOVE music? Me too.; OR Flat interpretations of Jesus’ gospel no longer welcome.

Disclaimer: The ideas and resulting actions, or perhaps the actions that birthed the ideas, found in the following post are solely mine and are not necessarily reflective upon any individual or group I have been, am currently, or will be affiliated with. As I will say below, I don’t think the corporation of KLOVE or anything like it are evil in and of themselves, but just wonder if they could be more balanced and less Jesus-is-my-boyfriend like. Also, please note: I use KLOVE as a catch-all for most popular Christian music as would be heard on KLOVE and has, unfortunately, found its way into most Christian churches. (This is for those who will just read the title of this post.) Thank you.

I grew up not listening to much music. It probably wasn’t until my Junior High basketball coach, who was awesome, introduced our team to the ultimate Christian rock album: (no not Carman’s R.I.O.T.) Jesus Freak by DC Talk.  We used to have an improvised mosh pit in the 15 passenger van on the way to games. It was rather sweet, in a 7th-8th grade boy kind of way.

DC Talk was my foray into Christian music. Their album was loud, rocking, and Christian. Who knew such a combination could be found? I didn’t really listen to much else Christian, except for Jars of Clay, which I still enjoy to this very day.

When I was in tenth grade I was introduced to Dave Matthews Band and it was all done. The level of musicality (spell check didn’t do its red underline, so apparently that’s a real word) was unprecedented in all the Christian music I had heard up to that point. I made the unconscious decision at that point to not listen to much else outside of DMB.

Christian music had now lost most, if not all, of its appeal and not just musically. DMB was singing about things that had actual social weight. I didn’t realize this at the time, but looking back, most Christian music sang about “heaven”, while DMB was bewailing things here on earth. My Christian theology told me that the earth was going to be destroyed at some point and that all us Christians were going to escape it. Heaven was my goal, my end, my prize; Jesus was my personal Savior who loved me and was going to make my life great. The afterlife was so prominent that this life was overlooked.

The past couple of years I’ve been on a bit of a reformation. Spiritually I have been shut down and then brought back together. Seminary brought me to the point of actually hearing God for the first time and seeing life as a service to others and God. Christianity wasn’t just a set of propositions, axioms, and doctrines to believe. No, Christianity is holding on tightly to Jesus as he goes before us and beckons us to follow him. It isn’t safe; it isn’t for the weak at heart; it isn’t for those who want a white, Republican, suburban middle-class Jesus (to improvise Derek Webb). And since Jesus was wrecking my life so he could build me back up, he also wrecked my views of everything associated with him. Church, life, faith, service, and love (among others) are now being reworked in my life.

And this is why I can’t take KLOVE any longer: the music, by and large, doesn’t present a full picture of who Jesus is, what he came to do, and what he is doing.

Essentially, the constantly watered down version of what life is like and what it can/should be has made me give up on KLOVE-esque music. Jesus didn’t come to give us a flat, individualistic gospel. He didn’t live, die, and resurrect to get us “into heaven.” He lived, died, and resurrected to bring heaven to earth. He didn’t live, die, and resurrect to have happy-go-lucky music in which Jesus is our boyfriend.

No, he gave us a full, holistic gospel which is found in the full narrative of the Bible. The story we find there doesn’t just enable us to draw out some good life lessons or a systematic doctrinal system. No, it is a narrative that gives meaning to and translates our versions of our own narratives. It is complete in that it involves all of creation. It is complete in that we will experience all the emotions of life. Ups, down, and in betweens. Good times and bad times. And to be honest, your life will probably have more down times than anything else. Jesus didn’t call people to a life of ease; he called us to a life of sacrifice and death.

But there is hope. This is why Jesus lived, died, and resurrected: hope. Hope that this world will not always be like this. Hope that a new heavens and earth will one day be united. Hope that my good times and bad times aren’t all this life is about. Hope that even through the horrible times, which we all will face, God will be with us, even if we don’t always see him. Hope that God himself will wipe away every tear of every eye. Hope that he always sees us, regardless of who we are. Hope that God does love us. Hope of being with God and he with us.

And this is why I’m tired of KLOVE music and the flat imagination it cultivates and perpetuates. Pick up some Derek Webb, Jenny and Tyler, Red Mountain Music, Matthew Perryman Jones, Thad Cockrell, Justin McRoberts, Matt Moberg, Caedmon’s Call, Indelible Grace, Matthew Smith, Sandra McCracken, or Wes Pickering to hear some thoughtful, melodic, imaginative Christian music. Or check out NoiseTrade to get plenty of other creative artists.

Alright, my rant is over. Let me have it.

The Idol of Nationalism

Here is some great food for thought in light of the recent national/international events.

Great quote:

My greatest disappointment is the extent to which the Church has become more American than Christian. And it’s not even aware of that. And when I speak to that, I find I’m in greater danger than if I’d called them racist.

Sunday Asylum with Stanley Hauerwas

This is just the trailer, but it looks absolutely intriguing. The full title is “Sunday Asylum: Being the Church in Occupied Territory” and it is available at The Work of the People.

Anyone else out there find this intriguing? Anyone else out there already used it?